Category Archives: Climate Change

Should Climate Change Override Every Environmental Concern?

One of America’s greatest living authors Jonathan Franzen has a provocative article in The New Yorker arguing that the environmental movement’s infatuation with climate change has been detrimental to local environmental initiatives. I am a huge fan of Franzen: “The Corrections” and “Freedom” are two of my favourites books. Yet I find his analysis muddled. In fact, I disagree with almost everything he says.

Franzen presents the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change as almost insurmountable.

Climate change shares many attributes of the economic system that’s accelerating it. Like capitalism, it is transnational, unpredictably disruptive, self-compounding, and inescapable. It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture—the extinction of difference at the species level, a monoculture of agenda at the institutional level. It also meshes nicely with the tech industry, by fostering the idea that only tech, whether through the efficiencies of Uber or some masterstroke of geoengineering, can solve the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Against this background, Franzen believes that the concerned citizen is being bounced into caring about only one true environmental ill.

The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority. Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?

And this is a planetary ill they can do nothing about.

To answer the question, it’s important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal. Even in the nations most threatened by flooding or drought, even in the countries most virtuously committed to alternative energy sources, no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground. Without such a commitment, “alternative” merely means “additional”—postponement of human catastrophe, not prevention. The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy. We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Indeed, I think his answer over how much emphasis we should place on climate change is wrong on many levels. First, I don’t see a trade-off. Humanity doesn’t have a finite budget of morality. If I am a good father, does that mean I have no choice but to beat my wife? In reality, those individuals campaigning against climate change are also likely to be the ones doing grass roots environmental activity. Continue reading

Eight Progressive UK Coalition Government Actions to Applaud

The one and only public debate between the leaders of seven UK political parties took place tonight ahead of the UK election May 7. Key topics were 1) austerity, the budget deficit and debt, 2) the NHS, 3) immigration and 4) education and intergenerational inequality. These are all big issues but hardly new.

Forgotten in the general election campaign to date are a series of ground-breaking initiatives taken by the coalition government over the past five years. These are examples of genuinely fresh thinking and should be applauded regardless of your politics. In no particular order:

1. Establishment of The Behavioural Insights Team

Dubbed the ‘nudge unit’ in a hat tip to the book by Thaler and Sunstein, this team has taken the idea of choice architecture into the heart of government. As a result, we have seen such policies as pension provision where your choice is to opt out rather than opt in–so the lazy amongst us create pension savings by default.

The nudge unit comes about from the explicit recognition the humans are not rationale calculating machines as they are portrayed in post-war economics and that frequently ‘wantability’ is different from decision-making that maximizes our well-being (see my post here).

2. Introduction of Well-Being Metrics

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) introduced its Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme in 2010. We now have four questions included in the well-being survey that broadly relate to the three main ideas of happiness–life satisfaction, leading a meaningful life and feelings. As this data set builds, it will give policy-makers a far better idea as to whether what they do makes people happier (click for larger image on the chart below).

How do we evaluate our lives copy

Continue reading

Chart du Jour, 1 April 2015: Were the 1950s So Good?

Sometimes it is best just to pilfer other people’s work– any other action feels rather pointless. This from Andy Skuce’s blog Critical Angle (click for larger image):

CO2 Sources copy

Bang! Marty McFly goes back to 1955 to persuade Doc to save the world from fossil fuel emissions (one can but dream).

Then again can we ask ourselves whether the relatively low energy intensity economies of the 1950s had a higher level of well-being than those that exist now (of course development has widened and population has grown). I’ll let my readers have a think about that.

Anyway, check out the Critical Angle blog here.

Wantability, Well-Being and Risk

I’ve been mulling a name change for the blog for some time. The name the “The Rational Pessimist” was a riposte to Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist“. Ridley’s book is a paean to global free markets and human innovation–and in parts is correct. Since the industrial revolution commenced, technology coupled with capitalism has lifted the bulk of the world’s population out of a Hobbesian life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. But where I differ from Ridley is in believing that a 200-year data set of economic growth can fully capture all future risk.

