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Back from Hibernation

Well, it’s two years since I have posted on this blog. Since then,  I have dealt with death, divorce and disease on the personal front. Apologies for the silence: when you are being emotionally clubbed over the head, then you lack the bandwidth to write.

Meanwhile, the replacement of man by machine has continued apace, Arctic sea ice extent is flirting with new lows (so climate change remains the spectre at the feast) and commodities have demonstrated abundance not scarcity. Politics and economics, the two loves of my life, are all over the place. The science of well-being evolves, but the political establishment generally looks back for truths instead of forward.

Individuals aware of the existential threats to the existing order wrestle over whether to retreat into a narrow, local world (look inward) or challenge the existing orthodoxies (look outward).

So, yes, we are living though interesting times. Technology as Diamandis and Kotler’s biblical ‘abundance’ or Kunstler’s technology as false magic. We may be sitting on an exponential curve of technology, but we are certainly sitting on a similar curve of climate change. And all this is taking place against a backdrop of political, economic, legal and social institutions designed for the 1900s. A lot to talk about.

Happy New Year (It Likely Will Be a Hot One—They All Are Now)

Both NASA and NOAA have come out with confirmation that 2014 was the warmest year on record (here). The temperature anomaly (difference from the 1951-1980 mean) was 0.68 degrees Celsius, ahead of 2010 (0.66), 2005 (o.65), 2007 (0,62) and 1998 (o.61). Data set is here.

While we have only just popped above the past record, 2014 is notably for one key fact: it is not an El Nino year. In short, we are at a stage where a typical year’s temperature is now in line with the climate skeptics favourite year: 1998. Most climate skeptic blogs cherry pick 1998 as the starting point of any analysis since this then suggests we have been in a temperature change hiatus. In reality, the year 1998 encompassed a record-breaking El Nino event, in itself an anomaly due to its sheer size.

Against this background, when the next El Nino does arrive, expect the temperature record to be smashed by a wide margin. Will it be 2015? I don’t know. But I do know that 1998 will soon seem insignificant in the historical temperature record (click for larger image).

Annual Temperature Anomaly jpeg

Accompanying the announcement, NASA also released a short video showing data visualisations of the changing global temperatures:

Unfortunately, the main driver of temperature rise is CO2, and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise (Source: NOAA here):

Atmospheric CO2 jpeg

On a longer time scale than that show in the chart above, we have seen atmospheric CO2 levels rise from around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial age to around 400 ppm now. Further, the scientific community have calculated that to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a change deemed dangerous, we should put a maximum of 1,250  tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere going forward.

Given that we have a limited budget of carbon that we must stay within to keep temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius, how are we doing? According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the answer is “not good”. Every year, the IEA publishes its flagship report World Energy Outlook (WEO), and every year they assess whether we are on track to move sufficient energy generation away from fossil fuels so as not to outspend our carbon budget.

2 Degree Carbon Budget jpeg

Unfortunately, the IEA believes that on the current emissions trajectory we are going to use up the entire budget by 2040. This means that after 2040 we will have to stop burning fossil fuels completely—obviously impossible.

Moreover, in order to turn the emissions trend around we will need to quadruple investment in energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage from current levels.

Another major problem also exists. In order to stay below the 2 degree warming threshold, a large percentage of current oil, gas and coal reserves will need to stay in the ground. According to a study by University College London published in Nature, a third of oil, half of coal and 80% of coal reserves must not be burnt (see here):

It has been estimated that to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 °C throughout the twenty-first century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2)2, 3. However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this2, 4, and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 °C.

In particular, nearly all of the recently identified unconventional oil and gas reserves must not be used if we are to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change (click for larger image).

Unburned Fossil Fuels jpeg

There is an irresistible logic in these numbers that demands a step change in thinking by politicians and policy makers. The United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of the year presents a chance to try to change the trajectory of carbon emissions.

