Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reaping the Whirlwind - Thinking Through the Consequences of Climate Change

Someday, Lad, all THIS will be yours
While we hear a great deal about the science, economics and politics of Climate Change, what we talk about much less is the actual consequences we face. Oh, sure, we hear 'sea level rise' and 'ocean acidification' and 'violent weather events' and 'disease', but never in any concrete terms or within any actual context. When you hear people speak about the effect of climate change, it is usually in the most existential, apocalyptic terms imaginable. "The planet is dying", they keen, or they warn of the "end of the human species". Now, by no means is global warming a good thing, but is this really the most accurate way to describe how it will impact our species and our societies?

The good news is we don't need to be scientist to think about this. Given what we can expect from a 2-5 degree increase in global temperatures by the end of the century, we can make some general assumptions about how that will impact the earth and its populations. But first let's think about what it doesn't mean.

First, the planet is not 'being poisoned' or in any way dying. Increased carbon in the atmosphere changes the climate and the planetary chemistry, but the planet has seen this movie before and done very well. Other pollutants are more toxic, but when we talk about planet earth we're talking about geologic time, and that is the secret sauce. Earth will be here for another 5 billion years, until the sun runs out of hydrogen to burn, and there is no reason to thing that life in its vast diversity won't flourish here right up until the very end.

Now, that is not to say that we're not seeing a huge extinction event. Between habitat destruction, climate change, toxic pollutants and other human activity we're losing a very large number of species. Estimates are that currently the rate of extinction is between 1000 and 10,000 times the background extinction rate, resulting in the loss of between .01% and 0.1% of all species every year. This is clearly not a sustainable rate, but the one species that is not en route to extinction is Homo Sapiens.

Carbon pollution and the resultant climate change will do many terrible things to humans and their societies. From collapsing fish stocks to persistent drought to shifting agricultural lands, starvation will be widespread. A huge portion of human development is coastal, and rising sea levels will devastate even the largest of those communities. Lack of basic resources will result in war, disease and famine, and the loss of life will be unprecedented, if for no other reason than the number of humans on the planet is unprecedented.

But here's the thing. Carbon pollution and climate change will reduce the human population the planet will be able to support over time. It will not make human survival impossible - at the end of this process there will still be at least 2-3 billion people living on earth, which may be the maximum sustainable population possible over the long term anyway.  In the end there will still be humans, they'll live in great cities, and they'll continue to do great and awful things. The map of where they live and who are the greatest powers will have changed considerably, and it's very likely that the human society that emerges from the upcoming 'Dark Ages' will be much more sensitive to their responsibility for ecological stewardship.

In short, the next 150 years will contain more history, more horrors and more great catastrophes than the thousand years that preceded them, but at the end of the process things will be much as they are now for those fortunate enough to end up on the winning sides.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Doing Stupid Stuff in Syria

Another day, another Middle East war
Famously, the central organizing principle around President Obama's foreign policy structure is 'Don't Do Stupid Stuff'. This is about the best possible basis for decision making, especially for a country that's been at war for the better part of three decades with nothing to show for it. The only viable basis for war is when a nation is defending its territory or the territory of a key ally, or a truly crucial national interest. The worst basis for war is 'well, those are some really bad guys, and they're doing some really bad stuff'. The second worse basis for war is as a response to some dude with an AK-47 sitting in a bombed out building in the desert halfway around the world threatening on an internet video to attack you. There ARE times when a case can be made for limited intervention for humanitarian reasons, provided you can be fairly certain that intervention won't make things worse. There is no chance that another party delivering ordnance on Syrian targets is going to make things better for anyone except perhaps the regime.

So using US military assets to help the Kurds hold their perimeter south of Erbil was probably worth doing. But a war on ISIS? In Iraq it's pointless - this is a regional sectarian conflict that threatens no American interests - but in Syria it's incoherent to the point of insanity.

And yet, today America unleashed a powerful strike package on at least 50 ISIS targets in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasakah. Initial reports have the strikes carried out by Naval, Marine and Air Force aircraft including F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, and Tomahawk T/LAMs with F-22s and EA-6Bs flying top cover. There are even reports that B-2s and B-52s flying from bases in Missouri also delivered ordnance on targets in Syria. It's a big air campaign, and it has the look of one that will be sustained for some time.

