Category Archives: Climate Change

Off to Extinction Rebellion

This is probably one of my shortest posts. It’s just a video I did in my hotel room before heading off to join Extinction Rebellion in London. Apologies, the video can best be described as raw. I did it at speed, unscripted and unpractised.

Given there are now thousands of XR supporters volunteering to get arrested in the UK, I never got a chance to be arrested that October Monday  (need to get in the queue these days: what a difference Extinction Rebellion has made!).

Anyway, I hope this video conveys the nervousness I felt that morning, but also my passion and determination. I was brought up to always defer to the police, so getting arrested is a big thing for me: I don’t take it lightly.

 

Climate Change: Extinction Rebellion and the Language of the Apocalypse (Part 2: A Real Extinction Threat?)

In my previous post, I started to look at the apocalyptic language used by the climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). I criticised two fact-checking entities, a fact-checking programme hosted by the BBC called More or Less and a fact-checking web site called Climate Feedback, for misrepresenting some of the statements made by one of the founders of XR.

Both of these entities discredited the co-founder of XR, Roger Hallam, through reframing his statements into something very difficult to defend; that is, they misrepresented him as saying that, if we continue on our current CO2 emission trajectory, the planet’s human carrying capacity will  fall from around 7.5 billion today to one billion by the end of the century. In reality, Roger said we “could” see a world with only one billion if we continue with a policy of ‘business as usual’ for fossil fuel.

The death of over six billion is something I would label as an ‘existential’ risk: the risk of a precipitous drop in the planet’s human population leading to the potential collapse of the political, economic and technological structures that come under the broad heading of ‘human civilisation’. So not everyone will die, but a lot will, and the minority that survive will live an impoverished lifestyle that negatively impacts on their well-being.

So what is needed to get us there? In the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less, one potential trajectory to such a world was given by the presenter Tim Harford:

Extinction Rebellion provided links to articles and speeches by three scientists. None of them mentioned six billion deaths. One of them, a German atmospheric physicist called Hans Schellnhuber, did say that if we have had unlimited global warming, of eight degrees warming, may be the carrying capacity of the earth would go down to just one billion…..

….. But eight degrees of warming is very much a worst case scenario. It’s well above the range discussed in mainstream forecasts of global warming. In the last a hundred and fifty years, we’ve seen one degree of warming.

Before I tackle problems relating to the above statements, I would also like to point out that the programme makers don’t really do justice to Schellnhuber’s credentials. He is the founder of a leading climate research institute in Germany, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and has been a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s past assessment reports. He is also the climate change advisor to the European Union Commission,  the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Pope. Check out his Wikipedia page here.

Back to the problems. For a start, if the BBC were going to quote Schellnhuber, why didn’t they ring him up and ask his view on the existential risk posed by climate change? And why do they focus on eight degrees as being extremely unlikely, rather than whether existential risk is extremely unlikely? The claim by Roger Hallam was that an existential risk to humanity is perfectly possible. He makes no claims about the degrees of warming the earth may experience.

So what does Schellnhuber think the chances are of saving our civilisation from the negative impact of climate change? From a December 2018 interview.

First, from three minutes onwards:

Q: You just said about we are in a position where we can manage the situation. But on the flip side, what you just said, you are questioning whether civilisation is sustainable. That is a stark difference.

Schellnhuber: If we get it wrong, So if we do the wrong things — policy in economics and psychology, in science — then I think there is a very very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow, but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years. I’m pretty sure.

Q: What sort of time frame would you put on that kind of …?

Schellnhuber: Oh it can happen pretty soon, pretty quickly because you see, if a minor conflict in Syria is sending so many shock waves through migrants, for example, to Europe. So, it’s all about nonlinearity. It’s all about non-linearity stupid.

Then from nine minutes:

Giving up is not an option. Why? I’ll just give you an example. I don’t know, do you have children? If you would have a child. I have a ten years old boy. Let’s assume he has an accident. And the doctor says “OK we might save his life ,if we do this type of surgery, but there is only a five percent chance, otherwise he will die”.

