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.

Risk Denial

I know: EmPHAsis strikes again. But this is actually about the evolutionary arc of how climate change has been considered, the cost-benefit analysis it began with, and what’s left of that once the waters begin to rise:

“In the era before the Stern Review,” say Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton, “economic models of climate change were typically framed as cost-benefit analyses.” This framing has been preeminently exemplified by Nordhaus. Although he called global warming “the major environmental challenge of the modern age,” he did not express a sense of urgency about it. In his 2008 book, he said: “Neither extreme – either do nothing or stop global warming in its tracks – is a sensible course of action.” The central question, Nordhaus said, was: “How to balance costs and benefits.”

One especially startling statement came in a discussion about the sea-level rise that would be caused by the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets: “Although it is difficult to envision the ecological and societal consequences of the melting of these ice sheets,” Nordhaus said, “this situation is clearly highly undesirable and should be avoided unless prevention is ruinously expensive.” It is startling to suggest that, if we find avoiding the melting of these ice sheets “ruinously expensive,” we should just let them melt.

Although Nordhaus has not been guilty of science denial – indeed, he has publically debated with deniers – his analysis, Stanton, Ackerman, and Ramón Bueno, have written, “could be called risk denial – accepting a (very optimistic) picture of the most likely climate outcomes, but paying little or no attention to worst-case risks.” This risk denial is dangerous, they said, because “[w]hen climate economists – and the policy makers they advise – fail to understand the well-established findings of climate science, the result is likely to be too little emission reduction, too late.”

Stern’s 2013 writings expressed a very different picture of what climate economists should be doing. Although the Review had already said that the “economics of risk” should be made central, his new writings put even more focus on it, saying that economists must present climate change as “a problem of risk management on an immense scale,” which most economists had not done.

What that becomes once it is done will be a further contortion into nuance, most likely. But insurance – the practice of risk management – will bring an important economic force to bear on the consequences of climate change, which will have at least as much power on the concept of denial as the fossil fuel industry. Will it be decisive?

Quitting the Gang

kool_and_the_gangsomethin__specialYou may wonder, as I do, why and how conservatives (Republicans… however you choose to respectfully refer to them) can continue to fuel climate change denial. Evidence suggests that the house-of-cards policy package ( low taxes, drill everywhere, no regulations) they support cannot admit one such reality without a torrent of others coming into the discussion and justification for their political existence vanishing overnight. A pathetic justification, it also makes the most sense.

However, there are conservative pockets drawing pretty ‘reform conservative’ stick figures in the wet cement. As the concrete dries, so do their creaky explanations evaporate. Especially when it comes to climate change, one extraordinarily sawn limb gets walked out on, and it’s really something. A crazy metaphor involving an insurance salesman at your door is proffered to explain why now is still not the time to do anything about carbon emissions… caveat lector. But a rejoinder is offered in the comments that is quite instructive:

I generally think you show a good appreciation for the explanatory power of metaphor and incentives, but this piece is a disappointment. Your insurance policy description is fundamentally flawed: insurance exists to refund some of the losses that will indisputably occur if a low-probability event takes place. Changing our energy consumption and production habits is an action designed to reduce the probability of the catastrophic events occurring. Let’s think about a high-pollution lifestyle as similar to gang membership in the inner city, a popular conservative issue. It may cost a gang member real present resources and satisfaction to quit the gang. It may not even improve the gang member’s chance of not being shot, unless others also stop the violence. But the gang member has no moral claim on others to cease their violence unless he quits as well. And if he continues his present lifestyle he is unlikely to live a healthy or successful life. Based on your recommendation, if fewer of his friends than he expected were killed last year even though he didn’t quit the gang, and he could really use some drug money now, he should stick with it- after all, it’s uncertain future benefit versus known present costs.

People around the world are losing their homes and dying while we argue about whether or not the causality is strong enough, or what magnitude of impact we’re trying to avert.

Lying or stupid was a 2004-vintage take on why Republicans said or supported certain things. Perception certainly evolves and as they get closer and closer to honesty, the trend horizon  collapses on available policy prescriptions. That is intentional, and candidates with (R) should rewarded for learning how to run out the clock for the sake of propping up their ideology. One prize we might suggest is election losses, constant and everywhere.

Image: One of my very favorite bands and records of 1981. Never quit this gang.

It’s Like Blue, Pink and Yellow, Only Different

Inside this Newsweek story about AIG, via Atrios, is a nugget that gets at our own larger house of cards, into which they are few ways in – but once you’re in, they are literally no ways out. To wit:

Most of this as-yet-undiscovered problem, Gober says, lies in the area of reinsurance, whereby one insurance company insures the liabilities of another so that the latter doesn’t have to carry all the risk on its books. Most major insurance companies use outside firms to reinsure, but the vast majority of AIG’s reinsurance contracts are negotiated internally among its affiliates, Gober says, and these internal balance sheets don’t add up. The annual report of one major AIG subsidiary, American Home Assurance, shows that it owes $25 billion to another AIG affiliate, National Union Fire, Gober maintains. But American has only $22 billion of total invested assets on its balance sheet, he says, and it has issued another $22 billion in guarantees to the other companies. “The American Home assets and liquidity raise serious questions about their ability to make good on their promise to National Union Fire,” says Gober, who has a consulting business devoted to protecting policyholders. Gober says there are numerous other examples of “cooked books” between AIG subsidiaries. Based on the state insurance regulators’ own reports detailing unanswered questions, the tally in losses could be hundreds of billions of dollars more than AIG is now acknowledging.

Think concentric economies of scale without the redundancies. When one ring goes beyond what it’s able to support on it’s own, it leverages an outer ring to “insure” itself against loses. I don’t know any other way but to use the scare quotes around insure, and neither do they.

This insurance examiner happened to be from Mississippi, so take that area as a case in point. When you hear about all the beach front property that gets threatened or actually destroyed from storms, huge dollar amounts invariably get tossed around. Small enclaves of precarious oceanfront property could theoretically be insured against loss, say by a local firm or even Lloyds of London (if they still exist), if the property owners had sufficient capital to pay incredibly hefty premiums to insure property that is, for all intents and purposes but especially in plain old chances-of-anything-happening kinds of risk, built in the wrong place. Lovely perhaps, but fleeting. (For more on this, see love, definition of)

Now, for one thing, this would likely limit the number of houses and towns built in precarious geographical areas, and we wouldn’t want to do that –  celui sera UnAmurican. But anyway… stop anywhere here along the way, economically speaking, and the vista is much the same. Once you go beyond those who can afford to build, live and rebuild in danger-prone areas and extend the opportunity to the rest of anyone who wants the lovely, the insurance companies can’t guarantee these investments, even though they will write policies saying that someone* will. We send the risk spiraling outward, trying to leverage the power of the outer rings. But even there, the big firms can’t even write down their actual liabilities – because they wouldn’t be able to cover them in the eventuality of anything catastrophic across scales happening, otherwise known as the events they’re writing insurance to cover.

*Now, what if we stipulated from the outset that this someone was the government, aka the taxpayers? And what if as a part of such ventures other responsibilities were attached the ‘parties of the first part’ that raised the bar for how we go about insuring things? What if, in other words, everyone had to be honest about all of this, what would be different? Less beachfront property? Would the U.S. be a third-world backwater without the necessity to Pyramid-scheme at every opportunity? This is what we would have ourselves believe, that without such security and assurances, such as it is, we would wouldn’t be so prosperous.

I’ll leave it to you to re-assess the shifting definitions of those last few words in light of recent events.