Student Impacts on College Priorities

Protester with an Earth costume holding a sign that says, "There are no jobs on a dead planet."(Source: ABC News: Andie Noonan via Greeneration Foundation)

College strategic plans reflect colleges’ priorities (put “college strategic plans” into the search box to review prior blogs). Reflecting on my own school, when the budget becomes tight, and there is a need to prioritize, the justification for the distribution comes out through the college strategic plan. In a federated college, such as most state schools and my own NYC school (CUNY), the prioritization has to follow the strategic plans of both the central administration and the college. A Climate Action Plan (you can also put this term into the search box) is one of the central issues that every organization needs to address. There is a great deal of activity by both students and faculty in my school in addressing environmental issues. But, as was mentioned earlier, a climate action plan is nowhere to be found in the official strategic plans of either CUNY or Brooklyn College, my campus. Our Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration also chairs our committee charged with formulating our new college strategic plan. He told a group of us that this document does not (and will not) include infrastructure priorities.

Meanwhile, you cannot address a climate action plan without addressing the sources of energy that power our schools; in federated universities, these energy sources are determined by the central university. As we will see below, CUNY, in its recent strategic plan, does address infrastructure, but it doesn’t require that the infrastructure include a climate action plan[. More than that, given that all our buildings belong to the central university, we cannot establish alternative energy sources on the campus without the agreement and support of the central university. But our students belong to the individual colleges and they are supposed to be the main users of the energy.

As was mentioned in the previous blog, student attendance is a big issue for many schools, including my own. Most colleges are doing their best to attract students and we are all looking for the best way to accomplish that. If the decline in enrollment continues, many colleges will fold. The top photograph tells the whole story. “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” If there will be no jobs in the future, students are trying to get the best from the present. One common way for colleges to attract students is to make the experience of present students as productive and pleasant as possible. Safety and health are prime considerations. The world is now in an upheaval with deadly regional conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, Hamas and Israel, and others. Most colleges have many students sympathizing with specific sides in these conflicts and often the college administrators are called to take sides. Often, the map of these conflicts can change on a daily basis and large groups of students are finding themselves in a position of weakness and are upset with their administrations for what seemed like helping the other side. This is not a productive atmosphere for learning and many students prefer to stay home.

Two weeks ago (October 10, 2023) I described the situation in my college (Brooklyn College) and my university (CUNY) in drafting our strategic plans. We found that the policy of my college was to draft its strategic plan after the university posted its own. The university just did so and my college has now assembled the team charged with drafting our plan.  It was mentioned that many in the selected committee have their own pet projects to advance and on the same line, in writing on this issue, I have my own “pet project,” which is climate change. I fully admit my “guilt.”

The CUNY strategic plan is drafted for the 2023-2930 time period and specifies 5 goals and a general commitment to increase enrollment. The goals and the commitment are given below:

  1. Improve Career Outcomes

  2. Reshape Student Success

  3. Streamline Student Transfer within CUNY

  4. Advance Public-Impact Research

  5. Maintain State-of-the-Art Facilities & Technology

Increasing Enrollment and Retention

General comment on the goals and the commitment:

To meet the ambitious targets outlined in the strategic plan, CUNY will publish detailed action plans each year that identify the concrete steps, metrics and progress being achieved annually for each goal. This multi-layered approach will provide the flexibility, creativity and discipline necessary to meet this exciting, vital period of change for the University.

To me, that paragraph is all-telling. It basically addresses present issues while avoiding trying to address the long-term issues that our students are certain to face. The missing climate action plan is a good example. Students who consider coming to us are planning on a 4-5 year stay that will help them navigate changing environments. Teaching how to navigate new environments is the main job of universities. What can our students do to have an impact on college priorities while also preparing themselves for emerging job opportunities in a changing environment?

As I have mentioned often in this blog, I am an old guy on the verge of retirement. The students that we teach, and those that we want to attract, have their lives in front of them and they expect the college and the faculty to help them navigate the rest of their lives in a productive way.

Last week’s blog had AI define what students can do to advance climate action plans. The result was not satisfying. All the given examples were focused on sustainability-related parts of courses that they are taking. These kinds of examples are now common in almost all classrooms. It’s difficult to teach almost anything without using sustainability-related topics. There was no example of students exercising their influence on their own administration to form and execute a productive action plan. I wrote about it extensively this year. Just put the “student role” into the search box and see what you get.

You can find a productive example in the blog from April 18th of this year, titled “Teaching Students to be Involved in Energy Transition.” It recommends following productive practices in their community and asking the persons who initiated the practice to write a short description that will be published either on a local blog or in the student newspaper that almost every campus has available.

On the same line, students can inquire about student activities at other campuses (local and international) and publish their findings in the same venues.

I wrote before about legislation both in New York State and in NYC on reducing carbon content in the energy used in large buildings (June 25, 2019). Progress has to be significant starting next year. To handle such activities most relevant buildings are in need of “energy experts” that can coordinate the effort. This is a future job opportunity that students can be encouraged to prepare for—either as their main job or as a side gig.

I will end this blog with two important opportunities for students to get involved that were not mentioned earlier:

  1. Changing culture of the university to redirect Students Technology Fund.

 Below is the background of this fund:

Student Technology Fee Spending Plans

In 2003, the CUNY Board of Trustees adopted legislation requiring students to pay an annual technology fee. The revenues generated by the fee are to be used by the colleges to enhance opportunities for students to use current technology in their academic studies and to acquire the knowledge and skills that the modern, information-centered world requires.

Each year, a committee composed of administrators, faculty and students, chaired by the Provost , solicits suggestions from the college community and prepares a plan for the use of the technology fee funds. The plan is submitted to the Chancellor for approval. Brooklyn College’s advanced use of technology enables the committee to both pursue more advanced goals and concentrate on projects that build on mature foundations.

Approved projects are expected to further the college’s goals of: expanding student access to computing resources, improving computer-based instruction, improving support for students using college computers, improving student services, and using technology to enrich student life on campus. These goals should now only make college life more enjoyable, but also provide Brooklyn College students with an edge as they enter the job market or move on to postgraduate studies.

Over the last 20 years, computer technology has developed to underpin every educational institution. It is high time to fund the maintenance and expansion of computer technology and redirect at least part of the fund to college sustainability research that will integrate into the college action plan.

  1. Help to Enhance Climate Change Literacy in College Communities:

Below is some information on externally-funded Brooklyn College efforts with high student involvement:

Thanks to a $500,000 Environmental Literacy Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), the National Wildlife Federation’s NYC Eco-Schools is partnering with Professor Brett Branco of Brooklyn College, the NYCDOE, the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB), and New York Sea Grant to create and launch the Resilient Schools Consortium (RiSC). The aim of the RiSC program is to prepare students to assess the vulnerabilities of their schools and communities to extreme weather events, create small-scale resiliency projects at their schools, and help draft climate resilience guidelines for the NYCDOE.

The RiSC program launches in October 2017 as both an after school and in-school pilot program and will engage up to 500 students and over a dozen teachers in seven public middle and high schools (members of the Brooklyn Marine STEAM Education Alliance) located in the vulnerable coastal community of South Brooklyn. Participating schools were either severely damaged during Sandy in 2012 or served as shelters for displaced students and their families.

“In the face of monster storms like Maria, Irma, Harvey in 2017, and Sandy in NYC, we need an entire generation of students to become climate literate as quickly as possible,” says Frank Niepold, NOAA’s Climate Education Coordinator and a RiSC Advisory Board member.

Posted in Climate Change | 4 Comments

AI’s Take on Student Input into Institutional Commitments

I asked Google for an image of “climate action plans of universities and colleges.” Below is a screenshot of what I got:

Screenshot of results from Google image search of "climate action plans of universities and colleges"

I went on and asked the same search engine (I am fully aware of the charge that Google is illegally using its dominant position in searches) to define “climate action plan,” and, as has now become usual, I got a short AI description:

AI on Climate action plans

Generative AI is experimental. Info quality may vary.

