New Unscripted: Expedition to Antarctica

The new episode of my interview podcast Unscripted focuses on Patricia Yager, professor of marine sciences, and her recent experience co-leading a research expedition to the Amundsen Sea Polynya in western Antarctica.

While many research projects on the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration were focused on sea level rise and the physical processes related to the melting, Yager served as co-chief scientist and lead P.I. on the project Artemis, designed to better understand the impact of melting glaciers and ice shelves on the coastal ocean’s biological productivity.

“The glaciers are not melting because the air temperature is warm,” Yager said in the interview. “The glaciers are melting because the ocean is warm.”

Listen to the interview on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe to Unscripted.

Wait and see

Sort of a corollary of f*ck around and find out. But.. good to see Biden getting serious about supporting Ukraine. That’s a big number and it needs to be. On verra, as they say.

The ‘let’s see if this sorts itself out’ attitude from some western countries – albeit, right now fewer by the day – mirrors the general tendency of the same countries to do very little about climate change. All the while:

Rising seas have long been a threat to coastal cities. New research suggests that cities—particularly in Asia—are sinking as well, compounding the risks of frequent and severe flooding.

In Karachi, land is sinking five times as fast as the sea level is rising, according to the study published this month in Geophysical Research Letters. Manila and Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, are sinking at 10 times the rate of the rising waters.

In China’s Tianjin, a coastal city about 150 kilometers southeast of Beijing, the ground is giving way at 20 times that speed.

In those four cities alone, the phenomenon could affect roughly 59 million residents.

The study, which used satellite data to analyze 99 cities around the world from 2015 to 2020, points to groundwater extraction related to rapid urbanization and population growth, oil and gas production, and construction.

The next life you save just might be your own.

What can you see from your car?

Or truck.

Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.

A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.

Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.

The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.

See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.

Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.

Re-enforcing the Supply lines

So… one man’s colossal miscalculation is another man’s a planet’s sped-up timeline for addressing climate change? I’m not trying not to see it that way, and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins doesn’t need to convince me. But the winds are at somebody’s back:

Lovins, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been one of the world’s leading advocates and innovators of energy conservation for 50 years. He wrote his first paper on climate change while at Oxford in 1968, and in 1976 he offered Jimmy Carter’s government a blueprint for how to triple energy efficiency and get off oil and coal within 40 years. In the years since there is barely a major industry or government that he and his Rocky Mountain Institute have not advised.
But for much of that time efficiency was seen as a bit of an ugly sister, rather dull compared with a massive transition to renewables and other new technologies. Now, he hopes, its time may have come. Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says.
He sees Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as an outrage, but possibly also a step towards solving the climate crisis and a way to save trillions of dollars. “He has managed to bring about all the outcomes that he most feared, but he may inadvertently have put the energy transition and climate solutions into a higher gear. Whether or not we end up in a recession because of the disruption, [Putin’s war] may prove to be a great thing for climate economics.”

As he explains, solar and wind are among the cheapest bulk power sources, and Putin’s authoritarian misadventure has put energy externalities in the center of the frame.

Again, it’s the boringest, not-technology solutions that have the greatest effect. And there’s a lot to reckon with in what he says about nuclear:

The most energy-inefficient design of all, he says, may be nuclear power, which is heavily subsidised, costly and pushed by a politically powerful lobby. Using it to address shortages of electricity or to counter climate change, he argues, is like offering starving people rice and caviar when it’s far cheaper and easier to give just rice.

The socialization of capitalism

New York Magazine takes us on a tour of what lays beyond, after the capitalism runs out. That may sound hippie and/or conspiratorial, but facts is facts and the entire game has changed:

Making matters even weirder, contemporary capitalism’s dominant shareholders have no direct interest in the success or failure of the firms they own. All returns on their holdings get passed down the investment chain to their clients — households, governments, and corporations. Asset managers make their money off of their clients’ fees, not their firms’ returns. This diagram may make the hydraulics of the system more legible:

[cool graphic]

Of course, an asset manager that delivered consistently poor returns would attract few clients. And asset managers’ fees are calculated as a percentage of the current value of their clients’ assets. Nevertheless, add a fee-based business model to asset managers’ universal portfolios, and their interest in the performance of any individual firm they own becomes extraordinarily attenuated — even when they are the single largest shareholder of that firm (which is very often the case)!

This is not how capitalism is supposed to work in theory. And it isn’t how corporate governance has ever before worked in practice. To the political economist Benjamin Braun, the contemporary structure of corporate ownership is so novel and consequential as to mark a new era in economic history, the age of “asset-manager capitalism.”

