Sunday, December 25, 2016
Sunday, December 18, 2016
We now have underway the first climate trials (or various stages of them) of the 21st century. The overall question in these trials is actually straightforward: Do governments and corporations have an obligation to protect the habitability of the Earth's climate for human populations?
Let's start with government. The first trial (in the United States) was not actually that recent. In 1999 a group of environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2003 the EPA denied the petition. Several states then joined a legal appeal which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided in 2007 that, in fact, the EPA did have the authority and the obligation to consider seriously how to regulate greenhouse gases.
The agency then offered a regulation plan which was challenged in court. In 2014 the Supreme Court found the EPA plan acceptable with a few minor tweaks.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
In a piece I wrote four years ago I asked whether we were moving toward a fact-free world. Now, I wonder if that world has arrived.
The media is full of opinions and opinions parading as facts and facts that are not facts and sometimes just crazed fantasies posing as facts. We are now having a public discussion about so-called "fake news" and whose news is really fake. I'm thinking of rumors circulated on the internet that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.was a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.
There was, of course, absolutely no basis for this wild and on-its-face ridiculous accusation. And yet, a rifle-wielding man who drove in from North Carolina shot up the place. He came all that way believing the story was fact because, well, he read it on the internet. Luckily, no one was hurt.
The bar for facticity for many people has been lowered to ground level it seems. Anything they want to be a fact magically becomes a fact.
Now this is not to say that it is easy to determine what is or is not a fact. When we say "fact," we usually mean something that is true. But that just begs the question of how we determine whether something is true.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Why all the fuss about the recounts which Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is asking for in three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? After all, every political professional knows that a vote recount almost never changes the outcome.
The professionals in the Green Party know that. The professionals in the Clinton campaign know that and have said they don't expect the recount to change anything. And, the professionals (if there are any) in the Trump campaign know that. I was a consultant to a candidate who sought two recounts in two very close elections. The recounts barely budged the totals.
There is the rare exception, of course. Al Franken became a U.S. senator from Minnesota because of a recount. But, it's hard to name another officeholder off the top of one's head who is in office today because of a recount.
As it turns out, there are two things which are driving the fear and loathing in the two major parties (even though the Clinton campaign has now said it will participate in the recounts).
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
|Tyler & Trump: More alike than different?|
The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation's 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump's party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions--prior to his presidential run in 2012--to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.
Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.
Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Many Americans are frightened by the idea of Donald Trump as the country's new pilot-in-chief, fearing he'll crash the airliner of state (including climate and environmental policies) into a mountain or the ground. Clinton, they argued, for all her flaws, knows how to fly this thing called a country using the federal government and at least won't end up crashing it.
But my metaphor assumes that every American believes he or she is on the same plane. And, that understanding is what seems to have clouded the minds of so many when thinking about the U.S. presidential campaign this year. For those living in America's small towns and rural areas and for those in the downwardly mobile working class, their plane has already crashed!
These groups are now dazed and wandering around in the wreckage trying to figure out how to live from day to day. It is no wonder that such voters were immune to cries that Trump would crash the country. The business-as-usual globalism that they believed Hillary Clinton represented seemed to them like it would only make things worse.
Both Donald Trump and Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders told these disaffected groups that a big part of the reason their communities and livelihoods crashed was a set of trade agreements that essentially shipped their jobs overseas. That made sense to them, and for a time they had two competing champions. But only Donald Trump made it to the general election.
Sunday, November 06, 2016
I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."
It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.
Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)
If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
It's hard not to see the urban/rural divide in the United States--unless you just don't look. Perhaps the most iconic image representing that divide is a map of presidential election results by county. The map below is from 2012.
RED = Romney (Republican) BLUE = Obama (Democrat)
Most of the land area of the United States represents Republican territory. But, of course, dense urban areas taking up much less land, but having far more voters per square mile, proved decisive for the incumbant Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
It might seem that this is merely a cultural divide, hicks versus city slickers. But it is also an economic divide. Rural areas have been pummeled economically by the globalizing economy. That economy rewards the innovations and technology invented and deployed in cities more than the commodities that come out of the countryside. Hidden beneath these cultural and economic factors is an energy imbalance that Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, first identified in his work on what he called transformities.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
In the melodrama that passes for the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump got practically all the post-debate headlines last week when he hedged on whether he would accept the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. But for those most concerned about genuine sustainability, what both candidates agreed on should be far more troubling. And yet, it elicits nothing more than a yawn these days in political discourse.
The candidates agreed that the U.S. economy needs to grow more rapidly. What they argued over is whose economic plan will make it grow faster.
The push for economic growth has become sacrosanct in modern political discourse. Growth is the elixir that heals all social and economic divisions and makes possible the solidarity that comes from the feeling that the path to wealth is open to everyone.
For the vast majority of people on the planet that path was never really open. And, since the so-called Great Recession, it has been closed off completely for all but those at the top of the income scale.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
While watching the recently released film "Deepwater Horizon" about the catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history, I remembered the term "fail-dangerous," a term I first encountered in correspondence with a risk consultant for the oil and gas industry.
We've all heard the term "fail-safe" before. Fail-safe systems are designed to shut down benignly in case of failure. Fail-dangerous systems include airliners which don't merely halt in place benignly when their engines fail, but crash on the ground in a ball of fire.