A climate action plan is a strategic framework for measuring, planning, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and related climatic impacts. Climate action plans generally include:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets
  • Actions the state can take to help meet those goals
  • Resilience strategies
  • Clean energy targets
  • Economic and social goals

Here are some examples of climate action plans: 

  • California Department of Water Resources

The Department’s plan is divided into three phases to address mitigation, adaptation, and consistency in the analysis of climate change.

  • National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP)

The plan outlines a long-term program and strategies for climate change adaptation.

  • S. Department of the Treasury

The plan emphasizes that U.S. leadership is required to significantly enhance global action and achieve the necessary policy outcomes on climate change.

  • S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The plan aims to improve HHS responses to the climate crisis.

  • HUD’s New Climate Action Plan

The plan provides billions of dollars in flexible funding to help communities recover from and build resilience to climate hazards and natural disasters.

33 states have Climate Action Plans.

I will include excerpts from the climate action plans of two universities below: Boston University, a private research university, and Indiana University, a federated state university:

Boston University

With input from the campus community, the Task Force drafted a Climate Action Plan, which was approved by the Board of Trustees.

The plan set an ambitious but realistic strategy that places BU in a leadership role locally and nationally, and provides the greatest opportunities for sustained environmental benefits. The plan emphasizes reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions to become carbon neutral by 2040, a decade earlier than the City of Boston’s target to help the City meet its target.

Here is the Table of Contents from BU’s Climate Action Plan:

Executive Summary Pg. 3
I. Introduction Pg. 5
II. How Resilient Is the BU Campus? Pg. 8
III. What Do We Emit and Why? Pg. 10
IV. Recommendations for Reducing Scope 1 and 2 Emissions Pg. 13
V. Recommendations for Increasing Resilience Pg. 16
VI. Beyond Scope 1 and 2 Emissions Pg. 20
VII. Curriculum and Research Pg. 23
VIII. How Much Do These Recommendations Cost? Pg. 25
IX. How Do We Move Forward Systematically? Pg. 26
X. A Vision of Campus for the Future Pg. 27
XI. Conclusion Pg. 28
Appendix 1: BU Good and BU Better Scenarios Pg. 29
Appendix 2: Costs of Climate Action Pg. 30

Indiana University

Executive Summary

Indiana University (IU) was established in 1820 as one of just 52 degree granting colleges in the United States Today, the University comprises seven campuses across the State of Indiana, including two core campuses and fve regional campuses, each with unique degree offerings, geographies, contexts, and climates, providing a rich variety of educational experiences tailored to the diverse needs and aspirations of its students.

Strategic Alignment

The Indiana University Climate Action Plan (CAP) aligns closely with the University’s strategic plan, IU 2030: The Indiana University Strategic Plan. The strategic plan is built on three key pillars: student success and opportunity, transformative research, and service to the state. As the CAP was being developed, the strategic plan was undergoing a similar and parallel process, leading to a strong intersection between these two important efforts. The CAP serves as a complement of the strategic plan, supporting each of its core pillars. In turn, these pillars reinforce the CAP’s objectives and help ensure a comprehensive and cohesive approach to sustainability across the institution

What is a student’s role in these efforts?

Generative AI is experimental. Info quality may vary.

Campus as a Lab (CAL) is a teaching and organizational tool that allows students to use their campus as a lab. Students can contribute to sustainability projects that can advancea school’s Climate Action Plan. These projects must have measurable outcomes that help the university reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Here are some examples of student contributions to CAL projects: 

  • Arizona State University students blog about “life overlooked” or non-charismatic species.
  • Students in Dr. Jed Macosko’s “Physics and Chemistry of the Environment” course worked on “Project Nightlight”. This project studied the campus’ contribution to light pollution.
  • Students in the Sustain IU internship program used applied behavioral science to encourage sustainable behavior.
  • University of Michigan students develop and test projects at the intersection of sustainability and social justice.

Other schools that use CAL projects include: 

  • University of Calgary
  • UChicago

In the next two weeks, I will gather additional examples of student input, including within the more familiar territory of my school. The previous blog summarized CUNY’s efforts in drafting the outlines of its strategic plan. That plan basically circumvented long-range goals by avoiding general assessments and replacing them with immediate objectives, to be decided on a yearly basis. Brooklyn College is just now starting its efforts to update its strategic plan. Since students are coming to us to get ready for their independent lives, the school’s long-term objectives should mirror those of its students.

Posted in Climate Change | 5 Comments

Students’ Input into Institutional Commitments: Climate Action Plans

College enrollment has become an important issue that preoccupies most schools, including mine. The reasons are complex and will not be addressed here. Most colleges also, whether directly or indirectly, live on public support. If the public, through its elected officials or through students’ demands, stopped supporting colleges, the colleges would have to fold. It is not surprising that higher education is focused on this issue and that the question of what higher education is doing to justify public support is a major issue for schools around the country.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the recent pandemic did not directly cause the drop in enrollment growth; there was already a downward trend after 2010. However, it did amplify the feeling that colleges and universities should be at the forefront of preparations for global threats. My focus has been on environmental issues, with an emphasis on climate change and the urgent global need to change our energy supply away from fossil fuels. I have talked repeatedly about the “Campus as a Lab” and college strategic plans, with a focus on my own school. Just put the two concepts into the search box and scan the previous blogs on these concepts. Today’s blog starts my effort to look specifically for climate action planning in relation to college strategic plans. I also want to look into student participation in setting the changes that schools have to go through. The specific situation of my college in this issue can serve as a productive learning tool and thus it can satisfy the requirements of a “Campus as a Lab” (see the definition of Campus as a Lab in the July 19, 2022 blog that starts the series of blogs on this issue).

Graph of historical college enrollment from 1970-2020: undergraduate, graduate, and total

Figure 1 – Historical college enrollment from 1970-2020 (Source: Education Data Initiative)

I started to analyze my college’s strategic plan in the May 2, 2023 blog. In doing so, I described the federated structure of the university. My students’ project this semester is to explore ways to participate in the Campus as a Lab efforts on the specific issue of decarbonization of our energy use. This includes the question of how to help integrate this job into the new strategic plans of the college and the university. This is a small class of 12 students that is divided into three groups. One group, some of whose students are connected to student leadership, is investigating present students’ attitudes and their background knowledge of this issue. The second group is investigating the situation on different campuses, in and out of the US, while the third group is investigating practical steps that students can take.

This, and the following few blogs, are written as my helping hand in these efforts. The incorporation of important sustainability issues in the strategic plan comes at an opportune time in my school. As was described in the May 2, 2023 blog, my college strategic plan is about to expire now. A new one is just being drafted with students’ participation. It’s an excellent opportunity for input. As was mentioned in previous blogs, Brooklyn College is an important part of a federated university. The students will be exposed to the complexities of decision-making within such a system. Again, I am using CUNY as an example.

A decision was made not to update the college’s strategic plan until the university’s strategic plan is completed. This was recently accomplished. Below, I am including the introduction of CUNY’s strategic plan, along with its main goals. Whenever appropriate, I have included specified future quantitative assessments for the accomplishment of the goals:

The City University of New York (CUNY) announced the release of “CUNY Lifting New York,” a strategic plan to transform CUNY into the nation’s foremost student-centered University system by 2030 and intensify its role as an indispensable New York City institution that improves the lives of New Yorkers through public-benefit research, workforce partnerships, economic development, and affordable, top-quality education. The plan lays the groundwork for increasing CUNY’s impact as an engine of upward social and civic mobility by establishing strategies and targets to expand access and enhance student success, academic offerings, post-college outcomes and the system’s infrastructure and technology resources.

  1. Improve Career Outcomes

By 2030, CUNY will increase by 20% the number of employers who actively recruit CUNY students and triple the number of students who complete a paid internship. A new central, career-focused office will help build relationships with employers and connect students to recruitment and professional development.

