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?

The RASP Act

I tried to joke about this (R-A-S-P-E-C-T), but it’s really just pathetic:

OrwellLawmakers from at least four states have introduced model legislation from the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) seeking to prohibit state funding for the Environmental Protection A

gency’s efforts to fight climate change.

On Thursday, Missouri state lawmaker Tim Remole introduced a resolution mimicking the text of AFP’s Reliable, Affordable and Safe Power (RASP) Act. Remole’s resolution “seeks to prohibit state agencies from using state money to implement EPA rules and guidelines,” specifically the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Nearly identical resolutions have also been introduced in Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina in 2015. Each one says the proposed limits on carbon emissions from power plants “will not measurably alter any impacts of climate change,” “conflicts with a literal reading of the law,” and would “effectively amount to a federal takeover of the electricity system of the United States.”

Why are people so intent on making Orwell look like some kind of naive piker? We’re talking working nights and weekends to make it happen. If we just call it this, then it will be fine? Alternatively, if we ban people from using these words, we can be confident that none of it is happening? People! The man wrote about this more than sixty years ago.

Model legislation indeed.

 

No So Gently Lapping at Your Chamber Door

The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880. The December combined global land and ocean average surface temperature was also the highest on record.

And:

The acceleration of the rate of sea level rise over the past couple decades is even higher than scientists had thought, according to a new study that uses a novel method to estimate the global rise of the oceans.

The reason? The rate of rise across the 20th century has actually been overestimated — by as much as 30 percent — meaning there’s been a bigger jump in sea level rise rates from the beginning of the 1900s to now than previously thought.

But you know what? VousetesCharlieSelmaGotRobbedAllCountryMusicSoundsTheSameAmericaDoesn’tTortureElCapitanBokoHaramDukeSCOTUSIslam Gas prices are down.

Objectively Pro-Planet

earth-shineEarth, that is.

Is there a consensus that this is the best planet? I mean, everyone talks about Mars and then there’s Jupiter. Saturn has those rings… but Earth? Do we care about it? Is it a question on familiarity? Are we bored with seven continents and the oceans maintaining certain levels, the tides and one moon? Asking for a friend.

The idea of a climate war should be the height of absurdity. But do we even register affront when news is reported this way? Maybe the media on other planets is also better.

The Boutique Age of journalism

Not my phrase. From a podcast between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Miles O’Brien where they cast CNN as the Wal-Mart of journalism:

They then discussed the notion of “fair and balanced” reporting, with O’Brien recounting an occasion in which he brought his producers a story that 95 percent of the scientific community agreed on. “Is it fair in a story about climate change,” O’Brien said, “which is clearly what I’m talking about, to do this journalistic convention of equal time for both sides. This is a huge mistake for journalism.”

Tyson agreed, saying that the conventional solution means that you get “one person to represent that 5 percent, but then he gets 50 percent of your time.”

They went on to discuss the use of a Jessica Yellin hologram during the 2008 election, which is not that far off from my assertion that actors will begin to be portrayed by avatars, instead of humans, in the not to distant future.

Dystopia? How would we know?

Paying energy companies to arrest climate change

Tar Pit #3In a piece about a new essay by MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large Chris Hayes, an interesting view on the climate crisis and a new notion (to me) about what might be required:

Drawing off of an earlier essay written by climate activist and expert Bill McKibben — as well as the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative — Hayes notes that the total amount of carbon in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy corporations and fossil fuel-producing countries (2,795 gigatons) vastly exceeds the amount scientists say we can release into our atmosphere by the middle of this century before risking catastrophic climate change (565 gigatons). And what makes this disparity even more alarming is the fact that these carbon reserves are worth an estimated $20 trillion. If we’re going to save the planet, in other words, then a lot of powerful interests in the energy sector will have to leave a lot of money on the table.

Taking into consideration the enormous amount of wealth that will have to be nullified if climate activists are to achieve their goal, Hayes draws an intriguing parallel between the modern divestment movement and the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. While he makes pains to emphasize that he doesn’t see people in the energy industry as morally equivalent to slaveholders, Hayes argues that the only precedent in American history of a political group relinquishing so much wealth is the emancipation of the South’s slaves in the 1860s — an achievement that was reached in part through a hideous Civil War.