Will you say, “no we don’t do it, we don’t go ahead with the surgery”? Of course you will do it. And so it’s the situation we have now. I think we have more than a five percent chance of succeeding. But it’s definitely less than 50% in my view.

What’s the option? If we have a final chance to save our culture and our civilisation. I’m just compelled to do it.

So Schellnhuber — a leading climate scientist and advisor to the Pope, Angela Merkel and the EU — thinks we have a less than 50% chance of avoiding an existential crisis brought on by climate change and that such a crisis could come quite quickly.

In conclusion, I don’t know if Tim Harford is being knowingly disingenuous in misrepresenting Roger Hallam’s statements and then misrepresenting the scientist that XR quotes; perhaps, rather, this is just sloppy investigative journalism. But the fact is one of world’s leading climate scientists absolutely supports Roger’s view on climate change risk. Surely that is a thing of interest that the programme should have wanted to explore?

Moreover, if we want to ask questions about existential risk, shouldn’t we approach academics who study existential risk? This is actually not a difficult thing to do since the UK is blessed by a number of university departments that study just such risk. Don’t the More or Less team at the BBC have access to this knowledge?

In my next post, I will look at one of those departments: Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and some of the research they produce.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a full-length lecture given by Jochim Schellnhuber at Cambridge University in February 2019. It is a masterclass in the communication of current climate change research and I can highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Change: Extinction Rebellion and the Language of the Apocalypse (Part 1: ‘Will’ versus ‘Could’)

This blog was born of my awakening to the existential threat posed by climate change: in my opinion the “one risk to rule them all”. A 2010 paper by the renowned glaciologist and paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thomson titled “Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options” was an inspiration. In this paper, he wrote:

Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilisation.

It’s been some time since I last posted, and I haven’t done a post on climate for a long while. My last scribbling was part of a series on renewables yet to be finished. Apologies. I was knocked off course in the spring of this year by a young Swedish girl by the name of Greta Thunberg and a ragtag of marvellous misfits who launched a remarkable new movement under the name Extinction Rebellion.

So coming back to post on climate change is coming home. Moreover, there was a reason for avoiding the subject for years: it hurts. Over a period within which I experienced the death of close relatives and divorce, my emotional bandwidth had gone. Climate change is depressing — and best avoided by those who are struggling.

But time has moved on and the bandwidth has been restored. Thus the resolve of Greta Thunberg, and then the force of nature which is Extinction Rebellion, has pushed me back into the fray. I am involved in climate change activism again, and it feels the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, I am also a student of risk and I like to attach numbers to things. The new climate awakening of the last 18 months in Europe has brought with it a whole lexicon of fear: crisis, collapse and catastrophe; emergency and extinction. But what do these things  mean? The philosopher king and queen of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam and Gale Bradbrook, frequently talk in such “end of days” apocalyptic terms.

So the question is whether such predictions are appropriate? And do they reflect science? To tackle this question, I’m going to start by concentrating on the language deployed by Roger Hallam, heard in a string of his YouTube videos (for a recent example see here).

In these videos, Roger starts by explaining the potential for climate-induced doom for the human race and then moves on to state the case for non-violent direct action (NVDA), so forcing government action. His ideas have formed the bedrock philosophy behind Extinction Rebellion (XR), a movement that has come out of nowhere over the last 12 months to become the most successful climate change advocacy group ever.

In April 2019, Roger’s language and learning persuaded thousands of protestors to take to the streets of London and occupy many of its iconic landmarks: Waterloo Bridge,  Oxford Circus,  Marble Arch and Parliament Square. In effect, the UK government ceased to control swathes of the capital for around 10 days.

What was even more stunning was the reaction of the general public. While the XR actions garnered a considerable amount of grumbling and a quite a lot of swearing, they also touched a nerve. The discussion of climate change amongst friends and family has almost become a taboo in the UK, as with almost everywhere else in the world (to see the stats on how often climate change is discussed in the US see here). But the London occupations brought to the surface a growing unease within the population, an unease suggesting something really wasn’t right with the weather, and thus the climate.