Ridley’s book is Panglossian. He believes that every problem we face–from climate change to resource depletion–is relatively minor, just waiting to be solved by a technological fix. For him, price always trumps scarcity. Whenever something looks like it is running out, the magic of markets will  always lead to new discoveries or acceptable substitutes.

As an economist by training, I accept that the everlasting dance between supply, demand and price is something of beauty. But I also believe that it has its limitations. A backward-looking empirical observation that things haven’t run out is different from a forward-looking theoretical prediction that things won’t ever run out. North Sea oil is running out regardless of price, and a global supply of oil is not qualitatively different from a local one.

Of course, technology may provide a perfect, or dare I say it better, substitute for fossil fuels. But then again it may not. That is uncertainty, and the consequences of that uncertainty is the concept of risk.

Continue reading

Charts du Jour, 16 March 2015: The Direct Impact of Natural Disasters

If you have a taste for doomer porn, then Desdemona Despair is the ‘go to’ site for you. Looking at the succession of despoiled ecosystems and ravished environments, it is hard not to get depressed. Nonetheless, while our natural assets are being fed through the meat grinder, the numbers show that our bodies are yet to meet a similar fate.

In a fascinating study led by Ilan Noy, a new index is proposed that “converts all damage indicators, including mortality, morbidity, and other impacts on human lives (e.g. displacement) – as well as damage to infrastructure and housing – into an aggregate measure of human lifeyears lost.”

In their approach, they “calculate the total years lost as the sum of years lost due to death, injury/affected, and financial damage.”

Adopting this methodology, the following chart is produced (click for larger image):

Total Life Years Lost by Regions jpeg

Critically, the impact of climate change, or environmental destruction in general, is yet to be seen.

We find no trend in the calculated index, and additionally we observe that most of disaster impacts are experienced in Asia (East and South). This dominance is likely due both to the region’s high degree of exposure to a multitude of extreme events (especially wide-scale flooding) and to the high population density in exposed areas (the coasts along the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the major river systems).

Before I am accused of sounding too much like my doppelgänger The Rational Optimist, I should emphasise that this is a human-centric metric. Species extinction doesn’t show up. Just as important, the system may tip. At present, the United States can absorb a Hurricane Katrina with ease (not withstanding the devastation such an event causes at a personal level). But what happens when you throw two or three Katrinas at the system in quick succession.

Even worse, what happens when extreme weather events graduate from being acute events to those that are chronic. An economy is composed of flows (GDP) and stocks (wealth). Some wealth destruction actually stimulates GDP. But when wealth destruction become a quotidian event, flow (GDP) won’t be able to cope. We are not at such a state of affairs as yet. I am not confident that we never will reach such a state.

 

Charts du Jour, 13 March 2015: Two Cheers for Emissions Slowdown

The International Energy Agency (IEA) announced today that CO2 emissions in 2014 were flat year on year at 32.3 billion tonnes. This is undoubtedly good news–particularly if it marks the start of a trend.

The chart below is from an article from the FT here (free registration for access). Note, the three previous occasions when emissions flatlined or fell were all associated with recessions or economic crises (click for larger image).

Global GDP and Emissions jpeg

The IEA also points out that global GDP growth in 2014 was around 3%, so the better emission performance was the result of lower GDP-to-energy intensity and reduced energy-to-carbon emissions intensity (the so called Kaya Identify, which maps GDP to emissions, can be found in my post here). Continue reading

Charts du Jour, 11 March 2015: EU Emissions and Renewable Targets

The ‘Chart of the Day’ tag was supposed to be accompanied by one chart and a short accompanying commentary. In reality, I have hardly ever managed to restrict myself to one chart. Oh well, such is life. Facing up to this reality, I will rename these posts ‘Charts du Jour’, starting off with the EU’s emissions and renewable targets.

