The IPCC is wrong

IPCC WG III on mitigation of climate change had this to say on the costs of a forceful 2 degree C strategy (Summary for Policymakers, page 15, my italics, their godawful prose):

Scenarios in which all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available, have been used as a cost-effective benchmark
for estimating macroeconomic mitigation costs … Under these assumptions, mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption – not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation (footnote 19) – of 1 % to 4 % (median: 1.7 %) in 2030, 2 % to 6 % (median: 3.4 %) in 2050, and 3 % to 11 % (median: 4.8 %) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300 % to more than 900 % over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6 % and 3 % per year.

This has been summarised by retail commentators, including yours truly, as an estimate that “2 degree mitigation will cost 0.06% of GDP growth, or “nothing” within the margin of error.”

But it’s wrong. What is the point of an estimate of “macroeconomic mitigation costs” that excludes a substantial part of them, viz. the co-benefits and co-costs? One way forward is to try for a comprehensive estimate in welfare terms, including biodiversity, long-tailed risk of civilisational catastrophe, psychic burdens of anxiety, corrections for inequality, heightened risk of conflict, etc. This is pretty much impossible. Or you limit yourself to a GDP estimate, with its well-known flaws and the merits of familiarity – in which case you must put in all the GDP components. The whole point of mitigation is to prevent the damage from climate change. Not all of this is captured in GDP, but a lot of it is. Leaving out the avoided damage is a fatal flaw in the IPCC’s estimate of net costs. It’s much, much too high. Continue Reading…

Ten million

Remember when the first million signups to health plans under ACA was news? I do, because I blogged it in November 2013. (Checked later and confirmed here.)

How things have changed. Charles Gaba, last Wednesday:

With today’s & NY State of Health updates, total QHPs [qualified private health plans] have OFFICIALLY broken 10M nationally.

Gaba’s estimate for the additional increase to date in ACA-enabled coverage under Medicaid and CHIP (including bulk transfers from state programmes) is 13.16m, a number which is sensitive to definitions.

If the Supreme Court reactionaries uphold the crackpot challenge in King v. Burwell to the subsidies on the federal backstop exchange, they will be breaking a large second-best reform that, after enormous effort and in the teeth of systematic vilification and obstruction, actually works.

[Update: my link for crackpottiness only covers the legal arguments. Meet the plaintiffs of record.]

Christiana Figueres bets the world

c_figueres_v3_400x400Not many people get to bet the world’s future, but Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate circus (UNFCC), has just done that.

The key decisions of the Lima COP 20 were these – my emphases.

The Conference of the Parties

3. Underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances;

9. Reiterates its invitation to each Party to communicate to the secretariat its intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;
10. Agrees that each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party;

13. Reiterates its invitation to all Parties to communicate their intended nationally
determined contributions well in advance of the twenty first session of the Conference of
the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so) in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended nationally determined contributions; [Note: the 21st session will be held in Paris from 30 November - 11 December]

16. Requests the secretariat to:
(a) Publish on the UNFCCC website the intended nationally determined contributions as communicated;
(b) Prepare by 1 November 2015 a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the
intended nationally determined contributions communicated by Parties by 1 October 2015…

This procedure marks a radical break with the top-down thinking that has stymied discussions for a decade. Continue Reading…

E-health for the world’s rural poor

The British microprocessor design giant ARM has tweeted 15 predictions for 2015. Some of them are incomprehensible geekspeak: “Benchmark data will shift end-user choice to purpose-optimized servers versus monolithic approaches”. But not this:

Mobile operators will deploy smartphone services as de facto healthcare for rural areas.

iphone_healthHow should they know? ARM just makes and licenses processor designs. Licensees incorporate them in complex chips (SOCs); the licensees’ customers incorporate the SOCs in gadgets; the gadgets are sold to final customers. It’s a long chain. But ARM’s business model requires it to keep abreast of these final markets, so it can steer its design programme. That’s why ARM puts a lot of effort into designs for the booming automotive market, and very little into the stagnant one for desktop PCs. The chances are they know what they are talking about.

Sure enough, Google quickly finds an example in Kenya:

“Safaricom has employed a wide-network infrastructure across and there is therefore opportunity for us to layer on services that make a difference to the Mwananchi,” Safaricom’s Enterprise Business General Manager, Sylvia Mulinge said in a recent statement. (Mwananchi is the Kiswahili word for “Common man” or “Citizen.”) “We have set up 800 digital villages and target to push the number to 5,000,” she said.

The company has partnered with Cisco to roll out e-health services across Kenya so as to enable patients in rural areas consult with doctors in urban areas. Through its e-health services, small clinics will be stationed in digital villages, where patients can consult doctors via video conferencing facilities.