For fail-dangerous systems, we believe that failure is either unlikely or that the redundancy that we've build into the system will be sufficient to avert failure or at least minimize damage. Hence, the large amount of money spent on airline safety. This all seems very rational.
But in a highly complex technical society made up of highly complex subsystems such as the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, we should not be so sanguine about our ability to judge risk. On the day the offshore rig blew up, executives from both oil giant BP and Transocean (which owned and operated the rig on behalf of BP) were aboard to celebrate seven years without a lost time incident, an exemplary record. They assumed that this record was the product of vigilance rather than luck.
Sunday, October 09, 2016
What do you do when everyone is bugging you to do something, but you don't want to do it? The simple answer is that you make it look like you are doing something in order to get others off your back.
It is not always easy to tell what people's intentions are. But we can look at what they have done in the past. The main thing that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has done over the past year in response to pressure from other OPEC members is talk about steps it would take to raise oil prices. But in the end the kingdom doesn't actually do them, or it does things which have no practical significance. (Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter, is the OPEC member with the greatest flexibility in its production. Any OPEC production cut without Saudi leadership would lack credibility.)
We should keep all this in mind when evaluating the latest reports that OPEC has agreed to cuts. Bloomberg tells us right up front that OPEC has merely agreed to the "outline of a deal" that will be taken up at its November meeting.
One of Saudi Arabia's partners in its yearlong public talkfest has been Russia, the number one or number two oil producer in the world depending on what month it is. The Russians said in early October 2015 that they were ready to discuss oil prices with OPEC. Later that month it was leaked that the Russians had no intention of cutting their own production. In late January of this year, the oil price catapulted after Russia's energy minister said he was "ready to meet with OPEC and Saudi Arabia to discuss a production cut," the Financial Times reported.
Sunday, October 02, 2016
In a recent column, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shows himself to be as good a spokesman for the world's elites (with whom he often communes) as anyone on Earth. He asks one simple question about Republican presidential candidate and billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump: How?
Friedman's column-length answer is a catalogue of Trump's puzzling views about NATO and ISIS, his poor command of the major issues, his contradictory statements and his strange embrace of tax avoidance.
What's missing, of course, is the centerpiece of Trump's appeal: his criticism of major trade deals which have devastated entire industries in the United States and destroyed the middle-class jobs that go with them. To the defenders of globalism--and Friedman is one of globalism's fiercest defenders--Trump's criticism is nothing short of heresy.
But the billionaire's bluster embodies the anger that people affected by those deals feel every day. Not a few of them have previously been consistent Democratic voters. Of course, there are plenty of Republicans who are voting for Trump because he is the party's candidate. And, there are plenty of evangelicals and so-called "values voters" supporting him (despite his profligate ways) because his party has traditionally opposed abortion, supported prayer in schools, and fought same-sex marriage.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Ideologues hate it when the facts get in the way of their theories. California's Gov. Jerry Brown signed trailblazing legislation last week that commits the state to audacious greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030 of 40 percent below 1990 levels. Not surprisingly, longstanding critics from the business community were howling once again about how California's business climate will deteriorate as a result.
The law extended efforts under California's previous cap-and-trade bill which set emission targets for 2020 to match 1990 levels.
Predictions of doom for the California economy are a perennial staple of California politics. But is there any truth to them?
First, here are the bald facts. Growth of California's 'overregulated' economy has frequently exceeded the U.S. economy as a whole since 1998. Annual growth in gross domestic product shown in the linked graphs is not a perfect measure of economic vitality, but it shows that fears that California is somehow stunted by its so-called excessive regulatory and tax burden isn't supported by the growth numbers.
Sunday, September 04, 2016
We are about to learn once again that lack of resilience is the flip side of efficiency. The world's seventh largest shipping firm, Korean-based Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd., failed to rally the support of its creditors last week and was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Retailers and manufacturers worldwide are in a bit of a panic as the fate of goods on Hanjin ships shifts into the hands of courts and lawyers for creditors intent on seizing Hanjin assets in order to ensure payment of outstanding bills. Much of Hanjin's fleet is chartered, that is, owned by others, and those owners want to make sure they get paid their charter fees or get their ships back pronto.
The result has been that half of Hanjin's container vessels are currently blocked from the world's ports for fear that the ports will not be paid for their loading and unloading services. Other shippers which include trucking companies which carry containers to their final destination are reluctant to take on Hanjin freight for fear of not getting paid. (You are perhaps seeing the main theme here.) Meanwhile, the sudden drop in available shipping containers and ships has caused shipping rates to soar as businesses scramble to make other arrangements for items still to be shipped.
U.S. retailers are so panicked that they have asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to step in to help resolve the breakdown which is likely to hurt those retailers during the upcoming Christmas shopping season.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
"I can resist everything except temptation," one of playwright Oscar Wilde's characters tells us. But, the management of Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, must not be fans of the theater. As a result Monsanto has done the equivalent of giving a teenage boy the keys to the family car and then telling him that he can't drive it. We know what comes next.
The way this has manifested itself is widespread damage to soybeans, peaches and other crops from drifting herbicide. The problem has gotten so bad that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an advisory reminding farmers that the offending herbicide, dicamba, is not yet approved for spraying on dicamba-resistant soybeans and cotton (produced by Monsanto). That approval is under review, but only for a special dicamba formulation from Monsanto which supposedly reduces drift.