  1. Reshape Student Success
  2. Streamline Student Transfer within CUNY
  3. Advance Public-Impact Research

CUNY will increase by 20 percent the dollars awarded for research and the number of funded grants leveraging CUNY’s distinctive scale, diversity and location in New York City for the well-being of local communities, improving the everyday lives of New Yorkers in tangible and meaningful ways.

  1. Maintain State-of-the-Art Facilities & Technology

Over the next seven years, CUNY will move to a 90 percent on-time completion of facilities projects and will work toward a goal of having 55 percent of buildings in good repair.

Increasing Enrollment and Retention

To meet the ambitious targets outlined in the strategic plan, CUNY will publish detailed action plans each year that identify the concrete steps, metrics and progress being achieved annually for each goal. This multi-layered approach will provide the flexibility, creativity and discipline necessary to meet this exciting, vital period of change for the University.

The next relevant question is whether CUNY has a climate action plan. I asked Google. As is becoming “usual” these days, when you ask Google (or Microsoft Bing) any question, you get a short AI paragraph on the issue to start the conversation. Below is what I got as an answer to my question:

Generative AI is experimental. Info quality may vary.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has several climate action plans, including:

  • Campus Sustainability Plans

These plans identify over 800 actions to reduce energy use and increase energy efficiency.

  • Sustainable CUNY

This program reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions at CUNY’s senior and community college campuses.

  • Sustainability councils

These councils support sustainability goals and source external resources for CUNY’s 25 institutions.

  • Interdisciplinary Climate Crisis Research Grants

This program provides funding for research and the purchase of innovative equipment.

  • Baruch’s Climate Scholars Program

This program focuses on climate change resiliency and the transition to renewable energy.

  • Hunter Green

This program works to reduce Hunter’s carbon footprint, improve energy efficiency, and advocate for a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable environment.

CUNY also partners with NYC-EJA to develop and implement strategies to reduce community climate vulnerabilities and environmental burdens.

I fully realize that I didn’t answer many questions in this blog. First among them: the meaning of a climate action plan, including examples of universities that have incorporated climate issues into their strategic plans. That will be done in my next blog. This blog ends with the realization that CUNY, as an institution, is very active on sustainability issues but doesn’t yet have a well-defined climate action plan with quantitative goals and objectives. My students have plenty of opportunities to contribute. Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change | 4 Comments

Global Financial Institutions

Image: Hand drops coin into large jar marked "For Poor Countries Aid and Development" while three spigots marked IMF/Worldbank pour coins into cans marked with the Japanese, US, and EU flags.

Source: (Bitcoin Magazine)

The last few blogs were focused on the various ways that we can compensate each other for already present climate damage, as well as how to provide resources to adapt and mitigate in order to minimize future damage. The last blog focused on the precarious situation that developing countries find themselves in. Namely, being loaded with very large debts that force them to choose between present and future needs. These include the need to mitigate and adapt to increasing damage caused mainly by emissions generated by rich countries. Since global decisions about mitigating the accelerating damage from climate change must be nearly unanimous, developing countries find themselves with productive leverage to get help from developed countries.

These dynamics  surfaced fully for the first time in the last COP27 meeting, which was held at the end of last year in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt:

COP27 closed with a breakthrough agreement to provide loss and damage funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by floods, droughts and other climate disasters. This was widely lauded as an historic decision. Why? Because for the first time, countries recognized the need for finance to respond to loss and damage associated with the catastrophic effects of climate change, and agreed to the establishing of a fund and the necessary funding arrangements.

Although the details will need to be hammered out over the coming year – who should pay into the fund, where this money will come from and which countries will benefit – it’s “an important step towards justice,” said the UN Secretary-General.

A ‘transitional committee’ will make recommendations on how to operationalize both the new funding arrangements and the fund for consideration and adoption at COP28 next year. The first meeting of the transitional committee is expected to take place before the end of March 2023.

“This outcome moves us forward,” said Simon Stiell, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary. “We have determined a way forward on a decades-long conversation on funding for loss and damage – deliberating over how we address the impacts on communities whose lives and livelihoods have been ruined by the very worst impacts of climate change.”

The decision was to use 2023 for discussion of how to achieve the loss and damage funding and present the results this year at COP28, in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) at the end of November. Since we are less than two months away from the start of COP28, I was searching for some reports that would tell us what to expect. The closest that I came was a paper that was published in the journal Sustainability on June 23rd, with an abstract given below:

Abstract: Loss and damage from climate change have risen to a prominent position on the international agenda. At COP27 in 2022, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ratified a decision to establish a loss and damage fund to compensate low- and middle-income countries that are suffering negative impacts from climate change. The fund is meant to address the Global Adaptation Gap, which describes the rising cost of adaptation needed to cope with climate change impacts due to delayed action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This essay highlights issues around loss and damage from climate change from a variety of natural and social science perspectives. From three months of discussions, an interdisciplinary perspective and research agenda on this topic have crystallised, which is outlined here. Given that the implementation of the loss and damage fund still needs negotiation and commitment from signatories to the UNFCCC, it is timely now to address some important knowledge gaps on how loss and damage can be measured, quantified, valued, understood, communicated, and adapted to. Hence, it is necessary to understand the complex interactions between people, politics, nature, and climate in this interdisciplinary context.

I thought that based on the settings of international financing of money transfer from developed countries to developing countries, the transfer mechanism would directly involve the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I thought that these two institutions would be mentioned in the Sustainability article, however, I didn’t find that to be the case. The article was not based on negotiations between payers and receivers but was focused instead on the needs of the developing countries.

We will have to wait until COP28 at the end of November to see whether progress is made in solving the many hurdles that such a transfer of funds is encountering.

The IMF and the World Bank are not waiting for COP28. A working paper by both organizations describes their direct involvement in the process. Reuters reports:

WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) – The International Monetary Fund and World Bank on Thursday issued a rare joint statement pledging to step up their cooperation to address climate change, debt vulnerabilities and countries’ digital transitions.

The statement, released ahead of a G20 leaders summit in India this week, said the two institutions can help address mounting challenges facing the global economy – from increasing climate disasters to slowing growth and geopolitical fragmentation – by working together.

Below is what they came out with (The IMF-World Bank Climate Policy Assessment Tool (CPAT): A Model to Help Countries Mitigate Climate Change):

JUNE 23, 2023

Black, Simon; Parry, W.H. Ian; Mylonas, Victor; Vernon, Nate; Zhunussova, Karlygash

To stabilize the climate, global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 25 to 50 percent by 2030 compared to 2019. Such an unprecedented rate of decarbonization necessitates climate mitigation policies across countries, notably carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidy reform, renewable subsidies, feebates, emission rate regulations, and public investments. To design and implement effective, efficient, and equitable policies, governments need tools to assess economic, environmental, fiscal, and social impacts. To support this effort, the IMF and World Bank are making their joint Climate Policy Assessment Tool (CPAT) available to governments. CPAT is a transparent, flexible, and user-friendly model covering over 200 countries. It allows for the rapid quantification of impacts of climate mitigation policies, including on energy demand, prices, emissions, revenues, welfare, GDP, households and industries, local air pollution and health, and many other metrics. This paper describes the CPAT model, its data sources, key assumptions, and caveats.

Again, the focus is on the mechanism, not on the commitment of money.

I guess that the judgment of how the world is doing will have to wait until December, when COP28 (meaning the developing countries) issues its judgment.

Connected to all of this, I asked the internet to give me some links about criticism of the World Bank and the IMF. I got the following “response” from the AI modules of the search engine (I forget which one):

Generative AI is experimental. Info quality may vary.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been criticized for their climate policies, including:

  • Moving too slowly to account for the effects of climate change on economic growth and stability
  • Obstructing access to financing for countries to prepare for and adapt to climate change
  • Imposing coercive conditions on loans to developing countries
  • Instituting insufficient environmental safeguards in projects
  • Disregarding the environment and indigenous populations
  • Evaluating health projects by looking at economic outcome measures

The IMF has also been criticized for its lack of accountability and willingness to lend to countries with bad human rights records. Some say that the IMF’s loans enable member countries to pursue reckless domestic economic policies. Critics claim that this safety net delays needed reforms and creates long-term dependency.

