Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos

Climate chaos (CC) is the largest threat to our collective prosperity. (Water scarcity, biodiversity loss, increasing vulnerability to viruses and bacteria are a few more.)

But “we” (citizens of rich countries) are having a hardER time understanding and addressing CC due to a few strategic mistakes, i.e.,

  1. Most discussions of impacts focus on 2100, which is too far away from our time now to take seriously. It also “hides” the fact that we are now seeing weather patterns (due to changes in climate) that are harming our way of life.
  2. Most discussions focus on +2C increases in average temperatures, when the focus should be on increasing risks at the extremes (the changes in the distribution), i.e., fat tails or black swans causing massive damages in surprising places. Examples: Houston getting three “500-year” storms in a decade a few years ago; the Pacific Northwest recently breaking high temperature records by a huge margin; Texas facing “record” cold then “record” warmth within a month; Hurricane Sandy; etc.
  3. Economists recommending a global cap and trade system rather than a series of national carbon tax and rebate systems at Kyoto (1998). The former requires global coordination, a political willingness to send money to “foreigners”, and trustworthy supra-national institutions. Local tax/rebates do not suffer these issues, but we’ve allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
  4. Economists (led by that incompetent fraud, Nordhaus) have used flawed models to justify inaction (their logic is that action now limits growth that will give us resources in the future to deal with damages in the future) rather than implementing action now that can be tightened/loosened as we learn how taxes affect emissions affecting CC.
  5. Most people do not understand how the change from stationarity to non-stationarity will disrupt their habits, food production, infrastructure performance, etc. These are the same people who hesitate to take the COVID vaccine until they are offered lottery tickets. Their choice inconsistency shows they misunderstand probabilities.
  6. Few people understand the consequences of missing +2C targets due to lag effects. Hitting that target (a long run increase) means reducing emissions (and deforestation) at a radical rate now and still waiting for decades for forcing momentum to dissipate and warming to slow and reverse. Put differently, it would take 50-100 years for currently “baked in” forcing to manifest in CC-impacts assuming we went to zero emissions today, and another 10,000 years (±) for current CO2 concentrations of 409ppm (a level not seen for 800,000 years) to fall back to “pre-industrial” levels of 280ppm last seen 170 years ago. We’ve passed the point of no return.
  7. Forgetting that non-CO2 factors matter. If all GHGs are included, then we’re looking at 456ppm CO2-equilivalent, so we’re in far worse shape than the most-discussed number would suggest.
  8. I’m not even talking about the problems of greed (converting rainforest into palm oil, soy beans or more oil fields), lobbying (politicians need to be re-elected often and fossil fuel companies have lots of money to pay for protection or inaction), the massive market failure/collective action problem, our psychological desire to maintain “progress” at all costs, and so on.

My one-handed conclusion is that we — humans, as a species — have put ourselves in a difficult situation that we’ve made even harder to tackle by a series of strategic communication blunders.

The (un)comfortable joy of family

I’m on holiday in the US for the first time since COVID, and just spent 5 days with my family for a reunion that brought some of us together for the first time in 35 years!

I enjoyed catching up with my cousins and their fun, engaging and diverse-in-personality kids. We ate and drank too much, lounged and talked for hours, and had a lot of fun in the pools and rivers nearby.

This element was comfortable in a way I’m not accustomed to, as I’ve been one of the more distant members of our family (living in Amsterdam doesn’t help). It was really great, so I understand how and why people with close families are more happy, safe and content than those without. It’s great to know that others have your back and that you can help them (or just share a meal) without any expectations of future change or obligations.

On the other hand, there’s also the fact (or issue) of interactions among folks with different lives and beliefs. We’ve seen how diverse outlooks have fuelled  a cataclysm of anger and othering on social media, and some of these dynamics have affected families (e.g., with respect to Trump or vaccines), but I think that most families have dampened down the rage by Forcing relatives to engage with others’ views. This dynamic has been in place for ages, so I am confident that most families will find ways to live with each other (agree to disagree) and compromise (respecting the potential for valid disagreements). It’s not an easy process, but it’s a valuable process — for those individuals as well as for societies that depend on cooperation for their prosperity. 

My one-handed conclusion is that the benefits family far outweigh the costs. Count yourself lucky to have your (extended) family, and make sure you “spend” enough time to smooth each others’ sharp edges.

Daylight spending more than you have

Some countries are changing their clocks this week while others will do so next week.

These changes are labeled “daylight saving” (DS) even though the number of daylight minutes stays the same. Marketing at its finest!

Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that this twice-annual ritual is useless or even harmful. As I’ve written before, it would be a triumph of global collective action to  get rid of DS and even better to move the entire planet to one time (UTC) as a means of reducing numerous problems with time zones, at a cost of losing some anachronisms (“lunch at 12 noon” as opposed to “lunch at midday”).

