Tag Archives: risk

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 (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.

Treasury Secretary warns against banking deregulation

According to Project Syndicate, the U.S. Treasury Secretary made a recent statement warning against any rollback of regulations that were put in place following the 2007 financial crisis.

He argued that the United States’ political system “may be taking us in a direction that is very dangerous.” Referring to moves to roll back elements of the new regulatory order established in response to the debacles of 2008-9, he lamented that “everybody wants to go back to the status quo before the great financial crisis.” And he declared that “one cannot understand why grown intelligent people reach the conclusion that you should get rid of all the things you have put in place in the last ten years.”

The article goes on to argue that deregulation is actually not likely because academics and the press are against it. But the statement is not about academics and the press, it is about “the political system”. And who has control over the political system? The finance industry. And of course they want deregulation to boost short-term profits, even though it is not in their long term interests to destroy the world economy they depend on to operate.

 

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare by Bertrand Russell

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare was a 1959 book by Bertrand Russell. The title is clearly tongue-in-cheek because these are two things that don’t mix. Here is a fun quote/paraphrase relating the book to the present day, provided by History News Network:

Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

This might be the biggest problem of all with having nuclear weapons around. Even if rational adult supervision is present 99% of the time, and even if there were no risk of terrorism, it only takes one irrational leader one time to pull the trigger and fuck up our world permanently.

nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: 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.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

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

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • 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?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!