This attitude was consistent with the rather ironic and pessimistic opening picture from Bitcoin Magazine.

Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Nations in Debt

The last two blogs dealt with insurance against catastrophic damage that is associated with the accelerating impacts of climate change (September 12th and September 19th). Both blogs were focused on the United States. The first was focused on the increasing withdrawal of private insurance companies from vulnerable markets, while the second blog dealt with the complex state of federal contributions to supplement local insurance, mainly through FEMA. Recent coverage of the increasing impact of climate change focused on the destruction of two relatively small towns: Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii, destroyed by uncontrolled wildfire, and Derna in Libya, destroyed by an uncontrolled flood that was amplified by the destruction of two ill-maintained dams. The Lahaina destruction resulted in the death of about 100 people while that in Libya resulted in the death of thousands. Lahaina is in the US and expecting help from the US federal government. Derna is not in the US and the Libyan government is basically nonexistent. Both stories disappeared from the news after only a few days. The survivors from Lahaina will slowly try to recuperate with the help of local and federal funds. What will the survivors of Derna do?

Obviously, Derna and Libya are not alone. Recently, the NYT published an article on the difficulties that most developing countries face in trying to adapt to the increased threats of climate change. The article’s emphasis was on the situation in Ghana, with the full realization that it is common to most developing countries. Below is the most general citation from that article:

            Crisis and Bailout: The Tortuous Cycle Stalking Nations in Debt

The debt load for developing countries — now estimated to top $200 billion — threatens to upend economies and unravel painstaking gains in education, health care and incomes. But poor and low-income countries have struggled to gain sustained international attention. In Ghana, the I.M.F. laid out a detailed rescue plan to get the country back on its feet — reining in debt and spending, raising revenue and protecting the poorest — as Accra negotiates with foreign creditors.

Still, a nagging question for Ghana and other emerging nations in debt persists: Why will this time be any different?

The latest rescue plan outlined for Ghana addresses key problems, said Tsidi M. Tsikata, a senior fellow at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Accra. But so did many of the previous ones, he said, and still crises recurred.

The last time Ghana turned to the fund was in 2015. Within three years, the country was on its way to paying back the loan, and was among the world’s fastest-growing economies. Ghana was held up as a model for the rest of Africa.

Details about the global debt situation are shown in Figure 1.

Bar graph of debt by country, divided into government, household, and corporate sectors

Figure 1 – Total debt by country  (Source: Seeking Alpha)

On the scale of Figure 1, it seems that there is not much difference between rich and poor in terms of the ratio between the various debt forms and the GDP of the countries (a factor slightly greater than 2 between the largest debt ratio, Japan, and the smallest one, Brazil). However, one important factor is missing in the figure – the strength of the currencies of the various players. If a disaster strikes the United States, (issues with inflation aside) the US can just print more money to satisfy immediate needs. Brazil and other developing countries cannot do the same.

Figures 2 and 3 show two important factors in play that should convince rich countries to help poor countries face the destructive impacts of climate change.

Figure 2 shows the cumulative global contributions to carbon emissions, the main driver of today’s changes in atmospheric chemistry, and therefore the main culprit for accelerating climate change. The two leading contributors to this accumulation are the US and the European Union.

Data graphic "Who has contributed most to global CO2 emissions" by country

Figure 2 – Cumulative global contributions to carbon emissions (Source: Our World in Data)

Infographic of "Share of Energy Consumption by Fuel in 2022." Lists each country, separated into use of coal, oil, gas, and other

Figure 3 – Share of energy consumption by fuel (Source: Visual Capitalist)

Global players such as the UN do not have the effective enforcement power required for reparations. Figure 3 shows the energy/fuel consumption of fuels for a list of countries and blocks of countries that roughly correspond to the G20 country collections. The largest coal consumers are developing countries (South Africa, China, India, etc.). The atmosphere is global and carbon dioxide (the most prevalent greenhouse gas) spreads easily throughout. Therefore, a good self-empowering argument can be raised for rich countries to help poor countries in the adaptation and mitigation of climate change. Doing so will actively participate in the global energy transition away from using coal, the most polluting energy source.

The largest threat that is starting to convince rich countries that it is in their self-interest to help developing countries confront climate change, comes from the unavoidable results of failure. This is also transparent in the fate of Libyan survivors of the deadly floods in Derna. The threat is the uncontrolled increase in environmental refugees who feel that their livelihoods and even lives are being destroyed. They find their countries unable to confront the destruction, forcing them to try to search for shelter in countries with better chances of confronting the danger.

I wrote about this issue in previous blogs (see April 3, 2018) and every semester I show my students a film about the issue made by the American army (The Age of Consequences) that shows that the border security of the rich countries is threatened by an increasingly large number of people who feel no longer safe in their own country.

For the first time, last year, in the COP27 global climate meeting, this issue took center stage (see November 22, 2022 blog). It is a certainty that this issue will be central in the coming COP28 conference in the United Arab Emirates.

There are two international organizations that have it in their charters to help developing countries confront global economic threats, these are the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The next blog will focus on these organizations.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change | 3 Comments

Federal Assistance for Disasters

Last week’s blog was focused on the observations that private insurance companies are now running away from insuring for natural disasters, mainly because they lose money in this business. It was mentioned there that Florida, having its share of these disasters, confronted this issue by spreading the burden among all its citizens, instituting what some call a “hurricane tax.” This blog is trying to address the issue of the role of the federal government in insuring against disasters.

As was mentioned in last week’s blog, we are now seeing an acceleration in both the frequency and costs of such disasters:

By NOAA’s tally, the events so far this year have caused 253 direct and indirect fatalities and produced more than $57.6 billion in damage — a figure that probably will rise as officials continue to document losses from Tropical Storm Hilary in Southern California and drought that persisted across parts of the Midwest and South.

The acceleration is not confined to the US. The largest recent impact was probably observed in Libya, where the Mediterranean storm Daniel almost wiped out the eastern Libyan city of Derma (125,000 inhabitants). By the time I wrote this blog on Friday, the number of deaths in Libya exceeded 10,000, with many still missing:

Spokesperson of the interior ministry Lieutenant Tarek al-Kharraz on Wednesday told the AFP news agency that 3,840 deaths had been recorded in the Mediterranean city so far, including 3,190 who have already been buried. Among them were at least 400 foreigners, mostly from Sudan and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya, told the Reuters news agency more than 5,300 dead had been counted so far, and said the number was likely to increase significantly and might even double.

Derna Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television the estimated number of deaths in the city could reach between 18,000 to 20,000 based on the number of districts destroyed by the flood.

In the US, the federal responsibility for providing support rests on the shoulders of FEMA (Federal Emergency Administration Agency). Below is some background from Wikipedia that summarizes the role and history of this agency:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), initially created under President Jimmy Carter by Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 and implemented by two Executive Orders on April 1, 1979.[1] The agency’s primary purpose is to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the United States and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. The governor of the state in which the disaster occurs must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the President that FEMA and the federal government respond to the disaster. The only exception to the state’s gubernatorial declaration requirement occurs when an emergency or disaster takes place on federal property or to a federal asset—for example, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, or the Space Shuttle Columbia in the 2003 return-flight disaster.

While on-the-ground support of disaster recovery efforts is a major part of FEMA’s charter, the agency provides state and local governments with experts in specialized fields, funding for rebuilding efforts, and relief funds for infrastructure development by directing individuals to access low-interest loans, in conjunction with the Small Business Administration. In addition to this, FEMA provides funds for response personnel training throughout the United States as part of the agency’s preparedness effort.

