Links for the Week Ending 30th March

  • Justin Gillis in the New York Times has an interesting article on backstop technology (although he doesn’t actually use the term), with particular emphasis on the Bill Gates’ funded new nuclear technology start-up Terra Ferma. If you aren’t familiar with the term ‘backstop technology’, it refers to a transformational technology that allows a society to transcend a particular problem such as resource scarcity or pollution (the catalyst for which is often a sharp movement in market prices). Obviously, there has been no “sharp change in market prices” for CO2 (the externality problem), but there are other problems with backstop technology as well. For example, we only hear about the successes (in finance this is the survivor bias). Many areas in technology have only seen glacial advances (battery storage) or none at all (fusion) despite a pressing need. The blogger Green Mycelium, who I have only just discovered, has a good post on the problems with backstop technology with respect to climate change here
  •  The Telegraph rightly lauds global capitalism’s greatest success, poverty reduction, here. The article mostly references the latest edition of the United Nation’s Human Development Report 2013 (full report here, summary here). It’s a tough read for the anti-globalization movement—which is why I only buy into parts of the anti-globalization rhetoric. My problem is more with the premise that past successes necessarily translate to future ones (the reason for parting company with Matt Ridley’s ‘rational optimism‘). Green Mycelium quotes Nassim Taleb’s Thanksgiving turkey who believes that life is going pretty well until the fateful day. The analogy is also apt for poverty reduction. If we reach 4 degrees Celsius of warming, the past successes will disappear like the cherry blossoms I see today outside my Tokyo window in the face of wind and rain.
  • Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism can be uneven but “Why Does No One Speak of America’s Oligarchs” was a wonderfully contrarian post. She has a very valid point. Keeping in mind that Obama is somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon in terms of economic policy, the super wealthy of the U.S. have had a mounting influence on the political process (via a plethora of political action committees, lobbyists, single issue think tanks, dodgy research institutes and more—read Oreskes and Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”), trickle down has been non-existent for the best part of two decades and the financial sector has demonstrably operated under the principal “heads I win, tails you lose”. If that isn’t oligarchism, what is?
  • There is so much misinformation and downright crap written about the costs of renewables  (by the likes of Dieter Helm) that is has become the accepted wisdom, on both the left as well as the right, that aggressive implementation is utopian or worse. A good piece in The New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal gives renewables a ‘rare as hen’s teeth’ fair hearing. And the wonderful David Roberts at Grist tells us why this is important.
  • I am in Tokyo this week (suitably carbon offset) tidying up my Japanese affairs, so posts may be a bit sparse for a week or so. Apologies.

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