For Sanity on North Korea

This note is in part a response to an article in yesterday’s New York Times pointing out correctly that no one understands what the North Koreans are after.

What is most disturbing about the current situation is that no one seems to be trying to find out.  Two things, however, are clear:

  1. Kim Jong-un is trying very hard to provoke a hysterical response from the US.
  2. We are doing an excellent job of giving him exactly the response he wants.

So the conclusion is that he wants something from us.  Based on past behavior of the North Koreans, it can even be that he wants money (and security to spend it).  There is nothing in Kim’s past that says that he is either suicidal or stupid.  He is undoubtedly happy with our behavior thus far, since he can assume we’re too scared to walk away from the bargaining table.

So we should stop playing his game and cool it.  And above all let’s find out he wants and deal with it.  He gains nothing by an actual attack.  His bargaining position is based 100% on our hysteria.  The longer we postpone this, the better for him.

In the current situation any military action by the US is an unjustifiable atrocity.

Minding the Store

It has been a long time since there was someone interested in governing the United States of America.  For now we are specializing in promotional stunts (essentially all of foreign policy) or deliveries to electoral constituencies (climate change, ACA repeal, white supremacist racism).

Now that we can have no delusions about what Trump represents (pardoning Arpaio was a last straw), the country is in dire need of a way to get through the next 3 ½ years.

So it is worth remembering that there is actually a group in government trying to do something positive for the country.  That is the bipartisan group of senators working to fix problems with Obamacare (e.g. number of plans offered).  Not only is that a laudable activity for itself (whether or not the results get quashed), but it makes you think about other things a bipartisan group could do.   Here is one short list.

– Supreme Court nominees

At this point you don’t have to be a Democrat to recognize that democracy in this country is under threat.  We need to decide that a next Supreme Court justice cannot use the war powers clause or anything else to promote legal tyranny.  That applies to the role of Congress, to delaying or otherwise manipulating elections, and to Presidential pardons.

– Jobs program subsidies

During the election both candidates spoke about a government role in promoting employment in under-served areas (Appalachia, inner cities, etc.).  More recently, Republicans have promoted a deal with Foxcomm that was very heavily subsidized by the state of Wisconsin.

This needs to be a federal program because not all states can do it themselves, because it needs to be planned at a national level, and because a federal program could reduce the leverage employers have in playing off states against each other.

– Infrastructure

This is another area promoted by both candidates in the election.  There are of course significant differences in approach.  But it seems that issues such as selection of projects, rules and roles for private investment, and protection against corruption can be solved if there is a will to do it.

– Taxes

This a controversial area, and Trump’s so-called tax reform is not helpful.   But there is agreement on at least a couple of points:

  1. Real tax reform means eliminating the current maze of special gifts to create a more equitable system and a correspondingly lower basic tax rate. That kind of reform was achieved as a bipartisan effort under Reagan.   It has little to do with proposals currently on the table, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
  2. As part of that effort, there is agreement that the basic corporate tax rate is too high. So that seems a good place to start–when accompanied by item #1.

– Education

Education is one of the most important services provided by government.  Even if De Vos vouchers turn out to be off-limits, there are at least two areas where bipartisan work is possible:

  1. The student loan crisis is a huge burden on a whole generation. This is not because students have suddenly become wasteful in their habits, but because costs of college have risen rapidly even in state institutions.  Government needs to help out.
  2. Government needs to help students and states to navigate the costs and benefits of educational programs. This is not just a matter of fraudulent institutions and sweetheart deals to vendors (although there is plenty of that).   Students need the information to choose for their futures.  And we as a country need to decide what equality of opportunity means for the cost of college.

– Foreign Policy

The only foreign policy we currently have is a disdain for employees of the State Department and a desire to exploit foreign issues for chest-beating electoral gestures.  It is tough to do foreign policy by committee, but we don’t really have a choice.

 

This is by no means a complete list, but we have to recognize that government is in crisis and needs a bipartisan effort even to mind the store.

Limits of Charlottesville

However depressing Trump’s Charlottesville comments may be, we should not delude ourselves into believing that Trump will be defeated by any matter of principle.

The current situation recalls the uproar over the video with Trump’s lewd comments on women—an uproar that dissipated to nothing.  It remains to be seen how long the new level of outrage will last.  We can’t dismiss Nazism, but we won’t win on outrage either.  We will get nothing but backlash if perceived bread-and-butter issues are left unaddressed.

The main issue has to be the economy–jobs and prosperity–where many myths are still widely-believed.

