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

Ruffling the kleptocracy

In other news – just started a subscription to the FT and wow, there ARE other stories out there. Boring, significant. Anyway, the U.S. is about to ban anonymous shell companies:

The Biden administration’s focus on corruption and money laundering may so far have attracted less notice than its other big policy decisions. But it is the most meaningful manifestation of the US president’s argument that making the economy work for ordinary Americans is intimately connected to US national security and foreign policy interests.

There are many reasons to cheer this turn in policy. First, it is an all-too-rare example of relative bipartisanship in a deeply polarised country. Days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Corporate Transparency Act was passed by overwhelming majorities of the US Congress as part of the annual defence spending authorisation bill. This law will, when implemented, in effect ban anonymous shell companies in the US — a favoured conduit for the world’s corrupt to launder dirty money, as Yellen referred to in her remarks.

Second, the administration means it seriously. The Treasury has issued an implementation rule for the shell company ban. Too often, in the US or elsewhere, good laws on paper have been dead letters in practice, because of loopholes or a failure to put enough resources and political support behind enforcement. This time looks different.

So weird, and not to get/stay meta all the time, but this story even hits the mythical ‘bipartisan’ note somehow, and yet still never rises to the level of the local news. Sure, it was drowned out by a coup attempt, but as the article points out, corrupted government institutions are the very things that abet anti-democratic movements. So, striking back at corruption also strikes a blow in support of liberal democracy. Sounds so quaint, but that’s where we are.

Image: Nicobar spindle shell, typically not itself a threat to democracy.

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.

Renewable satire

In a coming-of-age development (and maybe only into adolescence… but still) There’s now a satirical renewable energy ‘news’ site. Sustainably called The Sunion:

In a synthetic discovery broadly compared to the work of Galloway and Leach, NREL investigators tracing energy and capital flows between renewable energy systems, those systems’ project finance assumptions via primary-contracted-offtakers, the primary clients of those offtakers, and, in turn, the primary consumers of those offtakers, have discovered a previously uncharacterized, enclosed, and self-sustaining sunlight-to electricity-to-money-to bros-to-data-to-grift/crypto-to-porn-to-bros-to money-to light-to-electricity ecosystem that is nearly self sustaining without external reference or input and which may soon overtake photosynthesis and geotechnical processes in terms of overall magnitude of energy transfer in Earth’s biosphere.

Sure, why not? I guess it had to happen. Plenty to poke holes in about the way(s) we’re going about all of this, especially all the financialization through-the-looking-glass you’re actually at-an-Arby’s-drivethrough of it all. Bring it.

Theories about ESG investing

This is some serious inside baseball. But it IS October:

If your basic theory of ESG investing is “we will avoid bad-ESG stocks in order to drive up the cost of capital of bad-ESG things,” it seems to be working:

Years of awful returns and pressure from clients to exit from the oil-and-gas business have left fewer and smaller firms able to take advantage of rising prices and help boost production. The unwillingness of some banks to make energy loans has compounded the challenges to boosting energy supplies.

Those left are moving to increase production, but they are relatively small players who won’t be able to make a significant impact on output. Investors are steering capital away from fossil fuels and toward companies that rank high in environmental, social and governance, or ESG, measures.

“Oil-and-gas has seen the worst returns of any sector over the past five years; the returns are volatile and investors feel ESG pressures,” says Wil VanLoh, who runs Quantum Energy Partners, which manages $18 billion, making it one of the few remaining big energy private-equity funds. “There’s been a huge retreat in available capital.”

That’s from Matt Levine’s Bloomberg daily newsletter, talking game about the game. But the idea that ESG investing is maturing, as he says, is an interesting one. If companies and the courts are no longer going to just line up on the side of fiduciary responsibilities as a way to protect shareholders – and hence, the companies that may continue to pollute and spew for profit – that’s at least a change.

Image: Abraham Lincoln: Baseball Theme Currier & Ives Cartoon, 1860.

Boring work of staggering effectiveness

Right along the lines of super unexciting infrastructure fixes to crucial bridges, railways, pipes and water mains is the capping of methane-spewing oil wells, of which we have a leaky and abundant surplus:

Curtis Shuck calls the well a “super emitter,” one of many in a wheat field not far from the Canadian border, a part of Montana known as the “golden triangle” for its bountiful crops. Aside from the scattered rusty pipes and junked oil tanks, the field is splendid and vast, its horizon interrupted intermittently by power lines and grain bins. On these plains, Shuck says, you can watch your dog run away for a week.