In a recent series of reviews, the Brookings Institute examined the effectiveness of FEMA, concluding with some suggestions for improvements. Below, I will focus on the second and third of these posts. The second post focuses on the extent of the current working of FEMA. The present dynamics are shown in Figure 1 and the recent history of the support that went through FEMA is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1 – The FEMA process (Source: Brookings Institute)

Figure 2 – Recent history of disaster funding in the US (CDBG-DR- Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery) (Source: Brookings Institute)

The third post shows the complexities of the present system and ends with some suggestions for improvements. Figure 3 shows the details of these complexities:

The current federal disaster management structure is labyrinthian: Five “mission area frameworks” spread across 32 “core capabilities” that involve dozens of federal programs in multiple cabinet and non-cabinet agencies, each with its own support function and coordinating role.

On the FEMA website, the five planning frameworks mentioned above are: prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and disaster recovery.

Figure 3 – the many federal entities involved in disaster funding

Some of the reasons for these complexities are summarized below:

There are many reasons for this complicated structure. First, each program’s remit is defined in statute, and incremental reforms and layering of processes have resulted in a behemoth of bureaucracy. For example, CDBG-DR is defined by the statutes associated with the 1974 CDBG program for urban development projects—not disaster recovery. The role and mission of each agency is defined by Congress, working through multiple legislative subcommittees that handle authorization, oversight, and appropriations. Generally, the programs were not defined with a holistic vision for federal disaster policy, let alone an integrated knowledge of the implementation challenges associated with each federal function relevant to disasters.

Political instabilities are primary triggers for government inabilities to help with any kind of disaster, additionally accelerating damage by failing to mitigate or adapt to probable future disasters. This is true not only for countries with their own federal structures but also internationally, when disasters strike poor countries that have serious difficulties helping themselves. This is visible in the latest disaster in Libya, where animosities between the country’s eastern, military government and western, internationally recognized government, have frozen the county for the last 10 years, preventing maintenance and ultimately leading to the collapse of the two dams. The ensuing floods were largely responsible for the destruction of Derma and the resulting deaths of thousands.

In the US, a similar political contest is now threatening to freeze government funding:

The new fiscal year (FY) begins on October 1, 2023, and Congress has so far enacted none of the 12 appropriations bills setting discretionary spending levels. Lawmakers have until midnight on the final day of the fiscal year – September 30 – to enact legislation to fund the programs covered by the appropriations process, or the government will shut down. A continuing resolution (CR) to allow lawmakers more time to complete work on spending bills is likely to be considered. A shutdown in FY 2024 would affect all federal activities covered by discretionary appropriations, as opposed to the most recent FY 2019 shutdown that began in late 2018 and extended into early 2019 that affected only departments and agencies covered by the seven appropriations bills that Congress had not yet enacted.

The funding freeze will put a stop to supplemental financing of FEMA. That will prevent the agency from helping with recent disaster areas in Hawaii and Florida, as well as stopping any help to Libya, Morocco, Ukraine, and whatever comes next.

Posted in Climate Change, Extreme Weather, politics, Sustainability | 3 Comments

The Future of Insurance

(Source: Accomsure)

The last two blogs focused on the money that we need to spend now to try to mitigate the increasing impacts of climate change on all of us. The example that I used was the recent devastating impacts of the fires in Maui, Hawaii, and the factors that could have lessened the damage, namely: water availability and burying power lines. In the meantime, hurricane Idalia hit Florida hard and hurricane Lee strengthened in the Atlantic to become a category 5, with a track that includes some probability that it will hit my home (NYC).

At the same time, I got an email from a reader (Erika Reid) of my recent blogs, asking me to focus on insurance policies. I responded that this was exactly my plan. It turns out that she is an “influencer” for considering the impacts of disasters on insurance companies. Below is a brief excerpt of what her site has to say about the impact of climate change. I emphasized the most dramatic sentence because it illustrates just how big the effects of the problem are:

As the effects of climate change have worsened, insurance companies have responded by increasing the cost of coverage — or pulling out of markets entirely. Farmers Insurance, the nation’s seventh largest auto coverage provider, announced in July that it will no longer offer policies in Florida. The insurer cited the financial risk of hurricanes as a significant reason. Farmers’ decision affects roughly 100,000 people, according to CNN.

As the warming climate exacerbates wildfires, floods and other natural disasters, car insurance companies are likely to see a greater number of comprehensive claims. Car insurance will get even more expensive, and more companies may follow Farmers’ lead. The insurance providers that remain on the market would have an incentive to charge more in higher-risk areas.

“Unless we have more auto insurers competing, the general auto insurance premiums will stay higher for a long time,” Yao said.

I wrote about the impacts of climate change on insurance policies in previous blogs. Put “insurance” into the search box and you will get several entries. One example is titled “We Are Not Prophets II – Back to Deniers and Skeptics and Forward to Insurance(August 20, 2012). I opened that blog with a citation from my book that applies just as well today as it did more than 10 years ago:

Can we insure the survival of the planet as a habitable environment? If the answer is yes, then who will pay the premium?  If climate-change is just a big catastrophic event, then the mechanism of financial preparation should not be much different than the insurance of present catastrophic events. The trouble is that we are not very good at insuring catastrophic events. The present situation of flood insurance is a good example. In the United Kingdom, flood insurance is provided by private insurance, but in the United States it comes through a federally backed insurance system. In France and Spain flood insurance is bundled with other natural perils into a national pooling arrangement, and in Holland it is completely unavailable. The insurance industry is heavily involved in the debate on climate change. “Climate Change is a clear business opportunity for the insurance industry,” declared Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, at the Geneva Association meeting in Kyoto on 29 May 2009 [The Geneva Reports,, “The Insurance Industry and Climate Change – Contributions to the Global Debate”, No. 2, July 2009].

This is what is happening today:

From devastating hurricanes and wildfires to catastrophic floods and tornadoes, natural disasters are increasing in frequency and cost. According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), over the past ten years, 152 disasters caused at least $1 billion dollars of damage per occurrence. This puts the total cost of billion-dollar disasters to more than $1.1 trillion over the past ten years. Climate change plays a major role in the frequency and intensity of severe weather. In addition to factors like insufficient building codes, increased population in vulnerable areas and inflation, the death tolls and financial cost of extreme storms may continue to rise every year. Homeowners bear the brunt of the financial burden and need to have adequate insurance coverage or risk paying out of pocket to rebuild their homes.

Major insurers say they will stop covering damage caused by hurricanes, wind, and hail for property along coastlines and in wildfire country. Again, I have emphasized the sentences that describe the biggest impacts:

In the aftermath of extreme weather events, major insurers are increasingly no longer offering coverage that homeowners in areas vulnerable to those disasters need most.

At least five large U.S. property insurers — including Allstate, American Family, Nationwide, Erie Insurance Group and Berkshire Hathaway — have told regulators that extreme weather patterns caused by climate change have led them to stop writing coverages in some regions, exclude protections from various weather events and raise monthly premiums and deductibles.

Major insurers say they will cut out damage caused by hurricanes, wind and hail from policies underwriting property along coastlines and in wildfire country, according to a voluntary survey conducted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a group of state officials who regulate rates and policy forms.

Insurance providers are also more willing to drop existing policies in some locales as they become more vulnerable to natural disasters. Most home insurance coverages are annual terms, so providers are not bound to them for more than one year.

Examples of this year’s impacts on states and companies can be found below :

What’s driving this upheaval? Climate change. Extreme weather, including devastating California wildfires and costly Gulf coast hurricanes, are forcing insurers to reassess their risk tolerance.

And many are simply deciding the increased risk of extreme weather combined with rising construction costs due to inflation make offering insurance in at least some locations untenable.

The problem isn’t confined just to coastal areas of the country. As Steve Bowen, chief science officer at global reinsurance broker Gallagher Re told Axios last month, “this is a 50-state problem as insurers are being forced to re-assess their risk tolerance as climate change leads to more common and severe extreme weather events.

Believe it or not, we could be facing a future where certain parts of the country are literally uninsurable or where insurance is affordable only for the wealthy.