In the meantime, state agricultural officials in Arkansas have become so alarmed they've banned dicamba for use on row crops.
To understand how this happened, first we need some background. Monsanto is famous for its genetically engineered crops that resist its Roundup Ready brand herbicide. The herbicide can be sprayed on a resistant crop such as soybeans or cotton, and it kills unwanted weeds in the field while sparing the crop.
Sunday, August 21, 2016
Humans can imagine lots of things. They can imagine angels and demons. They can imagine whole worlds unlike ours with beings unlike us. They can convey these products of imagination in art, in literature and in film.
They can imagine flying machines, armored cars, diving suits, machine guns and human-like robots. Leonardo da Vinci imagined all of them hundreds of years before they became everyday reality. Hero of Alexandria, a Roman citizen and engineer, described a steam engine 1700 years before Thomas Savery obtained the first patent for one.
It didn't occur to the ancient Romans to refine the idea of the steam engine for transport or industrial work. They lacked the imagination for such a move and perhaps the necessity. After all, they had built a thriving empire without the steam engine, and the Mediterranean already offered quick, wind-powered transport to practically any part of the empire.
How do we distinguish those ideas that are forever going to remain in the realm of fiction and those that can become concrete reality? Of those that are possible how do we determine which won't destroy us? Both questions are very difficult ones indeed.
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Cheniere Energy has long been my favorite contrarian indicator in the U.S. natural gas market. For those unfamiliar with the term, a contrarian indicator is an event which suggests that a broadly and firmly held view--in this case, the view that U.S. natural gas supplies will grow and remain cheap for decades--is about to begin a reversal.
As the company shipped its first cargo of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export earlier this year, the glut of cheap U.S. natural gas seemed to vindicate Cheniere's plans. I, on the other hand, imagined that the shipment was not confirmation of Cheniere's assumptions, but a contrarian signal that natural gas production was about to dip and that prices were finally going to turn higher in a sustained way.
I say this based on the timing of Cheniere's last scheme, a U.S. natural gas import terminal that now sits unused next to its newly built LNG export terminal in Louisiana. The import terminal received its first LNG shipment in April 2008 just two months before U.S. natural gas prices peaked around $13 per thousand cubic feet, collapsing to a low of $2.06 by September 2009. For comparison, last week U.S. natural gas futures for September delivery closed at $2.59.
Cheniere's stock price went from above $40 in 2007 to around $3 by September 2009, having gone below $1 at one point. When Cheniere planned and built the import terminal, most everyone believed that U.S. natural gas production would soon go into decline. But, only months after the terminal was operational, there was no longer any reason to bring LNG into the United States. It was just too expensive to compete with cheap domestic production which continued to grow.
Sunday, August 07, 2016
The first planet is the one most of us grew up on. It had a stable climate, generally friendly to bumper harvests; it was usually safe because of reasonable precautions against floods and droughts; and it was conducive to persistent economic growth that was supposed to lead to material prosperity for all.
Then there is Eaarth, a forbidding planet with a climate in chaos, one shifting constantly in ways that threaten life and property with too much rain or not enough--with drought that makes Western forests mere tinder and rainfall that makes Chinese and Indian farms and cities into lakes.
Climate change used to be about the future. Its bad effects were going to be visited upon those who come after us. But we have consistently underestimated the pace and impact of human-caused climate change from the day in 1896 when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
It used to be that when it came to the world economy, oil prices and economic growth were more like distant cousins who disliked each other rather than a happily married couple always seen nuzzling together in public. The received wisdom was that low oil prices are good for the overall economy even if they are bad for the oil industry and for countries that are heavily dependent on oil for their revenues.
That's what many believed when suggesting that even though high oil prices and an attendant oil boom had underpinned economic recovery in the United States after the 2008 financial crash, low oil prices would now somehow on balance deliver even more recovery. And, low prices would also benefit the rest of the world as well.
Nowadays, as the oil price dips into the low $40 range again and economic growth weakens simultaneously, we must re-evaluate. U.S. economic growth declined significantly after oil prices began to fall in 2014. Only last week, U.S. growth for the second quarter of 2016 came in at 1.2 percent (annualized), less than half the forecast of 2.5 percent. First quarter growth was revised down to 0.8 percent from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent. That's down significantly from a peak of 5 percent growth for the third quarter of 2014, the last quarter during which the price of oil was over $100 per barrel.
World economic growth instead of speeding up, slowed down slightly from 2.6 percent in 2014 to 2.5 percent in 2015 according to the World Bank.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
It's all the rage to call people who oppose the cultivation of genetically engineered crops anti-science. But if science is an open enterprise, then it should welcome discussion and challenges to any prevailing idea.
We should, however, remember that in this case genetic engineering of crops is not merely a scientific enterprise; it's big business. A lot of people have a lot to lose if the public rejects genetically engineered foods, often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). We are not by any measure in the preliminary phases of this technology. We are not considering it or calmly debating it before its release. We have long since been launched into an uncontrolled mass experiment, the results of which are unknown.
Knowledge is admittedly a double-edged sword. One might argue that any scientific advance brings risks. I would agree. Understanding nuclear fission and then nuclear fusion led to the atomic bomb and then the hydrogen bomb.
