Links for the Week Ending 23 February 2014

  • The so called hiatus period of flat-lining global mean temperatures has certainly been a godsend for the climate skeptic lobby. A lot of this recent change in temperature trend is due to the ENSO cycle: El Nino years are generally hot years, and we haven’t recently had many strong El Ninos. You can see this effect in the NASA chart here. So the next time we get a strong El Nino year expect to see a new global mean temperature record. When will we see the next one? This intriguing guest post on Jeff Masters Wunderblog suggests we may be due for a big El Nino in 2014. If true, expect to see the ‘hiatus period’ disappear from the climate skeptic lexicon.
  • By coincidence, I saw the NASA chart above reproduced in a blog post on Econbrowser by Menzie Chinn. Hamilton and Chinn, who co-author the blog, are two of the most respected economists in the world. Hamilton wrote one of the standard time series texts that a generation of econometricians grew up on. Chinn’s post is titled “Economic Implications of Anthropogenic Climate Change and Extreme Weather“. He takes aim at those who think we can easily adapt to climate change, pointing out that not only will the trend change but also volatility. All of this will cost a lot of money.
  • The global media has picked up on the Californian drought to a certain extent. If you want to track it yourself, click the U.S. Drought Monitor page here. There has been far less coverage, however, of the Brazilian drought; here is a rare piece of coverage by National Public Radio. And what is happening in Brazil is already having an effect on food prices as witnessed by the skyrocketing price of coffee; see here.
  • I have frequently commented that despite rising resource constraints  and a productivity slowdown, global GDP growth has motored on at around 3% per annum regardless. The is mostly because China has acted as a growth locomotive for everyone else, offsetting anaemic growth in the U.S., Europe and Japan. So if China’s growth collapses, this will likely mean that global growth takes a step-change downward (the other BRICs and MINTs have their own problems). Having seen Japan’s experience first hand (one day growth, the next day no growth), I have been a huge skeptic of China’s economic model. But to date, the sky has not fallen down. The BBC’s economics correspondent Robert Peston has just produced a short documentary called “How China Fooled the World” that sets out the pessimist’s case and can be found on iPlayer. If you have a problem accessing BBC content, try this link at YouTube here.
  • Most web-based technology favours scale: it facilitates ‘winner takes all’ economics. Think Google and Facebook. Yet it also reduces the cost of information and, potentially, small production runs. This, in turn, favours the so called ‘long tail’. This strange dance between the centrifugal and centripetal forces of information technology is a source of both fragility and resilience as we face resource and climate change challenges. For a slightly different riff on the same theme see this article by the economist Robert Frank in The New York Times.

2 responses to “Links for the Week Ending 23 February 2014

  1. There is a trend I find alarming..

    The whole phenomenon of companies founded by a couple of guys in a garage becoming almost-overnight multi-billion-dollar enterprises is something of an aberration, based on the fact that the costs of manufacture and distribution for software are basically zero; the only cost is ‘setting up the production line’ (i.e. writing the software itself). Imagine what Henry Ford’s business model would look like with free raw materials, labour and petrol.

    The problem is, this exceptional model is now treated as the norm.

    But if I’m looking at things like energy or resource challenges, it’s not really about a backyard invention that the whole world can adopt in a couple of years. It’s very much about large scale engineering and capital spending over decades, in many cases using technology we already know to exist. The ‘Software/Information/ model is completely inappropriate for this.

    • Andrew. I would agree. There is a silicon valley disconnect in terms of understanding the scale of the challenge. You can see this clearly in Ray Kurzweil’s stance toward climate change (Kurzweil being the highest profile guru of technological abundance). Basically, he sees global warming as a non-problem because technological capabilities are growing exponentially. See his PBS interview here:

      But we haven’t seen Moore’s Law anywhere in evidence with battery technology, carbon capture and storage, nuclear and so on and on.

      I can only but speculate that the Kurzweil way of thinking has influenced Silicon Valley philanthropists. You see this in the FAQ section of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

      Q. What is the foundation doing about climate change?
      A. The foundation believes that climate change is a major issue facing all of us, particularly poor people in developing countries, and we applaud the work that others are doing to help find solutions in this area. While we do not fund efforts specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions, many of our global health and development grants directly address problems that climate change creates or exacerbates. For example, our Agricultural Development initiative works to help small farmers who live on less than $1 per day adapt to increased drought and flooding through the development of drought and flood resistant crops, improved irrigation efficiency, and other means.

      To me, if we get to the upper end of the possible century temperature rises, say 4 or 5 degrees C, then much of their work will have proved pointless. Joe Romm once called them out on this contradiction in a Salon article here:

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