But let’s look into the psychology and goals of DS.

First, are you saving an hour by setting the clock forward in the Spring and then spending that hour when you set it back in the Fall, OR are you borrowing an hour in the Fall and repaying it in the Spring? In either case, there’s zero interest paid or received in this +1 – 1 = 0 or -1 + 1 = 0 calculation. So that’s why the concept is a lie.

Second (and related), you can be sure that people are happier getting an extra hour of sleep or rest when the clock is set back (as it was just now in The Netherlands) than they are losing an hour when the clock is set forward. The psychology of loss aversion (mentioned in my recent post on Marshall’s Principles of Economics) explains this while also inspiring my new, improved DS:

Daylight Savings 2.0: Advance the clocks one hour per month, every month!

DS 2.0, thanks to government genius, will constantly leave everyone better off by adding an hour of rest or leisure not just once per year (and then taking it back!) by every month of the year!

DS 2.0 is like deficit spending, i.e., governments always spending more than they collect. Citizens love extra money so why not give then extra time!

And, yes, there might be quibbles over constantly changing clocks, but we have lots of “smart” technology these days to keep the time moving. Even more important, this ritual on the first weekend of every month would cause less confusion than the current irregular schedule just as it made everyone constantly aware of how time depends on where you are in geography as well as the calendar.

Maybe you think DS 2.0 is silly but so is DS, and both are based on faulty psychology more than efficiency or convenience.*

My one-handed conclusion is more free time is better!

* If you want that, then yeah: UTC everywhere.

Ask me anything — my answers

  1. How the agriculture industry will be like in post covid? Who will dominate the world? 
    Covid does not really affect the growth or trade in crops, but it has reduced access to cheap labor and cheap air transport. Cheap labor is falling because workers cannot cross borders due to restrictions or get sick because of their cramped living conditions. Cheap air transport is gone because passenger traffic is down, so there are fewer planes to airfreight cargo. Costs will rise as labor is domesticated, protected and replaced by machines. Trade in high-value crops will perhaps be replaced by growing the crops in local greenhouses, which often means a larger carbon footprint, since more energy is added for greenhouses than saved from reduced flights.
  2. School me on Universal Basic Income. I can’t see how it would benefit low income recipients because within a year, rents and grocery prices would spike higher to reap their excess dollars.
    UBI, as income, can be spent anywhere. Some people will spend it on food, but others on education, cars, paying off debt, etc. Since the income can go to any mix of goods, there’s no uniform rise in demand that would justify a rise in prices. Put differently, any landlord who raised rents would face competition from other landlords since there’s a competitive market in renting (in most places!). For more, read about lump sum transfers.
  3. Ed Barbier, an environmental economist, is pointing out how the pandemic is turning out to be bad for the environment (despite the downward blip in CO2 emissions). Here in rural Wyoming we’re seeing a wave of city slickers move in. In Teton County that means $3 million and up is the hottest part of the real estate market. That has profound consequences on our community character. What else are you seeing globally in terms of migrations from urban to suburban and rural? What data are you tracking? How profound is this change? Also, as a teacher who encourages your students to blog, you might find this seventeen-year old’s take on the pandemic interesting.
    Good post! Ariel is quite perceptive! I think people are moving from cities to suburbs and rural areas — reversing the “hipsters to city centers” trend that began in the 90s and which (itself) reversed “white flight” that began in the 1960s — for reasons of climate chaos (cities are vulnerable to bad weather and supply-chain disruptions) and contagion (it’s hard to socially distance on a subway car). At some point, this trend will slow, probably due to job concerns (but see UBI above ;). I’m not tracking data, but Amsterdam hit a record population this year. I think the move to/from cities will be uneven, since some cities are more competent than others in dealing with C19 and CC. 
  4. Is there any scientific evidence that someone has contracted Covid-19 from contact rather than airborne? 
    I’m no scientist, but I’ve read that contact-spreading is much less common than airborne spread, which might be 15-20x more common.
  5. Boxers or briefs?
    Boxers when I am sleeping at someone’s house but briefs for daily wear. I grew up with briefs and do not worry about “overheated gonads” affecting my fertility because I got a vasectomy in 2001 😉

My one-handed conclusion is that people are interested in many more topics than Alfred Marshall 😉

Ask me anything — vacation edition

I’m going on vacation for a few weeks, so I am interrupting my normal blogging for something different.