So we all agree that ISIS are bad guys, right? So what's wrong with using some air power to hit their leadership, command & control nodes and munitions depots inside their Syrian safe havens? Well, a number of things, actually. First, there's no compelling US interest. It's a civil war halfway around the world. A well known rule of thumb is you never get involved in a civil war unless you are going to support one side or the other. And here we are, supporting the Bashir al-Assad's malignant Baath regime, responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. He's actually the only player in the region that's WORSE than ISIS, and by attacking ISIS we're actually helping him hold on to power in Syria.

In the end, it's going to take a powerful, well-equipped and well-led infantry force to defeat ISIS. American air strikes will, in the meantime, do very little to 'degrade' ISIS and will certainly help them with recruiting. And 'collateral damage' that includes dead Sunnis is NOT going to make them more likely to resist ISIS advances. President Obama is essentially giving in to the political pressure that he 'DO SOMETHING', even if that something is pointless, incoherent and cocunterproductive. It's unfortunate to see how little it took to convince him to do stupid stuff in Syria.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2016 Is Just Around the Corner

Seriously - 300 Million people and
this is the best we can do?
Pssst. Lemme clue you in to the secret. Hillary Clinton is running for President. The will she/won't she narrative is stupid and kind of embarrassing. She went to Iowa, the place that made her cry in 2008. She's running. So enough of that. What's it mean?

Well, we don't know what might happen over the next two years. But we can certainly take the pulse on current conditions, and some things are pretty obvious. Let's start with the view from 50,000 feet.

The Republican party has two very large problems standing between them and winning the White House. First, they have a large number of flawed, damaged and frankly ludicrous characters in competition for the nomination. There is no Republican candidate who stands out as charismatic, or somehow capable of turning their agenda into some kind of electable message. But even more challenging is the Republican purity test. The number of groups, ethnicities, religions and tribes they are required to hate in order to be considered legitimate Republican candidates is so great it puts them at a political disadvantage from the start. They keep trying to offset that advantage with voter suppression methods, but an interesting thing about people is the more you try to prevent them from doing something, the more they want to do it.

So barring some kind of massive economic collapse or a nuclear war, the Democratic nominee can be logically expected to win the 2016 election. And barring some kind of massive, unrecoverable mis-step, that nominee will be Hillary Clinton. And barring some kind of health crisis, Hillary Clinton will be the President of the United States until 2024, when she will be 77.  At the risk of sounding intentionally ironic, we don't get a vote in this. The Democratic nominee has an intrinsic and institutional advantage over the Republican nominee of somewhere between 3 and 8 percent, and will therefore win the popular vote (as they have in 5 of the last 6 elections) and should have no problem collecting the requisite electoral votes. The Democratic nominee will win, and at this point the Democratic nominee will certainly be Ms. Clinton.

What will a second Clinton Presidency look like? Well, first, you can't ignore the fact that we will continue to have divided government. No matter what happens with the Senate, the House of Representatives will continue to be firmly in the hands of the GOP, and therefore any Presidential legislative agenda is dead on arrival. It will be a two-term Presidency characterized by reactive actions and rhetoric. I expect her to be very good on social justice issues, mostly good on economic issues, and terrible on human rights, foreign policy and the surveillance state. I do think that the one area where she might surprise us is wealth and income inequality. She'll be very low key on 'class war' issues in the run up to the election because she'll want the bribes - sorry, contributions - from financial institutions who wish for a return to the '90s economy, but in the years during which she's President the inequality issue will become more prominent in political discourse, and she might just catch up and even lead. We can count on her to lead on Climate Change, but it will depend on economic, technology and political changes to permit any fundamental change in the US response.

Now, all that is said in the late summer of 2014. The world is in a precarious and unstable state, and any number of things could happen that might change the calculation. I don't think they will, because I just don't see any other players poised to throw their hat in the ring. It will be Clinton vs. Ryan, or maybe Clinton vs. Paul, but there's just nobody else even close to being an acceptable nominee.