He is a former oil and gas executive who nowadays leads a small nonprofit — the result of a personal epiphany — and is tackling global warming one well at a time. That is the approach of his Well Done Foundation, plugging this and then other orphaned sites and trapping the methane underground. The effort started in Montana in 2019 but will expand to other states before the fall.

“When we’re done, it will be like this well was never here,” Shuck said, standing upwind as cement was pumped hundreds of feet down, through a series of pipes stuck in the 7½-inch-wide hole like a straw in a juice box.

30K to cap a well. Well done, Well Done. Plant trees, install solar farms, wind farms, stop dumping sewage, limit runoff, cut back on steaks (sorry! but do), refurbish the train lines, live close to work. Listen to ‘Trane while you walk. Live a little.

What’s it going to take? All of it, every last all of it. Everything.

Image: Abandoned oil storage tanks left behind in Montana. (Adrián Sanchez-Gonzalez for The Washington Post)

Fixing it

Notwithstanding the [late] reckoning with our very own special coup, the one we think we dodged and the very one over which Our Media is fascinated by exactly all the wrong details; the battle between Chicago and lake Michigan; and the new Gilded Age space flights for plutocrat tourists, the economy seems to have magically withstood a pandemic (Narrator: It’s not magic):

Initial unemployment claims came in at 360,000 for the week ending July 10, below the previous week’s revised read of 386,000. That reading matched the consensus forecast among economists, according to Bloomberg.

The decline in the seasonally adjusted number resumes the overall downward trend of the volatile data series after an unexpected rise in initial claims last week. The Labor Department noted that this marks a new pandemic-era low.

While the number of Americans newly filing for unemployment benefits tends to bounce around from week to week, it’s been on a general downward trend after spiking to record-shattering numbers amid the early days of the pandemic last spring. The return to that downward trend matches other data suggesting a steadily recovering labor market.

360K is still a very many lot of people, and yet you ask: after years of making sure our billionaires had enough nest eggs to color-coordinate their space suits, how was it possible to get through a year of very limited economic activity and still be able browse and sniff at the want ads and generally avoid most of the fascist tendencies on offer? Give. People. Money.

CARES and PPP run themselves out by design, which is helping people stay afloat. This is why we’re longing for vacations instead of standing in breadlines. And the infrastructure bill will bring more of this – not gifts and not luxuries – but investments in people and how we live, with recommendations for new arrangements for different needs that WE have made absolutely necessary (see Chicago example above and read the history). Move the monuments. Buy the trains. Pay the carpenters, or become one. As legend has it, the profession has a storied past.

Self-driving boats

Since he began scamming promising people – buyers and not just buyers, but BUYERS – that full self-driving would be available in six months (2016), Elon Musk has played a vital role in one of our great national pursuits. Yes, separating people from their money. But normalizing electric cars, even with the side auto-taxi fraud, is to be lauded. Tesla definitely got the other car makers to get some skin in the game.

There are and long have been many obvious reasons behind the difficulty of self-driving cars that Musk is now copping to, but again the Overton window has been effectively shifted. Quiet electric vehicles are turning up all over the place – on land, on sea, even in the fjords:

But they’ve already made Norway the most electrified shipping nation in the world, thanks to an aggressive government push to cut maritime emissions. The country is home to almost three-quarters of the 274 vessels globally that run at least partly on batteries, according to a state advisory body. Its fleet of 31 fully-electric car ferries is expected to nearly double by the end of the year, says the Green Shipping Programme, a public-private partnership that supports the transition. Even the sightseeing ferries that cruise Norway’s famous fjords are transitioning to battery power.

On a Saturday morning in Stavanger, along Norway’s west coast, a new ferry, the Rygerelektra, is in the harbor preparing for a tour of some nearby fjords. Measuring 42 meters long with seating capacity of nearly 300, the ferry, is owned and operated by Rødne Fjord Cruises. It is among a group of vessels from several of Norway’s leading maritime companies that are driving a shift towards zero-emissions fleet and supporting Norway’s ambitious economic reinvention away from oil and gas to alternative energy source.

