Tag Archives: climate change

bond ratings and climate change

Even if the U.S. federal government officially doesn’t believe in climate change, the municipal bond industry officially does believe in climate change.

In a report to its clients Tuesday, Moody’s Investors Service Inc. explained how it incorporates climate change into its credit ratings for state and local bonds. If cities and states don’t deal with risks from surging seas or intense storms, they are at greater risk of default…

In its report, Moody’s lists six indicators it uses “to assess the exposure and overall susceptibility of U.S. states to the physical effects of climate change.” They include the share of economic activity that comes from coastal areas, hurricane and extreme-weather damage as a share of the economy, and the share of homes in a flood plain…

Bloomberg News reported in May that towns and counties were able to secure AAA ratings despite their risks of flooding and other destruction from storms, which are likely to be more frequent and intense because of climate change. If repeated storms and floods are likely to send property values — and tax revenue — sinking while spending on sea walls, storm drains or flood-resistant buildings goes up, investors say bond buyers should be warned.

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.


ice apocalypse

So will it be fire or ice that gets us. Eric Holthaus, writing in Grist, says ice.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today…

In the past few years, scientists have identified marine ice-cliff instability as a feedback loop that could kickstart the disintegration of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet this century — much more quickly than previously thought.

Minute-by-minute, huge skyscraper-sized shards of ice cliffs would crumble into the sea, as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as deep underwater as the height of the Empire State Building. The result: a global catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen.

I enjoy Eric’s writing. He employs some hyperbole, but always links to original sources you can drill into if you want to. Regarding the hyperbole though, here is some criticism of him in the Guardian:

I was particularly concerned about some of the implied time scales and impacts. That ‘slowly burying every shoreline…creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees…could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years’ (it could begin then, but would take far longer). That ‘the full 11 feet’ could be unlocked by 2100 (Rob and Dave predicted the middle of next century). That cities will be ‘wiped off the map’ (we will adapt, because the costs of protecting coastlines are predicted to be far less than those of flooding). We absolutely should be concerned about climate risks, and reduce them. But black-and-white thinking and over-simplification don’t help with risk management, they hinder.

Is “the entire scientific community [in] emergency mode”? We are cautious, and trying to learn more. Climate prediction is a strange game. It takes decades to test our predictions, so society must make decisions with the best evidence but always under uncertainty. I understand why a US-based climate scientist would feel particularly pessimistic. But we have to take care not to talk about the apocalypse as if it were inevitable.

Maybe, but if the cost of protecting cities is less than the cost of flooding, perhaps our U.S. politicians could get to work on that instead of continuing to bury their heads in the sand and pretend science doesn’t exist, even if the time frame is uncertain. Remember the serious scientists are arguing here over whether the most likely scenario is the one that has been presented over the past few years, or something worse. They are not arguing that it might actually be better than they thought.

Large Igneous Provinces and mass extinction

Ars Technica has an article on Large Igneous Provinces, which are volcanic eruptions so large (occurring every 15 million years or so on average) they are thought to be the main culprit behind most mass extinctions. Lava and toxic gas can be bad but are not enough to explain mass extinction. They can actually cause large-scale global cooling on a short time scale (a decade or so) due to particulate emissions, but that effect also is not enough to explain mass extinction. The way they are thought to cause global mass extinction this is by burning underground fossil fuels on an enormous scale, causing catastrophic climate change that species cannot adapt to (including global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, which kick in after the shorter-term cooling effect has run its course, and last a lot longer).

I was also wondering about volcanic activity versus comet and asteroid strikes. The article addresses that too:

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseasesgalactic gamma raysdark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

Those asteroid (or comet) impacts have captured the public imagination ever since 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez found global traces of iridium, which they inferred to be extraterrestrial, at the geological boundary that marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The identification of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico soon after sealed the deal. Impacts have been proposed to explain other mass extinctions, but there’s very little actual evidence to support those links. In the words of researchers David Bond and Stephen Grasby, who reviewed the evidence in 2016: “Despite much searching, there remains only one confirmed example of a bolide impact coinciding with an extinction event…”

Volcanism, on the other hand, has coincided with most, if not all, mass extinctions—it looks suspiciously like a serial killer, if you like.

According to the article, the rate of fossil fuel burning is similar to what humans are doing now. So it follows that natural ecosystems could collapse this time too. That would be a catastrophe in itself, but how resilient can our species and food production systems be compared to all the others that have come and gone before us?

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

U.S. home prices highest in riskiest areas

According to Bloomberg,

The chart comes from Attom Data Solutions’ natural hazard index, which matches geographic areas to government data on risk of flood, earthquake, tornado, wildfire, hurricane, and hail.

The riskiest 20 percent of U.S. counties have the most homes, the highest average home values, and the greatest price appreciation in recent years. Why? Buyers who pay premiums for ocean views and mountain lookouts may be getting some additional disaster risk as part of the bargain, said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at Attom. Those kinds of geographical attributes are likely secondary factors in driving price appreciation, though. More importantly, Attom’s list of disaster-prone areas overlaps with engines of economic activity.