(I’m not sure if you — or anyone — is interested in my Marshall 2020 Project posts, but I’m doing it for myself — and its a good distraction from everyday crazy 😉

Anyways… I’d love to answer your questions about coronavirus, elections, jobs, trade, the economy, climate chaos, woodworking, watches, Amsterdam, sex, drugs, and/or water utilities.

Seriously — Ask Me Anything. 

So submit your question (name and location optional), and I’ll figure out whether it’s better for me to answer them in writing here or in a special episode of my Jive Talking podcast.

Stay safe from the crazies, support your community, and (hopefully) take a little time off from all the crazy that 2020 has brought us!

Stable Murdering Genius

Just a few memes to keep in mind, as Americans die.

(I’m pretty sure things will get worse, especially if Jared and Donny indeed conspired to hand massive profits on PPE to private companies.)

The Economist on Trump’s “strategy”: “But unlike the pseudo-crises of his administration, this real one cannot be badgered or blustered into submission.


Covid-19 and climate chaos

Some people have made the obvious connection between Coronavirus/Covid 19 (C-19) and climate chaos (CC), as both are global in scale, full of uncertainties, and harmful to the human species.

Aside: There’s a lot of interesting stuff on C-19 right now, but I want to share these: A doctor explains what Americans should do; a scientist hopes that C-19 gets people to trust science instead of populists and quacks; Trump claims it’s not his fault (given how much he’s undermined public health, it is); life in Beijing returns to normalC-19’s changes the “plot” of our lives in a similar way to 9/11; and the US government only works M-F on C-19

Consider the parallels and differences:

C-19 is like CC at 100x speed. C-19 is moving so fast — and killing people — that governments must (re)act. CC is moving much slower and killing people indirectly (heat waves, flooding, air pollution) that it’s not getting as much attention even though CC will probably lead to the premature deaths of 1-2 billion people by 2100. C-19 will perhaps kill 90 million (2 % dead, 60% of 7.5 billion infected).

C-19 and CC both expose underprepared governments, clueless citizens, and weak collective goods (public health, disaster relief). Both are hitting the world in many places at once. Borders, laws and customs are not much of a barrier to either. Collective relief mechanisms are quickly overwhelmed when either hits.

C-19 and CC can be slowed by governments cooperation, but they are not. The head of the WHO said “We still have time to act, time to reduce the harm of C-19.” The exact same wording applies to CC, but most governments are not coordinating and are sometimes taking counterproductive measures (allowing citizens to travel without quarantines; using fossil fuels to please domestic lobbies).

C-19 and CC can be slowed (and stopped) by changes in lifestyle. That’s happening now for C-19, and it could happen with far less disruption with CC, but that means overcoming the fossil fuel lobby and all the businesses that depend on cheap energy. C-19 is indirectly harming those industries, and they cannot resist without getting (correctly) blamed for murder. But they are eager to get going again.

The fight against C-19 and CC will prevent “normal” deaths as related activities slow down. This is true in other sectors (deaths from car “accidents” or drug/alcohol abuse), but rather important here.

My one-handed conclusion is that C-19 and CC both reveal how quickly people can adapt and how governments can help or hinder that adaption.

Bonus! Quarantine got you down? These “pivots” might help:

  • Videochat with distant friends for an hour. You’ll be surprised how a real conversation can rekindle the joys of friendships.
  • Reorganize your computer, photos, closets or finances. Organization gives you control, uncovers treasures and helps you cope when you “don’t have time” again 😉
  • Get outside daily. Time for walking, jogging, climbing trees!
  • Cook a nice meal or bake bread.
  • Read books, not the internet. Reading  at your own pace is more relaxing than facing an endlessly refreshing “feed”. (You can join me in reading Marshall’s Economic Principles 😉

The Marshall 2020 Project

I bought Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920) a few yeas ago, with the intention of reading it — a book central to economic thought and teaching for 30+ years — when time allowed. When I got around to it a few months ago, I was immediately overwhelmed by the useful and fascinating ways in which Marshall, who predated the arrival of the “mathturbation” trend that has made economics so useless, explored and explained economics.

A few months ago, I announced my “Marshall 2020 Project” to read the book, one chapter per week, in a reading club format. Thus, I set up a subreddit for the project (r/Marshall2020) in which I will open a discussion for each week’s chapter for others to add their comments on the material and react to each other.

Next week (13 Jan), we will begin with Chapter 1. I do not know how this will work exactly, how it will evolve with the material (I haven’t read the book) or adjust to everyone’s participation (I have never run — or participated — in such a project). Nevertheless, I think this will be a fun, engaging and enlightening experience — and it’s exactly the kind of project that I, as an academic, should be leading in this world of shallow outrage and short-term thinking.

My one-handed conclusion is that old books often contain important — and forgotten — insights that can help us think better about our contemporary lives.

So… see you next week?