Tag Archive for global warming

Showtime’s Global Warming Series Ignores the Biggest Way We’re ‘Living Dangerously’

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In many ways, I’m very impressed by what Showtime has done with its in-depth series about climate change and the politics around it. Years of Living Dangerously is very straightforward and unapologetic, and it takes on the various types of folks who disbelieve in anthropogenic climate change without belittling them or their interests. I hope people are watching it, and I hope it is changing minds.

But I couldn’t help noticing that, for all the various investigative segments on a range of topics from the impact of lobbyists to various scientific concepts and back to the mindsets of doubters, one major subject seems to be actively avoided, not just overlooked. How is it possible that a series of such scope and depth could highlight the interests of cattle ranchers on two occasions without so much as noting their massive contribution to greenhouse gases clogging up our atmosphere and ironically harming their industry?

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There can be no denying that animal agriculture is the largest single contributor to anthropogenic global warming. Full stop. Because it involves tremendous amounts of energy (which the meat industry simply discounts in its own propaganda), and because its waste products give off dangerous amounts of extremely hazardous methane and nitrous oxide, and because deforestation is a huge and growing factor, the biggest single reason we need a series like Years of Living Dangerously is animal agriculture. That is, our process of raising, slaughtering, and consuming animals on a mass scale is the number one way in which we’ve lived dangerously these last generations.

So how is it that Showtime can highlight the plight of cattle ranchers and meatpacking workers affected by droughts, only to lament that their means of livelihood are at risk, never pointing out how dangerous their businesses are to themselves and the rest of us? The show also notes that deforestation is a major contributor to global warming but fails to explain the number one cause of tropical deforestation is cropland for livestock feed. These ironies are too elegant to not highlight it at least in passing, yet they’re ignored in favor of presenting an innocently idyllic industry at risk due to sinister outside forces.

While I’d argue that the staggering contribution to global warming of the meat and dairy industries deserves its own episode, I must say it’s criminally negligent for this type of program to portray the plight of that dangerous industry without so much as noting its role in the problem. Unless I missed something, the number one way we can all actually do something about global warming is simply not mentioned in the entire series.

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Linkage: Oligarchy USA, BitCoin Revolution?, Climate Change, Piketty Illustrated

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Just some recommended reading; my favorite recent posts from around the Web looking forward, or giving context to understanding the future of our economic lives.

Is the US an Oligarchy?

A new paper (PDF) by economists from Princeton and Northwestern strongly suggests that the US federal government is effectively controlled by its wealthiest class. This isn’t startling news to you, or probably anyone who isn’t a political scientist or an economist. But it is news that, at long last, a couple of serious economists have taken the time to lay out just how serious elites’ manipulation of the polity, and thereby society, truly is.

Better than slogging through their paper, check out Joe Firestone’s post that’s a little less reserved than the original report, out-and-out calling the United States an oligarchy. The argument is a little bit semantics (never hurt anyone) and a lotta bit damning.

An Overview of Libertarian Socialist Options

anarcho-communist flagWayne Price has put together a survey article touching on most of the prominent contemporary ideas for alternatives to capitalism and authoritarian socialism. Unfortunately, the piece doesn’t live up to the promise of its title (“Worker Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program”), as there’s no strategy or program in sight.

Can Alternative Currency Be Revolutionary?

bitcoin-revolutionJeremy Roos has done a tremendous service in diligently reporting on, and providing insightful, radical observations of, the MoneyLab: Coining Alternatives conference that took place last month in Amsterdam, covering digital currencies and electronic economic platforms. Roos’s review is extensive, but it concisely analyzes numerous topics such as the limitations of BitCoin and the downside of KickStarter. Each commentary is more interesting than the last. Do yourself the favor.

We Just Can’t Win on Climate Change

The hot fledgling news and analysis site Vox has been churning out some decent content. So far, it’s a very refreshing change to the perverse brevity of the clickbait and listicle sites permeating the progressive Web. A piece called “Two Degrees” by Brad Plumer had me shaking my head in disgust — not at the writing, but at what it suggests about humanity. It’s a great primer on climate change, its prospects and implications. If you don’t really know the bad news, start here. It’s time to wake up.

Modeling Piketty’s Immiseration Thesis

piketty-capital-21st-centuryFinally, I’d be remiss at this time if I didn’t make some mention of the most talked about economics book of our time: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, I haven’t even opened it yet. Fortunately, Matthew Martin has laid out a really neat hypothetical that illustrates Piketty’s main thesis. I really enjoyed reading the post; it should whet your appetite for the main course.

 

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A Brief Animated History of the Near Economic Future

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This video from the Post-Carbon Institute is pretty cool. I hope it goes viral and jars some folks out of complacency.

