Politicizing Science or Quantifying Governance?

I opened last week with a sarcastic sign from the March for Science in New York City. I attended, along with thousands of others in NYC and hundreds of thousands all over the world, in celebration of Earth Day. This week I will focus on a few of my observations from the NYC march and next week we will have a guest blog from a friend and several-time-contributor who served on the central organizing committee of the whole effort.

The end of April turned out to be very eventful. In addition to the march on Earth Day, Steve Ballmer, the ex-president of Microsoft, announced a new initiative to facilitate information gathering in the United States; President Trump has reached the important 100 day marker of his presidential tenure and he also came out with a very short but significant outline of his all-important new tax proposal.

Let’s start with the Steve Ballmer effort:

On Tuesday, Mr. Ballmer plans to make public a database and a report that he and a small army of economists, professors and other professionals have been assembling as part of a stealth start-up over the last three years called USAFacts. The database is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.

The entryway to the new site is shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1 the home page of USAFacts.

I have yet to really explore the new database but with the new resources available to differentiate between real and fake facts, it might eventually act as a Bloomberg terminal, providing an invaluable teaching tool for a variety of disciplines, including governmental decision-making.

Collection of photographs from the March for Science in NYC on Earth Day

Observations on the March for Science:

After returning home from the march, I checked the internet to see what was taking place around the world and to my astonishment there were strong similarities in the main messages and signs that emerged across the board. These apparent parallels might be language biased by my sources of information, but nevertheless they were interesting.

The American press has produced a number of write-ups that described the events and show collections of signs in different cities. The New York Times emphasized occurrences across the US while Science magazine (Science, Volume 356, Issue 6336 (28 April 2017)) took on a more international focus.

Here are some observations:

  • The signs were highly individualized and not “manufactured.” I am comparing the signs with posters that my students will be presenting at the upcoming “Science Day” as the end of the school year approaches. Science Day includes students from high schools, undergraduate, and graduate programs presenting their research, which is then judged by faculty. Almost all the posters are “mechanized” (i.e. created in PowerPoint and color printed using large printers). This technology is readily available to the students. Many of these same schools participated in the March for Science; it is highly likely that almost all of them could have produced their march signs in a similar fashion but the marchers preferred to make the signs without the use of much of this technology. This suggests a strong bottom-up movement, with organizers putting in as little effort as possible to “centralize” the messages.
  • Politics was certainly included amongst the topics but it didn’t dominate. The march was mostly a call for people to appreciate science in decision-making and to stop the defunding of science that is now taking place. On the NYC route there were two stands that sold anti-Trump buttons and the march passed near the Trump Tower at Columbus Circle. There were a few raised voices but no visible (steady) demonstrations on the site.
  • The main thrust was that you cannot govern, let alone navigate through the future, without considering the impacts of the physical environment.
  • There was also a strong emphasis on possible consequences of the present effort to stop mitigating anthropogenic climate change.

The title of my book is Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now (Momentum Press, 2011), with “Now” being within the lifetime of my grandchildren. I have 3 grandchildren, the oldest of whom is now approaching 20. President Trump is a few years younger than me and has 8 grandchildren, with a 9th one on his (or her) way. His oldest grandchild is now 9 and his youngest son is 11. President Trump’s “Now” should extend further to the future than mine. Yet he completely dismisses the high probability that it is within his power now to mitigate the deadly global damage being inflicted on his children and grandchildren’s generation.

The other side of the same coin that become visible this week is the potential effects of his plan for major changes in the tax code that he outlined on one double spaced page. Rough calculations indicate that over the next 10 years this plan will increase the deficit by the astonishing sum of $6 trillion – approximately one third of the total 2016 US GDP. He proposes to pay for it from future growth. Regardless of whether such immense growth materializes or not, his children and grandchildren will be responsible for paying for his mistakes.

President Trump’s predictions for the future are not very generous to his own family.

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Saving the World Through the Pursuit of Self-Interest

I took part in the March for Science on Earth Day in New York City, where I live. The photograph above is my introduction to the next two blogs, which will both focus on the march. This week I want to discuss our president.

President Trump claims that presidents are allowed to have conflicts of interest. The Washington Post gave some more details on the legality of the matter:

The law doesn’t say the president can’t have a conflict of interest. But Congress, under Title 18 Section 208 of the U.S. code, did exempt the president and vice president from conflict-of-interest laws on the theory that the presidency has so much power that any possible executive action might pose a potential conflict.

“As a general rule, public officials in the executive branch are subject to criminal penalties if they personally and substantially participate in matters in which they (or their immediate families, business partners or associated organizations) hold financial interests,” the Congressional Research Service said in an October report. “However, because of concerns regarding interference with the exercise of constitutional duties, Congress has not applied these restrictions to the President. Consequently, there is no current legal requirement that would compel the President to relinquish financial interests because of a conflict of interest.”

President Trump and the entire administration are putting this concept to stringent tests that will establish precedents for future administrations. The promised tax reform, rumored to be outlined this week, will have to confront the sticky situation that is the absence of the president’s publicly released tax reports. This will serve as an important testing ground for the potential conflict of self-interest in government policy.

I’ll express an honest desire for the president to act in line with his financial self-interests in one particular area: investing in flood prevention of his various real-estate holdings throughout the world, especially his Florida golf club, Mar-a-Lago.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the setting of the Florida property, which now appears to serve as the winter White House. I have repeatedly discussed how prone southern Florida is to major climate change-caused floods (see February 23, 2016 blog) and how many in the American building industry are responding to the enhanced flood risks (February 14, 2017).

I am far from the only one to be concerned about that area’s vulnerability:

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the President’s so-called Winter White House would be partially submerged if sea levels rose by three feet in the next 83 years.

“Today we sit at ground zero of the impacts of climate change in the US,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

His state has already suffered multiple cases of serious flooding.

“And while there are still some who continue to deny climate change is real, South Florida offers proof that it is real and it’s an issue we’re going to be grappling with for decades to come.”

A recent study published in journal Nature found that sea levels could rise by six feet by 2100 due to ice melting in the Antartic, and the President’s golf course at Doral, Florida, and several of his Sunny Isles Beach properties – along with two million homes – would be underwater.

The Nature article mentioned was published way before the 2016 presidential elections, when nobody dreamed that Donald Trump would wind up elected president of the United States. Robert M. DeConto and David Pollard wrote the paper, titled, “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise.” Their research project started before President Trump likely even considered running.

