Climate economics drives me wild

Noah Smith article extract

I’m an actuary not an economist, but when economists produce garbage, it’s usually easy for me to spot. That William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel for his modeling, so full of bad-faith assumptions, seems unbelievable.

If you have any interest in the debacle of climate change economics, have a close read of Noah Smith’s brilliant article “Why has climate economics failed us?” In it, he eviscerates the field, ascribing its uselessness to four factors:

  • “Simply not publishing enough research
  • Putting out models that are frankly just bad
  • Ignoring tail risks
  • Obsessively focusing on carbon taxes”

At the end of the article, Smith stresses that “the failures of the past cannot be allowed to persist into the future,” and he provides seven suggestions. A lengthy sequence of comments also holds some interest, though inevitably some of it is in bad faith.

If I were younger, I’d pitch in and assemble some good-faith economists and put together some models that can properly contribute to our deliberations of the climate emergency. As it is, I seethe.

“Beautiful and false”

Emma Marris article image

In The Atlantic, Emma Marris has penned a long, beautifully written article (“The nature you see in documentaries is beautiful and false“). I read it twice over today, glad to find something to propel me back into my Cranes project. “It isn’t just the sounds that make these films feel more than real,” she writes, among the many points used to illustrate her thesis. “They use the absolute highest-resolution cameras available, what Chang calls ‘military-grade lenses.’ The images on any modern television are thus crisp as fuck.”

Well, yes. I can appreciate the argument, I can appreciate her telling points. But as counterpoint, I’ve begun feeling that human beings should retreat from remote nature trips, should perhaps retreat to watching the documentaries she decries. We can’t, in all conscience, burn the carbon our travel entails, just so we can crowd out the animals and birds we point our cameras at. To be fair, Marris is not against travel documentaries per se, she’d prefer we’re dealt up nature documentaries that employ a “still-gorgeous-but-not-mythical approach,” and to be fair, I’d prefer that as well. But in the end, the nature documentary genre will exhibit the same jaw-dropping spectrum between the best and the worst that every other genre of human entertainment shows. Certainly, it seems to me, better we watch Planet Earth III than Farmer Wants a Bride.

Emma Marris’s weighty article is, of course, doubly germane to my 15 Cranes project. Should I spend the money, release the carbon, and disturb the remoteness as I have intended, in order to merely “see” or “witness” all fifteen species. Can I not ponder the world’s cranes using documentaries and the wonders of the Internet? What is the “right” thing for me to do and what should I do?

Salutary unexpected advice

A manager at solicits pitches for biodiversity writers:

We’re looking for future-forward stories on the science, politics, and economics of the global biodiversity crisis, geared toward reckoning and responding to this multidimensional crisis, not just cataloging species loss. We’re looking for stories w/ focus on intelligent responses, accountability, recentering Indigenous science/stewardship, and why a radical rethinking/prioritization of conservation is needed. We’re *not* looking for stories simply about cute wildlife/pretty nature, or focused solely on mass extinction or losing individual species. After all, biodiversity is about abundance, healthy functioning ecosystems, and cultural diversity too.

On the surface, my book project is “cataloguing species loss” and “about cute wildlife.” But of course it needs to be much more. I need to be able to dig into the Cranes not as objects or even as harbingers, but to wrap them around our planet as a skein of life, a skein that embraces me and my generations to come. That sounds pretentious but it needs to speak as an expression of practicality. I am, in a sense, investigating my purpose.

On my shoulders

Richard Betts article

Key Met scientist Richard Betts writes in Carbon Brief that “Atmospheric CO2 now hitting 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.” We’re now at 417 ppm of carbon dioxide, half again what the Earth’s atmosphere held in pre-industrial times, namely 278 ppm.

I am writing, writing a big book on nuclear power. I am writing and I take a break and read Betts’s succinct, visual article. Its import doesn’t sink in for a while, then it does. In fact it’s a curve that poleaxes me, the curve showing the rise year by accelerating year from 1750 to now. Where am I, an Australian born in 1955, on that curve? Let’s say that at age 25, in 1980, one might assert that Andres Kabel was a fully functioning global citizen. Well, roughly interpolating on the chart, two-thirds of the human-caused carbon increase has taken place during the period since 1980.

Please, Andres, make sure you grasp this. You preached that you are principled, a rational humanist, a “good guy.” For four decades, that’s what you held dear. You aggrandized that you were preparing your children and grand-children for the future world, you were optimizing the future world for them and their descendants ongoing. Instead, by inattention and inaction, you and your generation plummeted Earth to a +1C world teetering on the edge of 1.5C, gazing towards 2C or 3C, or a catastrophic 4C situation.

It was me. I am to blame. I’m bereft again and again and again.

My apprehension of my Anthropocene

CSIRO website

CSIRO’s Climate Change in Australia website has just been refreshed in a way that encourages exploration. Politicians should assign their staff to study what they’re entrusted with dealing with. But here in Australia it’s hard to see anyone in our two dominant political parties paying much attention at all (at least until Extinction Rebellion moves them onwards?) In the meantime, I’ve begun my naive, amateurish, slow, browse.