Too many people believe that giving businesses everything they want is the path to prosperity.  That is historically false and will come back to haunt us:

– The prosperity of this country cannot possibly be based on protected industries making stuff others make cheaper.   Tariffs are no silver bullet to bring back the days of good, union jobs.

– Education and research are primary engines of prosperity.   They are what supports our standard of living and cannot be treated as money stolen from the private sector.

– We are living in a period of extraordinary technology change.   That is altering the nature of work and affects increasingly many people.  It creates twin problems—preparing our population for success and helping people left behind.   Neither will be magically provided by the private sector alone.

Trump’s policies will defeat us as a country and impoverish us as individuals.  One entry got it right in the NY Times’ list of write-in slogans for the Democratic Party:

“Justice, Compassion and Jobs!”

It speaks to the core values and, in the end, it’s the economy, stupid!

(Wynn Schwartz, Boston)

The Phony Issue of Globalization

Globalization as a phenomenon is irrefutable.   The world continues to become more interconnected by any measure you can think of.  National economies are so interdependent that it’s hard to untangle the threads.

Globalization as an issue is something else.   There is a long list of globalization problems:  it picks winners and losers economically, it makes some people feel like the country has changed out from under them, it destroys the sense of community.

The trouble is that globalization is responsible for essentially none of that.  Our real problem with globalization is how much we can blame on it.

Let’s start with jobs.  We begin with a frequently-cited quote from Harvard economist Lawrence Katz on automation versus globalization for jobs:  “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important–it’s not even close.”  That gets us part of the way there.  It’s not primarily globalization.  As many studies have shown, Trump’s core supporters lost their good union jobs for many reasons, not just globalization.

However, that’s history.   What matters is now, and the jobs story gets more lopsided all the time.  For today, one can say unequivocally that no set of tariffs is going to bring back those good union jobs.   And the future looks worse.  Self-driving cars and machine translation are key indicators of where things are going.   One article about Artificial Intelligence puts it this way: “the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better …  they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.”

There is a growing jobs problem, and it’s not globalization.  We’re moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy.  But we would rather futz around with NAFTA, because apparently that plays better.   By continuing to blame globalization as the jobs problem, we end up doing crazy things.  We’re actually skimping on education and research!  One thing we really can do for Trump’s core is make sure their kids have futures, but we’re not even trying.  Instead we’ve got a budget plan that vilifies the unemployed without any notion of what jobs are waiting for them.

That’s jobs.  What about alienation, feeling the country has been overrun with immigrants?  Is that really globalization?  There’s a key to that one too:  no one is talking about Swedes and Germans.   It’s Mexicans and—whether we want to admit it or not—blacks.  Just about any study of the last election talks about the importance of race.   “Immigrants” is a keyword; race was always part of it.  Violence after the election was immediately directed against blacks.  With Obama as President, the Republican party has been deliberately stoking racism for years.  Trump just whipped it up into something more obviously ugly.  Globalization is a smoke screen for deliberately-provoked racial hatred.

How about community?  We now have a whole media wing promoting the idea that cultures can’t mix:  Trump’s Mexican rapists and Bannon’s calls for holy war are just starters.  We’ve always had that sort of stuff in this country (Jews, Italians, Irish…), but we’ve always emerged better for what had been vilified.  Human beings have a built-in fear of strangers.   As they get to know each other they tend to get along.   But they can be whipped into a frenzy by demagogues who choose to exploit that fear for their own advantage.  Trump is certainly not the first to ride scapegoating to power.   Globalization is a convenient bogey man.

So globalization itself is not the issue.  What we really have in this country (and elsewhere)  is demagoguery–self-serving lies under the flag of fighting globalization. And the lies are damaging, as they undermine both national competitiveness and individual well-being.

There are no simple solutions, particularly now that so much has entered the legitimized mainstream.  But there is still a good use for “globalization”–the next time you hear that that disadvantaged workers need the government to fight globalization, you know exactly who’s looking to win!

Forecasting Climate Change

This note is an introduction to the task of forecasting climate change.  It avoids most details of the climate simulation models, but it does try to give a feel for what we know and why.  This fits with the previous more general post on climate change and the Paris Agreement.

At its basis climate change is straightforward:  the burning of fossil fuels puts extra carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air.   That raises the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  And that in turn causes temperatures to rise.

You can go a long way with just that, but as we’ll see the story is ultimately far from simple.   The story here has two parts:

  1. Projecting historical trends
  2. New factors in a warming world

The two parts are quite different.   The first identifies clear patterns from the data going back over the past 70 years.   The second is necessarily more difficult, as it covers new phenomena resulting from climate change itself.  The first functions as a baseline, with the second adding new effects to the base.

