Patience or patients

The good news wrapped in the bad: COVID-19 seems to mutate slowly enough that a vaccine could be available by yearend or early 2021.

Opening schools for in-person instruction, at every level, would seem best AFTER that time. Do we have the ability/courage/wisdom to wait it out? Only complete answers accepted. Show your work.

Image: Plants listening to Puccini in Barcelona, via the Guardian.

Powering Down

Necessarily ambitious climate targets to meet the Paris Agreement goals earlier must actually be designed to surpass them. As we’ve said often these efforts are results of broad collective action, by governments:

The centerpiece of Leonore Gewessler’s plan is a radical revamp of Austria’s public transportation networks, giving residents nationwide access to buses, trains and subways for a flat yearly fee that works out at 3 euros ($3.38) a day, encouraging citizens to leave their cars at home. Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, is drafting new laws that’ll redistribute billions of euros toward more ecologically-friendly activities in the euro area’s sixth biggest economy.

“That’s the project that is very dear to my heart,” said Gewessler in her first interview in her ministry since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Road traffic remains a “key concern” for Austria to meet its goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2040—a decade earlier than the target set by the European Union.

Note when this is happening – now. Even and especially during the pandemic. The localities we’ve heard about where streets have been restricted to pedestrian-only traffic requires another couple of steps to complete the process. Paired with (cheap!) alternative transportation options, this will seem like another thing we just had to do. (Narrator: Because. It. Is.)

Image via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

[Night on] Earth Day

Let’s just take a look back at this little episode, shall we? Yes, we shall:

A massive deepwater oil spill is nearly as likely today as it was in 2010, experts warn, 10 years after the disastrous explosion of BP’s rig in the Gulf of Mexico that caused an environmental catastrophe.

The blowout killed 11 workers and spewed 4m barrels of petroleum into the ocean for 87 days before it could be capped, devastating marine life and polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline. Thousands were put out of work in oil, fisheries and tourism.

But experts say an incident of similar scale could happen again and has been made more likely by the Trump administration’s decision to loosen Obama-era safety rules. Those standards had grown from an independent commission’s damning findings of corporate and regulatory failures leading up to the spill.

Frances Ulmer, who served on the commission and is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said the government and industry have not made sufficient changes to prevent or respond to another mammoth spill.

Sufficient changes. Just what might those those be? It isn’t me walking to work (I do), or building a solar charging station for the car (we are). Those things are those things and they make my life better as they ease some pollution in my local community. But they’re not going to save anything – only collective action will do that. Governments working together to re-assert control that has been systematically ceded to corporations for the purpose of pillage and profit. Reigning in the unaccountable and including the costs of externalities in the price of everything we can buy are the things that will begin make a difference. The reduced economic activity of the past six weeks should give us a little hint of what is required if we had to cram for the test. If we [all] decided to start studying a little everyday, it would mean different political leaders, building codes, transportation alternatives, land development regulations, and prices than the ones we have today. How many of these are possible in the near term?

There’s an election in November.

Image: A man lays oil-absorbent boom as oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts Cat Island in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, in 2010.
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Also possible without needing a pandemic

NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There is evidence that the change is at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus.

At the end of 2019, medical professionals in Wuhan, China, were treating dozens of pneumonia cases that had an unknown source. Days later, researchers confirmed the illnesses were caused by a new coronavirus (COVID-19). By January 23, 2020, Chinese authorities had shut down transportation going into and out of Wuhan, as well as local businesses, in order to reduce the spread of the disease. It was the first of several quarantines set up in the country and around the world.

The maps on this page show concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities. The maps above show NO2 values across China from January 1-20, 2020 (before the quarantine) and February 10-25 (during the quarantine). The data were collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite. A related sensor, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite, has been making similar measurements.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Liu recalls seeing a drop in NO2 over several countries during the economic recession that began in 2008, but the decrease was gradual. Scientists also observed a significant reduction around Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, but the effect was mostly localized around that city, and pollution levels rose again once the Olympics ended.

It doesn’t take a disaster or even an emergency – beyond the one we have already created with the usual emissions levels. Reductions are possible. Disasters and loss are not mandatory, though we do make them inevitable to some extent by doing nothing. Still, these dramatic images should be instructional about what’s possible. It would be interesting to know the near-term implications of these reductions. You know, science.

Faceback

Take the [please!] newest, most naive form of sharing personal news and information, let it be a for-profit business and just for kicks, make it the most profitable non-product the world has ever known. What would you get?

On the one hand, the company wants to curtail the spread of disinformation across its site. At the same time, it wants to avoid alienating the groups and candidates who depend on its platform for fund-raising and organizing. So in trying to find a way to please everyone on the issue, Facebook has managed to please no one.

The social network has now become an outlier in how freely it lets political candidates and elected officials advertise on its platform. While Mr. Zuckerberg declared last month that Facebook would not police political ads, Twitter said it would ban all such ads because of their negative impact on civic discourse. On Wednesday, Google said it would no longer allow political ads to be directed to specific audiences based on people’s public voter records or political affiliations.

Part of our own vulnerability rests within an inability to understand simple words like ‘sharing’, and reluctance to engage with non-simple contracts like the many we would rather click agree to and just get back to posting our favorite stuff. More on all of this soon, but we’re really staring into the abyss here without noting the swirl. We hear the sound, but not its signal; can do steps but are not invited to the dance.

Thumbs up!

