Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Links

  • Paul Krugman has been getting much more interesting lately looking at the economic signature of the rise of smart machines.  My take from a couple of years back is in the back half of this essay. At the time I wrote that, I felt like I was the only person with my views (possibly wrongly, but that's what it felt like), but lately Kevin Drum and Paul Krugman have both started to espouse somewhat similar positions. 
  • The anatomy of US partisanship.  My understanding of the political science literature on this is that it's more due to people self-selecting to live in ideologically compatible places than it is due to gerrymandering (though there's an assist from gerrymandering).
  • US civil rights continue to suck.
  • Outsourcing is hurting Japanese cities and workers too.
  • This NYT article is sort of interesting and sort of infuriating.  It concerns how utilities in the northeastern US are thinking maybe they should spend a lot more to harden the electrical grid in light of the storms of the last two years.  It's clear the entire issue is driven by climate change, but the article manages to avoid ever mentioning that, instead trading in vague circumlocutions like "Utilities and policy makers can see that ocean surge poses a previously unexpected threat to the power grid." and "forecasters say that so-called 100-year storms are likely to occur more frequently".  Gutless weasel words: the article should make clear that we may have to spend a lot more to make the electric grid robust and this is a cost of human-caused climate change.
  • And here is the EIA talking about possible exploitation of polar oil and gas resources again without any mention of why this is now perhaps becoming feasible. 
  • Interesting survey post on the impacts of oil prices on the economy.  
  • On a side note, that last link is a bit daring right now, since author Michael Levi is at the Council on Foreign Relations and their website just had a major compromise by foreign intelligence   resulting in multiple compromises of US companies (what we in the security industry are calling a waterholing attack).  I'm aware of this because software I wrote for my day job detected the compromise :-)  Anyway, their website is now cleaned up (and will hopefully stay that way), but if I had inadvertently linked you there last week, you might have gotten infected.  I'm aware of at least six distinct waterholing compromises of US think tank websites in the last three months.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Carbon Neutral Household Operations in 2012

In my personal quest for my family to be carbon neutral, 2012 was a significant step forward.  In 2011, we reached the point where our house itself did not require any fossil fuels to operate (by using wood heat and commercial renewable power).  In 2012, we undertook an energy audit and resulting house efficiency work to make a major reduction in the amount of electricity we use (thanks to Snug Planet). I'll quantify this when the heating season is over but we are now pretty much using no electricity for heat, relying entirely on wood for that.  Electricity usage for appliances and hot water should also have been reduced substantially.

Also, having found a carbon offset provider I like (Finger Lakes Climate Fund), I was able to offset all our personal air travel, car usage, and landscaping machinery fuel usage, resulting in overall carbon-neutral household operations in 2012 - for the first time ever.

Does this mean we are environmental saints with nothing left to do?  Absolutely not, nothing could be further from the truth.  My major goal in 2013 is to get a solar installation, which should mean we will generate most or all of our electricity on site.  Beyond that, I'd like to move to electric and/or plugin-hybrid cars to reduce our reliance on offsets.  The house could be made far more efficient still if we did a deep-energy retrofit when we replace the siding, and if we replaced the windows with more efficient (eg non-Victorian) ones.  All these are steps we can take entirely on our own in the next few years.

Looking to less easy fixes over the longer term: we buy many goods and services from suppliers who are not themselves carbon-neutral.  As carbon neutral alternatives become available, I would very much like to select those where practical.  Also, I work for a mainstream company who presently have no concern for their carbon footprint (eg, they won't reimburse carbon offsets for my work-related travel - I asked).  That too is something I'd like to improve on in the long term.

Still, it feels good to have gotten as far as we have.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Xmas Links

Merry Xmas everyone!  Or other seasonal festival of your choice.  Blogging will probably be very light this week.  In the meantime here's a few links:
  • Ugo Bardi has come around to my point of view that, while peak oil is a real problem, climate change is ultimately a more serious one.
  • Looking for winter weirdness due to the warming Arctic - Russia and the UK seem to be getting the prize so far this winter.
  • New York Times reviews the year's developments in electric cars and plugin-hybrids.  Obviously, not all these attempts will work out, but still it's encouraging to see so many green shoots.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Links