The authors wanted to try to reconcile past contributions to the melting of Antarctic ice and the corresponding sea level rise with present models that try to predict the future rise. They went back as far as the Pliocene period (about three million years ago) and extended their future predictions as far as the year 2500. The introductory paragraph in their paper sums up their objective:

Reconstructions of the global mean sea level (GMSL) during past warm climate intervals including the Pliocene (about three million years ago)1 and late Pleistocene interglacials2–5 imply that the Antarctic ice sheet has considerable sensitivity. Pliocene atmospheric CO2 concentrations were comparable to today’s (~400 parts per million by volume, p.p.m.v.)6, but some sea-level reconstructions are 10–30 m higher1,7. In addition to the loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS)2, these high sea levels require the partial retreat of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), which is further supported by sedimentary evidence from the Antarctic margin8. During the more recent Last Interglacial (LIG, 130,000 to 115,000 years ago), GMSL was 6–9.3 m higher than it is today2–4, at a time when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were below 280 p.p.m.v. (ref. 9) and global mean temperatures were only about 0–2 °C warmer10. This requires a substantial sea-level contribution from Antarctica of 3.6–7.4 m in addition to an estimated 1.5–2 m from Greenland11,12 and around 0.4 m from ocean steric effects10. For both the Pliocene and the LIG, it is difficult to obtain the inferred sea-level values from ice-sheet models used in future projections.

As is evident from the cited paragraph, the language in the paper is highly technical.

In terms of predicting future sea level rise, the reference is usually the IPCC’s 5th report. Figure 2 provides the various contributions for the IPCC-projected sea level rise of the business as usual scenario (RCP8.5). The figure shows that at least until 2100, close to half of the projected sea level rise is attributed to thermal expansion of the oceans while the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets each contribute close to 20 cm. Figure 3, taken from the Nature paper, is based on a model that attempts to reconcile climate events using a high emission scenario model from the IPCC report. The Nature report raises Antarctica’s contributions by a factor of 5. Long term projections (until 2500) under the same scenario and model raise the projections for the Antarctic contributions to sea level rise to 15m. No more Mar-a-Lago – no more Florida, and no more NYC, to name just a few future aquatic destinations.

Figure 2 – Predicted contributions to sea level rise by source in the business as usual (high emission) scenario in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report.

Figure 3 – Predicted sea level rise (GMSL= Global Mean Sea Level) in the Nature paper for three of the four IPCC recent emission scenarios. RCP2.6 – lowest emission; RCP8.5 – business as usual (highest emission)

I tried to find out if President Trump has flood insurance for his properties but was unable to determine that information. Here is a recent summary of the state of federal flood insurance in the US, written by people that know more than a little bit about the subject:

When President-elect Donald Trump said, he wanted to “drain the swamp,” he may not have been referring to the sinking federal flood insurance program.

However, it is likely the nationalization of the flood insurance industry and years of federal interference in the sale of private flood insurance will not go unnoticed.

The government monopoly on flood insurance has been a major impediment to the growth of the private flood insurance market and has only exacerbated the $23 billion debt the National Flood Insurance Program owes taxpayers. It seems foreseeable that a Trump administration will act to correct such needless waste.

Swamps are typically drained to remove the water that harbors mosquito larvae and alligators. Over the years, pundits have embraced this analogy when looking to rid Washington, D.C., of self-serving politicians and feckless bureaucrats or — as in the matter at hand — a flawed federal program costing taxpayers billions.

It seems that self-interest should dictate that the president cooperate with the international community’s will, as expressed in the 2015 Paris agreement (COP21) and try to limit the global greenhouse scenario to RCP2.6. His action on this particular conflict of interest would be blessed by all of us.

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Assessment: Earth Day and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The April assessment is usually a busy time here. It coincides with Earth Day, my wife’s birthday, and birds singing to celebrate the arrival of spring. Today is no different. The last three months have been kind of dark. Accordingly, most of my blogs over that time period have focused on the first 100 days of the Trump presidency and how the new government that he is assembling is focusing on eliminating climate change and science in general from public discussion. They appear to be doing this in a three pronged attack: physically discouraging scientists from public service in the White House and other key agencies, attempting to deprive everything that looks to be connected to science of necessary funds, and distracting public attention by advancing issues such as health and immigration to destructive extremes.

What are the references that we use to compare the impacts of our decision making on the environment and how do we estimate the future impacts of what we are doing? We all remember how the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, dismissed concerns about climate change by referring to the “natural phenomenon” that will convert the sun into a red giant, which will engulf Earth and indeed will put the destructive capacity of climate change to shame. The “small” detail that Johnson forgot to mention (or simply had no clue about) is that this is projected to take place in about 5 billion years – after the sun exhausts its core hydrogen fuel – while the deadly consequences of climate change are slated to take place around the end of the century, well within my definition of “now” (Micha Tomkiewicz; Climate Change – the Fork at the End of Now, 2011 (Momentum Press)). These “minor details” are important.

The Washington Post provided a highly relevant cartoon:

The US, under this administration, bombed a Syrian airfield in response to President Bashar al Assad’s use of sarin gas against the civilian population in Syria, after deciding that Assad’s actions constituted a war crime. Meanwhile, the environmental impact of killing clean air regulations and the the resulting health effects on present and future populations, which promise many more casualties much closer to home, are seen as normal political events.

Trying to find an appropriate reference for this type of logic takes us into the area of mainstream science terminology. It is known by the name of “Shifting Baseline Syndrome”:

A shifting baseline (also known as sliding baseline) is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system.

The concept arose in landscape architect Ian McHarg‘s 1969 manifesto Design With Nature[1] in which the modern landscape is compared to that which ancient men once lived on. The concept was then considered by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in his paper “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries”.[2] Pauly developed the concept in reference to fisheries management where fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct “baseline” population size (e.g. how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline.

In 2002, filmmaker and former marine biologist Randy Olson broadened the definition of shifting baselines with an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He explained the relevance of the concept to all aspects of change and the failure to notice change in the world today. He and coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson (of Scripps Institution of Oceanography) co-founded The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project [1] in 2003 to help promote a wider understanding and use of the concept in conservation policy.

The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project grew from its three founding partners (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, The Ocean Conservancy, and Surfrider Foundation) to over twenty conservation groups and science organizations

For the fishing industry, this takes the following shape:

Figure 1

The references change from generation to generation, ultimately resulting in a complete degradation of the natural stock that could have survived without human interference. Human interference is obviously not always destructive; it can often balance natural growth through human needs. For that to take place, however, we need people to be aware of how to determine such a balance and how to regulate human impact to maintain that balance. We need the scientists.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome also applies to political decisions and voting. References of what needs to be done and what needs to be preserved differ across generations and impact political decisions. Here is how Howard Frumkin, Linda Fried, and Rick Moody applied this concept to climate change in their paper, “Aging, Climate Change, and Legacy Thinking”:

Climate change is a complex, long-term public health challenge. Older people are especially susceptible to certain climate change impacts, such as heat waves.