11 to 7 on the Paradigm Shift

There are great amounts of quality disparagements of business schools in general (intentional or not), and MBA programs in particular. The singular ethos, such as it exists, or lack of concern beyond profiteering for anything involving people, environments, good governance or even public safety opens a very wide field in which quite little is possible other than the growing of predator industries and the election of frauds.

But the hedge-fund guys and girls have largely gotten a pass for a long while now, though that just will not suffice and they refuse to have their lack of acumen for or understanding of the industries they destroy not properly respected for precisely what it is:

To me, this and so many other closings of quality publications leads to a broader question of whether journalistic outlets can even exist under this current age of capitalism. In short, I think the answer is basically no. Journalism can exist in a capitalist system of course, but only when the people who own these outlets have some higher purposes, at least in part, whether it is some belief in the truth or at least a willingness to accept relatively moderate profits instead of instant gold. But we now live in an era of venture capitalist schemes, where rank idiots stumble into massive wealth and believe that they are rich because they are smarter than everyone else. When this happens, as it did in the initial Gilded Age, these morons run roughshod over the world around them.

Just so. The jump comes from a ledge of dangerous combination: You make a great deal of money – however quickly – and also systematically evade any education that would have given you access to some self-awareness that might save you and others something a little more important than two points below prime. The serial misunderstanding of terms will be the subtext of the best work of many future historians and not-a-few extradition treaties. CRaP, for example, is a re-purposed acronym that should be far more useful that it is.

The Real Eschew

Given the vicissitudes of the news cycle over the last four months, this is a pretty solid distribution of issues over the last four debates. As long as Health Care stays in the top three or four, voters might be able to stay focused on the ridiculous costs of living, and even of dying, quite frankly.

And Democrats can actually do several things at once, as long as one of those things is holding criminals accountable for crimes.

Bonus Fun Fact: subpoena means “Under Penalty.”

Tenther limits

Apparently, the 10th Amendment Sovereignty Movement is all well and good until it begins to effect air pollution requirements:

Because of California’s historical air pollution problems, the federal Clean Air Act gives California the right to establish stricter guidelines than the federal government — so long as it gets a waiver from the EPA. The Obama administration granted the state such a waiver on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, although the state and federal governments wound up agreeing on a joint plan to reduce carbon emissions by about 30 percent by 2025.

Almost from the day he took office, though, Trump has vowed to roll back the Obama standards, and laid plans to revoke California’s waiver.

That prompted California in July to engineer a major coup: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen cut a deal with Newsom and the California Air Resources Board to reduce carbon emissions at a far swifter rate than the Trump administration wants. The deal represents a compromise on the original Obama standards by giving the automakers an extra year, until 2026, to meet the climate change targets.

Newsom later announced that Mercedes Benz is on the verge of agreeing to the same standards as the other four companies.

The announcement reportedly infuriated Trump. Earlier this month, lawyers for the EPA and the federal Department of Transportation sent a letter to Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, saying the deal with the automakers appears to be “unlawful and invalid.” Separately, numerous media reported that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an antitrust investigation into the four carmakers’ participation in the deal.

Let’s make sure to stipulate just what we’re talking about here – the ability of the nation’s largest state to reduce carbon emissions. Civil right, gun control, healthcare, and voting standards must all be subservient to the wishes of purity-driven state governments.

Reducing carbon emissions and protecting people, the environment, companies and the Clean Air Act itself is a bridge too far.

Akrasia for you

The merest coincidence with the Labor Day interruption, but a turn to British politics, courtesy of the great Fintan O’Toole. He lays bare a striking (sorry – this is not the time!) aspect of Brexit and especially the loathsome Boris Johnson, as smarter than he is playing – but for the sake of, well, you will believe it:

[T]his raises the two central questions about Johnson—does he believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.

The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious—why would people knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included. You have to be “in on the joke”—and Johnson has shown just how far some English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.

“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.

Do you know any people like this? They would rather make fun of something than think or reckon seriously with ramifications or consequences. How boring! Nihilists to the core, though I prefer the more direct soubriquet – assholes.

And yes, yes you do know some, unfortunately, probably more than a few.

When at all costs

Quite likely, that the news of Oil’s decline will arrive long after it has actually begun to happen. That’s mostly the way most things work – just ask all the Hillbillies people Elegying worried that the demographics of the U.S. are changing!

Even so, BNP Paribas has startlingly concluded that the economics of oil “are now in relentless and irreversible decline”:

The report is good news for humanity because it means peak oil demand may be less than a decade away, which in turn means ambitious climate goals will be more affordable than previously thought.

But the bank’s analysis, “Wells, Wires and Wheels,” is devastating for Big Oil. It concludes that “the oil industry has never before in its history faced the kind of threat that renewable electricity in tandem with EVs poses to its business model.”

But one of the most startling findings is that because the cost of running EVs on solar or wind power is dropping so rapidly, the only way gasoline cars can compete with these renewable energy-powered EVs in the 2020s is if the price of oil were to drop to $11 to $12 per barrel. The current price of oil is over $50.

Even worse for oil, this economic analysis doesn’t even factor in many of the other benefits of running cars on renewable power rather than oil. These include the vast public health benefits of not breathing air pollution from burning oil, along with the benefits of not having huge oil spills and of not destroying a livable climate.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer, more thoughtful and civic-minded group. It would honestly have been much better had we just thanked them around 1967 and made the direct move to the obvious as it had already by then been long-imagined. But no. There were markets to dominate and profits to lose and wars to fund, thus the long drawn out halftime show that just embarrasses everybody with the need for enormous flags, jet flyovers and pale people in native costumes. Can’t enjoy this show and take no pleasure in their decades-late demise.