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fiscal Cliff Extra

So I'm trying to game out this fiscal cliff thing now that it seems to be becoming a matter of urgent practical importance:
  • It seems likely at this point that there will be no agreement before Jan 1st given that Speaker Boehner cannot deliver his caucus (about 90% certain of this).
  • I assume that Obama will not be so weak as to immediately capitulate to the right wing of the house Republicans (about 90% certain of this too).   
  • So then we go over the "cliff", payroll taxes and income taxes rise, defense spending falls, etc
  • Public blames Republicans, but hard-core right-wing Republicans don't care what the public (aka "liberal media" and "biassed pollsters") think.
  • The federal deficit falls, but not to zero, so, very shortly, we hit the federal debt ceiling again.
  • Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless all their demands are met.
  • Obama gets to choose between the various constitution-stretching options to ignore the debt-ceiling, or capitulating to whatever the conservative wing of the Republicans will vote for (and never being able to look his progressive friends in the eye again).
  • In the meantime, the economy goes in the tank due to the combination of the reduced spending power of the taxpayers and government contractors, and uncertainty over whether the federal government will honor its debt or not.
  • Public is furious, but none of the players face reelection for two years, so no change in positions in the short term.
Does anyone know exactly when we hit the debt ceiling again assuming that we do in fact go over the cliff?  I haven't quickly been able to determine this but I seem to remember reading that it's Jan/Feb.

If this really is a game of chicken, who swerves first?  It seems like whoever wins this gets to basically dictate most of what happens for the next two years.

In the meantime, seems like we individually would want to sell speculative assets, avoid risky ventures and career moves, reduce spending and generally hunker down until the dust settles.

Dissents or insights welcome in comments.

Update: Wonkblog says that the latest we hit the debt ceiling is February (we actually hit it this week but the Treasury can use the by-now-familiar extraordinary measures to hold it off a few more weeks).

Finger Lakes Climate Fund

Like many people with concerns about climate change, I am in the process of making changes in my own life to reduce my carbon emissions.  But, also like many such people, I am trying to do so while not creating chaos for my family, and limited both by how far along in the process I've gotten, as well as the available technical options.

Two big areas where I can't immediately eliminate emissions are car travel (where we will likely go electric in the next couple of years, but aren't there yet) and air travel (which won't be feasible to eliminate so quickly).  We'll keep working on these items, but in the meantime it's attractive to look at offsetting the emissions rather than doing nothing about them.

I should stress that I don't think there's much virtue in taking no action at all to reduce one's own emissions and then offsetting everything.  But I do think offsets potentially have value as part of an overall sincere strategy to reduce emissions.  However, a central worry is the quality of the offsets: there are lots of horror stories of tree plantations that cause environmental damage, or forests that are planted and then allowed to die, or factories being built in China to produce greenhouse gases just so they could destroy the resulting product and then claim the offset.  Developing countries in general tend to be corrupt and disorganized and it seems likely that offset schemes based there will run into all manner of problems.  So the whole offset area has gotten something of a bad name.

For that reason, when I heard about the Finger Lakes Climate Fund, which promises to offset emissions with local projects in my own region I was very attracted to the idea.  Because the projects are local, and I understand my area, I felt it was likely that I'd be able to assess the quality of the offsets.  The main concern is what is called additionality: are the projects things that genuinely wouldn't have happened if you hadn't ponied up your cash?

In addition, since the fund is run by a small local non-profit, I thought it was likely that I'd be able to get reasonable quality information about how everything is run, and satisfy myself that it was legitimate.  That proved to be correct: the Executive Director, Gay Nicholson, sat down with me for an hour this week and walked me through their process.  This is what I learned.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thursday Links

  • Homeless college graduates in the US.
  • Limitations on US tight oil production (David Hughes via Jim Hamilton).  I'm not persuaded that rapid well decline curves can tell us how much oil will ultimately be produced.  Instead, they tell us that it will take many rigs to produce the oil and that we'll have to constantly keep drilling.  But as long as the overall ROI of the process is sufficiently high, we may be willing and able to build unprecedentedly large numbers of rigs.  So the real question is how much recoverable resource is actually there.
  • John Michael Greer argues that Occupy Wall St failed because it - like many leftist movements in recent decades - tried to use consensus-based organization methods.  I'm inclined to a similar view.  I had extensive experience with consensus in cohousing communities in my twenties and early thirties and my conclusion is that it's a decent decision-making method for small voluntary groups with clear shared values, but it doesn't scale well at all.  As the group gets larger, it has a tendency to become decision-making by whoever has the worst personality disorders (and therefore has the most willingness to make a stink in meetings).  The larger the group, the more such people there will be and they all have the power to block consensus.  It's also incredibly time-inefficient at scale.  These kinds of problems have been around almost from the beginning - the Tyranny of Structurelessness from the early seventies women's movement is still an interesting read on related subjects.  Functional movements need to set up some way of electing leaders and use competence and commitment to the movement as the major criteria for selection.  
  • There's a global strategic maple syrup reserve!  Who knew?  
  • Good thing we have it given that the apocalypse will be tomorrow.  Hope your preparations are in order.  Personally, I plan to greet it with a nice glass of red wine by the fireside and I have already procured the wine and the glass.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tuesday Links