We suggest that older people may be a resource for addressing climate change because of their concern for legacy—for leaving behind values, attitudes, and an intact world to their children and grandchildren. We review the theoretical basis for “legacy thinking” among older people. We offer suggestions for research on this phenomenon, and for action to strengthen the sense of legacy.

At a time when older populations are growing, understanding and promoting legacy thinking may offer an important strategy for addressing climate change.

Assessment: Since the end of December, on Twitter, I’ve gained 22 new followers, bringing my total up to 387. I also had 3 mentions, 23 likes, 10 retweets, and over 16.5K tweet impressions. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page got an additional 12 “likes” (I’m now up to 146), 97 reactions, 1 comment, 214 shares, and close to 8K impressions. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments. Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, “like” me on Facebook, and tell your friends to do the same. Not only do I post my newest blogs, I also share interesting articles and stories. You can also make sure you never miss any of my posts by subscribing; just click the RSS feed link at the top right-hand corner of the page.

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Collective Treason?

I’ll refer back to my definition of the concept of self-inflicted genocide, with which I started this blog 5 years ago (April 22, 2012):

Predictions by the Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change (IPCC) and most scientists, strongly suggest that we may be creating our next genocide ourselves; a “business as usual” scenario over the next 70 years (the expected lifespan of my grandchildren – my definition of “Now” in the book) will result in doubling of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions at these levels would result in major extinctions around the globe, with more than 40% of ecosystems destroyed. The belief that we are not part of the ecosystems is a dangerous hubris. We have just passed the 7 billion population mark and even if we take the 40% prediction with a large grain of salt, we are talking about the potential genocide of billions of people.

Arnold Toynbee wrote that civilizations die from suicides, not murder. Even if the predicted consequences of “business and usual” environmental scenarios over the next 70 years turn out to be wrong in some details and even slightly wrong in timing, it’s clear that once we pass a critical point in the ability of the planet to adapt to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, the consequences amount to global suicide – a self-inflicted genocide. We know what we must do to mitigate this possible future genocide, but we need our collective will to do so. We can’t allow the deniers to win again.

Three months ago (December 27, 2016), in another context, I gave what I considered to be a more focused justification for making this provocative claim:

My main purpose in using the term was to try to establish a clear marker of direction. The example that I gave was the Paris Metro, where each train line is identified by its end point. There is (I hope) a universal agreement that genocide is an utmost evil that must be avoided or dismantled via our collective international resolve. In this sense, my use is fully consistent with the UN use of the term and with the original Lemkin intention. The main indicator that I am making some impact in the right direction is that almost five years after I coined the application of the term on this blog it continues to be a focus of discussion – case in point: my talk in Philadelphia.

All of this was directed at the future – if we continue business as usual, these will be the consequences. I am trying to provide motivation to change our direction.

Recently, I have found the need to broaden the self-inflicted concept to an even more inflammatory idea: collective treason. This motivation came as a result of our newly elected federal administration’s apparent attempts to purge the government of people with enough science education to undermine the increasing human influence on the physical environment.

These sort of anti-science sentiments include baffling declarations by key policy makers that put to shame even the most inept intermediate school students’ test answers:

A Republican state senator running for governor of Pennsylvania shared some unusual views this week about what’s causing climate change.

Scott Wagner told a Harrisburg audience on Tuesday that the body heat from the planet’s growing population might be responsible for rising temperatures.

“We have more people. You know, humans have warm bodies. So is heat coming off?” Wagner said, according to State Impact Pennsylvania, an NPR project. “Things are changing, but I think we are, as a society, doing the best we can.”

The lawmaker was speaking to a receptive audience of rural county officials about loosening regulations on the natural gas industry.

At another point, Wagner appeared to conflate global warming with … well, it’s not quite clear what he meant.

“I haven’t been in a science class in a long time, but the earth moves closer to the sun every year ― you know, the rotation of the earth,” Wagner said. “We’re moving closer to the sun.”

Anybody interested in body heat in France can refer to my January 7, 2013 blog.

Another appalling example of anti-science “logic”:

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has challenged the credibility of Science magazine — one of the world’s most respected science publications.

That is not known as an objective writer or magazine,” Smith said during a hearing Wednesday on climate change, which Smith denies.

Smith’s comment came after testimony by Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, who cited a news article published last week about Smith’s attendance at a conference of global warming skeptics hosted by the conservative Heartland Institute. The article’s author, Jeffrey Mervis, called out Smith for using his House committee as a “tool to advance his political agenda rather than a forum to examine important issues facing the U.S. research community.”

To Smith’s assertion that Science magazine is not objective, Mann responded, “Well, it’s Science magazine.” Science is a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Science magazine is one of the premier scientific journals in the country, and has a rigorous editorial review policy.

Cherry picking in science is as common as such behavior in many other disciplines of knowledge, Breitbart’s reputation notwithstanding:

Fewer than 1 percent of papers published in scientific journals follow the scientific method, according to research by Wharton School professor and forecasting expert J. Scott Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong, who co-founded the peer-reviewed Journal of Forecasting in 1982 and the International Journal of Forecasting in 1985, made the claim in a presentation about what he considers to be “alarmism” from forecasters over man-made climate change.

Armstrong defined eight criteria for compliance with the scientific method, including full disclosure of methods, data, and other reliable information, conclusions that are consistent with the evidence, valid and simple methods, and valid and reliable.

These criteria for acceptance or rejection of individual papers are a recipe for destruction of scientific research publications because they only oblige a book volume to fulfill the requirement for “comprehensive review” for publication. The scientific method always applied to the collective methodology of science with the key requirement of enabling reproduction of the work and thus enabling refutability. For “comprehensive reviews” one has review articles that are mostly separate from original work. The Armstrong criteria just gave additional weapons to the war on science.

The White House is rapidly eradicating its science advisors:

Scores of departures by scientists and Silicon Valley technology experts who advised President Trump’s predecessor have all but wiped out the larger White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Mr. Trump has not yet named his top advisers on technology or science, and so far, has made just one hire: Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and one of the president’s wealthiest supporters, as the deputy chief technology officer.

Neither Mr. Kratsios, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton, nor anyone else still working in the science and technology office regularly participates in Mr. Trump’s daily briefings, as they did for President Barack Obama.

The administration has also “cleaned” the Energy Department of anything connected to climate change (What will be the future of the Energy Information Administration (EIA)??):

The Energy Department’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy is now no longer allowed to use language necessary for promoting or even acknowledging the existence of global warming, including phrases “climate change,” “emissions reduction” and “Paris Agreement,” according to a report by Politico.