In case you are worried that this is just feelgood PR, the telcos are into e-health for the money, like Adam Smith’s butchers and bakers. Health ministries even in Africa have budgets, and a major delivery problem; if e-health is value for money, they will pay for it. 800 digital clinics is not greenwashing. 5,000 will be major change.

If this works in Kenya, it will be rapidly replicated. The mobile phone revolution in Africa has wirelessed the continent – with >700m subscriptions, probably 80% of Africans have access to a least a basic mobile phone. Smartphones and 3G networks are following (another ARM prediction is 64-bit smartphones for under $70). Current Internet penetration is 26% for Africa as a whole, with 51m Facebook accounts. The operators are parts of big multinational groups: Safaricom is 40% owned, and operationally controlled, by Vodafone. The company launched the mobile phone payment system M-Pesa in Kenya in 2007, and has now spread it to 10 countries, including India. M-Pesa has rivals, like this one sponsored by India’s Airtel operator.

The mobile operators have found themselves in the unlikely position of being the first universal utility to reach half of the world’s population. They have already become de facto banks. If e-health takes off, they will become healthcare providers too.

Safaricom’s digital clinics don’t quite match ARM’s prediction. The clinics will presumably piggyback on the high-quality microwave links the operators have set up to their cellphone towers, and there’s no mention of smartphones. But mobile telcos are run by IT types, with no preconceptions about the proper way to deliver health care, and a keen understanding of their own technology. Why not set up a Kenyan WebMD, in Swahili, Luo, Masai, and Kikuyu? A smartphone is a very capable multimedia communications device: it has a microphone you can link to a stethoscope; a camera you can link to visual probes; and wifi you can connect to a cheaply pre-equipped blood pressure or blood sugar monitor. That’s a lot of diagnostic kit already.

This sort of health care was pioneered years ago in the days of radio in the sparsely populated Australian Outback, and more recently in the Canadian North. These are tiny niches in terms of the population covered. Telemedecine in the developing world is about to change the lives of billions of Mwananchi.

Peak China coal update

Some cheering news to start the year with. Remember my announcement in August of peak Chinese coal?  Premature, you thought, on the basis of a Greenpeace Asia blog and a garbled translation from an unknown Chinese business information company?

Well, the year is over and here is the reputable-looking Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis weighing in. An IEEFA report states, according to  Platts:

In 2014, coal demand actually declined by 2.1%.

The IEEFA have a reputation to lose, unlike me, so they cautiously predict that China’s coal demand “will permanently peak by 2016, if not earlier.” I see no reason not to take the drop at face value. GDP growth was 7.3%, on trend. Chinese coal burning has peaked.

Of course, to save the climate it still has to drop, and by a lot. But this is still very, very good news.

In November I was puzzled why the Chinese government only promised Obama a CO2 target it will easily meet with no change in policy, allowing for a large increase in coal-burning it won’t need. A hypothesis I didn’t think of then is that China can now very easily announce stronger goals in its national offer for the Paris climate talks. The USA’s side of the bilateral deal is already at the limit of what can be achieved by executive action. So China will look good, and deflect criticism from the most vulnerable countries to the USA as laggard.

Attention will also shift to India, whose plans for a massive increase in coal-burning will isolate it. My (Pollyannish?) prediction here is that Modi will realize that Coal India’s promises are worthless and scale back the coal plans. He’s bet his political future anyway on solar energy and might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

PS on the bad news front: I’ve nothing to add to Ezra Klein on the atrocious crime in Paris to silence Charlie Hebdo. I rarely looked at it while I lived in France – crude and fiery anticlericalism is a taste I never acquired. But as I shall be in France next week, I plan to buy a copy of their special 1-million print run edition. The usual circulation is 45,000. I hope they sell every copy. Feel free to comment here on this.

The Rolex Caliph

We wish all our readers and especially the commenters a peaceful and fulfilling 2015.

In some parts of the world such wishes would be a cruel fantasy. That includes the swathes of disintegrating Syria and Iraq under the control of Islamic State and its charismatic leader, the Rolex-toting and self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


Photo source

US officials are baffled how to fight this new kind of enemy. Al-Qaeda had a bizarre and fantastical goal, the restoration of a purified Caliphate of all Muslims, and a too-clever bank shot strategy, attacking the “far enemy” American sponsor rather than the corrupt governments of Muslim states directly. But its structure and methods were straight out of the 150-year-old manual for conspiratorial violent revolutionaries, and would have been familiar to the Fenians, the Black Hand, or Carlos Marighella – and to the governments who fought them. Islamic State has similarly crazy ambitions, but it rules a territory, and possesses a useful army and a Twitter account.