Every concerned citizen should be putting pressure on government to address what in undoubtedly the greatest risk humanity has ever faced: climate change. Here in the UK, the Campaign Against Climate Change’s Time to Act” campaign has a day of action on March 7th.  Elsewhere, continues to act as clearing house for events around the world. Personally, I believe that the campaign to prevent climate change will evolve to become the largest and most important social movement in modern times. Don’t be a bystander: get involved. To quote Churchill:

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.

Links for the Week Ending 27 April 2014

  • The success or failure of greenhouse gas emission mitigation really rests on Chinese coal consumption. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013 showed global coal consumption rising 2.5% in 2012, with China accounting for all of the net growth. China alone now accounts for more than 50% of global coal consumption. (Note: BP’s 2014 edition containing 2013 numbers will be released in June.) The Financial Times (free access to articles after registration) highlights new talks between the US and China on emission reductions (here) and also has a good piece of analysis looking at the efforts China is making to cap coal production and consumption (here).
  • The launch of by Ezra Klein and colleagues will, I hope, give us a new platform to access decent news analysis. The start looks promising, with a solid article by Brad Plummer on the disappearing two degree Celsius global warming target. The site promises continuity of analysis (see a good review of the concept behind Vox by The New York Times here), and I wish them well.
  • Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” has received extensive coverage in almost every heavy-weight newspaper and magazine, plus, of course, on the blogosphere. If you want to get acquainted with his arguments (and his critics), then a great place to start would be this article by Vox again.
  • The inequality question is squaring up to be central to the UK general election, now only a little over a year away. The economist David Blanchflower has a good article in The Independent looking at the issue. Like Blanchflower, I would prefer Labour to come up with a coherent set of policies that deal with low growth, energy, inequality and sustainability. I haven’t seen anything yet.
  • The probability of an El Nino event starting this summer is growing as can be seen in this review of the situation by The Carbon Brief. Against this background, expect food prices to remain volatile, a trend already highlighted by this article in The Financial Times.

Links for the Week Ending 20 April 2014

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few weeks. The demands on my time have been intense recently, and I have found little time to read, let alone write.

  • The third instalment of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was published on 12th April, hot on the heels of the second instalment  which came out on 31st March. The latest report is from Working Group III and is titled “Mitigation of Climate Change”. “The Summary for Policy Makers”, which pulls out the most pertinent points, can be found here. With mankind currently emitting around 50 giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it looks almost impossible to constrain end-of-century warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
  • Real Climate has an interesting commentary on this IPCC report by Brigitte Knopf (which you can find here). It highlights the fact that mitigation strategies remain relatively low cost. To avoid dangerous climate change would likely only require a reduction in global GDP growth from 2.0% to 1.94% per annum. Further, the Real Climate post also contains the infamous chart that was excluded from the original “Summary for Policy Makers” since it showed upper middle income countries (led by China) driving emission growth.
  • I am still skeptical over the Chinese growth story remaining intact for decades to come. The Q1 GDP release saw growth slowing to 7.4% (see here). Business Insider has a series of ugly charts on China here, while a Morgan Stanley report suggesting that China may be reaching a Minsky Moment (a credit inflexion point) has received a lot of comment (for example, here). Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture has a series of charts showing the credit madness here. Personally, I still think China will ‘do a Japan’; that is, experience a sudden and sharp drop in GDP growth. Not good for China, but certainly good for climate change.
  • More generally, the upbeat ‘hiatus’ mentality is everywhere. We have a ‘hiatus’ in global mean temperature rise, a ‘hiatus’ in oil price increases (although the oil price is certainly not going down despite the shale story) and a ‘hiatus’ in the global financial crisis. The International Monetary Fund in its April “World Economic Outlook” publication (WEO) publication, sees global growth of 3.6% in 2014 and 3.9% in 2015, up from 3.3% in 2013. More important, it puts the risk of a near-term global recession close to zero. The Federal Reserve Board-led super monetary ease and abundant access to credit has, for the time being, proved victorious. I still believe that there are longer term forces at work which will confront the average household with a whole new world of risk by the end of the decade. The current ‘hiatuses’ provide a golden opportunity to prepare for the  future, but are generally seen as a confirmation of good times are here again. For the vast majority of people, including the educated, global warming is dead, peak oil is dead, and financial/economic risk is dead. We shall see.