Politico reports a supervisor in the Office of International Climate and Clean Energy told employees of the agency on Tuesday they would no longer be able to use the climate-change language in written communications.

The instructions were delivered on the same day President Donald Trump signed a multi-part executive order that reversed climate-change-related policies implemented by President Barack Obama. According to the text of the order, it will promote “clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.”

Wikipedia defines treason as follows:

In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one’s nation or sovereign.[1] Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife or that of a master by his servant. Treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a lesser superior was petty treason. A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor. Oran’s Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as a “citizen‘s actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]”. In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aiding or involved by such an endeavor.

I propose that this declaration of war against science and scientists – a move completely in conflict with the self-interest of the country – qualifies as treason. However, the present administration was elected in a fair election (discounting Russian intervention). We voted for this administration with the full knowledge of what they intended to do; they are merely fulfilling their campaign promises, so the act of treason is on all of us and we must live with the consequences.

We are now approaching the first 100 days since inauguration. Aside from declarations on a variety of topics, there have been few accomplishments in terms of enduring legislation. The president’s popularity is at record low and rumors abound about a coming shakeup in the White House. The president likes to be loved and is desperate to make a positive mark on history. He is also known for his capacity for changing his mind in an instant and operating on instincts. Right now almost everything that has been done to clear the government of science can be reversed in an instant. If this were to take place, amnesty would be in order and we might be forgiven.

The day after tomorrow, April 13th, will be the 72nd anniversary of my liberation from the horrors of the Holocaust by American soldiers associated with the Army’s 30th Division. I owe my life to them. I started writing this blog two days before posting, when I was just beginning to receive correspondence from other survivors of this event. I want to attach the ending of one letter:

I am still continuing strongly with Holocaust education and make the same message clear all the time; that government sponsored and organized hatred what brought on the Holocaust and the silence of the majority allowed it to happen. Therefore urge anybody who listens; never let hatred be part of their life and never stay silent when hear see or experience any prejudice or discrimination.

Also to remind anybody what George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  To remember we must and we do.

Again all my best wishes and happy 72nd birthday to all of you.

My best regards to all.

Leslie Meisels

Be well and I hope you join the resistance effort.

Meanwhile, on a more uplifting note, as yesterday was the start of Passover, I wish those who celebrate a happy holiday. I hope you enjoy the fun video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baQfqoZrEvI

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Bottom-Up Is Not Enough!

During the first two months of the new Trump administration, climate change and science were hardly visible on the agenda; things have changed in a major way over the last two weeks, with the government living up to some of the worst predictions. In the last few blogs I promised to shift my concentration away from the top-down darkness and emphasize the strength and resilience of grassroots trends. As it happened, some important people got ahead of me. The most forceful voice was probably that of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who penned an Op-Ed in the NYT on Friday, 3/31:

No matter what roadblocks the White House and Congress throw up, the United States can — and I’m confident, will — meet the commitment it made in Paris in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Let me explain why, and why correcting the false perception is so important.

There is virtually nothing the Trump administration can do to stop advanced technology and consumer preferences from driving down coal’s market share still further. (A decade ago, coal was the source of half of American electricity production; today it’s down to one-third.) In fact, even if the Clean Power Plan disappears entirely, we would still be in a position to meet our Paris commitment, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

In combination with existing federal policies that can’t be undone, like vehicle fuel efficiency standards through model year 2021, the last third can be achieved by cities and businesses that are taking action to cut pollution and improve their energy efficiency. This week, many of the 81 major corporations (including Apple and Wal-Mart) that signed a pledge in 2015 to reduce their emissions reaffirmed their commitments, and Anheuser-Busch InBev announced that it aims to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. (My company is pursuing the same goal.)

No mandate from Washington is forcing these companies to act — just their own self-interest.

In both red and blue states, cities — which account for about two-thirds of the country’s emissions — are taking the lead in the fight against climate change. More than 130 American cities have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and all are determined to see that we meet our Paris goal. Their local policies — expanding mass transit, increasing the energy efficiency of their buildings, installing electric vehicle charging stations, creating bike share programs, planting trees, to name just a few — will help ensure we do.

Here are a few examples of what Mayor Bloomberg was talking about:

Cities Shop for $10 Billion of Electric Cars to Defy Trump”:

Dozens of U.S. cities are willing to buy $10 billion of electric cars and trucks to show skeptical automakers there’s demand for low-emission vehicles, just as President Donald Trump seeks to review pollution standards the industry opposes.

Thirty cities including New York and Chicago jointly asked automakers for the cost and feasibility of providing 114,000 electric vehicles, including police cruisers, street sweepers and trash haulers, said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is coordinating the effort. That would be comparable to about 72 percent of total U.S. plug-in sales last year.

While urban leaders want more low-emission vehicles to ease the role city traffic plays in altering the climate, automakers say there aren’t enough buyers. They also have advocated for relaxing rules on traditional fuel vehicles. The Trump administration, which seeks to cut regulations it sees as too costly or onerous, is poised to announce Wednesday that it will reconsider tighter standards finalized a week before President Barack Obama left office.

2016 US Renewable Generation Blows Past EIA’s Earlier Forecasts”:

According to the latest issue of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “Electric Power Monthly” report (with data through Dec. 31, 2016), renewable energy sources continued their rapid growth and accounted for 15.34 percent of domestic electrical generation in 2016 — compared to 13.65 percent in 2015.

Solar Experiment Lets Neighbors Trade Energy Among Themselves”:

Brooklyn is known the world over for things small-batch and local, like designer clogs, craft bourbon and artisanal sauerkraut.

Now, it is trying to add electricity to the list.

In a promising experiment in an affluent swath of the borough, dozens of solar-panel arrays spread across rowhouse rooftops are wired into a growing network. Called the Brooklyn Microgrid, the project is signing up residents and businesses to a virtual trading platform that will allow solar-energy producers to sell excess-electricity credits from their systems to buyers in the group, who may live as close as next door.

The project is still in its early stages — it has just 50 participants thus far — but its implications could be far reaching. The idea is to create a kind of virtual, peer-to-peer energy trading system built on blockchain, the database technology that underlies cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

California Upholds Auto Emissions Standards, Setting Up Face-Off With Trump”:

California’s clean-air agency voted on Friday to push ahead with stricter emissions standards for cars and trucks, setting up a potential legal battle with the Trump administration over the state’s plan to reduce planet-warming gases.

The New York Times illustrated this trend in a graphic:

Figure 1 – Projections of vehicle carbon emissions in business as usual scenario as compared with the proposed California standard.