Personally, I'm not excited about another Clinton. I've never been a fan of dynastic succession, and to whatever extent I was tolerant of the process in a democracy, Bush the Second put me off it forever. The incurious, stupid, impulsive frat boy President was just the lesson one needed to learn that the name doesn't come with the wherewithal to hold the office. I'd also pay very close attention to who she picks as her running mate. As a life expectancy matter, middle seventies isn't 'old' in any end-of-life sense of the word, but I kind of have an intuition that we might be due for some kind of chaos at the top, and even setting aside any health crisis, in the next ten years another Republican impeachment trial seems almost a certainty.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

People, Politics and Pocketbooks

It's always about money
Climate change deniers and skeptics are right about one thing - anything we do that will actually have a positive impact on carbon pollution will cost people money. While they use the fear that energy and transportation costs will increase if the cost of carbon emissions is priced into the cost of fossil fuels to argue against action, this cost increase is a feature, not a bug. First, it acts as a disincentive to burn fossil fuels - people will reduce their consumption when the price goes up, that's simple economics. Second, it serves to more accurately price energy generation that results in carbon emissions. The cost of dealing with the pollution generated is part of the cost of using the products, and up until now the users of fossil fuels have been able to avoid paying any costs for this part of the energy generation process. It would be as if I decided I didn't want to pay the garbage man anymore and just started dumping my garbage in the public park downtown. Hey, somebody will pay to get rid of it - it just won't be me. I win!

And if fossil fuels become more expensive, alternative sources of energy generation become more attractive economically. The reason energy companies like coal and natural gas is because they are cheap - make them less so and that same profit-seeking motive will fall in behind the better economics of solar, wind and wave power.

But this is a steep hill to climb. People are for climate change mitigation in general, but all it takes to get them to vote against it is a campaign to frighten them about the costs. And supporters of climate change mitigation regulations do a terrible job of addressing these concerns. They run away from them, or they try to add tweaks to the rules that reduce the cost to consumers. The reason they do this is that, as mentioned above, these costs ARE real - the are a necessary outcome of pricing carbon externalities into fossil fuels prices.  One cap and trade proposal even includes using the income generated by emission coupons to offset price increases to consumers. That, my friends, would be stupid and pointless. If people don't reduce their consumption of fossil fuel energy, the caps will be impossible to sustain.

It's kind of weird. People understand that if they want something, they have to pay for it. So one must assume that when it comes to climate change, infrastructure, public transit and low-income housing people SAY they want it, but they don't actually want it enough to pay for it. This suggests that a better marketing campaign is in order - if you want people to buy something, you have to sell it to them based on value and return on investment.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

It's Criminal! The NFL and Me

Oh look. He's lying again...
It has not been a good couple of weeks for pro football. Football players have always been prone to violence - the combination of a lifetime of rewards for viciousness and brutality and the protection from consequences afforded to star athletes from the earliest part of their careers has seemingly made them significantly more likely to resort to violence than the rest of the population.  And that factor has reared it's head repeatedly recently, with horrific scenes of domestic violence and tales of brutal corporal punishment.

So this has all resulted in a couple of different conversations taking place simultaneously. The first is how the NFL and the teams should react to these cases, how they should formulate policy and how that policy should be carried out. The second is a more intimate question of how we, as consumers, should respond to these events.

The first question is hard at one level. It's an argument about at what point in the legal process should a player be considered for punishment. And that bumps up against a whole lot of questions about due process, employee rights, politics and optics. And oddly, the initial question seems to start and stop at whether the team should allow the player to play in the games. Personally, I'm not sure how a paid vacation that essentially punishes the team for the (alleged) actions of the player constitutes a punishment, but we'll accept the general consensus that it does. So as far as I'm concerned, if a player is charged and arraigned on felony charges that include any kind of violence, the teams should at a minimum suspend him without pay, and should have the option, depending on the egregiousness of the crime in question, to void his contract. Note that is after charges have been filed and the player has had a chance to enter a plea. An arrest can lead to a lot of different outcomes, but it very often leads to no charges being filed, and is therefore simply too early in the process to take punitive action.

The second question to me is an easier one. I like to watch football. Most of the players are not bad people. So if the question is whether I should give up doing something I enjoy in order to take some kind of consumer action against a league that's going to continue to play games whether I watch them or not, the answer is that would be pointless and ludicrous.

So no. I don't feel guilty, and I don't think I can influence the arc of commerce. But even beyond those, I don't understand why I should be punished for the excesses of a few criminals. I WANT to watch the games, and unless somebody can explain to me how NOT watching those games would make the world a better place, I think I'll just stay the somewhat rocky course.