Sunday, April 25, 2021

Climate Risk Assessment

                                                                                                         written 18 April 2021

                                                                                                     published 25 April 2021



            Risk/benefit analysis demands complete information.  For example, if you hear your team scored 17 points, you can't evaluation the situation without knowing what the other team scored.  Or consider an investment where 999 times out of 1,000, you stand to make $1,000, but 1 time out of 1,000, you lose big.  Without knowing the magnitude of the loss, you can't evaluate the investment.  In this case, if the loss in greater than $1,000,000, the investment is questionable.

            There is currently discussion about infrastructure investment, particularly investment in response to the climate.  Despite some hardcore holdouts, humanity is becoming aware of the problem.  Environmental problems with economic consequences that were once just dire predictions, are now being experienced daily.  The financial community, where long term investments are fundamental, is becoming aware that the uncertainty of a degrading environment is a threat to their entire portfolio.  The reinsurance industry has known this for some time, because they are already paying the expenses of the increasing damage. 

            Last week Scientific American declared that we are in a climate emergency.  This magazine, with long standing credentials, is not making such a declaration lightly, but recognizes the seriousness of our current situation.  An emergency requires attention, and immediate response with resources.

            Four years ago, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported that business as usual creates a 1 in 20 chance of warming greater than 5°C by 2050, due to tipping points in natural systems.  Among their concerns are the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with subsequent sea level rise, die back of the Amazon rainforest, and massive release of currently frozen Arctic methane.  Any of these would produce rapid climate changes, risking societal collapse and possible human extinction.  The odds deteriorate to 1 in 4 by 2070.  That gives us an estimate of the odds of our risk, but evaluating the cost of a response requires an estimate of the value of what is at risk.

            The current total worth of the US is estimated at $270T.  This includes $53T in commercial and residential buildings, $105T in public infrastructure, and $112T in financial assets.  The total debt, public and private, is $80T, and our economy generates $21T a year.

            The total worth of the world was recently estimated at $5,000T.  This is probably a high overestimate, but includes attempts to value the natural systems on which the human economy depends.  Global real estate is estimated at $277T, and global financial wealth is estimated at $399T.  These are about 4 times the US values, so a minimum estimate of total global worth might be $1,080T, with $400T in public infrastructure.  The total global debt is $258T, and the global economy produces $84T annually.  The climate emergency risks not only this significant fiscal investment, but all of the social and natural systems that make life possible.

            This global crisis, requires a global response.  To avoid collapse, we must decarbonize the planetary energy system.  Ignoring for the moment the issue of gathering a global political consensus, we can consider the fiscal cost of such a monumental investment.  After decades of denial, we must make significant changes within the next few years to stop adding any more greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, and begin sequestering carbon any way we can.  An infrastructure shift of this magnitude, over this short a period of time, has never before been attempted, making costs estimates difficult.  

             Total global energy demand is about 18,000 gigawatt equivalents, eighty percent supplied from fossil fuels, about equal shares for electricity, transportation, and heat.  The short time frame demands using technology currently in production, primarily solar and wind, with storage in the form of batteries and probably hydrogen.  One estimate made two years ago suggests a total cost of about $340T.  But prices are dropping precipitately, and such a large effort will produce even greater savings as production ramps up.  Assuming a modest 50 percent savings brings the total down to $170T, still a mind-numbing number.  But spread over 20 years, that is $8.5T a year, which is 10 percent of global GDP, which currently includes $4T annually for fossil fuels.

            This climate emergency is unprecedented, requiring an unprecedented human response, because the downside risk is enormous.  There is no guarantee of success, but I believe it is worth making the effort.  







Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Other Deficits

                                                                                                         written 11 April 2021

                                                                                                     published 18 April 2021


            Now that Republicans are no longer in power, they are again concerned about the growing federal debt.  To be fair, operating in constant deficit does bring long term consequences.  Fiscal deficit is the mismatch between income and expense within a given period of time, while debt is the accumulation of deficits over time.  But fiscal deficit is not the only deficit of concern.  Deficits in infrastructure (social and physical structures supporting the economy) and the environment (living organizations supporting planetary life) should also be considered, as they are arguably more significant.

            Infrastructure deficit can be considered the balance between the wear and tear of normal operation balanced against regular maintenance and repair.  Consider a bridge: it's operating life can be extended by the expense of regular repainting and repairs of normal use damage.  To save money, this maintenance can be deferred, a material deficit which becomes a debt over time.  When the maintenance eventually occurs, the expenses might be larger, as deterioration has increased over time, much like interest on a fiscal debt.  The damage could be so great that the bridge totally collapses, requiring even more expense, similar to a fiscal bankruptcy.