Braun’s papers on this subject are fascinating, and nerds will want to read them in full. Mere dorks, however, may be content to consider the following four ways the rise of asset managers challenges conventional wisdom about how capitalism functions — and how it might be changed.

Cool graphic and the rest at the link. Removing market competition from the equation renders many of the other legacy levers moot. Even the ESG stratagem takes on a different tenor – what does promoting efficiency even mean when the owners of the means of production no longer prevail – when/if we default (curious wording) to a dirigiste model. They, ESG pressure campaigns may become more effective. Because frankly, christian soldiers, that’s what they’re talking about.

Nostalgia for Normal

Lots of talk/pixels about ‘getting back to normal,’ the ‘new normal,’ and returning to a time when things/life were somehow better because they were usual. Primarily related to the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to unpack a sympathetic but highly questionable sentiment. So this interesting tweet, highlighted by Bloomberg, serves as a good remedy for that nostalgia for normal:

Happy talk about way-back-when presents recklessness on many fronts – political, racial, economic – but it is also woebegone in terms of environmental devastation and the slow thoughtlessness that has brought us to exactly here. No one* wants to go back to Jim Crow and no one should want to go back to the normal, daily burning rates of our fossil-fueled civilization. As the article demonstrates, and this is a note to hit over and over again, the [high] costs of slowing down and reversing the effects of climate change are actually a bargain. Slice it however you want – we’ve already gotten far closer to the tipping point of better and cleaner far faster than imagined. Looking away and ignoring now requires more effort. That normal is depressing – and it should be. Our calculations of the impacts of the burning have become far less abstracted, to the point of easily transposing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster onto methane well leakage and carbon emissions just by looking at the numbers.

Unfortunately, our numbness to the staggering total of COVID deaths resembles our shruggy attitude to climate-related externalities. We get used to them, consider that state ‘normal,’ and long for the days.

But we shouldn’t, and we can’t go back, the comforting but perilous blindness of ‘normal’ notwithstanding. Instead of normal, how about a different better? As our friend says, Don’t Be Afraid.

*Admittedly, sometimes my optimism overwhelms

Re-Tooling Demand

This Financial Times article (subscription req’d) pulls back the curtain on rain forest destruction in Brazil to let us see what – and who – it’s all for:

At the recent UN climate summit in Glasgow, more than 100 national leaders committed to halt deforestation by 2030, and 30 financial institutions, including Storebrand, promised to eliminate the harmful practice from their portfolios by 2025. However, the signatories, including Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, did not indicate how it would be implemented or tracked, and environmental campaigners remain sceptical.

ADM and Bunge are among the world’s largest traders moving Brazilian soyabeans around the world. The increase in production of the commodity, largely used for livestock feed, has been a leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest as well as the destruction of Cerrado savannah.

The scale of soyabean production on deforested land and differing standards about what qualifies as acceptable activity makes tackling its presence in supply chains challenging for companies.

Both Bunge and ADM strengthened their deforestation policies last year in response to calls from shareholders. Storebrand, together with US fund manager Green Century, tabled a proposal at Bunge’s annual meeting asking it to tighten its policies, which was backed by 98 per cent of shareholders. Bunge has said it is committed to not having soyabeans from illegally deforested land.

As much as even the big fund managers and many governments get on board with divestment and ESG priorities in managing portfolios, this really points up the issue: the companies – and countries – who burn and mine for profit just aren’t going to give it up as long as it’s profitable. The whole ‘fiduciary responsibility to shareholders’ is baked into our ethos, as long as there is money to be made, dividends to be paid, stock to buy back, whatever.

For allies in COP26 and elsewhere, the approach has to include the goal to dismantle, and then re-assemble, the demand side. It’s worth being realistic about this – otherwise, we remain [eternally? That’s optimistic – ed.] captive to supply-side economic logic. As the ADM example highlights, the companies will never lead anywhere besides mining, digging, clearing, and burning.

Image via © Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Getty Images

Tales from the crypt(o)

NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s well-placed, near-extemporaneous “back at the crypt” comment notwithstanding, ubiquitous references to crypto currency range from annoying to cloying. Everything about digital money is either scammy or… that seems to be mostly it. Scammy neatly encompasses the over-hyped, Ponzi-schemed, last-one-in nature of the the collection of binary data that necessarily requires us to put all the usual finance-related terms in quotes: “ownership” “collateral” “token” “transaction.” You could go on.