 

 

 

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Naomi Klein Takes on Climate Change, Capitalism

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Author and journalist Naomi Klein has done it again. She has written a sensible, perhaps seminal, and truly accessible treatise on what climate change and resource scarcity really mean for the coming decades. I do not fully agree with her conclusions, mainly because she shies away from condemning all markets to the dustbin of history (where she rightly notes the “free market” belongs). But I don’t want to gripe with the piece until after you’ve read it; I think it’s that important. Naomi has clearly spent the last several months much as I have, studying the implications of climate science and resource limits on the future of our economies, but I bow readily to her presentation.

So please, take the time to read “Capitalism vs. the Climate” in The Nation magazine right now.

Pretty impressive, right? Okay, now on to my misgivings, first reiterating that I am overwhelmingly fond of Naomi’s take. I’m just going to address my main concern, then briefly praise Naomi for a daring step in the right direction on another matter.

I am in favor of economic planning. And while Naomi didn’t provide a real framework for how she’d like to see it happen, she did note that participatory engagement in local-level planning would be on her preferred agenda.

In the cities and towns that have taken this responsibility seriously, the process has opened rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about how to reorganize their communities to lower emissions and build in resilience for tough times ahead.

There’s nothing wrong with the above statement; it lays out the basics of what needs to happen society-wide, worldwide, and is already happening in places that overuse resources today (North America, Europe, etc), and places that will suffer the earliest and the most severely from climate change (Asia, Africa, etc).

Local-level planning will definitely be inadequate. It’s clear that Naomi fully understands this, as she advocates for big steps such as agricultural planning and reining in corporations, which no community could ever really do on its own.

But she doesn’t state that over-arching planning (at state, regional, national, and international levels) will have to address differences in capacity, privilege, and other factors that will make it harder or less necessary for some localities to “transition” the way others will have to. That is, communities privileged in terms of geography or wealth will benefit from the marginal advantages of slower and less-thorough transition periods. To the extent planning is based around markets, discrepancies of these kinds will be stark. I wouldn’t actually expect this to be covered in a short piece like Naomi’s, but it’s an implication that deserves to be noted.

Far worse, Naomi’s framework seems to accept that existing governments somehow have the capacity to engage in sensible planning. It’s not clear to me that any polity can responsibly engage in economic planning. Politics is truly a different sphere, dealing with matters of morality and justice; it starts to fail even just with regard to managing production and consumption of public goods. Intervening in the private sector is not the forte of institutions designed and overseen by politicians, especially as they are in turn funded by the industries they’re charged with regulating.

Naomi spends a lot of time in her article noting that market fundamentalists are right about the implications of climate science on the manifestations of their political economic ideology. It is a threat (hence their denial of the science). But so-called libertarians are also at least partly right about government’s inadequacy when it comes to intervening in economies; polities, politicians, and political bureaucrats make ham-fisted planners, at best. When society truly accepts climate change as a catastrophic reality, those arguing that Earth’s collection of profoundly inept governments and literally ridiculous bodies like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization can address matters by meddling with market economies will sound like clowns. Indeed, that’s how it sounds to me today.

Libertarians remain wrong about how profoundly awful markets are. If the contest were only between unregulated markets and regulated markets, the latter should win, but we should also all resign ourselves to a planet ablaze with suffering. Fortunately, those aren’t our only two options, and the alternatives are not limited to central planning, either.

What is needed is a direct-democratically planned economy managed by the population writ large as workers and consumers with more indicative data at their fingertips than simply market prices. It should be essentially autonomous of government, and it should allow for the systematic pricing of externalities, including those affecting ecology, public health, labor, and oppressed communities.

You can imagine then how massive this problem is in my view. First, the kind of transformation needed has to happen at all levels, as Naomi acknowledges. Second, it does not make a wit of sense to leave markets intact, as there is no way to responsibly plan (or do anything that concerns the environment) with markets at work. Third, the planning process cannot sensibly be carried out by government institutions; a separate technocracy is required free of the perverse interests of government, and more sensibly structured to facilitate the kind of ideal, consumer- and worker-influenced economic forces I think many people (very wrongly) romanticize the free market as being able to foster.

As a final note, kudos to Naomi Klein for being willing to grapple with the unnecessarily touchy issues of resource depletion, peak oil, and the cult of economic growth. Many conventionally trained progressive economists (which does not include the likes of Naomi or me) seem not to grasp the very real threat of these impending crises. In my experience, even some of the most radical economists exhibit a rather bizarre faith in capitalism’s ability to innovate its way through nearly any crisis, not to mention an almost mystic belief that the earth’s resources are essentially infinite. As I’ve noted before, there’s not overwhelming sense in concluding peak oil is going to collapse our economy in a precipitous fashion, but denying it will have a severe impact is indicative of a blind spot I simply cannot fathom. Mainstreaming acceptance that these factors will have a tremendous influence on any future economy is a terrific contribution.

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Because the Problem with the Combustion Engine is Who’s Driving

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Market forces take us in pretty peculiar directions. The technophile in me says this is way cool, but the environmentalist wishes the geniuses making robot cars were working on something else, like mass transit.

