Sunday, September 17, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 24.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Climate change and the hidden water cost of the Panama Canal

You've almost certainly read about the backup of ships waiting to transit the Panama Canal, which carries 6 percent of all commercial ships worldwide. While the worry among faraway readers may be concerns about supply chain disruptions that could lead to holiday shopping shortages, the problem in Panama is more immediate. The proximate cause of the backup is severe drought. That makes sense on its face because the canal is full of water and that water has to come from somewhere.

In a tropical country with copious rainfall—260 cm (102 inches) on average for the whole country in 2021—one wonders what passes for drought. (For comparison, I used to live in Portland, Oregon, a rather damp city with 44 inches of annual rainfall.) But inadequate rain during Panama's rainy season has left two artificial lakes which feed the canal low on water. These lakes must supply 200 million liters (53 million gallons) of fresh water for each ship that transits the canal, water that is lost to the ocean. During the Panama Canal Authority's fiscal 2022 year more than 14,000 vessels transited the canal. This matters doubly because these lakes also supply drinking water to half of all Panamanians.

The result is that the Canal Authority must ration water to the locks, decreasing the depth of the water and keeping many ships from carrying full loads that would cause the ships to hit the bottom of the locks. It has also had to limit the total number of ships making the trip in order to conserve water.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

How to poison the world (and get away with it)

The most important variable for poisoning the world and getting away with it is a regulatory structure that does not require the maker of a synthetic chemical to test it for safety prior to sale and release and puts the burden of proof for establishing hazards on the government and the public.

That pretty much describes the regulatory structure in the United States—with the exception of drugs, food additives and pesticides—until 2016 when the Toxic Substances Control Act was updated. In Europe a similar state of affairs prevailed until the advent of REACH (for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in 2007.

To understand what happens to public health when this is the case, EcoWatch provides an excellent long-form piece on the history of Teflon and its toxic legacy to this day. Spoiler alert: The makers of Teflon knew almost from the beginning about the toxicity of the processes and chemicals used in making it and even today are creating new versions of similar chemicals (after the old ones were discontinued due to liability) and putting them into the environment all over again. The manufacturers made and sold these products for decades, enjoyed huge profits and only now are having to answer for it. The people who owned and led those manufacturers during their heyday and therefore benefited the most financially are long gone. They essentially poisoned the world and got away with it.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 3.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

'White' hydrogen: The hydrogen economy zombie rises again

Just when you thought the hydrogen economy zombie was dead and gone, it rises again, this time in color.

Yes, hydrogen comes in many colors these days: green, blue, gray and now white. No, these are not literal colors, but rather marketing tools designed to convince investors, policymakers (think: public subsidies), and the public (think: support of public subsidies) that the hydrogen economy is right around the corner and will be a key to addressing climate change. When burned, of course, hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce water. When manufactured, however, the process can produce a little or a lot of carbon dioxide depending how the manufacturing is done and whether fossil fuels are used as feedstocks.

Periodically, hydrogen advocates create a boomlet in media coverage to announce the coming of the hydrogen economy that never seems to arrive.

White hydrogen is the newest hydrogen media boomlet. It denotes hydrogen occurring naturally in reservoirs in the Earth's crust as a free gas not combined with other elements. Its presence has been known for a long time. But no one believed the reservoirs were numerous enough or large enough to bother extracting. That thinking has changed, and there are now companies actively prospecting for underground hydrogen reservoirs.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Thinking about a world of scarcity

It has now become more fashionable to talk about shortages. Computer chips have been in shortage and then in glut in the last few years. Natural gas was acutely in shortage in Europe after the war in Ukraine and pipeline sabotage brought supplies from Russia down to a trickle. Then, heroic efforts at conservation and in obtaining liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe led to a dramatic reduction in price. But last week just the potential for labor strikes among LNG workers in Australia, a major LNG exporter, sent the European price spiking again.

The world seemed so well supplied with everything in the previous decade that the shortages of this decade seem shocking to those with memories that do not extend further back than 2010.

But in what is actually recent memory, we have examples. It was the mid-2000s that brought us spiking food prices. Now they are rising again. It also brought us the highest price ever for a barrel of oil. Now oil prices are elevated again. Metals prices rose. Now they are again.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Why I assume "fixes" meant to prevent collapse won't work

There are those who believe our current way of life is not facing any near term threat and will go on indefinitely. In this view, any existential problems—should they ever arise—will be dealt with by new technologies.

Others assume the threat of civilizational collapse is real and can be and even will be addressed. They may believe that the threats include climate change, the challenge of evolving microbes that are rendering antibiotics useless, and the increasing toxicity of the biosphere due to human releases of novel toxic chemicals. This group frantically offers solutions which are emitted on an almost daily schedule from the world's universities and industrial research laboratories.

The solutions that are offered usually address an isolated issue such as carbon-free energy. A recent proposal suggests burning iron powder. As one reads about this "solution," it seems more and more like a nonstarter. There's plenty of iron, of course. But we need to ramp up dramatically the manufacture of iron powder. This gets burned to make iron oxide. Then we can make iron "renewable" by using hydrogen to strip away the oxygen from the resulting iron oxide so we get iron again.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Interdependence and the fracturing world: China, Russia, Europe and the United States

The most salient fact about natural resources such as minerals and fertile soil is that they are unevenly distributed around the world. That means some countries have far more than they need and others are desperately dependent on imports.

Some writers think that trade between nations of resources and practically everything else leads to an interdependence that makes war much more costly and thus less likely. Others believe that the many causes of war—for example, a desire to dominate, fear of being attacked (leading to pre-emptive war), ethnic rivalries and grievances, and the desire for direct control of resources—often negate concerns that the cost of war will exceed its benefits.

After the relative quiet of the post-Cold War era during which the world's economies integrated into one global market, major powers and their leaders are again weighing the two arguments. Russia, of course, decided that its fear of being surrounded by NATO-allied countries outweighed the possible economic consequences of war (though it's not clear that the Russian government realized the far-reaching effects its war with Ukraine would have on its trade).

Earlier this year an American general predicted war with China by 2025. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) said that the general's views do not represent those of the DOD. Not surprisingly, the DOD stated that it prefers peace in Asia.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Climate change and the uninsurable future

A person buying insurance does so because he or she is concerned about the future. A house fire could lead to a financial wipe-out. A car accident resulting in hospitalization could result in savings-depleting bills without insurance.

Insurance companies, however, concern themselves primarily with the past. They pay people called actuaries to create detailed models of risk using voluminous data from the past regarding medical diagnoses, life expectancy, damage due to natural disasters, auto accident statistics and myriad other pieces of information. These models help insurance companies predict the frequency and severity of the events they insure against and thereby set their rates.

If, however, conditions that create risks are rapidly changing—as they are now with climate change—models dependent on past data become unreliable. As a result, property and casualty insurers have been stung by huge losses due to severe weather. For example, the California wildfires of 2017 and 2018 resulted in $29 billion in insurance claims. But insurers only took in $15.6 billion in premiums.

Hurricanes and floods resulted in $120 billion in insured losses in 2022. Companies expect insured losses to continue to rise as climate change intensifies.