Links for the Week Ending 30 March 2014

  • The second instalment of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)‘s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), titled “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability”, is to be released in Tokyo tomorrow. There have been lots of leaks, but I would prefer to read the actual report before commenting on it further. Nonetheless, we have seen some good climate change reporting over the last week in the run-up to IPCC publication; for example, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land” in The New York Times, an article looking at the plight of Bangladeshis displaced by rising sea levels.
  • I frequently quote Joseph Tainter‘s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” and now NASA has created a research project that tackles the same theme. The Guardian has a good introductory article here, and the academic paper introducing the HANDY model looking at ‘collapse’ is here. It is not a million miles away from the World3 model which sat behind “The Limits to Growth” report to the Club of Rome way back in 1972.
  • The economist Tim Hartford is a past master at doing a hatchet job on the latest intellectual fad. Here he is in The Financial Times (access to the article after free registration) putting the boot into ‘Big Data’, in particular, its claim to be both more accurate yet still remove the need for statistical sampling, model building and an understanding of causation. I will quote Hartford: “Unfortunately, these four articles of faith are at best optimistic oversimplifications. At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, they can be “complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.”” I have blogged on Robert Gordon before (here), an economist who takes the hype behind these new technologies with a pinch of salt. Big Data, driverless cars, nano-technology, 3D printer— the list goes on. The first and second industrial revolutions produced steam power and the internal combustion engine, which together have put us into a climate crisis. I am still to be convinced that the technologies of the third industrial revolution (encompassing everything from the integrated circuit to Big Data) will get us out.
  • There was a time when economists looked down their noses at psychologists as being ‘woolly’; this is ironic since psychology, rather than economics, is far more amenable to the application of controlled experiments, a key component of the scientific method.  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were pioneers in applying psychological experiments to economic questions, and together they helped invent the discipline of behavioural economics. Tversky died in 1996, but Kahneman is still going strong and has just passed his 80th birthday. His influence has never been higher, helped by the success of his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” which brought his ideas to a general audience outside of economic academia. The Edge has an interesting article in which a series of thought leaders from a variety of disciplines explain how they were influenced by Kahneman’s work. For myself, Kahneman made me reevaluate how I look at risk and also helped me understand why humans find themselves unable and unwilling to respond to the clear and present danger of climate change.
  • Salon has lovely article by a son trying to deal with a father lost in the hatred and bile of Fox News. Thankfully, I never experienced such a dilemma with my dad; he was a mildly grumpy conservative, but with a lasting affection for the NHS within which he worked as a doctor for the best part of 40 years. Of course, The UK has The Daily Mail, which thrives on a diet of righteous indignation (and stories of how the country is going to the dogs), but the UK has no real broadcast equivalent of Fox News. Thankfully.