This makes sense to me – it is probably just that the big, vibrant U.S. cities are in hurricane and flood prone coastal areas, in fire-prone Mediterranean climates, or both. Climate change is not going to reduce these risks. Having the earthquake risk thrown on top is kind of just bad luck.

rapid intensification

The 2017 hurricane season has set new records for rapid intensification, according to the Washington Post.

“It’s not a common event. Typically, that occurs in maybe 5 percent of our forecasts,” said Mark DeMaria, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center…

“Looking back through the records, Maria went from a tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in just two and a half days,” he said. “I couldn’t find any other tropical cyclones in our historical record that went that quickly from a depression to a Category 5 hurricane…”

The National Hurricane Center technically defines rapid intensification as a wind speed increase of at least 35 miles per hour in 24 hours. All four of the most intense Atlantic storms in 2017 beat that easily.

We can’t say any individual event is caused by climate change, say the experts, but some weird shit is going to happen and it is going to happen more often.

the “Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st Century”

From Bloomberg BNA,

A federal judge said he wanted to avoid having “the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st Century,” and ordered an environmental organization to remove claims based on climate change in its lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp.

Judge Mark Wolf said he did not want the lawsuit to turn into a trial about whether climate change exists, the way the 1925 trial about whether evolution could be taught in Tennessee public schools took up the debate about human origin…

Wolf said he would not dismiss the suit. But he told the environmental organization to amend its 14-count complaint and strip out major references to harm caused by climate change that would take place in 2050 and later.

I hadn’t thought of it before but I think the comparison is perfect! Almost 100 hundred years on from the Scopes trial, a large majority of rational, educated people correctly see that debate as a silly footnote to an ignorant, bygone era. Climate change is similar, except we were never seriously worried about the apes rising up and swamping us (you maniacs!)

But on a more serious note, why is a judge qualified to identify the best planning horizon when considering risk of failure of an industrial facility? That should depend on the expected life of the facility, external threats that might occur (like climate change), likelihood and consequence of failure during that period. If an oil and gas tank farm would tend to be retired or rebuilt every 30 years or so (and I suspect it might), it would make sense to take into account only the risks expected to take place over that time period, so 2050 might actually be a reasonable decision.

August 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Around 200,000 people may be dying prematurely in the U.S. each year due to air pollution. Meanwhile, the Trump administration may be trying to censor the National Climate Assessment, which presents the consensus among serious scientists in the United States government that climate change is very real and a very real threat to our country.
  • The U.S. may already be in the middle of a soft military coup. We have a batshit-crazy President playing nuclear chicken with all our lives. And with the legislative branch not even trying to do anything about this, we are actually hoping the generals who are running our country will be the coolest heads in the room when it comes to preventing nuclear war. North Korea may be closer to submarine-launched nuclear weapons than previously thought. Meanwhile, there are three ways for terrorists or other non-state actors to get their hands on nuclear weapons: “transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.” And the U.S. and Russia are no longer cooperating on non-proliferation.
  • The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (in July) that could eventually, maybe lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons on Earth.
  • The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are some very specific numerical targets that have incorporated in the 2015 Sustainable Goals.
  • Great Transitions are ideas for how the world could transition to a sustainable state without going through a major setback along the way.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • When you sow seeds, it makes sense to sow the ones that have the most trouble establishing at the highest density.
  • You can use R to recreate the famous plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

As I am writing these words on Labor Day, the news is about a North Korean nuclear test. In a strange coincidence, I happened to see both the USS New Jersey, which was involved in the Korean War, and the Korean War Memorial here in Philadelphia yesterday (which never came). That war caused a lot of pain and suffering on all sides. It would be a tragedy to let it flair up again, and an even bigger tragedy if nuclear weapons were to be involved.

climate change and Hurricane Harvey

Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, has posted a long (for Facebook) article on Facebook about how climate change contributes to events like this. In short, climate determines the probability of a particular weather event occurring, but ultimately any one particular weather event is a roll of the (now slightly loaded) dice. Warmer water and warmer air than in the past have both made events like this more likely, and are making events like this more destructive when they do occur. The article has links to several journal articles which would be worth reading to know something about hydrology and climate change. But right now I can’t do that because I’m late for my job where I have to convince people I know something about, among other topics, hydrology and climate change.

Sea level rise attributable to climate change (some is due to coastal subsidence due to human disturbance e.g. oil drilling) is more than half a foot over the past few decades (see http://www.insurancejournal.com/…/sou…/2017/05/31/452704.htm for a decent discussion).

That means that the storm surge was a half foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.

In addition to that, sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades, from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31 C or 87-88F). There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the “Clausius-Clapeyron equation (see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Clausius%E2%80%93Clapeyron_relat…) that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C (~1F) of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than the ‘average’ temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.