In a ComRes opinion poll taken after the April actions, 54% of respondents agreed with the statement “I believe climate change threatens our existence as a species”, a position espoused by XR. Put another way, while the majority of those polled by ComRes didn’t support XR’s actions (26% ‘for’, 32% ‘against’,  43% ‘don’t know’), the consensus now is that climate change is an existential threat.

Almost inevitably, the success of XR has garnered a response from those who don’t want climate change to become an important issue in political debate. The attack has been two-pronged. On the one hand, criticism has been levelled at the so called non-democratic nature of XR in its unwillingness to use traditional poliical channels to effect change. I will leave that issue for another day. On the other hand, a concerted effort has also been made to place XR outside of the scientific climate consensus. Roger and other spokespersons for the movement are portrayed as wild-eyed Cassandras warning about the ‘end of days’. Is such a criticism founded?

To answer that question, let’s start by listening to Roger Hallam in the BBC television programme Hardtalk (if there is a geoblock or time limit preventing your access to this programme, don’t worry as I’ve extracted Roger’s key quotes below):

While the whole programme is worth watching, here is Roger expanding upon catastrophic climate risk. In Roger’s words:

1: “The fact of the matter is, we are facing mass starvation within the next 10 years, social collapse and possible extinction of the human race. It couldn’t be worse.” (from 3:49).

2. “This is the major point Extinction Rebellion is trying to say, is that it is over for this civilisation. The reason it’s over is because of the hard physics. We’re not making a political point or an ideological point or trying to be awkward or all the rest of it. We’re simply saying the science is real, the science is real, it means we’re facing social collapse. The reason we are facing social collapse is because of mass starvation and the reason we are going to have mass starvation is because of the collapse in the weather systems around the world.” (from 6:48)

3. “Teenagers are shitting themselves about what’s happening for the future. They’ve got another 50, 60, 70 years to live on this planet. By that time there could be only one billion people left! I mean that’s six billion people that could have died from starvation of being slaughtered in war. And the scale of it is beyond imagination, isn’t it?” (from 15:23)

4. “I am talking about the slaughter, death, and starvation of six billion people this century. That’s what the science predicts. That’s the trajectory we are on and that requires absolutely desperate measures to stop it. And it’s going to be painful, it’s going to be painful.” (from 16:33)

Now we need to be a bit appreciative here over the fact that written and spoken language differ. We also need to realise that this was a high pressure interview, with I’m sure a lot of adrenalin pumping through Roger’s veins. In short, grammatical phrasing and sentence structure is created in real time with no opportunity for a second edit. So we should be a little careful in attaching profound meaning where none was intended. But with that caveat, let’s look at these four statements.

The first one states that “we are facing mass starvation within the next 10 years”. Let’s see whether the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) can collaborate that statement. From the FAO, we know that undernourishment, after many years of decline, is on the rise again.

FAO Undernourishment

Further, within the category of undernourishment, the numbers facing crisis-level food insecurity is also moving upward, with climate change a major contributor. From page 40 of the FAO‘s “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018″:

While hunger is on the rise, it is equally alarming that the number of people facing crisis-level good insecurity continues to increase. In 2017, almost 124 million people across 51 countries and territories faced “crisis” levels of acute food security or worse, requiring immediate emergency action to safeguard their lives and preserve their livelihoods. This represents  an increase compared to 2015 and 2016, when 80 and 108 million people, respectively, were reported as facing crisis levels. As with increased levels of hunger, major contributors to crisis-level food insecurity are climate-related, in particular droughts.

So, in effect, Hallam’s “mass starvation” related to climate is already with us. So his statement does appear to reflect scientific fact.

In the second statement, Roger says “it’s over for this civilisation”. This is a little more tricky to interpret. Moreover, there is no time line attached. We could take this to mean over for our existing type of civilisation (for example one built on fossil fuel and/or capitalism) or it is over for civilisation across the planet in any form. The latter interpretation was the line that Sir David Attenborough took in the BBC documentary Climate Change: the Facts (from 2:40).