More than 30 years ago millions of people across the world flocked to the nuclear freeze movement out of fear that newly elected American president Ronald Reagan would seek a nuclear buildup and a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Were these millions anti-scientific or the voice of reason?
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Almost synonymous with the term "peak oil" is M. King Hubbert, perhaps the foremost geophysicist of the 20th century, who first theorized about the eventual decline of oil production in the 1930s. Hubbert and his work have once again come into the public eye as a result of the 2008 oil price spike and the highest ever daily average prices for oil from 2011 through 2014. His life has now been chronicled by science writer Mason Inman in a new biography entitled The Oracle of Oil.
Depending upon whom you speak with, peak oil is either a catastrophe waiting to happen or a far-off concern that has already been solved or will be soon. Frequently, peak oil is referred to as a myth. What you rarely hear is that peak oil is an empirical fact having already occurred in more than two dozen oil-producing countries. Making the list are names that will surprise many including Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, three of the world's top oil exporters.
The term "peak oil" simply means that crude oil production for any field, region or country eventually reaches a peak or plateau from which it inexorably declines. Because the amount of oil in the Earth's crust is finite, it is logical to assume that one day peak oil production will occur worldwide. The concern is that we as a global society are so accustomed to rising oil production that we have built an entire world around that assumption. Will we be ready when oil production begins to decline?
To shed some light on that and other questions author Inman takes us from Hubbert's early days at the University of Chicago to his famous speech in 1956 (in which he predicted a peak in U.S. crude oil production no later than 1970) to his days in Washington, D.C. working for the U.S. Geological Survey and his fights there concerning the timing of a U.S. oil production peak.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
I am now convinced the GMO industry has managed to hire the worst public relations strategists in human history. By supporting a deeply flawed GMO labeling bill in the U.S. Congress--some would say intentionally deeply flawed--the industry is about to open a Pandora's Box of PR nightmares for years to come.
First, a little background. GMO, of course, means genetically modified organism which more properly refers to genetically engineered crops and animals. GMO industry leader Monsanto and its competitors such as Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Sygenta have all been fighting a fierce battle in the United States against labeling foodstuffs derived from genetically engineered crops. After defeating statewide labeling referendums in California, Oregon and Washington, they failed to stop the implementation of Vermont's GMO labeling law which went into effect July 1.
In desperation the companies have been trying to get the U.S. Congress to pass a nationwide labeling law--one that is considerably less stringent and also riddled with loopholes--that would pre-empt Vermont's law. Just last week the Senate approved its version of the labeling law. If the House and Senate can work out their differences, we may see such a law signed by President Obama before too long.
The industry's main complaint has been that labeling GMOs would unfairly stigmatize them in the minds of consumers. Some 64 countries already require such labeling. What concerns the industry is that increased consumer awareness could create a movement that would lead to a ban on the cultivation of GMO crops, a ban already implemented by 19 countries in Europe.
Sunday, July 03, 2016
Sunday, June 26, 2016
The fretting in the financial markets after Great Britain's voters narrowly decided to leave the European Union (EU), a move dubbed Brexit, was less about immediate effects--there aren't any since it would take Britain up to two years to withdraw--and more about a foreboding that other countries will want out, too.
In addition, some think it likely that Scottish independence will once again be on the agenda. Scots were heavily in favor of remaining in the EU.
Centrifugal political forces are bad for business since they spell uncertainty and ultimately disruption if they come to fruition as they did in Britain regarding the EU. And, Britain, of course, isn't the only country in Europe facing breakaway movements. The people of Spain's Catalonia region have for some time sought a referendum on independence from Spain. Only last year Catalan separatists won a majority in the regional government. The movement cites cultural and linguistic reasons for independent statehood, reasons that could be asserted by many groups across Europe and lead to more instability.
The larger question is why there is building discontent with global economic and political integration not only in Europe, but also in the United States as evidenced by the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Recently, I toured a U.S Navy mine sweeper and destroyer during Fleet Week. Just before the tour entrance line a tent with exhibits caught my attention. On the first table were a set of small bottles containing various kinds of liquid fuels, a sampling meant to highlight the biofuels now being developed and used by the Navy. At the second table I was greeted by a Navy public relations specialist who handed me a quarterly magazine devoted exclusively to the Navy's energy and environmental initiatives.
The U.S. Navy isn't the only service seeking to make itself less dependent on fossil fuels and friendlier to the environment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has committed itself to more sustainable practices and alternative fuels across all services. The reason: The DOD takes climate change and fossil fuel dependence as serious risks to the nation's security and to the U.S. military's own ability to fight and protect the nation.
Why does the U.S. military establishment take these threats seriously and act on them in such a thoroughgoing fashion while the military's strongest congressional supporters are the most ardent opponents of sustainable practices?
Using the hawkish Center for Security Policy's (CSP) 2013-2014 congressional scorecard as a proxy for devotion to all things military, we find 21 so-called "champions" of national security in the U.S. House and Senate who voted for all items favored by the CSP during the session. Among those 21 legislators, nine had a 0 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for 2014, four had a 3 percent rating, four had a 6 percent rating, one had 20 percent rating, one had a 60 percent rating, and two were not rated.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Recently, word leaked out that Norway may ban the sale of diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles by 2025. The move toward electric vehicles is part of a dream shared by those concerned about climate change and about fossil fuel depletion (especially oil depletion), namely, to turn the world into one big all-electric paradise by running everything we can on electricity.