So… are we going to have to compensate energy companies not to take more carbon out of the ground? While not as crazy as you might think (it’s in some way crazier), this gambit has some historical analogs in the immediate pre-Civil war that were also seen as desperate, last gasp efforts. And abandoned. What the suggestions say about us and craven lack of ability to deal with our own planetary suicidal tendencies, they say rather loudly. This type of self-extortion should be reserved for dystopian sci-fi adventures. And the [horrible] thing is, I’m not at all certain that we shouldn’t do it!

Paying companies for not making money from poisoning us all. Do not attempt to think about this for extended periods, or depression may occur.

Image: Alberta Tar Sands, via Occupy.com

Adapting to Adversity

Reports of capitalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, apparently. Interesting take on resiliency from The Guardian:

The idea – catastrophism, as it is often called – that the system was going to crumble under the pressure of its own contradictions, that the bourgeoisie produces its own “gravediggers” (as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto) has been disproved. When the rate of profit started showing signs of decline in the first half of the 70s, the redistributive policies implemented after the second world war were terminated and the neoliberal revolution was launched.

This resilience of capitalism has little to do with the dominant classes being particularly clever or far-sighted. In fact, they can keep on making mistakes – yet capitalism still thrives. Why?

Capitalism has created a world of great complexity since its birth. Yet at its core, it is based on a set of simple mechanisms that can easily adapt to adversity. This is a kind of “generative grammar” in Noam Chomsky’s sense: a finite set of rules can generate an infinity of outcomes.

The context today is very different from that of the 60s and 70s. The global left, however, is in danger of committing the same error of underestimating capitalism all over again. Catastrophism, this time, takes the form of investing faith in a new object: climate change, and more generally the ecological crisis.

There is a worryingly widespread belief in leftwing circles that capitalism will not survive the environmental crisis. The system, so the story goes, has reached its absolute limits: without natural resources – oil among them – it can’t function, and these resources are fast depleting; the growing number of ecological disasters will increase the cost of maintaining infrastructures to unsustainable levels; and the impact of a changing climate on food prices will induce riots that will make societies ungovernable.

The beauty of catastrophism, today as in the past, is that if the system is to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, the weakness of the left ceases to be a problem. The end of capitalism takes the form of suicide rather than murder. So the absence of a murderer – that is, an organised revolutionary movement – doesn’t really matter any more.

But the left would be better off learning from its past mistakes. Capitalism might well be capable not only of adapting to climate change but of profiting from it. One hears that the capitalist system is confronted with a double crisis: an economic one that started in 2008, and an ecological one, rendering the situation doubly perilous. But one crisis can sometimes serve to solve another.

Holy Guacamole

Literal headline from Climate ProgressChipotle Warns It Might Stop Serving Guacamole If Climate Change Gets Worse

The guacamole operation at Chipotle is massive. The company uses, on average, 97,000 pounds of avocado every day to make its guac — which adds up to 35.4 million pounds of avocados every year. And while the avocado industry is fine at the moment, scientists are anticipating drier conditions due to climate change, which may have negative effects on California’s crop. Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, predict hotter temps will cause a 40 percent drop in California‘s avocado production over the next 32 years.

We don’t even have a Chipotle – though we did enjoy the excellently local Tlaloc last night. Mmmm… but (“Batman” Voiceover voice): Is this a sign of things to come?

Tune in next week tomorrow right now WTFU.

In Less Green News

The New York Times Green Blog is shutting down:

But we will forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.

By doing less of it.

Maybe they’re starting a new Oscars blog?

Giant waves of pain

Climate change is disturbing the pattern of atmospheric flow around the globe, says the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK):

“An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions. So when they swing up, these waves suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the US, and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic,” explains lead author Vladimir Petoukhov.

“What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays. In fact, we observe a strong amplification of the usually weak, slowly moving component of these waves,” says Petoukhov. Time is critical here: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.

I know I don’t like when my flow is disturbed; It’s tough out there for a planet.