            Even with regular maintenance, infrastructure has a life span, and requires eventual replacement.  In addition, changes in the economy may make a previously adequate structure obsolete for the current needs, requiring not just replacement, but evolved design and added investment.

            Much of our public infrastructure was built shortly after World War 2, and is now reaching the end of its design life.  Our economic system pushes to maximize profits and minimize taxes, so public infrastructure has been running a deficit for decades.  A recent survey of bridges in the US showed that one third needed major repair or replacement ($160B).  One fifth of roads are in poor repair ($170B).  Half of American dams need repair ($60B).  A quarter of all drinking water leaks before reaching customers ($330B), and most sewer systems are old ($300B).  The recent work on State Street in Ukiah included replacing water mains that were 100 years old.

            For profit infrastructure suffers from the same deficit mentality.  The electric grid is antiquated, inadequate to changing demands, prone to fire ignition, and will cost $5T-$7T to upgrade.  The 94 US nuclear reactors, average age of 39 years, were designed to last 40 years.  So far, no nuclear reactor has broken due to aging equipment, despite close calls.  A Fukushima magnitude failure should be avoided, but it would cost $700B to replace what we have.  Infrastructure demands change with time.  The US had some of the first fiberoptic networks, but these rapidly became obsolete.  Bringing 5G connection to the entire US would cost $130B.

            Unlike fiscal debts, which can be written off when required, these infrastructure debts are real, and eliminating them requires real investment of material and time to avoid societal devastation.

            The same considerations apply to environmental systems.  Capitalism discounts inputs from natural systems, according them no value, so environmental deficits, extraction exceeding renewal, are normal.  The accumulated environmental debts resulting from decades, if not centuries, of environmental deficits are manifest daily in the news.  Top soil loss, polluted waterways, depletion of ground water aquafers, wetland losses, and deforestation are just some of the massive debts generated by business as usual environmental deficits, with increasing economic consequences.  

            The most significant environmental debt is climate change.  The leading edge has arrived: wide spread species extinctions, oceanic heating, coral bleaching, retreating ice, increases in storm duration, strength, and moisture content, wilder temperature swings, increased drought duration and extent, and hotter, larger wildfires.  The recent Texas freeze cost over $20B, and annual US weather disaster costs are approaching $1T.

            This is a weakened bridge, swaying in the wind.  When a bridge collapses, it intrudes into the economy with sudden, massive, and unexpected dislocation.  The collapse of portions of the environmental systems, abrupt climate change, is a real possibility, leading to societal collapse and possible near-term human extinction.

            Some people believe this environmental debt is just fake news.  Others believe it is already too late, with collapse inevitable.  Only a global effort will suffice, and it will take humanity embracing our interconnected fate.  Estimates are it would cost $130T to decarbonize the global economy, about 18 months of global GDP.  But isn't a viable future worth the effort?







Sunday, April 11, 2021

Our Grim Plastic Future

                                                                                                           written 4 April 2021

                                                                                                     published 11 April 2021


            Of all living beings, only humans produce products that can't be deconstructed and reused by other life forms. Micro-organisms have difficulty digesting plastic, making it biologically unavailable as a nutrient, so it lasts for decades, perhaps centuries.  

            The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was produced in 1907.  More plastic formulations were discovered over the next few decades, and production really took off after the Second World War.  Since 1950, over 9 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured.  We produce 380 million tons of plastic annually, and the vast majority becomes trash within a year.  Only 10 percent is recycled, 20 percent is incinerated, and most goes to landfills.  Plastic trash has been found on every continent, from the peak of Mount Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench.  

            A large portion winds up in the ocean, first noticed in the late 1960's.  Over 150 million tons of plastic are now estimated to be in the ocean, with 8 million tons added annually.  There are five massive oceanic gyres of floating plastic trash, the largest, in the north Pacific, is bigger than Texas.  At the surface of these gyres, plastic is 180 times more numerous than nutrients, which is devastating the marine life.  By 2050 the ocean will have more plastic by weight, than fish.   

            While undigestible, the molecular structure of plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces due to temperature, motion, and sunlight, creating microplastic, which is now in the air, rain and snow.  Plastic bio accumulates and is therefore in everything we eat.  Plastic is found in our blood, and mother's milk.  Each week we eat a credit card worth of plastic, over 40 pounds in a lifetime. 

            Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health impacts, including inflammation, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, and exposes us to chemicals found in plastics that are known to be harmful.  These chemicals, called endocrine disruptors, mimic hormones and have been linked to a variety of health problems, including obesity, organ problems, developmental delays in children, and reproductive issues.

            Sperm viability is declining in the developed world.  An article in GQ Magazine, Sep. 4, 2018, "Sperm Count Zero", by Daniel Halpern, reported on research showing sperm counts had declined more than 50 percent from 1973 to 2011 within men from North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia.  When asked why, scientists said it was the unprecedented amount of chemicals now routinely entering the human body. 