Part 1 – Projecting historical trends

The point of departure here is the correlation of CO2 in the atmosphere (in “parts per million”, abbreviated ppm) and temperature change.  The following slide shows how that looks over time.  (“Temperature anomaly” just means temperature rise since the start of the industrial revolution.)  The temperature rise and CO2 concentration are clearly tied closely together.

Figure 1

Forecast1

 

We can do better than Figure 1 however, just by explicitly correlating annual temperature values and CO2 concentrations.  We use online data from 1959 to 2016 for the calculation, taking temperature values from here and CO2 concentrations from here.

When we plot it up, the result is a remarkably clear trendline:

Forecast2

In the trendline the temperature value y (in degrees C) is related to the concentration x (in ppm) by the equation y = .0105x – 3.3886.  The slope .0105 is particularly important.  It says that on average whenever the ppm value increases by 1, the temperature increases by .0105 degrees Centigrade.   As in the previous chart the temperature scale here shows degrees above the pre-industrial world temperature (i.e. the temperature pre-1880).

(To be clear, the linear relation between temperature and ppm is remarkably obvious in the data, but not a surprise.   The temperature rise comes from reflection of infrared radiation back to earth.  The probability of that happening is the probability of radiation interacting with a CO2 molecule–and that is proportional to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.)

We have now have a precise statement of how CO2 concentration changes affect the temperature.  The next step to see how the CO2 production affects those concentration changes. For that we need another slide as introduction.

Figure 3

Forecast3

What this says is that the first thing to understand about the effect of CO2 production is how much CO2 actually ends up in the atmosphere.  We’ll talk about each side of the slide separately.

The left side points out that CO2 from fossil fuel burning is only 91% of the total, because there is another factor that is completely different—deforestation and similar land use changes.  For our purposes we will simply inflate our production number by 10% to get to the correct total.

The right side then points out that of the total (inflated) production number, only 44% actually stays in the atmosphere.   The rest is absorbed by trees and oceans.

Hence we have the simple equation:

CO2 added to the atmosphere = CO2 produced x (1.1) x (.44).   (For what follows you should know that CO2 production is reported in “gigatons”, abbreviated Gt.)

Next we need to get from gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere to CO2 concentration in ppm.   That, however, is just physics—counting molecules in the air—and it has a standard answer:

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = Added CO2 (in Gt) / 7.81.

(To be precise, the reference gives the equation: extra CO2 ppm = added carbon / 2.13.  To get the equation for CO2 instead of carbon, you correct for the relative atomic weights of CO2 vs carbon.  Since CO2 has two oxygen atoms in addition to carbon, that means 2.13 is replaced in the formula by 2.13 x 44/12 = 7.81)

Putting the two equations together we get this simple relationship:

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = CO2 produced (in Gt) x (1.1) x (.44) / 7.81.  That is

Increased CO2 concentration (in ppm) = CO2 produced (in Gt) x (.0614)

Since annual CO2 production figures are also available online, we can actually verify this result using real data.  The following figure gives the result (computed using rolling 5-year averages for the annual incremental ppm):

Forecast4

As before slope of the line is most important, because it gives the added ppm resulting from a 1 Gt of CO2 produced.   In other words, .0625 is the observed value corresponding to the theoretical .0614 we just mentioned.  Remarkably close given all the factors involved.  (As additional confirmation, it should be noted that there are even studies based on carbon isotopes identifying the extra CO2 in the atmosphere as coming specifically from burning of fossil fuels.)

 

We can now put the two stages of our argument together.

We have found two results:

  1. For each additional Gt of CO2 produced, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases by .0614 ppm.
  2. For each concentration increase of 1 ppm, we get a temperature increase of .0105 degrees C.

Putting those together we get:

For each Gt of CO2 produced, the temperature can be expected to rise by .0614 x .0105 = .0006447 degrees C.  You can’t get much more explicit than that.

 

Using that formula we can establish a baseline for climate change.

First we need to clarify that the 2 ⁰ C upper limit in Figure 2 was there for a reason.  For quite some time, a 2 ⁰ C temperature increase has been regarded as a tipping point, where temperature-related changes become both serious and irreversible.  For that reason the Paris Climate Agreement is targeted specifically at avoiding a temperature rise of that magnitude.  (More details on the tipping point can be found here.)