Standing here in the English countryside, it may not seem obvious but we are facing a manmade disaster on a global scale. In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I have ever imagined. It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action with the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies. We’re running out of time, but there is still hope. I believe that if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future.

Nonetheless, with no number, no date and no definition of the terms civilisation and collapse, it is very difficult to say whether the statement is, in a word beloved of climate change deniers, “alarmist”.

So let’s move on to statement 3. In this statement we have something much more concrete to work with. We have a date, 2090, when present teenagers will be 70 and we have a number, 6 billions deaths taking the carrying capacity of the planet down to one billion. But did he actually say that? No, actually he didn’t! He said “by that time there “could” actually be one billion people left. So this is a statement relating to probability.

Yet in Statement 4, it appears that he is predicting 6 billion dead by 2100. At this point, I believe we need to apply a degree of common sense. Statement 3 starts at 15:23 and Statement 4 starts at 16:33, a mere 70 seconds apart. Has he changed his view on the survival chances of the majority of humankind within just over a minute? Implausible. So how do we reconcile the two statements? Well, for me, it seems pretty obvious. In the final statement, Roger appears to be considering the outcome of “a” trajectory rather than “the” trajectory.

Unfortunately, that is not how the BBC Radio 4 fact-checking programme More or Less decided to deconstruct the interview (here). Nor is it how the climate change fact-checking site Climate Feedback treated Roger’s statement (here), their key takeaway given below:

Climate Feedback
I think, in both instances, the fact checkers have gone down the slippery slope off indulging in straw man arguments; i.e., they are refuting an argument that Roger didn’t actually make. In short, they concentrated on Statement 4, and severed it from Statement 3.

In my next post, I will look in more detail at how the BBC programme More or Less and Climate Feedback came to their conclusions and whether their approach is helpful in assessing climate change risk. Ultimately, I want to move on to the much more interesting question posed by Roger in Statement 3, but with a little tweak. That is, what is the risk of a catastrophic climate outcome by end of century that results in mass death?

Have the Kids Started Caring?

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post called “Do the Kids Care?” about the attitude of young people toward climate change. The tentative conclusion was they cared less due to their limited experience of risk. Today (15th February 2019) was a day when many of them certainly seemed to care. I had the pleasure of attending a rally in Oxford (part of the #SchoolStrikeforClimate movement), which was inspired by the 16-year old climate activist from Sweden Greta Thunberg.

 
So have global youth undergone a Damascene conversion and suddenly realise the existential threat they face from climate change? Probably not, but I hope that something significant is emerging  here: at least a realisation by youth that they will be expected to clear up the CO2 pollution party from hell thrown by their parents and grandparents.

The jury is out over whether this movement has staying power, but in the meantime the next school student strike is going global and takes place on 15th March; details can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1994180377345229/

So get out there and give Greta and all the other kids a helping hand!

IMG_0010

And in the meantime, here is my original post from 2011:

Climate change, if nothing else, is a time horizon risk: the longer you live, the more you are exposed to climate change and its impacts. Thus, to follow the logic, the old (and especially childless) should be less sensitive to climate change risk than the young. (For the different question of “Should the kids care?” see ‘Odds of Cooking the Kids’ here, here and here.) But do the young care?

survey last year suggests the young care a little less about climate change than anyone else. This seems rather strange, since the young adults involved would have had a high exposure to the topic from early adolescence both through the media and school.

The first Climate Change Conference took place in Geneva 1979 a few years after a landmark paper by Wally Broecker in 1975 established a link between anthropogenic (human) CO2 emissions and temperature rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988, but it probably took another decade before the topic spilled out of the academic community and into the public domain.

By around 2006 or 2007, few people would have remained unaware of the issue, even if they differed about the causes and severity of the problem. The documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ show cased Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about the dangers of global warming and received extensive publicity. Meanwhile, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report declared that human-caused factors were ‘very likely’ the cause of climate change and was widely reported. In retrospect, these years appear to have seen the high water mark for public awareness of the risks from climate change (partly because carbon-industry financed lobby groups had only just started to enter the debate on the skeptics’ side).