This is the way we need to think. We’re trying to keep the world—in all its complexity of land areas versus ocean areas—to +1.5C. When the world is at this level, global temperatures will oscillate above and below this level, but we can talk about this +1.5C world. Are we there yet? No, and probably we won’t get there until sometime after 2030. But there may be a year or two of these “+1.5C world” years before then, maybe even in the next few years.

In Australia? Well, we’re warming, on our land mass, at 1.4 times the global pace. And in 2019, that fierce incandescent year, we, as a nation, experienced what will be typical in our upcoming +1.5C world.

Where I live in Melbourne? Even in 2019 the fiery temperatures were in Northern Territory, Western Australia, and New South Wales. I haven’t been through a +1.5C year. But I shall, I shall, and before too long.


Sonia Shah article

The brilliant Sonia Shah has a startling New York Times article, “Animal Planet” (which in all likelihood will be behind a paywall for you), delineates something startling, a 3-year-old, multi-million-dollar satellite surveillance project (on the ISS) called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space). Solar-powered tracking tags are attached to a wide variety of animals and birds. These transmit to a receiver on the space station. Apparently, the emerging data upends all notions on animal/bird elasticity of movement and migration. What does this suggest for the 15 Cranes species? The official website is opaque on what species are tracked but a global map doesn’t suggest that any Cranes are monitored. Ultimately, though, this kind of tech effort will help elucidate the chances of Cranes surviving the Anthropocene era. If only I could understand the answer to that question.

The past is no longer the future

John Matthews article

A water expert, John Matthews, blogs for the Observer Research Foundation: “How to prepare for unpredictable climate events to ensure water sustainability.” He frames his discussion in terms of what he calls “stationarity,” or the existence of a stable world for predictive purposes. Let me reframe that for my purposes. For any planetary phenomenon which we need to predict in the light of global warming, the past (i.e. past data) is useful but not the end of the story. On a planet that for human purposes has been stable and slow-changing, the rapid warming we’re engendering, however, small changes in, say, temperature, can quickly take us into the unknown. The past data no longer predicts the future. We need to develop models based on scientific principles that can take our comprehension into the new Anthropocene era. Of course, such models are what have been built over the last four decades, and they’re now pretty hot shit.

This issue of the past being an imperfect predictor of the future is what renders the slippery bullshit of semi-deniers such as Bjorn Lomborg as exactly that, bullshit. Lomborg is forever saying, “look, things haven’t gotten worse in the past, so they won’t in the future.” We know (and he knows) that he’s just deflecting attention, just deferring action. Ignore slippery bullshit, folks, and trust the models.

Never, ever believe ExxonMobil

Emily Pontevorvo article

One could explode in anger, one could. The latest from the company most easily categorized as satanic, ExxonMobil, claims to cut something to do with emissions by 15 to 20% from 2016 to 2025. Read Emily Pontecorvo’s Grist article “Exxon’s ’emission reduction plan’ doesn’t call for reducing Exxon’s emissions” to get the skinny. The skinny: it’s spin, spin, spin.

One always believes in dialogue, in negotiation. But in 2020, as it was in 2000 and 1980, the fossil fuel giants exist for only one purpose, making money by burning fossil fuels, so they are the intractable enemy. Oppose, permit yourself some righteous hatred … then, when the world wakes up and the politics shift, bring ExxonMobil and the rest to heel.

How do climate-concerned citizens get climate-sincere politicians?: Mark Jaccard

Mark Jaccard

My paraphrase: First, recognize that getting effective action on climate doesn’t depend on getting every citizen to be climate-concerned; for example, consider smoking policy action: only 50-60% of citizens were on board. Second, there are going to be climate-insincere politicians. Recognize that a climate-sincere politician is going to put a price on carbon or enact regulations that phase out coal, gas, petrol, and diesel. Climate-insincere politicians do educational and research stuff but say carbon taxes or regulations are too prohibitive. They set distant targets (yes, targets are good) but never do anything; with a target, we need to see policies towards the target. Finally, climate-sincere citizens need to be strategic and work hard against the election of the most climate-insincere politicians, rather than being purist, splitting the vote, and enabling the bad guys to get elected.

Great Barrier Reef: just like Orange-Bellied Parrot

Mapping the Reef article

Hundreds of volunteers are helping to map the Great Barrier Reef” on BBC News. Scientists and even tourists will take snaps of coral and other volunteers will use them to do mapping. I’m struck by the analogies with trying to save species highly threatened by humanity’s encroachment and global warming. We breed birds in captivity, release them, tag them, survey them … rinse and repeat, hoping the almost-extinct population recovers enough to thwart extinction. This work is noble. So too is paying close attention to the Reef, regrowing minuscule patches, surveying…

But pay attention to the differences. We don’t know when climate change will kiss the Orange-Bellied Parrot goodbye, but we have models that tell us most coral reefs will disappear in the 2030s as seas inexorably warm up. Birds can move and adapt; coral reefs sit and wait. So, for sure, let’s try and save pieces of the reefs. But here in Australia, we should at least publicly put the Great Barrier Reef on a schedule of highly threatened lifeforms. Perhaps it’s time to begin closing down the tourist industry around it and treat it as a scientific project?