First question:  how much more CO2 can we emit before we hit the limit?

In stating this question we have implicitly used an important fact about CO2 that underlies much of the analysis of climate change:  carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for decades, so long in fact that for analysis purposes we can assume it just adds up.  For that reason the IPCC (“Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”—the key international research body for climate change) refers to a so-called “CO2 budget”.  The CO2 budget is the amount of carbon dioxide you can put in the atmosphere and still stay under the 2 ⁰ C target temperature limit.  The idea is that it doesn’t matter when or how you do it, that’s the budget you’ve got.

For 2016 the current world temperature was estimated to be .99 ⁰ C above the per-industrial level.  Since we are at .99 ⁰ C above the pre-industrial value, we are 1.01 ⁰ C from the limit value of 2 ⁰ C.

From our final equation we have as baseline

(Gt’s to get there) x .0006447 = 1.01 degrees.   So the limit is = 1.01/.0006447 = 1567  Gt’s of CO2.

Next question:  How long will it take to get there at current production levels?

To answer that we need to look at the following chart of historical CO2 production levels:

Figure 5

s08_FossilFuel_and_Cement_emissions

 

At least for now production seems to be stabilizing, so we will use the 2016 value of 36.4 Gt for the annual CO2 production.  With that we get, again as baseline,

Time to 2 ⁰ C limit = 1567/36.4 = 43 years.  So if nothing changes we hit disaster in 2059. (Of course avoiding disaster means acting earlier.  We’ll return to that later.)

What this number means

As we’ve been careful to say, this isn’t the whole story.   However what it does say is that the trend of the last 70 years is unambiguous and specific.   It yields a carbon dioxide budget and a date to reckon with.   Even this most straightforward calculation says we have a serious problem.

The reason that isn’t the whole story is that climate change itself has produced new phenomena that add to the baseline.   Examples include

– Temperature change in the oceans

– Acidity change in the oceans

– Decline in arctic sea ice

– Melting of ice caps

– Melting of permafrost

So before we can be precise about carbon budgets and timeframes we need to incorporate the effects of these new kinds of changes, because it all adds up.

Since this is new territory, we can’t rely on history for this new piece.   It requires both new science to understand the effects and new simulation models to track their interactions.   That effort is the subject of the next section.

 

Part2 – New factors in a warming world

For the newer changes to the environment, the only way to understand the future is to learn enough to model the actual behavior.  That effort is a major goal of ongoing climate science.

Then, since the effects are linked with each other, they must be tied together into a simulation model of the natural environment.   Of necessity, this must include not only the atmosphere but land and water effects as well.  The IPCC currently has four major simulation projects, to model scenarios with low, medium, and high levels of retained heat in the atmosphere.  Those simulations are enormously complicated; they model specific per-year patterns of greenhouse gas generation in particular geographic locations with associated ocean currents, forests, glaciers, and so forth.

While the complexity of the models is beyond the scope here (see this overview for a summary), what we can do is describe some of the issues that are modeled, with an indication of ongoing work to support the results.

We should also underline the importance of this work.   Because warming trends already put us in new territory, there is no history to estimate or even bound the magnitude of these new interrelated effects.  Without looking in detail, we just plain don’t know what is going to happen.  One sobering lesson from the longer historical record is that with climate, small changes can produce big effects.

With that as introduction, we now look at some of the important issues under study.  In this we’ll see how the changes mentioned earlier actually come into play.

CO2 uptake in the oceans and on land

As we noted earlier, only 44% of the CO2 that is produced ends up in the atmosphere.  The following chart shows how that has evolved over time.  What gets into the atmosphere is what isn’t captured by the ocean and land sinks.

Figure 6

Forecast6

Any change in the absorptive capacity of the ocean or land sinks has a big effect on climate, by multiplying the impact of whatever carbon dioxide is produced.  And there have been concerns, particularly recently, that the absorptive capacity may be reaching a saturation limit.  So there is considerable ongoing work to understand the mechanisms responsible for the uptake.

For the oceans the story turns out to have several parts:

– The oceans are warming, and warmer water has less capacity for CO2.   That part is relatively easy to quantify.

– A large part of the uptake, however, is due to photoplankton in the water.  It turns out that there are multiple species and issues to be understood.  Very significantly, the photophlankton are sensitive to the rise in acidity of the oceans.   So there are a quantifiable scenarios where rising acidity will reduce the ocean uptake by killing photoplankton.