There is one potential environmental advantage to driverless automobiles:

‘This kind of car is actually perfect for car sharing,’ said [Raul] Rojas [the head of the university’s research group for artificial intelligence]. ‘There will be no more need for owning a car — once the automobile has dropped off its passenger it will drive on to the next passenger.’

The idea of having fewer cars on the road sounds great for a few reasons. First, it implies less congestion. Also, fewer cars implies less oil consumption and lower emissions — indeed, fewer resources overall (metals, batteries, etc). But the number of cars on the road isn’t the only factor when it comes to carbon consumption and emissions.

The real variable, all else being equal, is the time (vehicle hours) spent actually driving on the roads. So fewer cars getting used way more often isn’t necessarily a net gain in this respect.

In fact, what if the market strongly encouraged increased use of personal vehicles among people who otherwise would rely on public transportation? If owning a share of a vehicle or multi-vehicle cooperative meant a car was delivered to you on schedule regularly and took you to your destinations for a couple of thousand dollars a year plus mileage fees, might you think twice about packing into a crowded subway platform day after day?

My point isn’t to suggest there aren’t smart solutions, or that the worst is inevitable even if the market was left to its devices, but I think leaving outcomes up to the market could be tragic. A little urban planning could go a long way toward keeping driverless autos on the right track, or mitigating the demand for them altogether by making mass transit cheaper and more attractive than it is today.

As an aside, this was one of my favorite bits from the article:

‘However, all in all, one can definitely say that computer-controlled cars will be much safer than human drivers,’ said [Ferdinand] Dudenhoeffer, a professor for automotive economics. ‘Especially if you keep in mind that most of today’s accidents are caused by human error.’

An economist who peddles bizarre logical fallacies? Hard to believe, right? So the fact that human error causes most accidents in a world where there is literally just one robot car on the road (for just a few months) is evidence that robot cars will be safer when there are more of them on the road. I mean, right now the robot error rate is zero! This guy is a professor.

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The Truer Threat of a ‘Carbon Bubble’

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You aren’t an idiot, so you’ve long known many of the impacts of climate change are inevitable at this point. Some are already occurring. You get that. The trajectory is in place, and unless we change it sharply, we’re going to see worse and worse conditions.

But what if financial markets have embedded the trajectory to a great extent by all but guaranteeing dependence on fossil fuels? A new report (PDF) raising fear of a bubble in the fossil fuels market inadvertently suggests this trajectory is precisely what’s underway, although its authors don’t seem particularly concerned about the threat to our habitat. The deck has been stacked; there’s a carbon commitment in place, if you will.

I found the report through a blog entry by Lydia Prieg over at NEF. She summarizes some key points for those of us more interested in humanity and the planet than investors:

This research offered a fresh perspective on investment and tackling climate change, by noting that more fossil fuel reserves are currently listed on stock exchanges than can be burnt if we are to avoid breaching the 2 °C global temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels), beyond which it is believed that climate change will be irreversible. For example, the CTI notes that:

  • “global markets are currently treating as assets [carbon] reserves equivalent to nearly 5 times the carbon budget for the next 40 years.”
  • “the CO2 potential of the reserves listed in London alone account for 18.7% of the remaining global carbon budget.”
  • “If the 2 °C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80% of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment”

Note that the +2°C point is way too high. We want to aim for +1° beyond pre-industrial levels by Century’s end, fully conceding we’ll spend most of the next hundred years cooking well above +1°. (And the prospects for even +2° are more than a little grim.)

Like Prieg’s, my take on this is different from that of the report’s authors. They seem concerned for fossil fuel investors, which is probably their mission. But I’m more worried about the rest of us. If the world’s governments get serious about curbing carbon emissions, it’s unlikely they’ll leave speculators holding the bag. Whoever is holding a hot potato (oil field) if and when steep regulations kick in could get bailed out.

Even if the influence of those invested in dirty energy were to fail in some way, they’d almost certainly succeed in protecting their existing investments in the trade-off. Which in turn means burning that fuel or transferring the burden onto the consumer/citizen, who is of course relatively unprotected by government.

Anyway, as Prieg notes, the industry isn’t particularly worried about the prospect of harsh emissions limits being imposed on fossil fuel reserves already on the market, wagering either that curbs are not impending or that the price spike they’d cause would benefit contract holders.

But Prieg’s personal insights are most important:

Both these arguments, however, demonstrate the lack of interest investment managers have about the role that they themselves may be playing in bringing about irreversible climate change. Apparently, when one is focused on optimizing an investment portfolio’s performance, concerns regarding the state of the planet just don’t feature on the agenda.

Indeed.

Image credit: Carbon Tracker Initiative

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How Outsiders Will View Our Demise

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I made this movie to express my frustration with where we’re headed. It’s not particularly informative, but I hope it’s a funny way to make people think about how untenable our economic system is.

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