This last sentence summarizes the issue. Many of the worsening impacts of climate change are taking place in Republican-governed states in the Southeast US such as Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas. Florida is compensating for the destructive impacts of hurricanes with what some of the media call a “hurricane tax”:

In Florida, it won’t just be those with homes and businesses hit directly by Hurricane Idalia who might be stuck picking up the pieces. Thanks to a broken home insurance market, a particularly bad hurricane could spread financial fallout throughout the state, leaving residents from Pensacola to Key West stuck paying repair bills for years.

Beset by hurricanes made more severe and more frequent by climate change, as well as rampant fraud and tides of frivolous lawsuits, dozens of insurers in the state have closed up shop or stopped selling new home insurance policies in the state in recent years. (Farmers became the most recent big insurer to pull out of the state last month). Residents have increasingly turned to Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, a public entity established by the Florida government as the state’s so-called “insurer of last resort” for people unable to find affordable rates from private insurers. For more and more residents, though, Citizens is becoming the first and only option, especially for those with coastal homes at particular risk from hurricanes. In 2019, Citizens had about 400,000 home insurance policies on its books; today, it has more than 1.3 million, about twice as many as the state’s next-largest insurer.

Yet, the Republican governors of these states and the Republican party still refuse to acknowledge our collective culpability and our ability to mitigate future climate change-driven disasters. One example of this reasoning is a fictional scenario outlined in the WSJ. They refuse to acknowledge that human culpability does not manifest itself in the variability of the weather (hot vs. cold) but, instead, by amplifying the frequency and intensity of extreme events. It’s the victims of these events who need insurance.

The next blog will focus on the role of the federal government in mitigating the impacts of climate disasters.

Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Utility Pricing: We Will All Have to Pay More

Figure 1 – Above-ground high-power lines in the Netherlands

Below, I’m including two short paragraphs from an earlier blog (December 10, 2019) about the ignition of the wildfires in California:

Both situations started with tinderbox conditions (whether metaphorical or more physical) PG&E is accused of being the random neutron that set off these large fires. This accusation triggered massive lawsuits that led to a temporary bankruptcy. The company’s remedy was to turn off the lights for massive numbers of its customers.

There was another solution that really should have been implemented long ago: utility companies ought to have buried the electrical wires underground, effectively insulating them from the dry countryside. As usual, the obstacle to this massive undertaking was cost

Almost the same can be written about most wildfires, including the recent one in Maui, Hawaii.

And like in California, the Hawaiian power company (Hawaiian Electric) is trying to fight back—this time by denying responsibility:

Even before the inferno that engulfed the Maui resort of Lahaina is fully contained, local officials and Hawaii’s leading utility are at odds over a fundamental question: Did a single fire break out in the hills overlooking the town on the fateful day, or were there two?

The answer may be crucial to establishing the cause of the disaster and the liability for it.

The utility, Hawaiian Electric, acknowledged for the first time late Sunday that its power lines, buffeted by uncommonly high winds, fell and ignited a fire early on the morning of Aug. 8.

But the company said that by 6:40 a.m. — minutes after the first reports of a fire — the windstorm had caused its lines in the area to shut off automatically. And it noted that the fire was later reported “100 percent contained” by the Maui County Department of Fire and Public Safety, which left the scene and later declared that the fire had been “extinguished.”

On the open forum site Quora, Avadhesh Khanna answered the question of, “Which country doesn’t have overhead transmission line system?” While his English grammar is not great, his comment contains relevant, important, details about powerlines:  

First of all, question is very generic one. Let me eleborate! There are basically two part of power transmission. One major transmission from source/grid/large sub station to small sub station & industries (HV/MV) and second is ‘distribution’ to household blocks (LV). In former one, they need to have overhead transmission line because cost of underground cables is very high and getting insulation of that voltage and doing construction is not very economical.

Whereas in later case, low voltage distribution is required for house blocks. As human safety is very important, so rich countries like US, England can afford to put underground cables for later case (underground cabling is always costlier than overhead). But developing countries like India cannot afford to have underground cable, so they prefer overhead transmission, human safety is compromised.

In nutshell, no country is having absolute overhead or underground cable. It’s hybrid!

Now a days, developing countris are moving towards underground for houses/blocks but HV transmission is still overhead.

It’s majorly about money !

The general issue of undergrounding, or burying power lines, is summarized on Wikipedia. I have emphasized the issues of cost, as listed under Disadvantages:

In civil engineeringundergrounding is the replacement of overhead cables providing electrical power or telecommunications, with underground cables. It helps in wildfire prevention and in making the power lines less susceptible to outages during high winds, thunderstorms or heavy snow or ice storms. An added benefit of undergrounding is the aesthetic quality of the landscape without the powerlines. Undergrounding can increase the capital cost of electric power transmission and distribution but may decrease operating costs over the lifetime of the cables.


  • Less subject to damage from severe weather conditions (mainly lightning, hurricanes/cyclones/typhoons, tornados, other winds, and freezing)
  • Decreased risk of fire. Overhead power lines can draw high fault currents from vegetation-to-conductor, conductor-to-conductor, or conductor-to-ground contact, which result in large, hot arcs.[2]
  • Reduced range of electromagnetic fields(EMF) emission, into the surrounding area. However, depending on the depth of the underground cable; greater EMF may be experienced on the surface.[3] The electric current in the cable conductor produces a magnetic field, but the closer grouping of underground power cables reduces the resultant external magnetic field and further magnetic shielding may be provided. See Electromagnetic radiation and health.
  • Underground cables need a narrower surrounding strip of about 1–10 meters to install (up to 30 m for 400 kV cables during construction), whereas an overhead line requires a surrounding strip of about 20–200 meters wide to be kept permanently clear for safety, maintenance and repair.
  • Underground cables pose no hazard to low-flying aircraft or to wildlife.

Underground cables have a much reduced risk of damage caused by human activity


An underground cable marker. Markers are put at regular intervals to show the route and warn of the hazard of digging into the cable.

  • Undergrounding is more expensive, since the cost of burying cables at transmission voltages is several times greater than overhead power lines, and the life-cycle cost of an underground power cable is two to four times the cost of an overhead power line. Above-ground lines cost around $10 per 1-foot (0.30 m) and underground lines cost in the range of $20 to $40 per 1-foot (0.30 m).[9]In highly urbanized areas, the cost of underground transmission can be 10–14 times as expensive as overhead.[10] However, these calculations may neglect the cost of power interruptions. The lifetime cost difference is smaller for lower-voltage distribution networks, on the range of 12-28% higher than overhead lines of equivalent voltage.[11]
  • Whereas finding and repairing overhead wire breaks can be accomplished in hours, underground repairs can take days or weeks,[12]and for this reason redundant lines are run.
  • Underground cable locations are not always obvious, which can lead to unwary diggers damaging cables or being electrocuted.
  • Operations are more difficult since the high reactive power of underground cables produces large charging currents and so makes voltage control more difficult. Large charging currents arise due to the higher capacitance from underground power lines and thus limits how long an AC line can be. In order to avoid the capacitance issues when undergrounding long distance transmission lines, HVDC lines can be used as they do not suffer from the same issue.[13]
  • Whereas overhead lines can easily be uprated by modifying line clearances and power poles to carry more power, underground cables cannot be uprated and must be supplemented or replaced to increase capacity. Transmission and distribution companies generally future-proof underground lines by installing the highest-rated cables while being still cost-effective.
  • Underground cables are more subject to damage by ground movement. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand caused damage to 360 kilometres (220 mi) of high voltage underground cables and subsequently cut power to large parts of Christchurch city, whereas only a few kilometres of overhead lines were damaged, largely due to pole foundations being compromised by liquefaction.
  • As underground repair and check up require street digging, it creates patches and potholes, leading to bumpy and unsafe ride for cars and bicycles. Utility work also increase lane closure which leads to the traffic jam and increasing cost of resurfacing work by the local government.[14][15]

The advantages can in some cases outweigh the disadvantages of the higher investment cost, and more expensive maintenance and management.