– Additionally, all of the ocean uptake involves a relatively thin layer of surface water.  That upper layer is refreshed by the operation of ocean currents.   As we’ll discuss in a minute, the currents themselves are vulnerable for disruption by climate change, so refresh rates will change in some scenarios.

For land sinks the story is simpler—threats to forests from rising temperatures, and new forest areas created by natural or artificial means.  Note that the land sinks have been historically volatile, as you can see in Figure 6, so modeling has to be explicit and detailed.

Melting ice caps

One of the most obvious effects of climate change has been the melting of ice caps and glaciers in Greenland, Antarctica, and elsewhere.   This melting contributes to warming by reducing reflectivity of ice-covered surface, but can later increase carbon uptake if the glacier is replaced by forest.  Both effects are included in the models.

Glacial melting now appears to be happening faster than expected, so there is active work on the timetable.  The melting also affects the salinity and therefore density of the surrounding water, which in turn can affect ocean currents.  And that, as we just saw, affects ocean uptake of CO2.

It should be noted that melting of glaciers is one of the longest lasting effects of climate change.   Once ice sheets begin movement toward the sea, the process becomes virtually unstoppable.  Which means locking-in many meters of sea level rise in long-term projections.  The Greenland ice cap alone represents 7 meters of sea level rise.

Ocean currents

Over the past few decades, it has become clear that ocean currents are linked with each other in a more comprehensive way than was understood before.  The current view (the “ocean conveyer belt” or “thermohaline circulation”) is shown in the following simplified figure.

Figure 7

Figure7

What is relatively new is the notion of deep water currents connecting surface flows—so disruption of any part of the circuit affects the flow overall.

Disruption of the circuit has many consequences.  We have already seen it can affect carbon dioxide uptake by the oceans.  It also affects upwelling of nutrients and hence most life in the oceans, as well as the weather worldwide.

One important special case is the down-welling in the north Atlantic, in that it appears to be affected by melting of the Greenland ice cap.   That directly impacts the Gulf Stream, but the via the “conveyer belt” the effects would be felt worldwide.   Details are described here.

Other greenhouse gases

Thus far we have talked only about CO2, because its residence time in the atmosphere is much longer than for other greenhouse gases, such as methane.  Methane, however, is much more potent molecule-for-molecule, so there are examples where it needs to be taken specifically into account.

One such example is permafrost melting in the Asian tundra.   Since permafrost is partially-decayed vegetable matter, melting of permafrost actually releases methane directly.   The methane only persists in the atmosphere for about a year, but because of its potency it creates a short-term effect on climate that has been incorporated into the models.

Note that because permafrost is a phenomenon of the tundra, this is a case where the models need to react to the specific effects in particular geographic regions.

Cloud cover

Cloud cover is a surprisingly contentious subject.  On one hand it is nothing new, so in that sense it is already in the baseline.  On the other, it has such large potential effects both positive and negative, that it is hard to dismiss as something that might fundamentally change.

The basic arguments are straightforward:   clouds reduce warming by reflecting sunlight back but they also trap heat coming from the earth.   In general for high clouds the warming effect is predominant and for low clouds the cooling effect is.

There has been considerable effort to decide upon the net effect, which for now appears weakly warming.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture is a technological idea that has been around for some time without ever maturing to the point where it can be called real.   The idea is that CO2 would be captured at emission or even removed from the atmosphere and either stored somewhere (underground or at the sea bottom) or handled by a biological process that would render it harmless.

Anyone who thinks the current IPCC models are deliberately alarmist should realize that the models actually include carbon capture technology starting as early as 2030.  As this indicates, the models are in fact a best shot at the future and should not be thought of as a worst case.

Darken the sun

Finally, as a last item, we mention one more category of climate work that does not fit in the IPCC models.  These are the speculative “if all else fails” projects.   They are directed to the case where the IPCC process has failed, and the world is locked into an unlivable future.  For that case they propose gases or particles to be dispersed around the earth to cut down the strength of solar radiation.

While such projects turn up occasionally in the press, all of them have very serious downsides—to start with they reduce photosynthesis and hence food production everywhere on earth—and the people working on them recognize that explicitly.  It is important to realize those are not alternatives but risky and desperate measures for a future we are trying to avoid.

 

That ends our short summary of modeling issues.

While we have given only a few examples, it should be clear that the effects are potentially large.  And we see that in the last IPCC report from 2014. (That was the 5th such report.  The next one is scheduled for 2018.)

By incorporating all effects, the IPCC’s carbon dioxide budget drops to about half of the baseline–800 Gt starting from the end of 2014.  That means the time to exhaust the CO2 budget is also about half—twenty years.  The specific effects are described in some detail in the IPCC report itself.