Unfortunately, even if the bottom-up efforts prevail, it will not be enough. In spite of my attempts at optimism, I will not be able to confine myself to the bright sides of our recent governmental transition. Three important factors will continue to hinder all local attempts at facilitating and amplifying the global energy transition away from fossil fuels:

  • The backlash from major developing countries, which can make the case that they need the cheap, quick energy provided by the dirtiest fuel sources more than richer countries like the US
  • The rate of progress in efforts to develop new technologies to expedite the energy transition
  • The level of success achieved by coordinated bottom-up efforts to optimize supply and demand throughout each country

I will address these subjects in future blogs.

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Let There be Light!

*Special note: I will stress that this blog pertains to my own reading/interpretation of the book described, but after hearing feedback from my friend, the author, I have made a few minor edits and added explanations.

In last week’s blog I wrote:

Clearly, for the foreseeable future, top-down problem solving will not provide much support for many of our national and global woes, and will need to be strongly supplemented by massive bottom-up endeavors. My focus here will shift to reflect that change.

What I meant to say was that we must not only shift our emphasis from top-down to bottom-up efforts but, even more importantly, look for specks of light amidst our dark perspectives, with the hope that light will overtake darkness.

The darkness will not end soon but the hope is that in a democratic society, necessities often win changes in the right direction.

As it happened I was reading a new book along these lines that plays out in a completely different setting. My Israeli high school friend, Relli Robinson, wrote it in Hebrew. I read the original version and just finished reading the recently published English translation, titled Raking Light from Ashes.

Here’s Amazon’s description of the book:

Lala, a young Jewish girl, loses her entire family during the dark days of the Holocaust in the Warsaw Ghetto. Thanks to the kindness of a Polish family, Lala manages to survive the war, taking on an assumed identity. By a twist of good fortune and unbelievable coincidence, she is found after the war and eventually immigrates to Israel in 1950 to live with her Israeli relatives.

Lala is Relli and the book is a semi-autobiography based on a combination of her own dredged up memories and stories told by adults from a previous generation, who actively participated in the events. It also allludes to the detailed diary of an Israeli woman who worked at the Israeli embassy in Poland and was instrumental in getting Lala back to her original family and restoring her Jewish identity as Relli (According to the author, while Tzipora Neshem was a real person, she did not write a journal; instead, Relli Robinson used this as a literary device to effectively convey her changing identity). The ashes in the title refer to the victims of the Holocaust, including Relli’s parents; the light represents almost everybody else connected with this adventure. She especially highlights the childless Polish couple that agreed to raise her after she was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. They kept her as their Polish daughter for the rest of the war and – in spite of great ambivalence – assisted in repatriating her to Israel, reuniting her with a branch of her family fortunate enough to have emigrated there before the war, thus surviving the Holocaust.

My own life was saved in a similar set of circumstances by a Polish family that I love and maintain a close family relation with. The main difference compared to Relli’s experience, as I highlighted in my first blog (April 22, 2012), was that my mother and uncle survived with me and were able to take care of me throughout the process.

Relli’s experience, my experience and those of many others signified pinpoints of light in the depth of one of the darkest periods of history. For much of history, the stories of the ashes have dominated those of the specks of light but both are inescapable parts of our collective past.

Presently, the light is trying to minimize the future mountains of ash that will result from what I am calling self-inflicted genocide (May 14, 2012). We are not trying to rake light from the ashes but rather attempting to win the battle, forestalling their formation.

This is a fight for survival in a world that is now defined by what we do to our environment and its resulting response, until – in the not so distance future – we make the planet unsuited for human life and have no other place to go.

The US is playing a key role in this fight, but it seems that we have been backsliding since the inauguration of the new administration. I have detailed some of these early steps backward. But those changes pale in comparison to some that are still to come:

WASHINGTON — President Trump is poised in the coming days to announce his plans to dismantle the centerpiece of President Barack Obamas climate change legacy, while also gutting several smaller but significant policies aimed at curbing global warming.

The moves are intended to send an unmistakable signal to the nation and the world that Mr. Trump intends to follow through on his campaign vows to rip apart every element of what the president has called Mr. Obama’s “stupid” policies to address climate change. The timing and exact form of the announcement remain unsettled, however.

The executive actions will follow the White House’s release last week of a proposed budget that would eliminate climate change research and prevention programs across the federal government and slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent, more than any other agency. Mr. Trump also announced last week that he had ordered Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, to revise the agency’s stringent standards on planet-warming tailpipe pollution from vehicles, another of Mr. Obama’s key climate change policies.

While the White House is not expected to explicitly say the United States is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and people familiar with the White House deliberations say Mr. Trump has not decided whether to do so, the policy reversals would make it virtually impossible to meet the emissions reduction goals set by the Obama administration under the international agreement.

What makes the situation a bit frightening is that we are also closing most of the research venues that are focused on the development of new technologies that would help make the transition without sacrificing many of the comforts that we enjoy today.

Here is the scientific journal Nature’s take on the anticipated moves:

When it comes to science, there are few winners in US President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal. The plan, released on 16 March, calls for double-digit cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It also lays the foundation for a broad shift in the United States’ research priorities, including a retreat from environmental and climate programmes.

“Cutting [research and development] funding from our budget is the same as cutting the engines off an airplane that’s too heavy for take-off,” says Jason Rao, director of international affairs at the American Society for Microbiology in Washington DC. The greatest threats to the United States, he says, are those presented by infectious diseases, climate change and energy production — none of which can be addressed effectively without scientific research.

The White House proposal is also notable for what it does not mention. The barebones document omits detail about many programmes and even entire agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF). The president is expected to release a fuller budget request in May.

The biggest swing of the budget axe — across the entire budget plan — is aimed at the EPA. The White House hopes to slash the agency’s US$8.2-billion budget by 31%, and lay off about 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 staff. The EPA’s Office of Research and Development would have its funding reduced by half, from $483 million to $250 million.

The proposed cuts, combined with the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate and environmental regulations, have sparked fear throughout the agency. “President Trump is always talking about creating jobs, but he is talking about cutting 3,000 people at the EPA,” says one EPA biologist who is not authorized to talk to the press. “He doesn’t even blink an eye.”

The White House wants to cut 5.6%, or $1.7 billion, from the Department of Energy (DOE). The plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research. And it would slash $900 million, or about 20%, from the department’s Office of Science, which supports research on topics such as high-energy physics, energy, climate change and biology.

“Cutting the NIH and the DOE this dramatically is surprising,” says Matthew Hourihan, director of research-and-development budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. “These are basic science agencies, and there tends to be bipartisan agreement on their value.”