For a younger generation, the general media buzz over climate change was also supplemented by information they received via their school curricula.

In the UK’s case, a child in high school in the 1980s would only have come across climate change in school if introduced to the topic by an enthusiastic science teacher. In 1995, however, climate change was formally introduced into the National Curriculum, and nowadays a pupil has no choice but to bump up against it in variety of contexts including science, geography and even, occasionally, religious education.

In the United States, the federal, state and local involvement in education have made the delivery of climate change education a little more variable between schools. Nonetheless, there appears to be a consensus among teachers that climate change is taking place and that it should be taught. A position paper (here) from the US National  Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) is unequivocal:

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) recognizes: (1) that Earth’s climate is changing, (2) that present warming trends are largely the result of human activities, and (3) that teaching climate change science is a fundamental and integral part of earth science education.

The National Association of Science Teachers (NSTA) is a little less forthright on the subject, but in a 2007 NSTA President’s report  entitled ‘Teaching About Global Climate Change’ we see this:

Central to environmental literacy is students’ ability to master critical-thinking skills that will prepare them to evaluate issues and make informed decisions regarding stewardship of the planet. The environment also offers a relevant context for the learning and integration of core content knowledge, making it an essential component of a comprehensive science education program.

Two of the most reliable sources of information for classroom teachers are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both offering materials that are scientifically based and bias-free.

No prizes for bravery here, but by endorsing two sources that document the risks related to human-induced climate change, the NSTA in effect is adopting a similar position to the NAGT—but at one remove. The NSTA’s reticence is obviously because science teachers who promote awareness of the problem are likely to receive a lot of push-back; an NSTA survey (here) gives a sense of this:

(Rather disappointingly for a science-based organisation, neither the number of educators who responded nor the climate change beliefs of the responding educators were reported, rendering any firm conclusions problematic).

Overall, however, for those students who had not already taken a firm position vis-a-vis the veracity of human-induced climate change from their parents, the senior school experience over the last 10 years or so would have taught most of them that the climate is changing and anthropogenic carbon emissions are to blame (based on scientific evidence). For those 1990s high school graduates, the school input on the topic would likely have been far more mixed. But by contrast, anyone over 35 is unlikely to have come across climate change at school.

So back to the survey—conducted jointly by the American University, Yale University and George Mason University—titled ‘The Climate Change Generation?’ The generation in question as per the survey definition was a sample of 1001 adults aged between 22 and 35 as of when the survey took place (between December 24, 2009 and January 3, 2010).

Given the educational backdrop of the ‘Climate Change Generation’ we get two immediate counter-intuitive findings from the survey. Younger people neither think about climate change more nor worry about it more (or at least no more than others):

And this being a risk blog, I am particularly interested in people’s perceptions of the personal harm they could incur. Again, the young don’t appear particularly concerned.

Moreover, despite the impression that climate change concern (and activism) is a province of the young (and almost a social norm these days), the data just don’t show this to be true:

Could it be that factor ‘youth’ is not determining the direction of the survey responses  (and when it does, the sign is opposite of what one would expect) because the ‘old young’, who had come of age in the 1990s when climate change was less reported, were diluting the signal in the data? The answer to this is ‘no’ since the survey also split the young adults into two cohorts: in effect, the ‘young young’ and the ‘old young’. Note the answer ‘not at all worried about global warming’ at the bottom of the chart sees the ‘young young’ the least concerned of all:

On reflection, it appears that education has had no impact on the brain’s perception of risk, which takes us into the realm of cognitive psychology. A traditional view of the risk appetite of adolescents has suggested that they have a feeling of invulnerability (and perhaps this extends to those in their twenties as well). However, more modern findings such as a paper by Cohn et al entitled ‘Risk Perception: Differences Between Adolescents and Adults’ suggests this is not the case:

Adolescent involvement in health-threatening activities is frequently attributed to unique feelings of invulnerability and a willingness to take risks. The present findings do not support either proposition and instead suggest that many adolescents do not regard their behavior as extremely risky or unsafe. Compared with their parents, teenagers minimized the harm associated with periodic involvement in health-threatening activities. Ironically, it is periodic involvement in these activi- ties that jeopardizes the health of most adolescents. Thus teenagers may be underestimating the risk associated with the very activities that they are most likely to pursue, such as occasional intoxication, drug use, and reckless driving.

