Category Archives: Climate Change

Arctic Snow Cover: Another Shock

I have relaunched this blog under the new name The Rational Pessimist. I am currently only posting the headlines for new posts at this, my old Climate and Risk, URL.

The rest of each post is available at http://www.therationalpessimist.com

Further, if you are a follower of Climate and Risk, could you switch to The Rational Pessimist at http://www.therationalpessimist.com.

Thanks!

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Top 3 Images for 2012: # 2 Hurricane Sandy

While the unprecedented retreat in summer Arctic sea ice extent was by far the most shocking event of 2012 in terms of climate risk, Hurricane Sandy (and the images of a flooded New York subway system) did more to raise consciousness with the general public. Bloomberg Businessweek summed up the sentiment nicely:

Hurricance Sandy JPG

From a scientific perspective, of course, you can’t actually say that Hurricane Sandy “was solely due to global warming stupid”. However, Continue reading

Top 3 Images for 2012: #1 Arctic Sea Ice Extent

1. Arctic Sea Ice Extent for Summer Melt Season

By far the most disturbing image of any I saw in 2012 was that for Arctic sea ice minimum summer extent. Indeed, the chart below is nothing short of shocking. Sea ice extent plummeted to 3.4 million square kilometres compared with the previous low of 4.2 million square kilometres in 2007, an 18% decline.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report 4 published in 2007 we saw this statement: Continue reading

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 2?

In my last post, I looked at the neoclassical economist’s view of a world undergoing climate change. The consensus within the profession is that global mean temperature rise will become a growing cost to humanity. Further, such a cost is not being borne by those causing it (a so called externality in the economics literature) and therefore justifies a carbon tax. Finally, and most controversially for some, the standard recommendation is for a slow and steady ramp in taxation from a very low starting point. This rests on the recognition that any investment to mitigate carbon emissions now will translate into lost economic output in the future. So the logic goes: it is often better to get rich and dirty first (before cleaning up), rather than staying clean and poor.

In sum, the economics profession calls for a calm, considered but, above all, slow response to climate change.  This is in stark contrast to the position of many climate scientists; for example, the sentiment expressed in the following statement by the climate scientist Lonnie Thompson:

Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

Since the scientific and the economics communities inhabit completely different academic silos, it is rare to find any intelligent discussion that analyses this dichotomy of opinion. Economists cite scholarly articles published in the leading economics journals, and scientists cite scholarly articles in the leading scientific journals. The one exception is perhaps the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s periodic assessment reviews, which has provided a communal market place of ideas for a variety of disciplines to meet. However, the last report was published in 2007 and was based on an information set available a few years even earlier. Therefore, many economists are not very well placed to tap into the rising alarm of climate scientists as new data comes in and reports get published.

If I were a climate scientist trying to install a sense of urgency among economists, how would plan my avenue of attack? Continue reading

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 1?

A can’t count the number of moribund discussions I have had over the veracity of climate change. Having spent the best part of my career in the financial industry, it is impossible not to come across certain colleagues, clients and brokers who see global warming as an affront to free market economics and therefore something that could not possibly exist.

Such questioning of the science, however, doesn’t particularly bother me: a contrarian mindset is a prerequisite for a successful career managing money so the multitude of climate skeptics within the industry should not be a surprise. What does frustrate me, though, is that many of those who argue so vehemently that climate change is a product of statist scientists trying to secure government funding don’t feel the need to acquaint themselves with the basic tenets of what they are arguing against (and yes I have had the painful experience of reading through the standard skeptic offerings from Ian Plimer‘s ‘Heaven and Earth’, to Nigel Lawson’s ‘An Appeal to Reason‘, to Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Cool It‘ and many more).

When engaging with many skeptics, it is like arguing with someone over the merits of a novel when my opponent has only read the reviews in a newspaper and not the original text. Continue reading

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 2: The Ozone Hole)

In my last post, I made the point that techno-optimists, such as Ray Kurweil, see technological change transforming economies through the exponential growth of productivity as the present century progresses. Critically, the analysis of Kurweil and his fellow travellers makes no mention of societal costs—so called externalities in the language of economics. Each innovation or invention is basically self-contained—overcoming a particular problem but without creating any secondary problems in another part of the system.

Unfortunately, this tunnel vision of the benefits of technology does, on many occasions, not correspond to the actual historical record. One technology I have in mind is Thomas Midgley Jr.’s creation of a compound known as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC-12), better know as Freon. CFCs are a classic Kurzweil type solution to a particular problem, in this case the need for a substitute for the highly poisonous gases used up until the 1930s for refrigeration. At the time of their creation and for many years later, CFCs were believed to be inert and totally harmless to human health. In reality, as the CFCs accumulated in the upper atmosphere, they led to the creation of the Antarctic ozone hole. The journalist and author Dianne Dumanoski in her book “The End of the Long Summer” described the ozone hole phenomenon as the most important single event of the 2oth century, even eclipsing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, since it symbolised “the arrival of a new and ominous epoch when human activity began to disrupt the essential but invisible planetary systems that sustain a dynamic, living Earth.” Even more telling, the environmental historian J.R. McNeill described Midgley himself as having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.” Continue reading

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 1: For Ever Exponential)

In the opening chapter of Ray Kurzweil‘s “The Singularity Is Near” we are presented with the following parable:

A lake owner wants to stay at home to tend to the lake’s fish and make certain that the lake itself will not become covered with lily pads, which are said to double their number every few days. Month after month, he patiently waits, yet only tiny patches of lily pads can be discerned, and they don’t seem to be expanding in any noticeable way. With the lily pads covering less than 1 percent of the lake, the owner figures that it’s safe to take a vacation and leaves with his family. When he returns a few weeks later, he’s shocked to discover that the entire lake has become covered with the pads, and his fish have perished. By doubling their number every few days, the last seven doublings were sufficient to extend the pads’ coverage to the entire lake. (Seven doublings extended their reach 128-fold.) This is the nature of exponential growth.

While ‘the water lily and the lake’ appears a strange choice of metaphor since if nothing else it highlights the importance of boundaries to growth, what Kurzweil was trying to communicate was how technology has barely begun to transform our lives.

By contrast, consider the 1972 report to the Club of Rome published under the title “The Limits to Growth.” Much maligned and mostly misrepresented, The Limits to Growth (LTG) was nothing more than a mathematical analysis of linear and exponential growth rates and ultimate constraints. According to the authors, the tyranny of exponential growth rates would eventually lead population and industrial production to explode, setting off a negative feedback in terms of burgeoning pollution and the eventual exhaustion of food and resources. The report never provided specific dates for the depletion of individual materials, although nine our of ten commentaries on the report claim it did (for a post I did on this particular urban legend, see here). Nonetheless, what the report did do was suggest that the idea of inevitable constant human progress was a dangerous myth. Continue reading