Category Archives: Climate Change

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.


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

Link to Nature Geoscience article on Aurora Basin (East Antarctic):

Link to Nature Climate Change article on Wilkes (East Antarctic):

Link to Earth and Planetary Science Letters on overall East Antarctic melting (total 15 metres):

Link to Nature Climate Change Letter on Greenland

The EIA Sees Our Energy Future – Which Doesn’t Look That Much Different from Today

Exams finished (I’ve been exercising my brain cells by doing some data analysis and computer courses with the UK’s Open University), so I have at last had a chance to blog.

Let’s kick off with a report I usually try to catch each year: the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA)‘s “Annual Energy Outlook 2015“, which looks out to 2040.

If you keep up with media reports, the backdrop to the 2015 Outlook would be something like this:

US oil production has pushed up toward 10 million barrels per day (bpd) and is a whisker away from overtaking Saudi Arabia; five LNG export terminals have been approved and are under construction because the US is so awash with natural gas (due to the fracking boom) that it needs to export it; solar PV panel price falls coupled with efficiency gains have brought the levelised cost of solar PV down so substantially that solar energy is now making a major contribution to electricity generation in an ever-growing number of American states; Texas has become a wind-energy king second only to Denmark; and Elon Musk is bringing power to the people (literally) in the form of a new generation of home super batteries.

Wow, sexy stuff! So I guess we are going to see the EIA predicting radical changes to the energy mix in 2040, especially as many of the trends I just highlighted are only getting started. Right? Let’s look at EIA’s flagship chart (page 17 of the report, click for larger image on all charts):

US Primary Energy Consumption jpeg

Continue reading

Utopia, Dystopia, Uncertainty and Our Psychological Selves

I have just finished reading Dylan Evans’ book “The Utopia Experiment“, which chronicles the author’s doomed attempt to found a self-sufficient community in rural Scotland as a post-collapse prototype for others to learn from.

It is always interesting to find a hidden back story about one of the authors who sit on my book shelf–and boy does Evans have a bizarre back story. Evans is an LSE-trained philosopher and scholar of risk, robotics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary psychology (after many a wayward turn).  I already own his book “Risk Intelligence”, which deals with many of the issues I confront in this blog, particularly ‘decision-making under uncertainty’. Unknown to me, Evans’ interest in risk, combined with his own personal demons, had previously led to a decision to opt out of conventional society, which in turn led to a complete nervous breakdown.

Evans displays a compulsive personality: he pours himself into a particular endeavour for a year or two, then recoils from any further long-term commitment. To launch ‘Utopia’, he sacrifices everything: his house, his job, his relationships. To justify this, ‘Utopia’ becomes more than a mere experiment but rather a lifeboat being made ready for the collapse of civilisation. In a conversation with Oxford academic and scholar of existential risk Nick Bostrom, he is asked this question:

How likely do you think it is that something like the imaginary scenario you are acting out in Scotland might really come to pass in the next ten years?

Evans replies:

I thought a bit longer, and finally declared that I thought that the chance of such a thing happening within the next ten years was about 50 per cent. Nick looked shocked. Not even the most pessimistic scientists thought things were that bad….

….the precision that Nick had demanded of me forced me to own up to my error in a way that vagueness never would. It betrayed the extent to which what had started out in my mind as an exercise in collaborative fiction had already become an insurance policy against a global disaster that I was increasingly convinced was imminent.

Later he frames this decision as more psychological rather than intellectual. A predisposition toward depression coupled with a generalized angst at living within large corporate structures results in a rejection of his existing social and institutional ties. The irony here, as he later admits, is that for one so psychologically fragile discarding structure is about the worst thing he could have done mental health-wise.

Moreover, ever the contrarian, Evans comes to question his own beliefs more rigorously the more advanced the experiment becomes. Intellectually, his certainty is lost and without that comforting narrative ‘Utopia’ become less a personal lifeboat but more of a rip tide dragging him below the waves.

So are there any wider lessons here? I think there are many. First, as behavioural economics teaches us so well, humans and not what the economist Richard Thaler calls ‘Econs’; that is, emotionless calculating machines as opposed to humans. We can only perceive risk and uncertainty within an emotional framework. Humans have an optimism bias partly as an evolutionary means to advertise positive traits that allow us to mate and flourish but partly just to keep us sane. Examining the downside is painful and can lead to isolation, rejection and depression.

Yet perhaps there are those of us who can maintain contrarianism without falling apart. Evans documents how the participants in ‘Utopia’ rapidly progress from viewing the commune as an experiment to one of preparation for real collapse. They need a narrative to inoculate themselves from the outside world. Yet after a time, Evans starts to question all the collapse narratives that the commune volunteers espouse, falls into depression and is eventually replaced as leader by an early volunteer called Agric.

What Agric offers to the remaining volunteers is a narrative of certainty, which Evans could no longer offer. Further, this is a narrative that is immune to any counter-argument since it rests upon an irrefutable theory.

Part of the reason why Agric was so dismissive of any suggestion that civilisation might not be about to collapse was the fact that he had a powerful theory. He was in the grip of Malthus, like many before him. Malthus had shown that population growth must always outstrip food supply, right? He had proved it.

And earlier:

The idea that our civilisation might not only survive global warming but also continue to grow richer had appalled me, and this was perhaps why I had believed so ardently that it would collapse. I had wanted it to. Agric still did.

At this point it would be easy to laugh at the ‘Utopia’ pioneers, painting them as New Age fools. But not so fast. Evans’ story shows how hard it is to disentangle the dispassionate from the emotional when it comes to risk and uncertainty, particularly when it comes to tail risk. But this cuts both ways.