The Trump plan does not include an overall funding target for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But it would eliminate the agency’s long-running, $73-million Sea Grant programme, which supports 33 US colleges and universities that conduct research, education and training about ocean and coastal topics.

In the next few blogs I will try to follow Relli’s example and rake the ashes in search of light. Wish me well.

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Perspectives

I had lunch the other day with a classics professor friend. He made a comment that in one of his classes, a student drew a parallel between the geographic pattern of the recent voting in the US and the differences in perspective between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece. Two days later he and his colleague did some research on this fascinating issue, and I have encouraged him to come forward and write a guest blog about the details. On Thursday, March 16th, the Trump government came out with its preliminary 2018 budget proposal, in which the president decided to raise the US Defense budget by $52.3 billion (a 10% increase), Homeland Security by $2.8 billion (an increase of 7%), and Veterans’ Affairs by $4.4 billion. He proposed to pay for all that from “savings” in discretionary funds that include:

  • Cuts of 31% in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), eliminating all funding from the climate change program
  • State Department cuts of 29% – including almost all global assistance programs (but not reducing any support from the military assistance to Israel)
  • Cuts in Agriculture, Labor, and Justice by around 20%
  • Cuts in Health, Commerce, Education and Transportation by around 15%
  • Cuts in other departments by somewhat smaller amounts

His Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, was clear that the president made no apologies for eliminating the government’s effort to curb climate change: “We are not spending money on that anymore… We consider that a waste of your money to go out and do that.” In addition, funding will be eliminated (NYT, March 16th) for 19 other programs and agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and many others.

The same day that the budget priorities became public, my classics professor friend’s Facebook page included the following comment: “Cost of security for Trump Tower: $183 million/year Budget for National Endowment Arts/Humanities: $148 million/year. Cut and paste into your status.

It appears that our need for his guest blog analyzing the differences between ancient Sparta and Athens has become more urgent. President Trump is on his way to trying to “Spartanize” the US.

To continue on the same line, 10 days earlier, the NYT came out with the following piece:

The Trump White House has wasted no time in targeting pro-climate policies, freezing energy-efficiency standards finalized during the last days of the Obama administration. Its “America First Energy Plan” makes no mention of renewable energy or energy efficiency, and it is focused on fossil fuels.

But in 2012, Donald J. Trump, the businessman, played a different tune.

That year, Mr. Trump finished securing almost $1 million in energy-efficiency incentives and low-interest loans from New York State to fit a Trump-branded residential tower in Westchester County with eco-friendly fixtures, state records show.

Some analysts label the President’s “America first” priorities the result of a “testosterone effect.” I will label them an effect of his “me first” mentality. It’s probably a combination of the two, with the testosterone dominating. The testosterone effect can easily grow out of control. The sharp reduction in the State Department funding is directly aimed at foreign aid; everybody gets hit (except Israel).

At the same time, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is taking his most important foreign trip, directed at calming the threat of North Korea. The US has close to 100,000 soldiers placed in that theater:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is considering “all options” to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat while criticizing China over moves to block a missile-defense system on the peninsula.

In some of his most detailed comments yet on North Korea, Tillerson ruled out a negotiated freeze of its nuclear weapons program and called for a wider alliance to counter Kim Jong Un’s regime. He also left the military option on the table if the North Korean threat gets too large.

He is replacing “soft” diplomacy with the threat of military confrontation against what should now be considered a nuclear power. Nobody in that region will sleep more easily.

The budget priorities that were announced this week do not determine the end result; this week is not even the final word on the budget that the president will submit to Congress. Many essential components such as tax estimates and entitlement expenditures are still missing. They will show up in a month or two. Congress will then need to approve it all. But the budget that was announced and the priorities that it represents are a clear and loud statement that we should listen and look for ways to prevent the ensuing damage. Clearly, for the foreseeable future, top-down problem solving will not provide much support for many of our national and global woes, and will need to be strongly supplemented by massive bottom-up endeavors. My focus here will shift to reflect that change. I got an early taste of one such example by Toni Feder’s “Climate-data rescue efforts gear up,” which was recently published in the journal of the American Physical Society, my professional organization:

A week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, more than 250 volunteers assembled at the University of Pennsylvania for a two-day data-backup operation. After some training, the volunteers went to work downloading data from US government websites—mainly belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—and saving the information on independent servers. The effort was a mix of straightforward copying and writing software to access sites. In total, the volunteers duplicated about 1.5 terabytes—including statistics on renewable energy, toxic chemical releases, and oil spills—from more than 7000 .

The NYT also did a piece on this monumental undertaking:

Some open-data activists refer to it as “dark data” — and they are not talking about classified information or data the government might release only if compelled by a Freedom of Information Act request.

“It’s like dark matter; we know it must be there but we don’t know where to find it to verify,” said Maxwell Ogden, the director of Code for Science and Society, a nonprofit that began a government-data archiving project in collaboration with the research libraries in the University of California system.

“If they’re going to delete something, how will we even know it’s deleted if we didn’t know it was there?” he asked.

Even without any attempts to draw parallels with ancient history, this reminds me of something I described in an earlier blog (November 22, 2016):

Samuel Kassow’s book describes the efforts of a group led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum who documented what was happening around them in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. The group aimed to provide an accurate account of the situation to counter the false history that the Nazis would write if they won the war. Once they realized that they probably would not survive the occupation, they stored the materials in milk cans and metal boxes that they buried underground. Following the war 35,000 pages were unearthed. These papers are now displayed at a museum in Warsaw.

The situation in Nazi-occupied Warsaw during the war period was admittedly many orders of magnitude more desperate than our present state; likewise, the grassroots remedies were that much more dangerous – all the more reason to do what we can to try to mitigate the current administration’s damage before things get that dire.

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The Paris Commitments and What to Expect

Figure 1 – IEA-projected impact of the Paris Agreement on the global energy sector

The Paris Agreement, negotiated at the end of 2015, is the current anchor of global efforts to mitigate anthropogenic contributions to climate change (December 14, 2015 blog). The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently outlined the agreement’s impact on the global energy sector. Figure 1 illustrates those projections for the year 2040.

Here is the most recent status (March 9, 2017) of the agreement, as reported by the IPCC:

The Paris Agreement  entered into force on 4 November 2016, thirty days after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 % of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession with the Depositary.

It’s been almost two months since President Trump’s inauguration. He’s been busy on many fronts; climate change is obviously not at the top of his agenda. Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry are his head of the EPA and energy secretary as of February 2nd and March 2nd, respectively. In spite of their short time in office, there are clear trends. Here are some climate-change-related actions that the new government has already taken:

President Donald Trump signed executive orders backing the construction of two unnecessarily controversial energy infrastructure projects: the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to announce as early as this week the reopening of a review of the rules that were set by the Obama administration for the 2022-2025 period.