  • Greek exit now being seen as much less likely.
  • In Spain, though, people are often not being paid.  The level of hardship described there is extraordinary.
  • Sasol planning a GTL plant in Louisiana to turn abundant US shale gas into liquid fuel.  (Sasol is the South African company that makes liquid fuel from coal in that country).
  • Walmart Mexico was corrupt to the core, says the NYT.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thursday Links

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tuesday Links

  • The above shows estimated surface mass balance for Greenland in recent years compared to historical norms.  Clearly 2012, with astoundingly rapid sea ice loss, wasn't very good for the Greenland ice sheet either (from Arctic Sea Ice blog).
  • US National Intelligence Council report on global trends to 2030 - haven't had a chance to digest this yet.
  • Professor Krugman with nice graphs on labor share of output and the college premium.
  • This last figure comes via a post at Dosbat and compares one scenario for anthropogenic global warming to the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum (one of the most pronounced natural episodes of global warming which was possibly caused by magma intrusions into coalbeds):

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Weekend Links

  • The EIA projections of future US carbon emissions keep getting lower (graph above).
  • Bedpans and canasta in our future?  I worry about exactly this too.
  • Italy's prime minister Monti to resign.
  • Interesting paper on past ice sheet retreat (h/t Chris Reynolds). However, the money quote remains: "The rate of radiative forcing also needs to be considered with these palaeo ice-sheet analogues. The increase in boreal summer insolation and rise of 90–100 ppm in atmospheric CO2 during terminations occurred over ~11,000 years. In contrast, human carbon emissions have increased atmospheric CO2 by over 100 ppm in less than 200 years, with even greater increases predicted to occur in the coming century. Given this more rapid rise in greenhouse gas radiative forcing, Earth’s remaining ice sheets could respond in a manner not previously observed in the late Quaternary."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thursday Links

  • EIA's new projections for US oil production above.  I haven't really taken any strong position on how big the tight oil is going to get, since I don't understand how to assess it accurately; it's tough because it involves multiplying a pretty large number (the oil in place) by a rather small number (the recovery rate) and the result is necessarily quite uncertain.  The EIA's guess above looks as good as any. 
  • Students demanding universities divest in fossil fuel companies.  Harvard tells them where to stuff it: "We always appreciate hearing from students about their viewpoints, but Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels." This sounds like a winnable battle: I don't see how any university can consistently defend Harvard's position over a long period of time.  The science is irrefutable, and unlike right-wing politicians, no university can ignore science.  Thus they are left saying "we know fossil fuels are terrible for the planet but we propose to continue investing in them because we are making so much money".  It's a morally weak position and every university administrator is going to feel that in their bones (in a way that a for-profit institution wouldn't).  It may take five years, but if the students keep up the pressure, they will win.
  • Driverless tractors coming along well.  Apparently the beta customer is a 1.5 million(!) acre farm in Brazil.  Supposedly, the problem this is solving is that there are no skilled employees available to drive tractors in rural areas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tuesday Links

  • US oil production (above) is still increasing in September, according to the EIA.  The major contributions are coming from the Eagle Ford shale and the Permian Basin in Texas, and the Bakken formation in North Dakota.
  • October PMI indicates expansion in Chinese manufacturing for the first time in 2012.
  • Outlook for offshore wind: dark and stormy.
  • US house prices up over 6% in October compared to last year.
  • Arms race between the US and China in drones?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Weekend Links

  • Sober Look makes a really important point about Greece here that I hadn't realized: although Greece's debt is really high and will be for a long time, that is really not their problem in the short to medium term as the agencies holding the debt have reduced the terms to the point that Greece's interest payments as a fraction of GDP are very modest and bearable.
  • The bullish case on Tesla Motors.
  • Where ARPA-E is spending our tax dollars on energy research.
  • Homebuilders are starting to produce multigenerational housing.
  • I've not always been a big fan of Dianne Feinstein but I like her amendment making it clear that the government may not detain citizens and permanent residents without charge or trial.  Apparently the Obama administration would prefer to have police state powers, which is appalling.
  • Solar panels being sold like Tupperware?  Hey, whatever works.  This was particularly amusing:
I’ve had at least 10 people say, ‘I have the biggest solar system in the community,’ ” he said. “They don’t say, ‘I have the lowest electric bill.
That's human nature for you*, and we have to get it working for the climate, instead of against it.

*At least as expressed in civilizations.