Sunday, April 14, 2024

Why we call it climate change

There were two pieces of recent news which highlight why what was once most often referred to as global warming is now called climate change. Yes, the globe is heating up. But effects vary depending on where you live for various reasons.

First, a report from India calls out problems with the criteria used by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to issue a heatwave warning: The criteria do NOT consider humidity, only temperature. Anyone who lives in a hot climate or any climate that includes hot summer days knows that humidity can make a huge difference in whether one can stay cool in hot weather. It turns out that the IMD criteria fail to recognize that temperatures below what is considered a heatwave may be just as dangerous to human health when humidity is high and even be downright life-threatening. In short, India is already experiencing conditions that at times are at or near the limits of human suvivability.

The vast majority of humans—even with an unlimited supply of water—would likely die after a few hours in conditions that exceed 95 degrees in very high humidity, what is called wet-bulb temperatures because they represent a wet towel around the bulb of a thermometer.  This web-bulb temperature is supposed to mimic the way that humans cool themselves through perspiration. At very high humidity, it becomes hard to get perspiration on the skin to evaporate which is what allows for cooling of the body. It's why a handheld or electric fan helps cool the body because it speeds up evaporation.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

The short-circuiting of societal feedback mechanisms

Both societies and individuals rely on feedback mechanisms to function. For example, humans balance on one foot not by rigidly holding the leg and foot steady. Rather, they constantly slightly shift their weight to keep upright. If they close their eyes, however, they have less feedback, and it becomes harder to maintain balance.

Now, the stakes are somewhat higher when you drive a car, but the principle is the same. When driving, you don't simply hold the wheel in one position. That would eventually send you off the road or into another car. Instead, based on visual feedback from the lines painted on the road and the positions of other vehicles, you steer your car, making frequent slight adjustments to keep you on the road, in your lane and away from collisions.

If, on the other hand, you were forced to drive with a paper bag over your head, you'd lack all that feedback and you'd be lucky if you only ended up going off the road into a ditch.

But our situation as a civilization is so much worse than that. Collectively, most of us are "drivers" of our civilization who have bags over our heads without understanding that we have bags over our heads. At least a lone driver of a car quickly realizes he or she is in trouble when the car hits another car or goes into a ditch. Collectively, as actors in our broader civilization, we are getting feedback that all is well, or at least well enough, that we don't need to make any drastic changes in our way of life. It's as if someone is beaming a false virtual reality to us inside the bag. And, that is a good metaphor for what's actually happening.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Biofortification: The latest technical fix for depleted soils

Many health-conscious people already know that the nutrient value of foods has been dropping since the introduction of industrial agriculture. The causes include loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to erosion brought on by frequent plowing and therefore loosening of the soil. Farmers also often fail to plant cover crops to hold soil in place when the growing season is over. Another cause is the reduction in the biological diversity and density of the soil brought on both by frequent plowing and by the constant barrage of synthetic chemicals, both fertilizers and pesticides, used in industrial agriculture.

Now, the same people who brought you the industrial food system want to bring you biofortification, a term which refers to a set of approaches to boost nutrients in food—nutrients lost due to the very techniques used in industrial agriculture.

It should come as no surprise that one approach being discussed is genetic engineering of crops to increase nutrient levels. For those of us who find the idea of yet more genetically modified crops in the food supply unappetizing as well as dangerous, there is an alternative. This one encourages conventional plant breeding, the rebuilding of soil, and the planting of a more diverse set of crops. The reasoning is that part of the nutrition problem is that people don't get a rounded diet that includes the diversity of foods which have the diversity of nutrients their bodies need. (This piece in The Guardian provides a reasonably good summary of the discourse around biofortification.)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Why don't humans respond to extinction-level risks?

The perils that threaten the continuity of human civilization are so obvious that it is puzzling that so little is being done to counter these perils. In fact, much is being done to hasten their arrival. Climate change, nuclear war, toxic pollution leading to complete loss of human fertility, solar storms and electromagnetic pulse weapons that could take down the entire electric grid, designer viruses against which none of us have defenses, and energy and resource depletion are just some of the extinction-level risks that we face.

Now, none of these possibilities are certain to wipe out humanity altogether. But they might very well end modern technical civilization and leave behind only a few scattered groups of humans around the globe. And, then there is the recent hoopla about artificial intelligence (AI) taking over the world and extinguishing human beings or, at least making decisions without consideration for whether those decisions will lead to the demise of the human race. What the hoopla actually seems to be about is what people will do with AI, making this an all-too-human disaster rather than merely a technological one.

Given all that is known about these threats, what is stopping human societies from taking definitive action to prevent them? Let me offer a few ideas:

Sunday, February 25, 2024

No post this week - Taking an EXTENDED break

A crush of consulting work has prevented me from finding time to reflect and write, and it will remain that way for the next month. Therefore, I'm taking an extended break and expect to post again on Sunday, March 24.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Owning your own information revisited

In 2020 I suggested an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would declare that each individual owns his or her own image and information. Anyone wanting to use that image or information would need to get permission and perhaps even pay for it. I pointed out that it's not such a radical idea since celebrities already do own their own identities and people who use them without permission and/or payment are subject to lawsuit.