Figure 8 presents the IPCC conclusions as a single key chart.

Figure 8

s51_JacksonBridge15_Fig1_lines

The chart shows that with current fuel consumption (black curve) we will get to 2 degrees C in about 20 years, but in that scenario the temperature just keeps rising afterwards. If we want to stay below 2 degrees C, we need to be cutting carbon dioxide production much sooner, about 2020 in the -4% per year scenario.  Recall that since CO2 just adds up, things only stop getting worse when we are essentially done with coal, oil, and gas.

That summarizes the scientific consensus.  Time is short to stay under the 2 ⁰ C limit.  But as discussed in the overview post on climate change, getting there requires action but not miracles.

To end, it is worth emphasizing the importance of research going forward.   There are two points:

1. The world’s climate has already changed in unprecedented ways, and we’ve had little time to understand all its new workings and dangers. This is a very complicated system, and we have perturbed it in a significant way.   There are no guarantees that all changes will be gradual.  The world needs the most accurate possible view of the future.

2. For the transition from fossil fuels—we’ve said we don’t need miracles. But it’s a big job to do, so the more we know the better!

 

Urgency on Climate Change

There is no special event triggering this note, just a feeling that the urgency behind climate change action is somehow getting lost.

To start with, there’s one part of the science that everyone needs to know.  Carbon dioxide, the primary factor in climate change, remains in the atmosphere for many decades.   For practical purposes, all the carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil, and gas just adds up.

As a consequence, even with a world really ready to act on climate change, things will continue to get worse through all the years while we try to get fossil fuel usage down to zero.   And it will stay that way for many more decades afterwards.  The commitment has to be made with enough lead time–or it will be too late.

The Paris Agreement was never intended as more than a first step.  At the current stage, the Paris Agreement is effectively a vehicle by which we are getting China and India to stabilize fossil fuel use at a per capita value far below ours–for the benefit of the rest of the world including us.  The following figures give the aggregate and then per capita carbon dioxide production by country.  Note the sharp rise and recent stabilization in China on the first chart and the high US curve on the second.

s11_Top_FF_emitters_abs

s12_Top_FF_Emitters_percapita

Current commitments do not get all the way to the Paris Agreement’s goals, but those are only first steps in an ongoing process.  Our exit from the Paris Agreement deliberately undercut the international unanimity that was doing the job for us.

What’s more, for initial steps on climate change, the world and the US in particular have gotten lucky.  The now large-scale production of recently-discovered American natural gas means that we can get a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide production—as compared with coal–without trying very hard.  (Coal is all carbon, so burning it produces just carbon dioxide.  Natural gas is half hydrogen, so half the output is water.  Note that the same logic shows that for climate change there is no such thing as “clean coal”.)

There is in fact an ongoing conversion to natural gas.   Despite our Paris Agreement rhetoric, we don’t have a problem meeting near-term climate goals–much of it is already happening based in part on the price of gas.  But by promoting coal use domestically (and weakening environmental rules for natural gas producers) we insist on creating problems for ourselves and–worse–sending a damaging message to others.  To be clear, natural gas is only a half-step, but it is buying time for renewable sources to be more widely deployed.   The Paris Agreement goals require an ongoing commitment–but not miracles.

The following figure shows our status now.   After many years of increase, global carbon dioxide production has been stabilizing.  However the only year of decrease is still the 2008 crash.s08_FossilFuel_and_Cement_emissions

Scientists have given 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures as a tipping point, where temperature-related changes become serious and irreversible.  (See here for a good summary of the scientific consensus, here for a blog post on forecasting.)  This is not something to be laughed away.  We are now at 1 degree. The next chart shows that with current fuel consumption (black curve) we will get to 2 degrees in about 20 years, but in that scenario the temperature just keeps rising afterwards. If we want to stay below 2 degrees C, we have to start cutting carbon dioxide production much sooner, about 2020 in the -4% per year scenario. And that means every country in the world has to keep at it every year —hence the importance of unanimity in the Paris Agreement process. Things only stop getting worse when we are essentially done with coal, oil, and gas.

s51_JacksonBridge15_Fig1_lines

Notice there are no winners and losers with climate change.   Either we stop using fossils fuels or we don’t.  If we do, then we can stabilize the temperature, and it is to everyone’s advantage to keep it under 2 ⁰ C.  If we don’t, then temperatures will continue to rise, and there will be nowhere to hide.