Links for the Week Ending 16 February 2014

  • Just as Hurricane Sandy brought climate change back into the political debate in the United States, the floods in southern England have made climate change a topic for public discourse again in the U.K. Indeed, opposition leader Ed Milliband has felt sufficiently emboldened by the floods to put climate change back onto the agenda of any incoming Labour government as witnessed by his interview in The Observer newspaper, In this, he claims that Britain is “sleepwalking into a climate crisis”.
  • Meanwhile, the British right still appears unconscious of the potential damage its recent embrace of climate skepticism could do to its political fortunes. There are those on the right who are perfectly aware that a belief in British political conservatism does not require unquestioning adherence to climate skepticism. And it is to The Daily Telegraph‘s credit that the thoughtful veteran environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean is still given a platform (he would have been taken behind the wood shed and shot in the head by The Daily Mail long ago). Yet Lean and has views have been increasingly marginalised on the right over the past five years—as the pages of The Daily Telegraph attest. Instead, we have such nutters as James Delingpole being given a voice in both The Telegraph and The Spectator. For an example of Delingpole’s American style hard-right shock-jock journalism attacking Geoffrey Lean see here. And Christoper Booker appears to be the most prolific Telegraph commentator on the floods, with never a chance missed to bash the ‘warmists’ (people who believe in global warming). See, for example, here. Message to Tory strategists: “What if the skeptics are wrong?, What if the planet warms? What if extreme weather events grow more frequent and severe? What if climate skeptics appear increasingly unhinged from reality? What if a Conservative Party that embraces climate skepticism looks ridiculous?” It doesn’t have to be this way: you can be right-leaning and still believe in climate change. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. is dealing with its own major extreme weather events, not least of which is the drought in California. National Geographic asks whether we are seeing a structural change in a piece called “Could California’s Drought Last 200 Years?“. And The New York Times looks at the difficulties farmers are facing in an article called “California Seeing Brown Where Green Used to Be“.
  • During my series of posts titled “Hiding from the Computers” (starting here), I wrote on the emergence of a Downton Abbey style economy. The Financial Times has former Chief Economist of the World Bank Larry Summers riffing on the same theme in an Op-Ed piece here (free registration gives access).
  • The Financial Times has also been chronicling the differing fortunes of typical middle-class professions since the 1970s. This is an example of not just increasing inequality between classes, but also within classes. Just to think, once upon a time engineers used to earn more than bankers!
  • Finally, I entered adulthood reading The Economist and The Financial Times and latter added The Wall Street Journal, Barrons and The Nihon Keizai Shimbun (the Japanese FT). So who would have thought that one of my favourite bloggers would now be—well—a druid. Here is John Michael Greer writing on David Holgrem’s “Crash on Demand” article that I flagged in last week’s links, but everything he writes is well worth reading.

Links for the Week Ending 2 February 2014

  • A year ago, the U.S. was suffering from a major drought in the Great Plains area. This year, it is California that is experiencing an unprecedented lack of rainfall. The US Drought Monitor shows the situation here, and The New York Times reports on the implications for California here. If you want to put this drought in some perspective, then I recommended looking at a series of charts published by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that can be found here. In particular, look at the time series chart half-way down the post that shows drought categories for the contiguous U.S. changing over time. The U.S. does appear to be experiencing more exceptional (D4) droughts in recent years but the overall drought picture looks more mixed.
  • Preliminary figures suggest that the U.K. economy grew 1.9% in 2013. Much of the media has now accepted a narrative of continued recovery, but there are a few dissenting voices. The Telegraph‘s Liam Halligan in an article titled “Britain’s shaky growth is papering over cracks” points to missing fixed capital investment, a worsening external balance, more debt and a growing real estate and financial asset bubble as all suggesting that the expansion will end in tears. Halligan also quotes a pamphlet by Douglas Carswell at Potiteia (here), which links every credit boom since the 1970s with a subsequent real economy bust.
  • John Cassidy, a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote one of the better books about the Great Recession and utopian economics called “How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities“. His articles for The New Yorker are similarly perceptive, such as this recent one suggesting “Ten Ways to Get Serious about Rising Inequality”.
  • On a similar theme, I have talked a lot about stagnating median incomes in the U.S. that date back to the 1970s (such as here), but have rarely referred to the experience in the U.K. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report on this topic on January 31 called “An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 – 2013″, which has drawn a lot of press comment, such as this in The Guardian. It came out just a day after a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies looking at the same theme (here), with commentary by The Financial Times (access free after registration) here. I intend to post on this issue soon.
  • And in The Telegraph again, Jeremy Warner argues that Britain has “A broken schools system wholly unprepared for march of the machines“. It’s good to see that the mainstream press has started having an intelligent discussion on how technology is transmogrifying the workplace.
  • Time for some interesting eco counter-culture thinking with David Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand” paper, in which the permaculture guru upgrades ‘brown tech’ as his mostly likely scenario for the future—that is, one of severe climate change but a slow decline in energy usage. He then goes on to suggest that a global economic crash is in the interest of the sustainability community, and that it should be positively encouraged. All provocative stuff and sufficient to give rise to a flurry of posts within the ‘descent’ blogosphere, including comments by Dmitry Orlov (here), Nicole Foss (here) and Rob Hopkins (here).