Theoretically, this is possible, but getting there won't be easy. First, such a transition will take time. In the Norwegian example cited above, the transition to an all-electric private car fleet would take about 15 years based on Norwegian new private car registrations in 2015 and the current total number of registered private cars.
But the ban wouldn't take effect until 2025. While Norwegian electric car registrations are rising, so are total car registrations. Even if we generously assume that the rise in electric car registrations between now and 2025 will shave five years off the transition, that still means Norway won't achieve an all-electric private automobile fleet until 2035. And, Norway is already a leader in the move toward all-electric transportation. Other countries lag far behind.
The Norwegian example points out a second difficulty in the transition to an all-electric world. Norway gets 95.9 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. It gets another 1.6 percent from wind turbines. Only 2.5 percent of its electricity comes from thermal power plants, the kind that burn fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and that provide 66 percent of the world's electricity.
Sunday, June 05, 2016
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Climate change deniers like to style themselves as latter-day Copernicuses and Galileos, lone visionaries bucking the established wisdom of the ages embodied back then in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
There is a certain appeal to imagining oneself as isolated and embattled but unbowed. The analogy, however, is specious on its face. For neither Copernicus nor Galileo had giant international oil and coal companies supporting them with tens of millions of dollars of annual public relations expenditures and scores of fake think tanks which would have provided them comfortable and profitable sinecures while shielding them from the attacks of the church.
No, the climate change deniers actually work for the established church of our age, wealthy corporate interests opposed to doing anything to mitigate the ongoing carnage of climate change--the very interests that continue to have a stranglehold on the legislative bodies of the world to such an extent that relatively little has actually been done to address climate. The most compelling evidence is the steady march upward of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels measured at the world's best known measuring station, the Mauna Loa Observatory.
To hear the deniers one would think that we are already groaning under the weight of carbon taxes across the globe. The reality is that only a handful of countries and jurisdictions have bothered with such taxes, and one of them, Australia, repealed its tax. Yes, yes, there are cap-and-trade emissions schemes in the European Union, northeastern United States, California and Quebec. None of these jurisdictions has collapsed economically as a result. In fact, all are becoming leaders in a technological revolution that is moving us away from dependence on finite, climate-changing fossil fuels.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
The world's largest exporter of crude oil, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recently announced a plan for its post-oil future. If a country almost synonymous with the oil economy can see the need for such a plan, how can the rest of the world, particularly the United States, the world's largest consumer of petroleum, not see the necessity of such foresight?
The kingdom's plan includes sale of part of Saudi Aramco, the world largest oil company and currently wholly-owned by the Saudi government. The company controls all oil development in Saudi Arabia. That the Saudis want to sell part of the most valuable company in the world means they have a different view about the future of oil than those who will be buying. Commentators often report that markets rise because investors are optimistic or fall because they are pessimistic. But this is complete nonsense because for every buyer there is always a seller. Each side of a trade believes in a different future for the investment being traded.
Certainly, there are many reasons for selling a minority stake in Saudi Aramco. But one of them can't be that the rulers of the kingdom have an unalloyed bullishness about Saudi capabilities and oil resources.
As recently as 2007 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) believed Saudi Arabia would be supplying the world with 16.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil by 2030. (And, that was down from 23.8 mbpd projected for 2025 in a 2003 report.) In 2008 the Saudi king appeared to embrace a policy of 12.5 mbpd and no more.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
It would be easy--too easy--to point to the wildfires which have devastated huge areas of northern Alberta near Fort McMurray, the hub of tar sands mining in Canada, and say that Albertans are reaping what they have sown. Yes, it's true that climate change is coming to one of the very areas which is contributing disproportionately to climate change and with catastrophic results.
The source of the current catastrophe is that the boreal forest which surrounds the tar sands has been turned into a tinderbox because of increasingly warm, dry weather that used to be uncharacteristic of this area of Alberta. But, what is happening in Alberta was predicted decades ago to be one of the consequences of unchecked global warming.
Having said all that, we should remember that the warming we are experiencing today is actually the result of greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere as of 40 years ago or so. (The analysis cited gives a range of 25 to 50 years, a lag related to what is called the thermal inertia of the oceans.) If this is the case, what Albertans are experiencing today has almost nothing to do with the climate effects of tar sands exploitation since there was very little production from Alberta's tar sands that long ago.
What this means, of course, is that there will be much worse to come even if today we were to reduce to zero all greenhouse gas emissions and other factors which are raising worldwide temperature.
Sunday, May 08, 2016
In my previous piece, I discussed why it is useless to argue with a person clinging to what I called the "religion" of modernism. I summarized four main tenets of the modern outlook as follows:
- Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
- Scale doesn't matter.
- History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
- Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.
These assumptions make modern humans particularly susceptible to becoming captives of the bell curve. Our understanding of risk is mediated by a misleading picture of regularity in the physical world and in human society. Moderns believe that nearly all risks--and certainly the nontrivial ones relating to our survival as species--can be easily calculated and managed.
The truth about risk is actually much more disturbing. The generator of events in the universe is hidden from us humans. We see the results and make up theories about the causes and the processes. Some theories work well such as those relating to the prediction of the orbits of planets, for example. But, others have a challenged track record. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarking on his own profession once said: "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."
