Tag Archives: risk

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

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

record U.S. weather disasters in 2017

Major hurricanes, fires and floods set a new record for the cost of damage in the U.S. in 2017. Setting aside the human misery caused, natural disasters tend to provide a short-term economic stimulus, because it is rare time that politicians tend to set aside their differences and borrow or print money as necessary to solve the problem. In the longer term though, I can’t help thinking that this is one way climate change can make us poorer, because we will be spending money and effort dealing with a higher rate of disasters that we could otherwise be spending on more productive work, investment or innovation. The other way climate change can make us poorer is just the long, slow grind of rising energy, food and water prices. I can imagine these two trends working together, where we are adapting to that long, slow grind, but when the disasters hit we no longer have the ability to recover completely like we used to. This is not unlike a stressed ecosystem that manages to hang on until that fire or flood hits, but then does not have the soil conditions or the seed bank or whatever to rejuvenate itself in the same spot after it gets wiped out.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: 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.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: 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.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

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

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: 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
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: 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.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

December 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The U.S. has lost ground relative to its peers on road deaths, and is now well below average. I noted that something similar has happened with respect to health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. Maybe a realistic goal would be to make America average again.
  • A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.
  • Daniel Ellsberg says we are very, very lucky to have avoided nuclear war so far. There are some tepid ideas for trimming the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and yet it is being upgraded and expanded as we speak. The North Korea situation is not getting better. Trump may be playing to religious fundamentalists who actually are looking forward to the Apocalypse.

Most hopeful stories:

  • Exercise may be even better for your brain than it is for your body, and exercising your body may be even better for your brain than exercising your brain itself.
  • Macroeconomic modeling is improving. So, just to pick a random example, it might be possible to predict the effects on a change in tax policy on the economy. Now all we need is politicians who are responsive to logic and evidence, and we could accomplish something. At least a few economists think the imperfect tax plan the U.S. Congress just passed might actually stimulate business capital investment enough to move the dial on productivity. The deliberate defunding of health care included in the bill is going to hurt people, but maybe not all that dramatically.
  • Moody’s introduced a new methodology for assessing climate risk in municipal bonds.

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

  • There are life forms surviving in space right now, most likely of Earth origin. I wondered if maybe we should purposely contaminate other planets with them.
  • Microsoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.
  • Futuristic technologies keep coming along. Something vaguely like the “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is being used for experimental aircraft parts. Vital signs might be monitored soon using a simple RFID device. A tiny electric shock of just the right size to just the right part of your brain might cure you of bad habits. And Magic Leap may finally release…something or other…in 2018.

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.

“Cities Swimming in Raw Sewage as Hurricanes Overwhelm Systems”

That headline sounds bad, but it’s actually bad journalism. Sewers and wastewater treatment plants are not designed to function correctly during a hurricane the size of Harey or Irma. In that situation, the concern is protecting life and property. Sewage treatment can take a temporary back seat, and generally be brought back online pretty quickly after the extreme event is over.

Millions of gallons of poorly treated wastewater and raw sewage flowed into the bays, canals and city streets of Florida from facilities serving some of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. More than 9 million gallons of releases tied to Irma have been reported as of late Tuesday as inundated plants were submerged, forced to bypass treatment or lost power.

The article goes on to suggest that the sewage released during a hurricane has something to do with aging, poorly maintained infrastructure that is not doing what it is supposed to do in normal weather.

Such overflows, which can spread disease-causing pathogens, are happening more often, as population shifts and increasingly strong storms strain the capacity of plants and decades-old infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated last year that $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater pipes, treatment plants and associated infrastructure…

Wastewater treatment facilities are especially vulnerable to flooding because they are traditionally built in low-lying areas, near whatever river or waterway they discharge into.  That approach works in normal conditions, but coastal treatment plants increasingly are outmatched during intense downpours and fierce storms, especially amid rising sea levels.

“Any time there is a large event — any kind of flood — they get overwhelmed and you have these raw sewage discharges,” said Ken Kopocis, who served as the top official in the EPA’s water office under President Barack Obama.

This is all true. We do need to spend money on our water quality infrastructure, and states and the federal government need to help fix problems that were caused long before anyone alive today was born. And we need to consider climate change and sea level rise when we do all that. But we also need to demand a bit more from our science reporters.

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 while waiting for a bus (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.