And besides the obvious downsides of NFT’s – from terrific money-laundering possibilities to the proliferation of really bad art – we’d be remiss in not noting crypto’s climate impacts:

Crypto’s overall climate impact remains massive, with certain currencies swallowing up entire nations’ worth of processing power from individual computing units and data centers—much of whose power comes from fossil fuels. The most common form of cryptocurrency mining, proof of work, requires a massive amount of processing power. Alternative mining methods have a mixed track record so far, with some ostensibly “sustainable” mining systems still requiring significant amounts of dirty or clean power. And transacting any tokens across the blockchain, whether an NFT or a Litecoin, sucks up the collective energy feeding into the transaction, no matter the product at hand. One estimate claims that a single NFT trade across the much-used Ethereum blockchain uses enough energy that could power an entire house for several days. And this is all so the buyer can have bragging rights about “owning” an image.

Celebrities who are selling NFTs and also claim to care about the environment: What are you doing? Whatever it is, there sure are a lot of you. Here’s a list—surely incomplete—of luminaries who brand themselves as climate-conscious yet have also been hawking NFTs in some form or the other, ensuring this bizarre digital culture product will linger in the public discourse while possibly ruining the art world, the planet, and our collective sanity.

Not even-close-to-exhaustive list of scam-adjacent proponents at the link. Yes, engaging in yet another form of workaround for doing not the things we need to do about global warming: what are we doing? The climate question at the center of everything, that we’ve been needing to ask for decades, that we still need to answer.

Image: the crypt in question

Water in Holy Lands

The Khaju Bridge (above) is one of the five historical bridges on the Zayanderud, the largest river of the Iranian Plateau, in Isfahan, Iran. Both a bridge and a weir, it links the Khaju quarter on the north bank with the Zoroastrian quarter across the Zayanderud.

The Khaju Bridge was built around 1650, under the reign of Abbas II, the seventh Safavid king (shah) of Iran, on the foundations of an older bridge. The existing inscriptions suggest that the bridge was repaired in 1873. There is a pavilion located in the center of the structure, inside which Abbas II would have once sat, admiring the view.

Beneath the archways are several sluice gates, through which the water flow of the Zayanderud is regulated. When the sluice gates are closed, the water level behind the bridge is raised to facilitate the irrigation of the many gardens along the river upstream of the bridge. Because of a sustained drought, and of course related management issues, the sluice gates and riverbed are now the site of gatherings of people worried about these many gardens, as well as crops and more general concerns about sustenance. Compare and contrast

Pictures, 1000’s of words, etc. 2022 is on the way and we need to do better. Soon.

EPA nixes ‘grandfathering’

Reporters and editors don’t especially like big, boring problems – they can be difficult to explain, taking up a lot of words and lacking dramatic photos and illustrations. So kudos to Slate for pulling out this new EPA rule nugget that actually matters – a lot.

But the new methane rule goes beyond merely undoing the damage of the Trump years. The proposal is broader than its Obama-era predecessors, and once finalized, will apply to hundreds of thousands of previously unregulated emission sources, like wells, storage tanks, and compressor stations. That is because unlike the prior standards, Biden’s rule will cover equipment of all ages. EPA thus avoids a key conceptual error that has undercut agency initiatives for over five decades under administrations of both parties: The old rules regulated only new facilities, while exempting older ones from emission limits. In contrast, Biden’s rule covers new and old emitters alike.

And methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a big problem. The gas has a startlingly powerful greenhouse effect when released directly into the atmosphere, trapping 86 times more heat over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. As a result, while methane accounts for only 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is responsible for almost a third of current, human-caused warming. And here in the United States, oil and gas installations are the largest industrial source of methane, due both to leaks and intentional venting during the production process.

The Obama administration recognized the need to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector back in 2016 and crafted regulations to do so. But those restrictions applied only to equipment constructed in 2015 or later, leaving the vast majority of the sector’s sources and emissions uncontrolled.

This story was troublingly familiar. Regulating new sources of pollution strictly and existing sources laxly or not at all is known as “grandfathering.” The EPA has engaged in the practice before, with disastrous results. Indeed, we wrote an entire book about the terrible consequences of exempting existing power plants from 1970s emission limits on soot- and smog-forming pollutants.

On the subject of other troublesome old mistakes, the EPA had no comment about toxic emissions emanating from all the crazy uncles still out there. Sources say they continue to study the issue.