Sunday, May 01, 2016
The modern world is filled with things many of us regard as antiquated and old-fashioned. Modern people often say that ancient rituals are mere superstition, that science tells us what is real and what is not, and that we are now free from ideas including untestable ideas from religion that have slowed continual improvement in the lot of average humans.
That the modern outlook has all the hallmarks of a religion never occurs to a thoroughly modern person (whom I'll refer to merely as a "modern"). A modern believes that the modern outlook is above and outside all superstition and groundless belief. In effect, the modern outlook is a myth that does not believe it is a myth.
In using the word "myth," I do not mean to label the modern outlook false. In this context myth is simply a narrative that outlines a worldview. It turns out that a myth of any vintage, ancient or modern, can be a powerful tool in motivating behavior, in explaining and manipulating the world, and in assigning meaning to human existence. And any myth of any vintage can turn out simply to be mistaken in some or all of its details.
The modern myth has some unique characteristics that make it particularly powerful and particularly dangerous at the same time. The modern myth tells us the following about the world and our place in it:
- Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
- Scale doesn't matter.
- History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
- Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
A friend of mine who teaches undergraduates provided insight into something I see regularly but don't experience in the thoroughgoing way he does, namely, young people (and some not so young) who appear to be entirely an appendage of their cellphones. One study concluded that "[t]he average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day."
The take on cellphones is that you can customize them to give you exactly what you want. You are in charge. The trouble with this reasoning is that someone else is programming the apps you use; and those apps are programmed to get you to do certain things in certain ways that are generally to the advantage of the companies providing the apps and to advertisers (sometimes one and the same). These apps may be useful to you, but they are certainly not your apps; they are not actually customized. And, they only offer the illusion of control.
Moreover, there is no app I know of designed to get you to stop looking at your cellphone and focus on the world around you or on your inner life. Some people listen to music or podcasts on their cellphones while they exercise, walk, drive, study, read, eat, or do practically anything. I'm all for listening to music and podcasts. But some of the activities listed above are actually great all by themselves.
Then there is the constant texting. Texting is very useful, I find, for telling people I'm running late to a meeting, inviting people to something at the last minute, coordinating family hordes on vacation and so forth. My professor friend tells me that many of his students say they prefer texting to face-to-face encounters. One student went so far as to characterize face-to-face conversation as a form of "aggression." When my friend first told me this, I had the horrifying realization that it's possible that many groups of young people I see texting while standing in a group may actually be texting each other! (Perhaps I'm extrapolating things too far.)
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Ever since it became clear that Vermont's law for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would actually go into force this summer, the big question has been how many food companies would choose to label their products and how many would choose simply not to sell in Vermont.
There is a third choice which purveyor of canned fruits and vegetables, Del Monte Foods, announced recently. The company will eliminate all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods, obviating the need for special labeling. This won't be too difficult since there are very few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.
While the Vermont law is huge victory for the proponents of labels, the U.S. Congress could still pre-empt state labeling laws, something it failed to do earlier this year. But as more and more of the public demands to know which products have so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs in them and as the number of products on grocery shelves with non-GMO verified labels increases, growers and processors may have no choice but to acquiesce. They may be forced by circumstances either to label their products (or automatically be suspected of trying to hide something for not doing so) or to eliminate GMO crops and ingredients for fear of losing customers regardless of what happens in Congress or in other states.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books on risk, explains why this is so in a draft chapter of an upcoming book called Skin in the Game. His investigation begins with why nearly every packaged drink in the United States is labeled certified kosher.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Corruption is a loaded word. One person's corruption is another's sound social policy. Some people believe providing unemployment benefits to laid-off workers corrupts them by making them "lazy." Many others think such benefits are sound social policy in an economic system that is prone to major cyclical ups and downs.
Fewer people agree that bailing out major U.S. banks at taxpayer expense in the aftermath of the 2008 crash was a good use of public money. An alternative would have been for the U.S. government to seize the banks, inject funds to stabilize them, and then resell them to investors, perhaps at a profit.
Was it corruption that led to the bailout instead of a takeover? Or was it an honest difference of opinion about what would work best under emergency circumstances?
We can argue whether these examples of transfers of funds from one group to another are fair. But by themselves they do not constitute a systemic risk to the stability of the entire economic and social system. In fact, some would argue that such transfers enhance that stability. However one evaluates these transfers, I would contend that a much worse corruption is to subject our society knowingly to systemic failures such as severe climate change and widespread crop failures.
Sunday, April 03, 2016
Large food processors have long claimed that state laws forcing them to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would lead to 1) higher prices for consumers who would end up paying the cost of special labeling for one or just a few states and/or 2) fewer food choices as processors simply withdrew some or all of their products from states requiring labeling.
It seems that the state of Vermont has now called their bluff and won.
Neither scenario appears likely when Vermont's labeling law for products containing genetically engineered ingredients goes into effect on July 1. Instead, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., ConAgra Food Inc., Mars Inc. and Campbell Soup Company have announced they will use one label that is in accordance with Vermont law for all markets for products containing genetically engineered ingredients and thus avoid the cost and logistical hassle of separate labels and special handling for products bound for Vermont. This was always going to be the simplest way to comply, and Vermont's governor knew it. Expect more companies to follow suit soon.
The fate of Vermont's labeling law for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients--commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs--had hung in the balance as a court challenge and federal legislation threatened to overturn it.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to respond to questions about the direction of the economy and financial markets by saying: "I answer because I'm asked not because I know."
