Sunday, July 14, 2024

Can coastal property values weather climate change?

A reader of mine asked the following question in a recent email: If climate change is such a threat, how come U.S. coastal properties continue to rise in value? This seems like a conundrum unless you know what is actually driving the trend. And, it's worth noting that coastal home prices in certain instances have suddenly collapsed along with the shoreline next to those homes due to coastal erosion—which, not surprisingly, increases with rising sea level. A Nantucket seaside home assessed for tax purposes just this year at $1.9 million recently sold for $200,000. Expect more stories like this one to start appearing in the news.

So, what about other homes that continue to hold their value and even rise in value? Here are some of the drivers of what will some day be considered an insane bubble in coastal real estate prices:

Sunday, July 07, 2024

Why adaptation to climate change misses the mark

The climate change deniers frequently offer three contradictory responses as their position becomes more and more untenable in the face of mounting evidence, to wit: 1) There is no climate change, 2) it'll be cheaper to adapt to climate change than prevent it, and 3) climate change is good for us—it will improve agriculture and open the Arctic to resource exploitation.

It is the second of these that I wish to discuss. There is no solid evidence that adapting to climate change will be cheaper, nor do the deniers provide a clear picture of what adapting would mean. In other words, they have no comprehensive plan; they are simply trying to muddy the waters to stall efforts at addressing climate change because the business interests behind them do not want to bear the costs.

The number one reason adaptation will be so costly is that climate change is a moving target. Sea level, temperature, and severe weather are not going to simply reach a new constant level to which we can adapt for the long run. On the contrary, these are all moving targets. Infrastructure improvements made today which are meant to last 20, 30, even 50 years are unlikely to address the ever-rising sea level, temperatures and severe weather in those periods. We have been consistently surprised by the pace of climate change. There is no reason to believe that the surprises will magically cease.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Sunday, June 23, 2024

What the H5N1 scare tells us about ourselves and our society

I don't know whether there is an H5N1 "bird flu" pandemic in our future. H5N1 seems to be very dangerous to humans. Half of the 900 people known to have contracted it worldwide since 2003 have died. And, so a lot of scientists are concerned about the possibility of a pandemic now that the virus has crossed over into mammals including dairy cows.

That means that the milk we drink may have the virus in it though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that pasteurization makes the milk safe. Or does it? A recent study indicates that a "small but detectable quantity" of H5N1 bird flu virus can survive "a common approach to pasteurizing milk."

We humans think we can build moats around our modern way of life that protect us from the natural world. We will pasteurize our milk and that will solve the problem. We will spray kitchen counters with some noxious disinfectant to kill offending organisms. We will wash our hands again and again with anti-bacterial soaps. And, when soap and water are not available, we'll use hand sanitizer. All the while we have actually been building the equivalent of superhighways into the heart of human society everywhere due to our dense living arrangements and global travel and trade.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Boondoggle Watch: Carbon capture great for making things worse, study finds

The study I refer to didn't actually say that carbon capture makes things worse. But that is the only conclusion one can draw given that the capturing is done for the purpose of dramatically lengthening the life of oil wells that would otherwise close, according to a recent piece in DeSmog. The oil wells in question are in Saskatchewan and were scheduled to close in 2016. Now with carbon dioxide pumping into them, they could produce oil for somewhere between 39 and 84 more years.

Back in May I reminded readers of a more expansive definition of the word "boondoggle," one promulgated by author Dmitri Orlov. To wit: It's not just something that is wasteful. Ideally, it should be something which "create[s] additional problems that can only be addressed by yet more boondoggles."

Carbon capture, it turns out, provides an excellent complementary boondoggle to the machines mentioned in my previous piece, machines which extract carbon dioxide from air rather than at the source as is done with carbon capture. In this case the carbon dioxide comes from the Dakota Gasfication Plant in Beulah, North Dakota, which according to its website is "the only commercial-scale coal gasification facility in the United States that manufactures natural gas." The gas—made synthetically from lignite coal—is piped to various electric cooperatives in five states which burn it to generate electricity. The captured carbon dioxide is then transmitted via pipeline to the Weyburn and Midale oil fields in Saskatchewan and injected into oil wells to force oil out, something the industry refers to as enhanced oil recovery.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

After Cape Town will a breakdown of confidence bring 'Day Zero' to Mexico City and Bogotá?