International abundance (Same Wikipedia site)

All low and medium voltage electrical power (<50 kV) in the Netherlands is now supplied underground.

In Germany, 73% of the medium voltage cables are underground and 87% of low voltage cables are underground. The high percentage of underground cables contributes to the very high grid reliability (SAIDI < 20).[19] In comparison, the SAIDI value (minutes without electricity per year) in the Netherlands is about 30, and in the UK it is about 70.

Most electrical power in Japan is still distributed by aerial cables. In Tokyo’s 23 wards, according to Japan’s Construction and Transport Ministry, just 7.3 percent of cables were laid underground as of March 2008.

Wikipedia also includes a detailed list of such underground and submarine cables.

In most cases, the main disadvantage is the price. The price difference between keeping the transmission lines overground and burying them underground is shown in Figure 2.

As shown in the California case (temporary bankruptcy after one charge of igniting a major wildfire) and the expected charges in Hawaii, the inclusion of expected damage from hanging wires will probably change the accounting.

Figure 2 – Transmission cost (cost per kilometer length as a function of maximum current in Ampheres) (Source: Power Grid International)


Posted in Climate Change, Electricity | 1 Comment

Water Pricing: We Will All Have to Pay More

Figure 1 – The price of water in some of the world’s largest cities (Source: Municipal water utilities, Oxford Analytica)

Figure 1, above, shows what seems to be the random distribution of the price of water in some of the largest cities from developed, developing, and intermediate-income countries. All of these cities are either located on the shore of an ocean or surround a large river that is directly connected to an ocean. Yet, the water pricing that its citizens enjoy seems random.

The most devastating disaster many of us are focusing on these days is the August 8th, climate-related wildfire destruction of Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii. As of yesterday, the death toll had reached 115, with 388 still unaccounted for. The sorrow is now being converted into anger that the destruction was a consequence of a predictable disaster that we have no idea how to handle. As one NYT article put it, “Maui Knew Dangerous Wildfires Had Become Inevitable. It Still Wasn’t Ready.” Furthermore, many of us think that now, this kind of disaster can happen everywhere, and we’d better take some lessons from it to minimize the impact.

The Maui disaster comes in the midst of record-breaking global heatwaves that the NYT describes in the following way (Extreme Weather Hits Around the World as Global Temperatures Rise):

Not all of the extreme weather events can be immediately attributed to climate change. But they reflect the hazards that much of the world needs to prepare for as El Niño, a natural weather pattern that can play out over several years, aggravates the weather extremes fueled by the burning of fossil fuels.

My “cherry-picked” comment is to emphasize the words “immediately attributed.” I will expand on this in a future blog. I will also try to expand in a future blog on what we know about the anthropogenic (human-caused) impacts of El Niño.

Two of my favorite reporters from The New York Times comment on these developments, and others, in their recent dialogue (Opinion: These Aren’t the Darkest Years in American History, but They Are Among the Weirdest). Their emphasis, like most of the rest of the press and the social networks, is on the accumulating issues with ex-president Trump and his wishes to be president again. But before going there, they start with their take on Maui and Lahaina. I have “cherry-picked” a few paragraphs from their dialogue:

Gail Collins: Maui is going to be hard for any of us to forget. Or, in some cases, forgive. There are certainly a heck of a lot of serious questions about whether the folks who were supposed to be responsible did their jobs.

Bret: There’s a story in The Wall Street Journal that made me want to scream. It seems Hawaiian Electric knew four years ago that it needed to do more to keep power lines from emitting sparks, but it invested only $245,000 to try to do something about it. The state and private owners let old dams fall into disrepair and then allowed for them to be destroyed rather than restoring them, leading to less stored water and more dry land. And then there was the emergency chief who decided not to sound warning sirens. At least he had the good sense to resign.

Gail: But let’s look at the way bigger issue, Bret. The weather’s been awful in all sorts of scary ways this summer, all around the planet. Pretty clear it’s because of global warming. You ready to rally around a big push toward environmental revolution?

Bret: I’m opposed on principle to all big revolutions, Gail, beginning with the French. But I am in favor of 10,000 evolutions to deal with the climate. In Maui’s case, a push for more solar power plus reforestation of grasslands could have made a difference in managing the fire. I also think simple solutions can do a lot to help — like getting the federal government to finance states and utilities to cover the costs of burying power lines.

Gail: Yep. Plus some more effortful projects to address climate change, like President Biden’s crusade to promote electric cars and an evolution away from coal and oil for heat.

Bret: The more I read about the vast mineral inputs for electric cars — about 900 pounds of nickel, aluminum, cobalt and other minerals per car battery — the more I wonder about their wisdom. If you don’t believe me, just read Mr. Bean! (Or at least Rowan Atkinson, who studied electrical engineering at Oxford before his career took a … turn.) He made a solid environmental case in The Guardian for keeping your old gas-burning car instead of switching to electric. But I’m a big believer in adopting next-gen nuclear power to produce a larger share of our electric power needs. And I’m with you on moving away from coal.

The unfortunate thing about both reporters waving their favorite remedies for climate change is that those have very little to do with the direct consequences of what happened in Lahaina and other similar impacts of the destructive forces that climate change brings us. When a disaster like this strikes, an often immediate reaction is to search for culprits to blame. Hanging wires from electric utilities are common candidates (see the situations in destructive fires in California (November 26, 2019). In Maui, it got worse because the fire hydrants turned out to be dry – there was no water to fight the flames. It turns out that this situation had been predicted and could have been remedied by creating water storage facilities to be reserved for that purpose as insurance. This was not done because of fear that it would impact agriculture.

Water stress and hanging utility wires have become connected to the loss of control of wildfires. To make sure that such issues are not repeated, we will all need to pay more for both utilities. This blog focuses on water. Next week’s blog will focus on hanging wires.

I addressed climate-change-triggered water stress in earlier blogs, emphasizing the local aspect of water stress. After all, in a world where 70% of the surface is covered by oceans, we cannot claim to be lacking water (reminder – Maui and all Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean). What we can have is stress related to freshwater availability and the shifts and changes in intensity of the water cycle.

Here, in the context of the water issues in Maui, I will focus on the important role that agriculture plays in water use and how the pricing of water varies across the planet.

Figure 2 shows global water use by sector. Agriculture is in the lead. However, the percentage of water use in agriculture is not equally distributed.

Figure 2 – Global water use by sector (Source: OECD)

Figure 3 shows the global distribution. Developing countries bear most of the heaviest use. A good place to start revisiting the issue is in the March 4, 2014 blog, where I describe the holistic effort that Israel is putting into addressing the issue.

Figure 3 – Agricultural share of water withdrawals, 2019 (Source: Our World in Data)

The Israeli effort is focused on recycling water locally and desalination of sea water. These processes cost money and access to sea water. Hawaii is a state of the US, the largest rich country in the world, surrounded by the water of the Pacific Ocean. If one of our states could not be prepared for such water stress, who could? Figure 4 shows that a significant fraction of the world is desperately lacking access to safe water.


Figure 4 – Global access to safe water (Source: Circle of Blue)

In an earlier blog (July 4, 2023), I showed what another state in the US, Arizona, is doing to prepare: it’s coming to an agreement with Mexico and Israel to construct a desalination plant in Mexico. The idea is to serve Arizona and limit new construction in selected areas until the water situation improves. The poor countries, such as those in Africa, don’t have that option. If the rich countries refuse to help them secure access to safe water, they may refuse to cooperate in climate change mitigation. This could mean refusing to cooperate in global efforts to lessen the probability that what just happened to Lahaina will engulf the whole planet.

Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Back to Cherry-Picking and Political Feedback

In the last few blogs, I was busy summarizing our trip to Australia. It’s time to return to the real world.  The dominating features in the news are the various legal issues of ex-president Trump and his acolytes and the devastating wildfires in Maui that destroyed Lahaina. More than 100 people have been reported dead  and around 1,000 are still missing, so it is predicted that the number of fatalities is going to increase substantially. As strange as it seems, the two issues are related. Also taking place “now” is a series of warnings about the threats of global changes—namely, the anthropogenic (human-caused) changes in the atmospheric chemistry that directly result in temperature increase:

Weeks of scorching summer heat in North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere are putting July on track to be Earth’s warmest month on record, the European Union climate monitor said on Thursday, the latest milestone in what is emerging as an extraordinary year for global temperatures.