Such is also the case with poorly informed members of the public whose views pollsters seek on every conceivable topic including energy. A recent Gallup poll asked a sampling of Americans whether they believe the United States will face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.
Some 31 percent responded yes, the lowest number on record since the question was first asked in 1978 (though it was not asked again by Gallup until 2001.) In 2012, the last time the question appeared in a Gallup survey, the number was 50 percent. The highest result came, not surprisingly, in 2008 when oil was making its historic climb to an all-time high of $147 per barrel. In March of that year (five months before the oil price peak) some 62 percent of American respondents thought the United States would face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.
There is, of course, the problem of what "critical energy shortage" means to each respondent. Prices for all varieties of energy were elevated in 2008, but there weren't any critical shortages--just very high prices which made it impossible for some to afford as much energy as they would like.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
The Oregon legislature has adopted a first-in-the-nation plan to phase out electricity from coal, a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.
The state's environmental community had been gearing up for a ballot initiative this year that would have forced the state's utilities to abandon coal as a fuel for electricity. But negotiations between the two groups resulted in a legislative compromise--dubbed the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Plan--that will wean the state off coal-fired electricity no later than 2030 except for one out-of-state power plant that is partly owned by an Oregon-based utility. That plant will be retired no later than 2035.
The plan also calls for an increase in the percentage of energy that electric utilities must get from renewable sources such as wind and solar from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2040.
Coal currently provides almost 34 percent of the state's electricity. Hydroelectric generation provides almost 43 percent. Natural gas and wind account for 13.5 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively. Regarding Oregon's renewable energy targets, for context California and New York have mandated the same percentage as Oregon but by 2030. Vermont has targeted 75 percent by 2032, and Hawaii has mandated 100 percent renewable energy for electricity by 2045.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Sunday, March 06, 2016
The $9.2 billion investors paid to snap up new equity offerings from U.S. oil companies in 2016 proves those investors are indeed ready for more punishment.
The amount is in line with the pace of such equity offerings in 2015 even as the mood in the oil markets has grown more dour. In June of last year I wrote:
New investors in U.S. oil company shares must believe they are catching the bottom and will have a very profitable ride up from here. This demonstrates that OPEC's work is not done and accounts in part for the decision to leave production quotas unchanged. OPEC's next task is to convince those making new investments in oil that rather than catching a bottom in oil prices, they have caught a falling knife.
A lot of investors did end up catching a falling knife as oil careened downward from about $60 a barrel last summer to Friday's close of about $36. Investors this year may still find that the knife is falling, though it admittedly doesn't have as far to fall this time around. Still, it seems they misunderstand OPEC's strategy or believe that that strategy will fail. As I said in the same piece:
The cartel must dampen enthusiasm for investment for the long term if the organization's members are going to benefit. A crippled U.S. oil industry without friends in the investment world is the only way to assure that rising prices won't simply lead to a stampede back into U.S. shale deposits.
It seems that the oil industry still has friends in the investment world and that OPEC's work is therefore not yet done. The big question then is: Will OPEC stay the course or relent with a production cut this year to raise prices?
Sunday, February 28, 2016
No one can know the future. But it turns out we can invent a place called "The Future" and invite people to inhabit it.
In order to inhabit "The Future"--which is really just an enactment of our ideas about the future--you need the right accessories. For starters you'll need the basics: the latest iPhone with the latest social networking app, a fully electric car (if you can afford it), and a FitBit watch. To that you can add your own personal drone, personal robot, and a farm cube for growing your own lettuce indoors.
In fact, before the pageants we call trade shows (such as the Consumer Electronics Show, coverage of which is linked above), we had world fairs that allowed us to "see the future." Perhaps the most important thing to note about such events is that they began by focusing mostly on scientific and technical progress and its resulting consumer products. At these events our future political and economic system apparently remains unchanged. This is, in part, because political and economic reform cannot be packaged and sold like consumer products.
Of course, I could fill up this entire piece just listing all the other futuristic devices and even places that are available to us today and not scratch the surface. We are a society that venerates progress and that always has its eyes on the future. We think of ourselves as innovative and regard innovation as almost invariably good.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Aristotle tells us that humans are political animals. For Aristotle this characteristic seems to distinguish humans from other animals enough to provide a unique area of study that applies only to humans--hence Aristotle's The Politics, a work which informs our political thinking to this day.
Political ecology, on the other hand, posits that while humans are political, the political process, of necessity, includes the natural world as a political actor. The human and the nonhuman are not distinct categories, but rather part of a seamless order that is (currently) best described by political ecology.
If the rhetoric of political ecology is to remain merely descriptive, we can stop here. But if we want that rhetoric to become a tool of change, we must go beyond the notion that “facts speak for themselves.” (We will get to the question of religion further on.)
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." We find ourselves now in an age where people believe that they are indeed entitled to their own facts. Many politicians and their supporters have come to believe that the facts provided by scientists are tainted by social, political and financial factors. In short, the politically-motivated critics of science have discovered the postmodern French critique of science.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Most people value stability in their lives. And, this makes perfect sense. Stability usually means an adequate, secure income; an established group of friends and family members with whom we are close; an identity in our communities based on our jobs, community involvement, and personal networks; physical safety in our daily lives, that is, no war or extreme violence where we live; and relative psychological calm that reflects that stability.