'Day Zero' never arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. Day Zero was the name given by Cape Town officials to the day in 2018 they would have to shut down water flows to most of the city taps because of inadequate water supplies—supplies that had run desperately short in the wake of an extreme three-year drought. Day Zero never came for two reasons: First, those officials cajoled Cape Town residents into cutting water consumption in half. Second, the rains finally resumed a few months later.

Now Mexico City and Bogotá are both facing their own possible Day Zero. Droughts, aging infrastructure, poor water management and climate change have resulted in dangerously low water supplies. But, as this piece in Grist points out, it may not be so easy to convince residents of the two cities that the problem is real and that they should trust the pronouncements of their city officials.

The city administration in Cape Town generally enjoys the trust of its citizens who rallied together with widespread voluntary efforts to reduce water consumption. Neither Mexico City nor Bogotá enjoy that same kind of credibility.

Residents of both cities may simply keep their fingers crossed and hope for rain. And, if they do and the rain doesn't come, then Day Zero will arrive.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Messy business: Polluted 'biosolids' derail recycling of human waste

Many years ago a civil engineer explained to me the wisdom of taking solid biological residues from sewage treatment plants—dubbed biosolids—and using them on farm fields and garden plots. After all, nature intended for human wastes to return to the soil to replenish it in the same way animal manure has long been used to fertilize farm fields.

"What about all the industrial chemicals that end up in wastewater," I asked. He replied that these weren't significant enough to be concerned. I was skeptical.

Fast forward to last week when the U.S. Congress took up a proposal to allocate $500 million to compensate farmers whose livelihoods have been undermined by applying biosolids—what most of us call sewage sludge—to their cropland. It turns out that those biosolids have poisoned both land and livestock across the United States. The ostensible concern is so-called "forever chemicals," ones used to make such products as Teflon, firefighting foam, stain-resistant upholstery and water-resistant sports gear. These chemicals are linked to "cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease." They are dangerous to human and animal health even at very low levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this year proposed limiting certain of these chemicals to less than 10 parts per trillion in drinking water. In two cases, the proposed limit is 4 parts per trillion.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I am taking a break for the Memorial Day weekend and plan to post again on Sunday, June 2.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Yet more boondoggles: Extracting carbon dioxide from the air, mining asteroids

The dictionary doesn't quite do justice to the word "boondoggle" according to author Dmitri Orlov, best known for his book Reinventing Collapse. A contemporary boondoggle must not only be wasteful, it should, if possible, also create additional problems that can only be addressed by yet more boondoggles. (This does NOT preclude boondoggles from being profitable for certain insiders.)

In Orlov's universe, such boondoggles dissipate the wealth and vitality of a society until it collapses. But if executed properly, boondoggles first grind down society without actually collapsing it. When the collapse finally does comes, it is like "falling out of a ground-floor window." In the collapsenik lexicon, this is what passes for a soft landing.

Two important boondoggles were in the news recently: a big set of machines that extract carbon dioxide from the air and companies formed to mine asteroids.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Dr. Seuss and the weight-loss drug craze

As the weight-loss drug craze has taken off, I couldn't help thinking of a story my mother read to me when I was a child called "The Sneetches". The story was written by famed children's author Dr. Seuss.

The key character in "The Sneetches" is a huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean. The shrewd McBean observes that Sneetches—yellowish, flightless, bird-like creatures—come in two types: those with stars on their bellies and those without. The star-belly Sneetches consider themselves superior to those without. McBean brings in a machine that will attach a star to the belly of any Sneetch—for a price, of course. He does brisk business as all the Sneetches without stars line up to get theirs.

Once the star-belly Sneetches find out what's happening, they are aghast. They can no longer tell for certain which Sneetches are true star-belly Sneetches and which are imposters. McBean has a solution. It's a star-off machine which the congenital star-belly Sneetches flock to in order to re-establish their position of superiority in Sneetch society.

You can pretty much guess what comes next: The newly minted star-belly Sneetches rush to have the stars taken off their bellies in order to keep up with the original star-belly Sneetches who are now starless. But, of course, that's not the end of it. The whole society of Sneetches proceeds to cycle back and forth between the two machines, chasing the now elusive and ever-changing mark (or unmark) of status until the Sneetches are all penniless. McBean moves on. But in true Dr. Seuss fashion, the Sneetches realize that stars are not all that important and decide to live in harmony and equality for star-belly and non-star-belly Sneetches alike.

Getting back to diet drugs, the most important thing you need to know about these drugs is that you must continue to take them in order keep weight off. I feel that Sylvester McMonkey McBean must be in the wings somewhere.