Automakers say the changes, which would raise the fleet average fuel efficiency to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 from 27.5 mpg in 2010, will impose significant costs and are out of step with consumer preferences. They argue they need more flexibility to meet the rules amid low gas prices.

President Trump on Thursday signed legislation ending a key Obama administration coal mining rule. The bill quashes the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation to protect waterways from coal mining waste that officials finalized in December.

  • Restructuring of the EPA (Scott Pruitt seems intent on building an EPA leadership that is fundamentally at odds with the officials who carry out the agency’s missions):

In the days since, Mr. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.

Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress’s most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.

Top Trump advisers are split on the Paris Agreement

WASHINGTON — The White House is fiercely divided over President Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris agreement, the 2015 accord that binds nearly every country to curb global warming, with more moderate voices maintaining that he should stick with the agreement despite his campaign pledge.

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s senior adviser, is pressing the president to officially pull the United States from the landmark accord, according to energy and government officials with knowledge of the debate. But, they say, he is clashing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who fear the move could have broad and damaging diplomatic ramifications.

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s reluctance to show himself, much less comment or answer questions publicly, makes him practically invisible as well as nearly impossible to pin down. Our fate, as well as that of, our children, grandchildren, and fellow citizens of the world, seems to rest on the beautiful shoulders of Ivanka Trump. I wish the best to all of us.

Here are the Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) of the individual countries to the Paris Agreement.

The US commitments are summarized in the figure below.

Figure 2

Here is what the US will need to do if the new administration decides to withdraw from the agreement:

WITHDRAWAL UNDER THE TERMS OF THE PARIS AGREEMENT As a matter of both international law and U.S. law, the president could withdraw from the Paris Agreement pursuant to Article 28.1, which allows a party to withdraw by giving one year’s written notification to the Depositary (i.e., the U.N. Secretary-General), beginning three years after the Paris Agreement’s entry into force for that party. A party need not provide any reason or justification for withdrawing; the only limitations imposed by the Paris Agreement relate to timing. The Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4, 2016. This means that starting on November 4, 2019, the president could give written notice of withdrawal, and the withdrawal would take effect one year later, on November 4, 2020.

WITHDRAWAL FROM THE UNFCCC A second option, which would enable the president to withdraw from the Paris Agreement more quickly, would be to withdraw from its parent agreement, the UNFCCC. Article 25.1 of the UNFCCC allows parties to withdraw by giving one year’s notice. Article 28.3 of the Paris Agreement further provides that “any party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from this Agreement.” Thus, a president could withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in only a year, by giving notice of withdrawal from the UNFCCC.

We will keep watching.

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Back to Energy Transition: Data

February in Brooklyn (Taken on our terrace toward the end of the month)

It’s high time we return to climate change and the Anthropocene.

My first target is the continuous availability of relevant data. The Anthropocene and climate change are both arguably current and/or coming global events. Given the leading role that the US plays in managing this new era and the most recent changes in our government, I will aim my focus here.

Before his speech to the joint session of Congress, the President confirmed he would ask for an increase in defense spending to the extent of $54 billion and $1 trillion toward infrastructure rebuilding, as well as major tax cuts and the construction of a wall on the Mexican border. Of course, in theory, these new expenditures would occur with no increase in the budget deficit and without affecting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. All the money should come from discretionary funds currently allocated to various government departments/agencies and (hopefully) from economic growth. Two of the most often mentioned early targets for major cuts are the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is especially likely given Rick Perry’s recent approval as the new Secretary of Energy and Scott Pruitt’s induction as head of the EPA; both men have long, consistent records as climate change deniers.

The EIA (an agency run by the Department of Energy) and the EPA are the two main depositories of data on climate change. The budget will have to be approved by Congress but it will not be much of a surprise for data and educational material on climate change to be some of the first casualties of the budget shrinking process. The attempt to remove climate change from public discussion and our subsequent blinding to the issue are likely consequences. Collectively, we are alarmed by evidence of hacking of our electronic databases. Major cyber-hacking took place in the financial sector (Chase-Morgan), industrial firms (Sony), communication firms (Yahoo), retail outlets (Target), and other sectors. Many culprits were associated with Russia and China. The masking of our governmental databases amounts to a kind of hacking, albeit one that is self-inflicted. By hiding or distorting such information with the purpose of blocking actions that mitigate the impact of the real data, our government acts in a similar fashion to hackers who would use the information for their own nefarious purposes.

States are taking the lead in preventing cyber-hacking. Here is an example from my own state of New York:

A new regulation enters into force today in the state of New York, obliging bankers to keep consumer data secure from hackers. All financial firms must now meet strict minimum standards on cyber-security and notify the regulator of any data breach within 72 hours; they potentially face liability if their data-protection is later found lacking

States and cities will probably have to take leadership roles in countering our Federal self-inflicted hacking. Governmental self-imposed distortion of statistical information is not new. In fact, it often constitutes one of the most visible signs of a failed state. Since much of this information is important globally there are continuous efforts to spot such distortions as well as attempts to ratify such data. For example:

Conventional wisdom has it that governments may lie strategically to the public about economic data that they collect and provide. The accusations that Greece and Italy tinkered with their budget deficit figures before joining the Euro zone provide anecdotal examples. Argentina has been suspected of understating inflation figures since mid–2007. The Hungarian government, according to its prime minister in a statement that leaked out, lied to the general public about the state of the economy to win the elections in 2006. Ukraine misreported the level of reserves to the International Monetary Fund between 1996 and 1998. China is believed to embellish its GDP growth numbers. Even the United States came under scrutiny after GDP growth revisions were consistently negative in the crisis that started in 2008.1 At times governments are caught red-handed (Hungary or Ukraine), but most of the time it is simply unclear whether the data that are provided to the public are just inaccurate (because of, say, measurement errors or bad data collection methods) or suffer from deliberate alterations. In some cases, misinforming economic agents may bring tangible (possibly short-term) gains for a government; for example, Argentina by misstating inflation figures avoided paying out higher interest on government bonds indexed to inflation (which should have constituted in fact a partial default) and raising the wages in the public sector. Greece enjoyed lower borrowing rates (close to Germany’s) on its government debt because of its Euro zone membership and because investors did not know the entire extent of Greek budget troubles. Given these examples, there are two important questions to ask. Is it possible to find instances when countries or groups of countries engage in misinforming economic agents? Is there some common characteristic that is shared by these countries?

The authors suggest some ways to detect false statistical reports.

