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.

Second, the environmental damage caused by the installation of wind mills and solar panels pales into significance when measured again mountain top removal coal mining in the Appalachians, tar sands production in Canada or oil spills in the Niger Delta–let alone the horrors that the melting of Greenland glaciers will bring.

Third, we appear to be descending into an agenda of despair. At one stage in his argument, Franzen admits that that there is a major difference between two degrees and four degrees of warming, yet later this subtlety is lost. He seems to be saying that given we are fucked over the long term anyway (although he sees humanity surviving in some form), let’s have a party–albeit an alternative green one which keeps some habitats viable for just a few decades longer.

We again come back to the paradox of voting: my vote is meaningless, so what is the point? But humans are social animals and we are also capable of collective action for the common good. I don’t see action on climate change as pointless, because history is littered with successful social movements whose catalyst came from brave and selfless individual acts. Voting isn’t also pointless because humans have the ability to act collectively and thus achieve something greater as a group than anything one individual could achieve.

Indeed, I would turn Franzen’s criticism on its head. For me, how can any individual active in a local environmental or social welfare organisation not be participating in the climate change debate? In the UK, such organisations as the National Trust, Woodlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, English Heritage and the Wildlife Trust have vast memberships crossing the political spectrum. Yet in 50 years their work will appear meaningless should we be unlucky enough to remain on a path toward exceedingly dangerous climate change of four degrees Celsius or above.

Probably the most successful cultural organisation of the last 50 years in the UK is the National Trust. Its remit is to maintain a range of properties that embody a sense of ‘Britishness'; in short, a cultural DNA for the nation. But what meaning will these properties have if they are fixed in a landscape that is no longer that of a northern European clime but rather that of southern Spain?

My call to arms is for all those middle-England, middle-aged and elderly National Trust volunteers to take to the barricades over climate change–and everyone else, young or old, besides. This is a chance to transcend parochial concerns and take part in a movement that has far greater meaning than one’s individual life. Sometimes cliches are appropriate. There is a movement out there to save the world–and you are invited to join.

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

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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