The NYT reports on the puzzlement. Continue Reading…

More Sunday pylon blogging

In the High and Far-Off Times (2008 and 2011) I blogged some photos of modern French and other designs for high-voltage electricity pylons that look like well-designed pieces of engineering, not a child’s failed Meccano project. I told you that the British Department of Energy and Climate Change had launched a competition for pylons for the British grid, then I forgot about it. Rather late, here are the winner and the five others that made the shortlist. This was actually announced – ahem – in October 2011. There hasn’t exactly been a rush anywhere to phase out the old lattices, so it’s still a good idea to publicise the new designs. The assessment included National Grid, the operator of the transmission network, and an eminent academic engineer served as one of the judges, so we can assume all the shortlist met engineering standards.

Winner: T-pylon from Bystrup of Denmark

Pylon T-pylon
This clean but not very exciting design won in part because of its low height, making it less intrusive in the landscape: it cuts 35 14 metres off the existing lattices. National Grid are committed to this to the extent of building a line of six at their training centre in Nottinghamshire, and will offer the design as an option to communities affected by new lines.

Also-rans below the jump. Continue Reading…

Fred Karno’s thugs

The Feinstein report on the torture programme run by the CIA is horrific but also blackly comic.
The Agency:

  • took crucial advice from two crank psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid $81m for their services, including taking part in interrogations (NYT);
  • appointed as chief of interrogations in the renditions programme an oldtimer who had been responsible for abusive interrogation training in Latin America from 1983 (JW: possibly at the infamous School of the Americas) and later censured (executive summary, page 19);
  • carried out no research on the effectiveness of coercive methods of interrogation before applying them systematically (ibid., page 20);
  • waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times after he had already cooperated fully with FBI interrogators (ibid., pages 24 ff);
  • had no complete record of the number of prisoners held in the programme (ibid., page 14) or in particular locations (page 51);
  • detained at least 21 prisoners that did not meet its own subjectively assessed criteria (ibid., page 16);
  • subcontracted 85% of the jobs in a top-secret programme of the utmost importance and sensitivity;
  • failed to brief President George Bush on its interrogation methods until 2006 (executive summary, page 6);
  • committed a war crime all for nothing; the torture “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” (ibid., page 2).

You have to think that none of those involved would have lasted long in the more efficient operations of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Heinrich Himmler, Tomás de Torquemada, or Francis Walsingham.

But I wonder. Feinstein’s narrative is one of bunglers talking themselves into a crime. In her Chairman’s introduction (page 2), she writes (my emphasis):

.. CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.

The White House, it seems, was a passive victim of CIA deception, like Congress. The report even paints Bush’s deliberate decision in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to future al-Qaeda and even Taliban prisoners as being taken on the sole recommendation of the CIA (page 20).

There is a similar theory about the Holocaust, and it’s about about as convincing. (No, I’m not suggesting the crimes were equivalent.) High-ranking Nazis sort of talked themselves into genocide, and the Wannsee conference was an important step in the decision rather than a briefing of underlings to receive orders. In a state guided by the Führerprinzip? In the disciplined Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Administration?

The prime beneficiary of this considerate incuriosity does not want anything of it:

What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized.”

For once, I believe Cheney. He and Bush wanted the detainees tortured, and they were.

Solar disobedience

That’s not a coinage but a quote. From the website of Spanish solar equipment vendor Efimarket:
efimarket screenshot(Key graf: “Enjoy self-consumption and solar disobedience, supporting the democratization of solar energy and environmental sustainability”.)

What is going on? How on Earth did Spain get to the position where businessmen are using civil disobedience as a selling-point for solar DIY kits?

A little history. Continue Reading…

Homework from Edward Tufte

While you are twiddling your trackball thumbs waiting for the DACA explosion. something slightly useful.

I finally bought Edward Tufte’s classic of graphical design The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s so good it has no competitors, like the Department of Water Engineering at the Technical University of Delft. [Update 22/22: this is incorrect, see comments.] Struggling to find a niggle against a nearly perfect work, my only complaint is that he compares his masterpiece to Strunk and White’s error-packed The Elements of Style: a “malign little compendium of bad advice” (Stephen Dodson); “the book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar” (Geoffrey Pullum). If you have any serious professional or even amateur interest in charts, buy Tufte’s book: he gets all your money as self-publisher, as commercial publishing houses refused to cede him the full graphical control he demanded. More fools they.

The book lucidly combines general graphical principles on “the revelation of the complex” and a plethora of striking and even amazing examples of good and bad practice. It would be a disservice to offer a dummy’s summary on this blog. What I tried to do was to investigate how much of his specific good advice, as opposed to the general principles, can be put into effect using a standard office software suite. I have LibreOffice. Most of the features apply in Excel, which does offer more: in some case misguidedly, in the 3D pyramid stacked histograms, with a variable lie factor as the data correspond to the heights of the pyramid slices while the eye reads their volume. If you want to make marginal or bubble plots, you will need specialised software like this or this.

I’ll take a worked example. Warning: the page below the fold is large, with many images, pushing the envelope on resolution. The WordPress software seems to muddy the resolution of images so you will need to click on each to get a proper view. Continue Reading…