That’s the situation.  There never was any hoax, conspiracy or political game playing—95% of climate scientists worldwide support this.  Try to get that kind of agreement on any subject.  Read this if you want the history.

The bottom line is that climate change is more urgent than we like to think.  It is natural to want to wait and see how bad things will get.  But this is a not a case where that works.  If we wait for symptoms of warming to become our top priority it will be too late.  We will be locked-in as carbon continues to add up, bringing years of increasingly disastrous change.   This is like cancer—first symptoms may be bearable, but if you don’t act now it’s all over.

We need to do everything possible to prepare, and that’s a big job.  We need research both on climate change itself and on everything to do to counteract it.  Industry and government need to prepare for a major transformation, and we need to get back to productive engagement (for our benefit) to finish the job started by the Paris Agreement.

It may be a big job, but it is our role to play, and there is no barrier–other than inaction–to getting it done.

A Modest Proposal on Healthcare

Seems like we’re making things too hard on healthcare.

Both sides should remember what they really care about:

Republicans have already amply proven that the only part of ACA they care about is the surtax.   They don’t have to keep proving it anymore.  They’d also like to save some money if they can.  They only make a mess when they pretend they want to do healthcare.

Democrats either want ACA to continue in its current form or they want it to evolve to a single payer system.

Further Trump has made this simpler in two ways:

  • His tax proposal greatly diminishes the need for rich people to pay for any part of the federal budget.
  • His budget goes far beyond anything Dick Cheney dreamed of when he said deficits don’t matter.

So the solution is right there before our eyes:

Keep ACA.   If you want to pay for some part of it, put it in the general budget, so rich people get a huge break in any case.

And if you want to save money, go to single payer.

All done.  Everyone can go home happy!

The President of China

There has been a lot of talk recently about China’s growing presence on the world stage and how the US as predominant power should react to it.  With that in mind we go to China, just outside the Forbidden City, where the Chinese are planning their strategy…

Xi Jinping: There are many factors we need to consider, economic and political.  Today we are an economic servant to the West, building their iPhones and other toys.  We need to learn to take their place.

Planner: The Americans have many advantages.  They have excellent universities and their pick of talent from all over the world.  They have an interlocking system of university, government, and private research labs.  It’s hard enough to catch up, much less to lead.

Xi: We have to go step by step.  I’ve heard that many of their new companies are led by foreigners.  We can cut into that and certainly lure our own people home–a little xenophobia would help.   As for education and research, we know that government money is critical both in government labs and in the universities.  We have to find a way to slow down that money and then duplicate their system here.

Planner: Sounds like a lot of work, but we’ll start on it.  They’ve been working for decades to get where they are.

Xi: We need to get more specific now.  What are the lead technologies we can use to establish our dominance?

Planner: It’s hard to answer that question.  Software is always there; the particular new twist seems to be Artifical Intelligence.  That ties in with robotics.  Biotech.  Probably the biggest thing is energy–climate change means the whole world will have to convert.

Xi: The Americans are big players in all of those, but progress is very international.  If we can get them to isolate their people we can win.  Energy is too big–we need to limit their role.

Planner: They were a driving force behind the Paris Climate Agreement.  Maybe we can sabotage that.

Xi: Great.  Good first step!

Xi: The next subject is politics.  The Americans have been leading the so-called ‘free world’ forever.  Everybody works with them; no country wants to be left out.  All major international agreements of any kind go through them.  They’ve done very well that way–they are the richest, most dominant country in the world.  Our economy is tiny compared to theirs–how can we match their influence?

Planner: The only way I can think of is to get them just to quit. Get out of our way so we can take over.

Xi: I don’t understand.

Planner: It seems that over the years the Americans have come to believe their own propaganda–that all of their international agreements and institutions were setup out of pure beneficence!  Nothing to do with remaining the richest, most dominant country in the world.  They even think that about foreign aid.

Xi: You’ve got to be kidding.  No one else thinks that.

Planner: All we’ve got to do is push them over the brink:  No international institutions, no foreign aid–all unaffordable charity and a foreign plot.

Xi: You really think you can pull that off??

Planner: Well, just a minute.  We need some kind of slogan.  Something catchy…

Planner: I’ve got it!!  AMERICA FIRST.

Xi: Welcome to the Chinese Century.

 

Trump and Jobs

No one should ever underestimate Trump’s skill as a salesman. He has made a lot of money with that talent, but it’s hard to imagine anything that ranks with his sale of the promised land of jobs.