Let’s assign a 1% probability to collapse rather than Evans’ 50% and let’s push out the horizon to five decades rather than one. We are now entering the territory of intellectual respectability. The kind of probabilities that former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees sets out in his book “Our Final Century“.


Yet the vast majority of us are repelled at discussing such negative scenarios. Nick Bostrom points out that the academic literature is many times richer when it comes to publishing papers on dung beetles or Star Trek than it is to considering existential threats to humanity (here).

Academic Prioritisation jpeg

I propose that to seriously consider those dark-side scenarios you need either 1) immense psychological detachment and resilience or 2) no psychological detachment at all (a joyful embrace of the collapse narrative). In short, psychology-wise you need to be built differently from the vast majority.

Nonetheless, some true contrarians do exist in a variety of fields, for example, finance, and walk a fine line between delusion and perception. It is such people who populate Gregory Zuckerman’s book “The Greatest Trade Ever” which retells the story of five individuals who made their fortunes from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Recession. These are not Thaler’s dispassionate, calculating ‘Econs’ devoid of emotion. These are five individuals with their own rather peculiar character quirks who are naturally uncomfortable with both the status quo and the institutions that support the status quo. In this particular case, they emerge from Zuckerman’s book as prescient heroes. Of course, we never hear of the thousands of similar individuals whose backs are broken on the wheel of markets that go the wrong way.

Perhaps our differing reactions to upside and downside risk is nature’s way of hedging its bets. A few of us are comfortable operating in the super optimistic probability tail of upside risk and fewer still like Agric like to wallow in the pessimistic tail of downside risk. From an evolutionary perspective, most of the tail risk jockeys end up as road kill. But things do change, and perhaps a maladaptive mutation will suddenly becomes a vital survival trait. Those Agric-like fellows who believe they know the future will be the equivalent of bacteria on a petri dish that survive a dose of penicillin. A mutation that may previously have been an impediment becomes a life-saver as circumstances change.

We each have our own view of rationality, but it is our emotional state that keeps us sane when seeing the world. Don’t get me wrong: I am no post-modern relativist. For example, I think there does exist an objective assessment of the likelihood that the globe will experience extreme climate change leading to economic collapse by end century (and a non-negligible one at that). This is certainly not enough risk to make me run off to the wilds of Scotland, but it is a risk nevertheless. But I think that only some people can psychologically live with such a fact. Most can’t. The dominant narrative is: let’s pretend that climate change doesn’t exist as a factor in our or our children’s lives and carry on regardless.

Dylan Evans’ story may perhaps be one of the delusion of a few, but humanity’s inability to tackle climate change is a story of the delusion of the many. So let’s not laugh too long at ‘Utopia’.

The IMF, Fossil Fuels and the Name for a Rose


Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet


But if thine enemy is the fossil fuel industry,
And one would name a rose as ‘tax’,
then television, and radio, and newspapers
and twitter and a multitude of social media
would declare such rose as smelling most foul,
like vomit, or excrement or the pustulent sores
of a pox-ridden hag in the lowliest of taverns

In truth, Juliet was wrong. Names do matter. They frame narratives, just as the names Montague and Capulet did.

We live in a neoliberal world where both ‘tax’ and ‘subsidy’ are framed as evil. So whatever you do don’t talk about introducing a carbon ‘tax’, talk about eliminating a carbon ‘subsidy’. And this is what the IMF has done in a widely publicised report issued yesterday (here):

A key factor in estimating the magnitude of current subsidies is which definition of “subsidies” is used. Pre-tax consumer subsidies arise when the price paid by consumers (that is, firms and households) is below the cost of supplying energy. Post-tax consumer subsidies arise when the price paid by consumers is below the supply cost of energy plus an appropriate “Pigouvian” (or “corrective”) tax that reflects the environmental damage associated with energy consumption and an additional consumption tax that should be applied to all consumption goods for raising revenues.

Generally, when we talk about externalities, we talk about costs rather than subsidies, but, like double-entry book keeping, these are two sides of the same concept. When consumer A transfers a cost to consumer B, we can think of consumer B subsidising consumer A. Continue reading

Austerity and Aspiration UK Style

Apologies for my blogging hiatus: I’ve been otherwise engaged for the last few weeks in academic activities, some economics consulting and (most timing consuming of all) grassroots campaigning in the run-up to the UK general election.

I am not a natural ‘party political animal’, being too eclectic in my ideological views. Indeed, I like bits of each party manifesto but find other parts bonkers. Nonetheless, being back on home turf for an election for the first time in over 15 years, I wanted to get involved.

My own personal ‘wedge’ issues in this election were twofold: climate change (as would be expected from this blog) and anti-austerity. Climate change is still, to me, the central risk of our times. It has the potential to overturn everything within my children’s lifetime, not least of which is democracy itself. Unfortunately, neither climate change nor the environment in general feature in the top 10 concerns of the UK public (click for larger image):

Ipsos Mori Election Issues copy

Of the five main political parties that competed in the UK general election–the Conservatives, Labour, Lib-Dem, UKIP and Green–three have an aggressive commitment to act over climate change (Labour, Lib-Dem and Green). Unlike the Republican Party in the US, the Conservatives have in the past also had a forward-looking approach to carbon emission mitigation (as evidenced by their continued support of the UK’s Climate Change Act). The leadership, has, however, grown increasingly lukewarm over leading on the climate-change issue.

With regard to austerity, my stance is more nuanced. In short, why prioritise reducing debt at a time when interest rates on long-term government debt are at rock bottom levels? The following chart is taken from the Bank of England‘s latest “Inflation Report” published on the 13th May, Continue reading

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