But humans value other things such as variety and novelty. In short, we can get bored. And, in order to address our boredom, we must actually seek out instability in our lives. We proceed to upset the very stability which we believe makes us comfortable and safe by engaging in activities that subject us to physical, financial and emotional risk such as sports, gambling or new relationships.
There is, of course, the disruption of our routine that comes from external events, from things that we do not necessarily choose: the loss of a job, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or injury due to accident. External events can also be positive: an unsolicited job offer, an unexpected romance, or the miraculous recovery of a loved one.
As it is with individuals, so it is with nations and complex social systems such as corporations and markets which reflect these same seemingly contradictory desires for stability, but also variety and novelty. It seems the social mood cannot go long without experiencing some interesting disruption: a war, an economic boom or a bust, a change of political parties, a change in fashion, a disruptive technology.
Sunday, February 07, 2016
When Scientific American published Herman Daly's "Economics in a Full World" in September 2005, few people knew what lay ahead: oil climbing to $147 a barrel, the relentless rise in global temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions, the food riots of 2008 sparked by rising food prices, the economic crash that followed, and the development of an increasingly yawning gap between the rich and everyone else in subsequent years. For the vast majority of people on the planet, growth effectively stopped in 2008. Their incomes have essentially flatlined or declined.
Daly's thesis seems more relevant than ever as government policymakers puzzle over lackluster global economic growth despite unprecedented government spending (and debt) and ground-hugging interest rates in the seven years since the crash. Maybe we have reached the point, as Daly would argue, when economic growth is uneconomic, when the costs outweigh the benefits (except, of course, for a very narrow stratum of people at the top who get to put the costs on everyone else).
If we are moving toward a low-growth or even no-growth world because growth is becoming much more difficult and problematic, then Daly's outline of a new economics will need a companion outline: politics in a full world. I have a preliminary candidate for that outline: Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature. Daly's steady-state economics always implied a revolution in governance without being explicit about it.
Latour never mentions Daly and may never have read him. But Latour clearly understands that politics--which has always held nature at arm's length while nevertheless dealing daily with its demands--must now explicitly invite the natural world to the bargaining table.
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Okay, I admit that the premise of Norwegian television's new political thriller series "Occupied" is far-fetched. But that premise is a window on just how addicted to fossil fuels we are.
In "Occupied" Norway's Green Party wins parliamentary elections and makes good on its (not-altogether-fictional) promise to shut down oil and natural gas production in the country as a way of addressing climate change. This fictional Green Party simultaneously builds a thorium-fueled reactor to provide electric power. The Greens promise many more reactors as they embrace the electrification of transportation to reduce Norway's need for liquid fuels.
Norway's oil and gas customers--the countries of the European Union and Sweden--object to the loss of critical fossil fuel supplies. They conspire with Russia to force Norway to restart oil and gas production. At first this involves a smallish invasion by Russian soldiers and a takeover of offshore oil and gas platforms which are restored to production by Russian work crews.
When the series was conceived, Norwegian television thought the idea was too implausible. But with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, "Occupied" has touched a nerve in a newly anxious Scandanavian population who now see Russia as more of threat. (And, of course, there is the memory of Germany's occupation of Norway during World War II that still arouses fear and loathing in the hearts of many Norwegians.)
Sunday, January 24, 2016
"Down" is such a downer word. That's why when prices fall for practically anything Wall Street wants to sell you, Wall Streeters talk about volatility instead.
Volatility allows for the possibility that prices will recover soon and go to new highs. Any setback is just temporary. The market turbulence, it seems, is merely designed by invisible market gods to test your character as a long-term investor. Don't give in to panic, the investment people say, and you'll be rewarded.
Until you aren't!
A year ago I said the crash in commodity prices signaled a weak economy and that financial markets would eventually have to reflect this fact. The widely watched S&P 500 Index closed at 1,994.99 on January 30, 2015 just prior to the publication of the linked piece. Last Friday's close was 1906.90. The U.S. stock market hasn't exactly reflected the weakness in commodities, but it hasn't gained any ground either.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
My favorite Texas oilman Jeffrey Brown is at it again. In a recent email he's pointing out to everyone who will listen that the supposed oversupply of crude oil isn't quite what it seems. Yes, there is a large overhang of excess oil in the market. But how much of that oversupply is honest-to-god oil and how much is so-called lease condensate which gets carelessly lumped in with crude oil? And, why is this important to understanding the true state of world oil supplies?
In order to answer these questions we need to get some preliminaries out of the way.
Lease condensate consists of very light hydrocarbons which condense from gaseous into liquid form when they leave the high pressure of oil reservoirs and exit through the top of an oil well. This condensate is less dense than oil and can interfere with optimal refining if too much is mixed with actual crude oil. The oil industry's own engineers classify oil as hydrocarbons having an API gravity of less than 45--the higher the number, the lower the density and the "lighter" the substance. Lease condensate is defined as hydrocarbons having an API gravity between 45 and 70. (For a good discussion about condensates and their place in the marketplace, read "Neither Fish nor Fowl – Condensates Muscle in on NGL and Crude Markets.")
Refiners are already complaining that so-called "blended crudes" contain too much lease condensate, and they are seeking out better crudes straight from the wellhead. Brown has dubbed all of this the great condensate con.