            “There has been a chemical revolution going on starting from the beginning of the 19th century, and exploding after the Second World War, when hundreds of new chemicals came onto the market within a very short time frame.”  Many chemical compounds that are used to make plastic hard (like Bisphenol A, or BPA) or soft (like phthalates) can mimic estrogen in the bloodstream, so men with lots of phthalates in their system are likely to produce less testosterone and fewer sperm.

            The data worldwide are so clear and so consistent the trend is unmistakable: by 2045 median sperm counts in men are headed toward zero.  "This means that half the men would have zero viable sperm and the rest would have very close to zero."

            Like the ruling class of Rome, which was debilitated by drinking wine out of lead goblets, the toxic testosterone of the dominating patriarchy is being eliminated by pervasive plastic poisoning.  Humanity is being feminized, like it or not.  One of the iconic images of the last week was the six white men signing voter restriction laws in Georgia, while a black woman legislator was being arrested for knocking on the door to be let in.  Life is inclusive, and we ignore that fundamental relationship at our peril.

            Some people feel humans are too stupid to survive, but I don't agree.  I am an optimistic catastrophist.  While the news every day affirms the catastrophe, my optimistic side is rooted in the belief that we are still growing, in the middle of an evolution in consciousness, as affirmed by the beauty of Spring.  As Christ said, while being killed for being a revolutionary socialist, "forgive them, for they know not what they do".  I choose optimism, as it improves my experience of life, but we do have a lot of work to do.





Sunday, April 4, 2021

Rules For Being Human

                                                                                                       written 28 March 2021

                                                                                                       published 4 April 2021


            It started as a thin magenta vertical line, about 1/3 of the way in from the right side of my screen.  Within a few days there was a turquoise companion, and then another.  My aging 23" computer monitor was dying.  I use a Mac laptop and like having a larger secondary screen for reading in larger fonts, with pages side by side, or creating mechanical drawings, or occasional photo manipulation.  But all tools wear out, and I could see where this was going.

            I mentioned my issue to a visiting friend, and he offered the long-term loan of larger, higher resolution monitor.  Last Saturday, I brought it home, and decided I needed to reorganize my entire computer work area.  These things have to happen from time to time, and new hardware is a good excuse.  My work area is normally like sedimentary geology, with layers of paper, representing older history the deeper one digs.  Consequently, the reorganization involved recycling a lot of paper that was no longer relevant, or, in some cases, even comprehensible.  But in among the layers were a few forgotten treasures, including this:  


Rules For Being Human


1)  You will receive a body.  You may like it or hate it, but it will be yours the entire period.  2)  You will learn lessons.  You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called Life.  Each day in this school, you will have the opportunity to learn lessons.  You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid.  3)  There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error: experimentation.  The "failed" experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that ultimately "work".  4)  A lesson is repeated until learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.  5)  Learning lessons does not end.  There is no part of life that does not contain its lessons.  If you are alive, there are lessons to be learned.  6)  "There" is no better than "here".  When your "there" has become a "here", you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here".  7)  Others are merely mirrors of you.  You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects something you love or hate about yourself.  8)  What you make of your life is up to you.  You have all the tools and resources you need.  What you do with them is up to you.  The choice is yours.  9) Life is exactly what you think it is.  You create a life that matches your beliefs and expectations.  10)  Your answers lie inside you.  The answers to life’s questions lie inside you.  All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.  11)  You will forget all this.  12)  You can remember it whenever you want.


            These rules were on a sheet of paper with no attribution.  A quick Google search revealed they were first presented in "Way Of The Peaceful Warrior", by Dan Millman, 1980, and further popularized in "Life Is A Game", by Cherie Carter-Scott, 1998.

            I like the visions presented.  Rule 1 suggests we are spiritual beings experiencing material reality within our avatar body.  Rules 2-5 are all about lessons, emphasizing that learning is the entire purpose of life: becoming a more whole human being.  We are a young species and have little idea of our full human potential.  Rule 6 reminds me of Ram Dass and "Be Here Now", the most powerful, fundamental act of intention.  Close attention reveals we are always "here", and it is always "now".  Rule 7 describes how the illusion of separation works in unity reality.  What we don't accept inside, we reflect outside, believing the two are different.  This explains the power in rules 8-10, as we create our own reality, guided by inspiration.  But our waking consciousness is only 10% of the creative force, the rest being unconscious patterns we have internalized, so persistent applied intention is required.  We have forgotten our spiritual truth, rule 11, because material reality is such a fascinating, multifaceted distraction.  But that truth is never really lost, and is always available, rule 12.

            Simple rules, but challenging to apply.