Sunday, September 25, 2022

In extremis: The world at the edge of a cliff

Geopolitical risk took center stage last week when Russia announced it would annex the Ukrainian territory it has seized—after holding "referendums," of course, in those areas. Any attack on what would now become Russian territory would be met by all means necessary including nuclear weapons. Presaging this development, I wrote the following in a piece from March entitled, "World War III is here, but it's not what we expected":

[I]f Russia ultimately feels backed into a corner, the Russian leadership may see no alternative but to draw its main competitors into a wider war with the hope of instilling enough fear of a nuclear confrontation that both sides relent and a political settlement and security guarantees follow that include an agreement to end all economic warfare.

It is in just such circumstances that both sides may miscalculate or may misconstrue the words of the other and choose to escalate the conflict in a way that will make prophets out of all the screenwriters and novelists who depicted World War III as the end of civilization.

It seems "such circumstances" have arrived and both sides are choosing escalation. I am not predicting "the end of civilization." But I'm more worried than I was a week ago.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Europe's real-time experiment in energy contraction

European society is currently undergoing a real-time experiment in energy contraction. Sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have led to a dramatic reduction in imports of Russian oil and natural gas. The Europeans are still receiving some Russian oil via pipeline though that flow was reduced last month. The reasons for the decline in natural gas deliveries from Russia—deliveries not prevented by Western sanctions—are disputed with each side accusing the other of being the cause.

Those of us who have been warning about the coming energy stringency believed that it would result from the rising cost of extracting hydrocarbons—and the inability to bring new production online faster than production is declining from existing wells. In Europe, we are getting an early preview of what such a future looks like when a society is unprepared for a sudden decline in the availability of oil and natural gas.

The loss of Russian natural gas imports is shaping up to be nothing less than catastrophic for Europe. Just two years ago the price of gas at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility, Europe's most liquid natural gas market, was hovering around €11 per megawatt hour. At the close last Friday the price was almost 17 times higher at just under €188. At one point in late August the price spiked to €349. In the decade prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the highest price ever seen for the TTF was a little over €29.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Why we worship waste

The ability to waste resources without the need to be concerned for one's well-being or future has always been a sign of wealth and power.

Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in his famous 1899 treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. The point, of course, for the wealthy is to be conspicuous so as to attract the attention, praise and deference of their fellow citizens. Veblen explained that wealthy people also often communicate their power to others by having a group of attendants around them who do little or nothing. He dubbed this "vicarious leisure." Since there are only 24 hours in a day, one person, however wealthy and powerful, can only enjoy so much leisure. Vicarious leisure made possible by the excess wealth of an individual is an unmistakable sign that a person is important.

The seemingly relentless drive of commercial enterprises to reduce waste and economize may appear to run counter to this. But that drive is only meant to produce more wealth for what Veblen calls the leisure class by which he means the power elite of society.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a holiday break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 11.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Failed states: Coming to a country near you

As I was reading a story about a Mexican drug cartel enforcing price controls on tortilla vendors—something that if done is normally done by governments—I was reminded of a scene from the film "Casablanca."

It's 1940 and Nazi officers are visiting Casablanca which at this stage of World War II is controlled by the German puppet regime in France called Vichy France. In their attempts to apprehend "an enemy of the Reich," the German officers meet with and question Richard Blain, the American owner of the eponymous Rick's Cafe, a nightclub and illicit casino.

As they discuss German aspirations in the war, one of the German officers asks Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) what he thinks of the Germans occupying his "beloved Paris." He answers, "It's not particularly my beloved Paris."

Another German officer then asks if Rick can imagine Germans occupying London. Rick again deflects saying, "When you get there, ask me." But when a German major asks Rick about invading New York City, Rick fires back: "There are certain sections of New York, major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Europe's disappearing rivers illustrate multiple converging catastrophes

When I was teenager, I took a week-long cruise with my family up the Rhine River. The voyage started in Amsterdam. With stops at various cities, the ship sailed all the way to Basel, Switzerland, hundreds of miles inland and about 800 feet higher in elevation than Amsterdam.

That trip would be more perilous today as the levels of Europe's major rivers decline in the face of an extreme drought that has resulted in almost no rain for the last two months across much of Europe. The Rhine, the Loire, the Danube and the Po have all been hard hit. The fate of these rivers is intimately linked to Europe's energy, food, and transportation security. And the fate of both the rivers and the daily needs of Europeans are intimately bound up with the trajectory of climate change and resource depletion, especially of water and energy.

For the Rhine, freight transportation has been curtailed as barges are unable to carry their maximum weight without scraping the bottom of the river in some places. The Rhine is a central artery for the transportation of food and fuel. Just as Europe needs more coal in the right places to generate electricity as Russian natural gas supplies have been curtailed, the cheapest way of moving coal has now become impaired. Trucks and trains are now being forced to carry more freight than normal, straining an already strained supply chain.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Rain, rain go away? Climate change and Death Valley's deluge

I visited Death Valley in August 2008 shortly after rare, plentiful rains (at least by Death Valley standards) had turned one of the Earth's hottest and driest places into a riot of yellow, blue, red and pink color as wildflowers bloomed across the valley. The day I visited was a clear one and not at all unusual for Death Valley at that time of year. When at midday we tourists climbed off the air-conditioned bus, it felt as if I had just stepped into a pre-heated oven. It was 112 degrees F.

I had no thoughts of climate change that day. This was just the way Death Valley was and had been for a very long time. However, reading about recent heavy rains in Death Valley twice in the last weekrains so heavy that they trapped automobiles and closed roads due to mud and debris—I took note that in a place where dryness and heat are normal, water suddenly became a dangerous hazard, one that resulted in the closing of all roads in and out of the national park that comprises Death Valley. (Something similar happened in nearby Las Vegas, Nevada the week before as water flooded streets and gushed through roofs flooding casinos and frightening visitors. This in a city that gets less than 5 inches of rain a year.)

Drought has been getting almost all the media coverage in the American Southwest. That's in part because the drought story persists over long periods and becomes a story whenever fear of water restrictions or actual restrictions surface or when it looks like rain might bring relief.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The nitrogen fertilizer monkey trap

More than a century ago two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a technique for taking nitrogen from air and combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia, now widely used to make nitrogen fertilizers. What came to be known as the Haber-Bosch process unleashed a revolution in crop yields which were no longer limited by natural inputs of nitrogen.

So important is this process to crop yields that it is estimated that without it half the people alive today would starve. If the worldwide application of nitrogen fertilizers had no adverse consequences, there would be no problem continuing business-as-usual. But the consequences have become worrisome:

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The "we'll-just-adapt-to-climate-change" team takes drubbing

Climate change deniers have had to adjust their story in recent years as the effects of climate change have become more and more apparent to people where they live all around the world. The first iteration was that climate change is good. It will make winters milder and it will help "fertilize" crops with additional carbon dioxide which all plants need to manufacture the food they live on.

While the "greening" effect of rising carbon dioxide concentrations is real, there is a limit to how much it will help plants. As for milder winters, they may be good for some and worse for others. Where they result in diminished snows in critical watersheds such as the Himalayas and the Alps, the effect can be diminished water supplies, particularly at crucial times in summer when mountain snowmelt can stabilize flows in key streams and rivers that might otherwise be very low so that they can provide irrigation water and water for human consumption.

So, now the deniers argue that we can just adapt. This is, of course, the path of least resistance since it requires no major changes in business-as-usual. Let's see how that's working out.