I’ve been meaning to blog about the renewable road maps of various European countries for a long time. This is a big topic and draws a lot of uninformed comment in the media. For example, is Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ a disaster or a roaring success? Pick up a few newspapers and you see this question argued passionately both ways.

But to start with, let’s set the scene by focussing on the European Union level legislation that sits above all national policies. The centre piece of this is European Council‘s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990. This was reconfirmed in February 2011 as Europe’s contribution to keeping climate change below 2 degrees Celsius as agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.

To meet this commitment, the European Commission has draw up “a roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy by 2050”. You can find the document here. And within this document is this chart (click for larger image):

EU GHG Emission Reductions jpeg

The EU has also passed legislation establishing climate and energy targets for 2020. These are known as the “20-20-20” targets and are as follows: Continue reading

Chart of the Day, 10 March 2015: The Stability of Carbon Sinks and Sources

About time we revisited the Big Number which sits on the right side of my blog: the atmospheric concentration of CO2. I dub this “the most important risk indicator in the world” since it will have a greater impact on humanity than anything else I can think of (barring the earth getting hit by a stray astroid or such).

The monthly average is back over 400 parts per million (ppm) as of February. As a reminder, the cyclicality is a result of the northern hemisphere (which accounts for 65% of global land mass) plant growth and decay cycle. Source for the two charts below: NOAA (click for larger images).

Recently Monthly Mean CO2 jpeg

The annual average year-on-year continues to grind up despite the fact that the first United Nations Climate Conference of Parties (COP) took place back in 1995.

Annual Mean Growth Rate of CO2 jpeg

COP 21 will take place in Paris this December, yet the above chart demonstrates that little progress has been made in mitigating carbon emissions.

In a blog post I wrote three years ago called “A Fraction for Your Thoughts” I highlighted a hidden risk contained in the above chart: the stability of the carbon sink and source relationship. As you can see from the chart below taken from the Global Carbon Budget 2014 (click for larger image), only a portion of emissions remain in the atmosphere. Continue reading

How Well Does the Climate Change Performance Index Perform?

In previous posts (here and here), I was rather rude about the World Economic Forum (WEF)‘s Global Competitiveness Index (GCI). To me, the method of compilation of the index appears dishonest. Most people understand ‘competitiveness’ to relate to some kind of competition. Yet the WEF defines competitiveness to mean prosperity, measured by GDP head. The word ‘competitiveness’ is used as just a hook.

Further, no evidence is given to suggest that maximising one’s GCI scores would later lead to higher prosperity. In short, we are implicitly encouraged to pursue WEF‘s political goals (basically neoliberalism), with the completely unsubstantiated promise that they will make us prosper.

This criticism notwithstanding, economic indexes have their uses if they are transparent and honest. The big daddy of them all is the United Nations Development Programme‘s Human Development Index (HDI). Now 25 years old, HDI was introduced to counter the shortcomings of GDP. Simplistically, a developing country may have a relatively high GDP per capita number (due perhaps to some large resource endowment like oil) but a low level of development. As the chart below shows, human development encompasses diverse dimensions that go beyond a decent standard of living (click for larger image).

Human Development Dimensions jpeg

The strength of the HDI itself is its simplicity. It is an equally weighted composite of only three factors: life expectancy, education (with two sub components of adult literacy and school enrolment) and GDP per capita. Nonetheless, it serves its purpose: to advertise to the world that politicians need to look at the capabilities of their populations, not just the level of wealth. Continue reading

Marching Rather than Blogging

Too tired to blog anything extended today after attending an action-against-climate-change rally down in London.

Glorious day for a march, and hopefully I will join the larger demonstration in Paris this December (to coincide with the COP 21 international climate talks).

For those who view this type of action as pointless, read my blog post here for one kind of response. A more considered treatise on the real value of any kind of direct action would require its own post. Another thing to add to my ‘to do’ list.

Below is our trusty band of marchers from Henley in Transition during the pre-march gathering stage and then after the march at the Houses of Parliament.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

Houses of Parliament