So to get a better idea of what is going on, it is worth moving on to the field of heuristics and biases in the perception or risk, which has become a key area of study in economics and finance over the last 30 years. This new area of investigaton was kicked off by the pioneering work of Nobel Laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; a good and accessible summary of the work can be found in Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking fast and slow“.

One critical finding was the distinction between ‘choice from experience’ and ‘choice from description’. Experimental data show that rare outcomes are overweighted when they are vividly described but are frequently underweighted if they are abstract. By extension, a more abstract threat, like harm from radiation, may be overweighted as a risk as it calls forth rich associations that provide a vivid description: for example, images from Chernobyl, a scene from the movie ‘China Syndrome’ or a picture of a child atom bomb victim suffering from radiation sickness.

Keeping this in mind, climate change risk is rather difficult to grasp in terms of the potential impact on oneself: no photos of dying babies to give us a descriptive representation—or at least only abstract theoretical ones.

Furthermore, risks are underweighted if we have no experience of them. The experience can also go beyond one’s own experience and encompass those of others. Accordingly, a particular teen or adult may not have experienced an auto crash through reckless driving, but it is almost certain that the adult will know someone personally, either family or friend, who has suffered from a reckless driving act. They thus get an experience boost by proxy.

Thankfully, few of us have yet to experience severely negative effects from climate change. However, an elderly person is more likely to have experienced, or known someone who has experienced, a rare event that gives them a proxy association of climate risk. Through having touched on the experience of war, flood  and other natural disasters (and possibly even famine for immigrants from low income countries), older people are better aware that ‘ really bad stuff’ happens.

In all this, sets of statistical tables showing objective probabilities have far less impact on people’s perceptions of risk than one would expect if humans were no more than purely rationale calculating machines. Presenting a person with a dry set of stats will barely move the risk perception needle—whether the subject is vulnerability to HIV infection or the destruction of the planet. We are just not built that way (even if we did do some stats at school).

Critically, though, the old perceive only a little more climate change risk than the young. Humans, as a whole, look like a teenager engaging in unprotected sex when it comes to global warming. Whether this poor risk perception can be changed is something I want to return to in a future post.

The Green New Deal and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

This post is a bit of diversion from my recent focus on the mobility and energy revolutions currently taking place (the solar posts are “to be continued”). The Democrats new super star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been making waves since becoming the youngest woman to ever serve in the United States Congress. Yesterday Ocasio-Cortez submitted a non-binding resolution in the House of Representatives under the title “Recognising the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal“. If you haven’t read the actual document (a couple of pages long), I urge you take a look rather than get a second-hand interpretation. You can find the resolution here. And Ocasio-Cortez introducing the policy here:

The resolution is to be accomplished “through a 10-year national mobilization” to execute a series of projects and achieve a range of goals, one of which is “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”. Well I think Tony Seba would approve of that even if Tony would believe this will happen regardless of the government’s involvement through the magic of technology and market forces.

Criticisms, or course, have come thick and fast, but one of the most major relates to cost: who will pay for the Green New Deal? The frequently asked question (FAQ) sheet attached to the resolution gives this answer:

How will you pay for it?

The same way we paid for the New Deal, the 2008 bank-bailout and extended quantitative easing programs. The same way we paid for World War II and all our current wars. The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments….

The critical component of this response to the question of payment is the statement that “the Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments”. And this is where I am heading with this post. Ocasio-Cortez is not only an advocate of a far-reaching environmental policy aimed at tackling climate change, but she is also an adherent to the rather arcane economic theory of Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT.