Fast forward to today. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has now proposed a regulation that would hold accountable those using technology to impersonate others. The FTC said in a news release:

The Commission is also seeking comment on whether the revised rule should declare it unlawful for a firm, such as an AI [artificial intelligence] platform that creates images, video, or text, to provide goods or services that they know or have reason to know is being used to harm consumers through impersonation.

The FTC just approved a rule that would protect businesses and government from similar harms. This would extend these protections to individuals.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, February 18.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Surprise! Saudi Arabia is no longer wholly-owned gas station of the United States

In 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt declared that "the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States." The reason: Ten years earlier the desert kingdom had granted a concession to Standard Oil of California to explore for oil. It turned out there was some, in fact, a lot.

Roosevelt visited with the kingdom's monarch, King Ibn Saud, early in 1945 to further cement relations between the two countries, paving the way for a mutual defense treaty in 1951. The idea was to provide protection for Saudi Arabia in exchange for access to the country's oil.

Fast forward to last week. The Saudi Ministry of Energy ordered the government-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, not to exceed its current so-called Maximum Sustainable Capacity of 12 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil production. In other words, stop any expansion plans.

Petroleum geologist and consultant Art Berman cut through all the speculation about the reason behind this move by pointing out that the energy ministry was only directing Aramco to comply with the law.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

U.S. natural gas exports signal higher prices for U.S. consumers (in the long run)

After reading Art Berman's excellent summary of how fast-growing U.S. natural gas exports are likely to reduce domestic supplies significantly over the next several years as shale gas output begins to decline, I want to assure you that everything has been going according to plan for the natural gas industry, that is, until now.

On Friday the Biden Administration announced a freeze on new permits for liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities that could last up to 15 months. The administration said that during the freeze it will review the environmental effects of such exports on climate and the communities in which the facilities are located. It is also possible that despite the industry's assurances, the administration may believe that supply problems and therefore higher prices lie ahead, something that voters won't like.

When U.S. oil and gas producers successfully lobbied the federal government for an end to restrictions on the export of crude oil and natural gas in the middle of the last decade, they loudly proclaimed that America could produce so much of both from the country's shale fields that the United States would have plenty left over for export—and that would boost the American economy while addressing the country's trade imbalance. They promised that this boom would go on for decades.

Of course, what those producers were really angling for was to integrate domestic oil and gas markets more fully with world markets in order to benefit from higher world prices and make a lot more money. In fairness, what they were asking for is what almost every other industry in the United States enjoys, the right to sell their products to the highest bidders no matter where those customers are on the globe.

Naturally, that argument would not have appealed to members of Congress whose constituents prefer low energy prices to high ones, so it was never advanced with any vigor.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, January 28.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

What the U.S. grab of ocean seabeds signals

There is an iron rule of resource exploitation: Go after the easy stuff first. If you don't, your competitors will and run you out of business with lower prices. But where do you go when the easy stuff runs out? (And the easy stuff always runs out.) The United States' recent expanded claims to ocean seabeds signals that the easy stuff has run out or will soon. More on those claims later.

The obvious answer to getting more resources is to start digging up the harder stuff. Sometimes it's new technology that makes the harder stuff economical to extract. Heap leach mining was developed to take low concentration ores and leach out the desired metals using chemical-laced sprays that result in a liquid "leachate." From this leachate valuable minerals such as gold, silver, copper and uranium are then extracted through further processing. (There are myriad environmental problems associated with the leachate and the tailings left behind if they spill due to leaks and floods. That would deserve a piece all by itself.)

But what happens when there isn't enough of the harder stuff on land with sufficient concentration of metals to supply the world with minerals it needs for, say, the highly touted renewable energy transition? One possible answer is the seabed which contains nodules of copper, cobalt, and manganese—all of them essential for the energy transition—that might be harvested with emerging undersea mining technology.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

The end of paper?

Our civilization depends largely on paper.

                                --Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 AD) was a lawyer and Roman provincial governor who is best known as the compiler of what we would recognize as an encyclopedia, one of the very first. Naturalis Historia filled 10 volumes covering astronomy, geography, anthropology, zoology, botany, pharmacology and mineralogy as well as a myriad of subtopics. Pliny knew something about the value of paper to civilization.

It goes without saying that paper is what made it possible for Pliny's entire encyclopedia to be available to those living now nearly 2,000 years after his death. If at the time Pliny had been able to place his whole encyclopedia on a DVD or flash drive and had forgone creating a printed version, would we know anything about his encyclopedia today?

The 2,000th anniversary of Pliny's birth was marked last year by the discovery of a complete papyrus in an ancient tomb near Cairo which contained text from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It has apparently been more than a century since the last complete papyrus was discovered. This latest one comes from a tomb that is more than 4,000 years old. Such is the staying power of papyrus.