They acknowledge the challenges of large-scale fleet charging, though promising technology already exists. And then, they can’t resist the temptation:

“In Norway, we need to transition from oil exports to sustainable products and services, while still utilizing the competence we have gained from the oil industry, says Pia Meling, vice president of sales and marketing at Massterly, the autonomous shipping company. “We would like to compete on the renewables and in clean shipping in particular.” Massterly’s vision is one of zero-emission, autonomous vessels moving everything from passengers around Norway to containers across oceans.

Emphasis added because I guess they can’t help it. But really, who knows where the over-promise of auto-taxis might lead? Self-driving boats are certainly more possible, if not theoretically easier – at least until you get to a crowded harbor. But hey, in the open water? Sure. In six months, we’ll be…

Calls coming from inside the House

May 26 – already an annual celebration chez Green – got another star on its sidewalk this year when a Dutch court case and corporate board meeting became a dessert topping that’s also a floor polish:

It started in the morning, when news came in from the Netherlands that a Dutch court ruled in a case against Shell, ordering the oil giant to cut emissions 45% by 2030 in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The case had been brought by activists, led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth. Organizers ultimately signed up 17,000 co-plaintiffs to the case and mobilized hundreds of thousands more to support the effort.

While the ruling will surely be appealed, and doesn’t go nearly far enough to address Shell’s decades of human rights and climate abuses, it’s a monumental win. It will also help validate what many have dismissed as a long shot legal strategy to hold polluters accountable for their climate crimes. I remember back in Paris in 2015 when we hosted a mock tribunal for ExxonMobil in a warehouse far from the official UN Climate Talks. To see an actual court hold Shell accountable today felt like watching our fantasies play out in real time.

The same could be said for what happened this afternoon at the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, where an outside effort succeeded in replacing at least two of Exxon’s board of directors with candidates dedicated to decarbonizing the company. I’m honestly skeptical that a few new board members can radically reform a corporation that has long been one of the greatest barriers to climate action, but it’s still a stunning rebuke. The vote was effectively a referendum on Exxon’s business model of “drill, baby, drill,” to which investors said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

A similar thing happened (same day) with a shareholder revolt at Chevron – not overturning any policies just yet but worried about the optics of the dirty work. Some media, cough NPR cough, puzzle over this with a ‘what does it mean?’ contrariness, looking for a way to defend even the energy companies’ rights and status quo. And not to get too Cassandra about this but the dust is settling a bit differently. When the most intractable, no one to blame, just-business energy providers can be re-directed from inside, a lot more becomes possible. Money does have uses. Keep up the pressure.

Asset Class not in Session

Exotic financial instruments. Linking ‘investors’ and funding to projects to weave profits out of insurance or management strategies designed to ease or hasten climate adaptation… doesn’t actually work:

That’s because of the nature of the underlying “asset.” Sure, in theory, you could securitize the construction of a seawall and capture returns via fees from wealthy coastal dwellers or local councils. But seawalls are not widgets. Each has to be uniquely designed for a specific location and its conditions. There are few economies of scale.

There’s also no established norm about how the costs of climate adaptation projects should be shared among those who are being protected. Will enough residents willingly pay for our theoretical seawall, either directly or via their taxes? Who’s being protected, and at whose expense? Structures that protect one stretch of beach can often create problems further along the coastline.

Adaptation doesn’t fall into a neat category. It can mean investing in infrastructure or designing programs to protect nature. It can involve constructing big sea walls, but it can also be about retaining trees on city streets, or ensuring access to clean drinking water. Right now these measures are too small to interest big pension funds and asset managers. A report by UNEP and others found only about two dozen projects larger than $25 million over the last few years.

Important to separate the reality that climate measures are necessary, and will necessarily save money down the road, from the notion that they represent just another opportunity to build a new revenue stream. The article wisely links climate to justice, and as much as it pains many Americans, there is no way around that. It has been true for even longer than it’s been evident – and it’s been evident for a very long time: people cannot live without justice. Racial. Climate. Economic. These are non-negotiable bonds, in the common parlance. We will do it for its own sake, because it benefits people. THAT’s the return. Clean up the rentier class soiling the revenue stream, the water will run clearly.

Image: Photograph: Emory Kristof/National Geographic/Getty Images