MMT focuses on the fact that modern monetary systems are based on fiat money. This means monetary systems where nothing backs the issuance of paper money, unlike under previous systems which were backed by gold or some other real substance. Under such so called ‘fiat money’ systems, the government can never go bankrupt since it has the power to print money. That said, while the government may not be able to bankrupt itself through printing money, it is quite capable of bankrupting the private sector through printing so much money that it sets off hyper-inflation: think Wehrmacht Germany, Zimbabwe or Venezuela. Nonetheless, MMT adherents see a world of difference between using debt and money creation in a responsible way to achieve policy goals and in an irresponsible way to support some form of crony capitalism.

Critically, the general public finds it very hard to understand the fact that the government can create money from nothing, but this is just an irrefutable fact.

Accordingly, the government can impact on the real economy through printing paper money in exchange for labour or goods. Under Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, the US government could print money, via the Federal Reserve, to buy wind and solar farms and pay workers to install them. It would use government debt to get to where it wants to go.

In many aspects, MMT is not far away from traditional Keynesian economics, which encourages governments to smooth out business cycles through engaging in pump priming the economy by running fiscal deficits whenever a recession emerges. Followers of MMT, however, believe that the government’s power over money creation should not just be used as a safety net in times of trouble but also in a much more proactive goal-oriented manner to solve current problems.

Under MMT, you needn’t worry about deficits and debt in and of themselves, but only if they result in the adverse outcomes of rising inflation and real interest rates. According to followers of MMT, if you run a big deficit and build up a lot of debt with neither inflation rising nor real interest rates spiking, then you have nothing to worry about. MMT also shifts the policy balance of power away from central banks to politicians.

At this stage, I recommend you sit down and spend a very fruitful 45 minutes of your time watching the following January 2019 lecture by the most famous advocate for MMT Stephanie Kelton. Kelton is that rare thing in an economics professor: a great communicator. Anyone who has got this far down the blog post will be able to understand the lecture — I promise (honest). More important, by the end of the lecture you will realize that government spending is not like household spending. So next time a politician says that a government must learn to live within its means just like a household, you will understand that the politician in question doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

And, finally, in response to Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim that “there is no magic money tree”, well, actually there is, and in the UK it sits within the Bank of England (BOE). In a wonderful BBC Radio 4 programme called “Shaking the Magic Money Tree“, Michael Robinson descended into the depths of the BOE to see money created out of nothing: so the money tree does exist!

That said, magic can be a force for good or evil. I’m not saying that Ocasio-Cortez has no constraint over what the government can do deficit-wise in terms of executing a Green New Deal. But the judicious use of government’s deficits to finance ambitious government goals should not be dismissed out of hand. Financing such goals through deficits has been done before, and, handled well, it can be done again.

Continue reading

Data Watch: UAH Global Mean Temperature, June 2015 Release

On July 6th, Dr Roy Spencer released the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) global average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly as measured by satellite for June 2015 (here). The anomaly refers to the difference between the current temperature reading and the average reading for the period 1981 to 2010 as per satellite measurements.

June 2015: Anomaly +0.33 degrees Celsius This is the 3rd warmest June temperature recorded since the satellite record was started in December 1978 (36 June observations). The warmest June to date over this period was in 1998, with an anomaly of +0.56 degrees Celsius. Full data set available here (click for larger image).

UAH Global Temp July 2015 jpeg

The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle is the main determinant of new temperature records over the medium term (up to 30 years) . The U.S. government’s Climate Prediction Centre currently has an El Nino advisory in effect and is forecasting that the current El Nino event is set to continue through into 2016 (update 9 July 2015 here):

Overall, there is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 80% chance it will last into early spring 2016.

Given this background, I would expect the UAH anomalies to remain elevated for some time.

As background, five major global temperature time series are collated by different international agencies: three land-based and two satellite-based. The terrestrial readings are from NASA GISS (Goddard Institute for Space Studies), HadCRU (Hadley Centre/Climate Research Unit in the U.K.), and NCDC (National Climate Data Center). The lower-troposphere temperature satellite readings are from RSS (Remote Sensing Systems, data not released to the general public) and UAH (Univ. of Alabama at Huntsville).