Last month, the planet experienced its hottest June since records began in 1850. July 6 was its hottest day. And the odds are rising that 2023 will end up displacing 2016 as the hottest year. At the moment, the eight warmest years on the books are the past eight.

“The extreme weather which has affected many millions of people in July is unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future,” Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement. “The need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is more urgent than ever before.”

It’s hot almost everywhere and the symptoms are predictable. I will return to these in greater length in future blogs. Below is a short list:

Sea ice is melting at an accelerated pace around Antarctica and Greenland. This is bound to accelerate land ice melting in these locations. Both factors are predicted to accelerate global sea level rise.

More than 90% of the increase in solar heat is absorbed by the Earth’s oceans. This means that ocean temperatures are also rising at an accelerated pace, as can be seen in Figure 1. The extra heat is sure to accelerate extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes and prolong the impact of climate change even after we have control of greenhouse gases.

Figure 1 – Ocean temperatures by year (Source: ERA5, C3S/ECMWF via BBC)

This rise in water temperature and influx of fresh water is causing a major decrease in ocean currents, which will have a strong impact on global heat flow. That, in turn, will have a strong impact on global weather.

As we will see below, considerable progress has been made in mitigating and adapting to the anthropogenic forces that trigger devastating consequences of climate change. Even so, all of that progress can be reversed through a change of governments. One concrete example from the US is sufficient to demonstrate the risk:

During a summer of scorching heat that has broken records and forced Americans to confront the reality of climate change, conservatives are laying the groundwork for a future Republican administration that would dismantle efforts to slow global warming.

The move is part of a sweeping strategy dubbed Project 2025 that Paul Dans of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank organizing the effort, has called a “battle plan” for the first 180 days of a future Republican presidency.

The climate and energy provisions would be among the most severe swings away from current federal policies.

The plan calls for shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, oil and gas wells and power plants, dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels — the burning of which is the chief cause of planetary warming.

However, our new era “enjoys” an avalanche of communication. It is up to us to pick and choose. None of us has the time or interest to follow all the available news. What we often tend to follow are sources that fit our worldview. If we are living in democratic countries in which periodically, we choose our governments, we likely cherry-pick information that strengthens our worldview and justifies our preconceived priorities. This practice provides a positive feedback loop iiiand serves to strengthen our polarization. A good example of all of this took place on the morning of Sunday, August 12th.

I was still busy with the blogs that summarized our Australian trip. However, when we are home, our routine for Sunday morning is to read the New York Times, followed by breakfast. On Sunday, the paper usually arrives a bit late, so we often supplement it with the digital edition on our iPads. On August 12th, I saw in the digital edition of the NYT a large survey of the status of our energy transition, summarized in three articles. Each article was introduced in the following way:

This is the first article in a three-part series examining the speedchallenges and politics of the American economy moving toward clean energy.   Aug 16, 2023

It mentions August 16, 2023 with no explanation.

This series was clearly “bread and butter” for me, and for this blog, but not necessarily for everybody else, my wife included. Below are the “cherry-picked” citations that give the essence of the three articles:

Energy Transition: Speed

“We look at energy data on a daily basis, and it’s astonishing what’s happening,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency. “Clean energy is moving faster than many people think, and it’s become turbocharged lately.”

More than $1.7 trillion worldwide is expected to be invested in technologies such as wind, solar power, electric vehicles and batteries globally this year, according to the I.E.A., compared with just over $1 trillion in fossil fuels. That is by far the most ever spent on clean energy in a year.

Those investments are driving explosive growth. China, which already leads the world in the sheer amount of electricity produced by wind and solar power, is expected to double its capacity by 2025, five years ahead of schedule. In Britain, roughly one-third of electricity is generated by wind, solar and hydropower. And in the United States, 23 percent of electricity is expected to come from renewable sources this year, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

Figure 2 – The rate of solar and wind power adaptation in the three most populous countries and the EU (Source: The Energy Institute’s 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy via The New York Times)

Energy Transition: Challenges

One key to harnessing that wind lies at the end of a causeway jutting into the bay, on a mostly undeveloped island where eagles fish offshore and people walk in the quiet shade. Many officials see this spot, known as Sears Island, as the ideal site to build and launch a flotilla of turbines that could significantly lessen Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Standing in their way are environmental groups and local residents, all of whom are committed to a clean energy future and worried about the rapid warming of the earth. Still, they want the state to pick a different site for its so-called wind port, citing the tranquility of Sears Island and its popularity and accessibility as a recreation destination.

On a recent summer morning one conservationist against the plan, Scott Dickerson, sat on a picnic bench and predicted environmental groups would sue to thwart development of the island, as they had many times in the past.

“And that, as you can imagine, is going to run the clock,” he said, costing the state valuable time that could be saved by looking elsewhere.

The NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality has never left us and it is completely bipartisan (See my August 27, 2012 blog).

Energy Transition: Politics

In conversations with activists, policymakers, and corporate executives, it becomes clear that a save-the-planet argument doesn’t go very far. Most people won’t buy green technology unless it will clearly save them money and wows them with stunning designs or jaw-dropping performance.

Many, conservatives in particular, chafe at the prospect of the government forcing them to buy electric cars or ditch their natural gas appliances, polls show. That’s perhaps why those pitching the technology often avoid mentioning climate change. They emulate evangelists who don’t lead with Jesus when trying to win over nonbelievers.

The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Democrats last year allocated hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives for wind and solar manufacturing, electric vehicles, and other clean energy.

Although no Republicans voted for the bill, much of the money has gone to G.O.P.-led states in the South where many automakers, battery manufacturers and solar companies are building factories in part to take advantage of the law’s tax breaks.

Getting credit for the new jobs is a political imperative for President Biden, who will be seeking re-election next year. That helps explain why his energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, spent part of July traversing the Southeast in a caravan of electric vehicles.

Among residents benefiting from the economic boost, attitudes may be softening. Outside Dalton, Ga., Qcells, a maker of solar panels, is planning to expand a manufacturing plant. The factory is in the congressional district represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who has called fossil fuels “amazing” and climate change a “scam.”

William Turner, 49, one of Ms. Greene’s constituents, said he didn’t “really buy into that stuff” about global warming. But he added, “I don’t have anything against solar, especially if it’s creating jobs.”

My wife didn’t start with the digital version but waited for the printed version. I doubted that she would read all three articles but was curious to find out if she would read any and if so, which one she would choose. Well, the answer was simple – the series didn’t show up on the printed version. I thought, well, maybe the mysterious “August 16” written after the introduction could mean that the printed version would include the articles on the 16th. It didn’t. Aside from the August 12th digital version, I have yet to see it anywhere.*

A sort of “revisit” of the energy transition series showed up in the August 18th printed edition of the NYT in the “The Story Behind the Story” section written by David Gelles.

*I generally write these posts ahead of time. After writing about the missing articles above, they finally appeared as a full supplement in the printed version that showed up this past Saturday. My wife and I were able to see it only on Sunday because we were traveling away from home. I mention to my wife what I had written in the blog and asked her the same questions I had planned on asking her originally. Her response was that she “scanned” all three.

This gave me another idea about how to quantify “cherry-picking” of a larger, more complex, reality: every weekend the NYT comes out with a quiz. Both my wife and I usually try to solve the multiple-choice quizzes. If we are doing well, we brag; if we are not doing so well, we keep quiet. They generally cover a few explanatory articles. It will be interesting to take such a quiz on a single complex issue with political implications. From this exercise, I will try to quantify the informational cherry-picking and thus contribute to our understanding of polarized attitudes that public information can address.

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