A similar investigative process in the US has already started with economic data:

Budget cuts already have forced some federal agencies to pare back the collection of economic statistics that measure shifts in population, incomes, demographics and other factors that drive change.

In the first week after Inauguration Day, gag orders limiting public disclosures were imposed on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and even the National Park Service.

President Trump wouldn’t admit that the U.S. jobless rate fell to 4.7 percent at the end of the Obama years. Solution: Declare that the “real” unemployment rate stands at 42 percent.

Before things get worse, I will use this forum to summarize the kind of information related to climate change that one can currently find on the EIA and the EPA sites. I will revisit these sites periodically to follow up on the changes.

The EIA site:

EIA receives funding for its activities with an annual appropriation from Congress. EIA’s budget request falls under the purview of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Energy and Water Development.

The fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget provides $122 million for EIA, a $5 million increase over EIA’s funding level in FY 2015. The FY 2016 funding maintains EIA’s core energy statistics, analysis, and forecasting programs, including many significant accomplishments in FY 2015, while also allowing the agency to address other critical information needs, including:

Daily Product

  • Today in Energy

Weekly Products

  • Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report
    (principal Federal economic indicator)
  • This Week in Petroleum
  • Natural Gas Weekly Update
  • Weekly Coal Production Report
  • Weekly Petroleum Status Report
  • Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update

Monthly Products

  • Short-Term Energy Outlook
  • Natural Gas Monthly
  • Drilling Productivity Report
  • Electric Power Monthly
  • Electricity Monthly Update
  • Monthly Energy Review
  • Petroleum Supply Monthly
  • Petroleum Marketing Monthly
  • Monthly Biodiesel Production
  • U.S. Movements of Crude Oil by Rail

Quarterly Products

  • Quarterly Coal Report
  • Quarterly Coal Distribution Report
  • Domestic Uranium Production Quarterly Report

Annual Products

  • Annual Energy Outlook
  • International Energy Outlook
  • Natural Gas Annual
  • Annual Coal Report
  • U.S. Crude Oil and Natural Gas Proved Reserves
  • Electric Power Annual
  • U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions
  • Petroleum Supply Annual

Other Products, Tools, and Services

  • State Energy Portal
  • Country Energy Portal
  • U.S. Energy Mapping System
  • Electricity Data Browser
  • Petroleum Imports Browser
  • Coal Data Browser
  • API (Application Programming Interface)
  • Excel Add-In
  • Energy in Brief
  • Energy Explained
  • Energy Kids

Special Analyses (examples)

  • Analysis of the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012
  • The Availability and Price of Petroleum and Petroleum Products Produced in Countries Other Than Iran
  • Sales of Fossil Fuels Produced from Federal and Indian Lands, FY 2003 through FY 201Potential Impacts of Reductions in Refinery Activity on Northeast Petroleum Product Market
  • Effect of Increased Natural Gas Exports on Domestic Energy Markets

The EPA site:

  • Acid Rain
  • Bed Bugs | Las Chinches
  • Climate Change
  • Drinking Water
  • Facility Compliance
  • Greenhouse Gas
  • Radon
  • Recycling
  • Watersense
  • More topics

Next week I will outline the commitments the US made as part of the COP21 meeting in Paris (November 17, 2015January 12, 2016). We can use those as a baseline to see how the current administration follows up on our country’s promises.

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Back to Psychology: Self-Serving Bias

Alan Greenspan has been reflecting on the meaning behind Trump’s win and the Brexit vote:

The rise of “economic populism” around the world has come from years of low growth that have “seriously impaired” the global economy, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said Thursday.

Once known as the “Maestro” of the American economy, the 90-year-old Greenspan said in a speech that the “surprise electoral wind of Donald Trump” in the U.S. and the Brexit vote in Britain are the two most glaring examples of a movement that is taking the world by storm.

“Populism is not a structured economic philosophy such as capitalism, socialism or communism,” he told an audience at the Economic Club of New York. “But it’s a cry of pain by the populace for some leaders to arise to take charge and lessen their pain.”

Psychology has other ideas about the “cry of pain”:

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner.[1] It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.[2] When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem.[3] For example, a student who attributes earning a good grade on an exam to their own intelligence and preparation but attributes earning a poor grade to the teacher’s poor teaching ability or unfair test questions is exhibiting the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that similar attributions are made in various situations, such as the workplace,[4] interpersonal relationships,[5] sports,[6] and consumer decisions.[7]

Here’s another take on the matter, courtesy of GoodTherapy.org:

A self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to view their own actions favorably or interpret events in a way that is beneficial to themselves. It typically occurs when a person attributes his or her successes to his or her own abilities but any failures to external causes.

The site gives an excellent example:

Researchers have long puzzled over apparent differences in mathematical ability between girls and boys. Despite outperforming boys for most of their school years, girls take fewer math classes and are less likely to believe they are good at math. An inversion of the self-serving bias may be to blame. Some studies have found that girls tend to attribute mathematical successes to hard work and mathematical failures to incompetence. Boys, conversely, engage in a self-serving bias and attribute successes to intelligence and failures to external factors. Boys also tend to overestimate their mathematical competence. This real-life example of a self-serving bias demonstrates how the bias can actually improve performance by encouraging boys to remain in challenging math classes.

Trump has said a lot about the “pain” that he alone can heal:

While self-serving bias can be beneficial in addressing self-esteem issues, it can be disastrous in collective settings – especially within the democratic selection of governments. The only remedy that I saw in my admittedly short search came from an old article in Psychology Today by Heidi Halvorson:

From a motivational perspective, the best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on. And even though, in his mid-80s, Alan Greenspan is unlikely to serve a second round as Fed Chairman, he would probably like to get an accurate handle on what went wrong — something he will never do unless he admits that he was actually driving.

Looking at yourself is good advice in general but in a political context the “self” is usually not much of a player. Better advice is to try to look at the facts, to do your own research. Trump’s repeated slogans, “make America great again,” “drain the swamp,” “the American dream is dead,” etc. shaped voters’ outlooks on current circumstances. A closer look at the facts, which are now available to us all, shows a very different picture from that which he painted (January 3, 2017). Among the large developed countries we are probably in the best shape; climate change, which is almost certainly human-inflicted, is a solid fact independent of today’s weather in New York City. This referral to the facts can start in schools with teachers discussing election issues in class and continue in libraries where the general public can arrange free fact-checking events while avoiding political bias. Such a change in education will take time. I don’t see an effective shortcut. We will have to do the best we can until any educational efforts bear fruits. In the meantime we should do the best we can to minimize the damage that a bad choice of government can inflict on our long-term opportunities.

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