The most high profile satellite-based series is put together by UAH and covers the period from December 1978 to the present. Like all these time series, the data is presented as an anomaly (difference) from the average, with the average in this case being the 30-year period from 1981 to 2010. UAH data is the earliest to be released each month.

One of the initial reasons for publicising this satellite-based data series was due to concerns over the accuracy of terrestrial-based measurements (worries over the urban heat island effect and other factors). The satellite data series have now been going long enough to compare the output directly with the surface-based measurements. All the time series are now accepted as telling the same story (for a fuller mathematical treatment of this, see Tamino’s post at the Open Mind blog here). Note that the anomalies produced by different organisations are not directly comparable since they have different base periods. Accordingly, to compare them directly, you need to normalise each one by adjustment to a common base period.

Climate Change Will Make ISIS Look Like Amateurs

The destruction by ISIS (Islamic State) of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq and potential destruction of Palmyra in Syria has shocked the world—almost as much as the organisation’s previous beheadings of its captives.

Nimrud jpeg

Unfortunately, an article in this week’s New Scientist on sea level rise titled “Five Metres and Counting” (apologies print or paywall access only) suggests that climate change has already committed the world to the destruction of human heritage many orders of magnitude greater than anything ISIS is capable of doing.

You may be familiar with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)‘s end of century sea level rise forecast (here, page 11 in the report). This pegs the upper sea level rise outcome at just below one metre (click for larger image).

IPCC Sea Level jpeg

What is less well-known is that this is just the preliminary phase of sea level rise. Given the extent of warming to date plus the warming guaranteed by current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we are committed to barrel through one metre. In the words of Michael Le Page from The New Scientist:

Whatever we do now, the seas will rise by at least 5 metres. Most of Florida and many other low-lying areas and cities around the world are doomed to go under. If that weren’t bad enough, without drastic cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions–more drastic than any being discussed ahead of the critical climate meeting in Paris later this year—a rise of 20 metres will soon be unavoidable.

The arithmetic is pretty depressing (chart from New Scientist article): 0.4 metres for mountain glaciers, plus 0.8 metres for ocean thermal expansion, plus 3.5 metres for the West Antarctic ice sheet (the areas in orange in the chart below, click for larger image). If we go past 2 degrees Celsius of warming and get to 4 degrees, then we add all the blue bars as well.

NS Meltdown Imminent jpeg

Since the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was published, fresh evidence has emerged relating to West Antarctic ice sheet instability. Moreover, two large basins, the Aurora and the Wilkes, that form part of the East Antarctic ice sheet also appear vulnerable. In short, if we push up to 4 degrees Celsius of warming, then we are likely committing ourselves to 20 metre sea level rise.

So we’ve seen what ISIS had done in Nimrud, this is what we will do to Venice with 20 metres of sea level rise (source: here):

Venice jpeg

And New York:

New York jpeg

These projections are Old Testament in terms of the scale of the catastrophes they portend; indeed, ISIS could only dream of unleashing such wanton destruction. Yet, in our failure to tackle climate change, such wanton destruction appears to have been accepted by the G20 elites and, frankly, ourselves.

Addendum: 

Had a request for the background papers quoted by New Scientist. Most of these are behind paywalls but the authors frequently make pdfs available on their personal web sites or the web sites of their institutions:

Link to Science article on collapse of West Antarctic ice sheets
http://sumnerscience.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Science-2014-Sumner-683.pdf

Link to Nature Geoscience article on Aurora Basin (East Antarctic): http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v8/n4/full/ngeo2388.html

Link to Nature Climate Change article on Wilkes (East Antarctic):
http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n6/full/nclimate2226.html

Link to Earth and Planetary Science Letters on overall East Antarctic melting (total 15 metres):
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X14007961

Link to Nature Climate Change Letter on Greenland
http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n6/full/nclimate1449.html