Start with the basics:
– Trump is opposed to unions and any increase in the historically low minimum wage .
– In his own enterprises he has used foreign manufacture and imported foreign employees on a continuing basis
– His treatment of contractors and investors in his huge bankruptcies was both devastating and deliberate.
– He is opposed to regulatory protections for working conditions.
– In his budget he has proposed a complete dismantling of the safety net to protect people who lose jobs.

All told one can say without exaggeration that Trump’s attitude toward workers is that government should do everything possible to weaken their position in dealing with management.

The promised land of new jobs is supposed to counterbalance that.

What stands behind all those jobs? Only two items:

– Removing any regulation that any businessman doesn’t like.
– Cutting taxes on corporations and rich people.

The only thing that is guaranteed about those items is that they will make people like Trump richer. The connection to jobs is so problematical that it is hard to believe that he ever cared enough to look at it:

– Reducing personal income taxes on rich people has a long track record of failure to produce growth.
– Deficit-based stimulation at this stage of the business cycle is at best risky. The most likely scenario is inflation leading to job losses, but it even invites another 2008-like crash.
– Neither corporate tax cuts nor deregulation has a history of increasing jobs. Corporate tax cuts tend to get passed through to investors.  Level of regulation is not necessarily even correlated with jobs.   One can even argue that states with more regulation perform better economically.

– We are moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy–none of which is addressed or even recognized in this picture.

 

Trump’s jobs proposal isn’t one–it’s just a shopping list of what’s good for him.

Trump is the same Trump he has always been: lead salesman for his businesses.  The most you can say is that he probably believes that what’s good for himself is good for everyone–but that’s as far as the thought goes.

Six bankruptcies (among other things) have shown the consequences of believing him.

But he’s sure a hell of a salesman!

This is the Richest Country in the World

The title of this piece is a fact.  By itself the statement is not controversial, but it shows the deliberate misinformation we’re surrounded by every day.

There is a good example from Trump’s speech exiting the Paris Accords: “cash-strapped cities cannot hire enough police officers or fix vile infrastructure.”  The statement is perfectly true, and there is a reason why that statement is true for the richest country in the world.   It is that Trump himself and people like him have taken more and more of that wealth for themselves–and out of the public sector.

For the past six years the Republican Congress has blocked essentially all new expenditures for the public good.  And Trump’s proposed budget will make that a full-scale assault on states and cities.   He is both reducing current aid and also pushing more and more responsibilities for services their way.  The story also includes the Republican-led scandal of education, where reduced state government support for education since the 2008 crisis has contributed to a whole generation trapped with student debt.  (In Trump’s budget the coming DeVos nightmare is its own story–since there is no guarantee what will be paid for by voucher, good education will be sold to the bidder in the brave new world.)

This is the richest country in the world, but the fact that many people don’t feel it doesn’t mean there is no money.   The money has been taken out of the system for the benefit of people like Trump, and they are now proposing to take more of it.

Trump says he is preparing an economic nirvana, where all those who are currently left out will be saved.  More on that pipe dream in a minute, but focus on the explicit reality first:  upper-income tax payers like Trump will make trillions of dollars on it.   There is even a brand new big “pass-through” loophole for rich tax payers like Trump personally. There will be scant benefit for the middle class, and even that may be eaten up by the added costs imposed on the states.  The poor will be slammed on all fronts.

As to the nirvana:

  1. The economy is close to full employment in the sense that good new jobs require specific skills, so most of the current unemployment is structural—due to skill mismatch, not the level of economic activity.  Job training programs are actually cut in Trump’s budget.
  2. Few economists believe that anything close to Trump’s proclaimed 3-4 % growth is going to happen, or even that such growth would prevent a deficit. The deficit itself is inflationary, and would ultimately cause job loss rather than growth.
  3. Stimulus deficit spending at this stage in the business cycle is so foolhardy, that no previous President–Republican or Democrat–has ever wanted to do it. At the very least it invites inflation and the possibility of another 2008-like crash.

This is not Trump’s “genius” at work, it is something far simpler.   Trump believes what he is says, because he is still Trump the salesman looking out for himself:  taxes are bad, regulations are bad, unions are bad, minimum wage is bad, research is a waste.  As a salesman Trump has always had a particular gift for believing what he sells.   And what he is selling is simple:

“What’s good for me is what’s good for the country.   Stop bothering my companies and cut my taxes and everything will be just great. “

There is nothing else here but that.

As the saying goes: if you want to know what is going on–follow the money.  And it is clear where it is going in the richest country in the world.