Climate despair: get on yer bike

Old BicycleOn June 6 I gave you an anniversary snark against Ezra Klein’s black take  on the prospects for our climate. The BrE phrase attributed to Norman Tebbit in the blog headline is just another snark. (Photo credit It’s only fair to back them with an actual argument.

Joe Romm did a good point-by-point rejoinder to Klein. He left out two things though.

8. Washington is not the United States.
9. The United States is not the world.

If the question were “what are our chances of saving the climate if it depends on the policies of the US government?” I’d have to agree with Ezra: they are terrible. Continue Reading…

American progressives, June 6 2014

Two estimable liberal pundits, writing on D-Day:
Kevin Drum:

So give it up. Guantanamo will be here through the end of Obama’s presidency, and quite possibly until its last prisoner dies. It’s fanciful to think anything else.

Ezra Klein:

I don’t believe the United States — or the world — will do nearly enough, nearly fast enough, to hold the rise in temperatures to safe levels. I think we’re f**ed. Or, at the least, I think our grandchildren are f**ed.

On a warship off Omaha beach, morning of June 6, 1944

Ghost of staff officer:
Utah’s all right but Omaha is a disaster. The naval bombardment seems to have left the beach defences intact and we’re up against a much tougher German division than we’d expected. Our boys are stuck on the beach and dying like flies. General, we should call it off, evacuate and pivot to Utah. That will slow us down and stop us from joining up with Monty, but the D-Day objectives are screwed anyway.
Ghost of Omar Bradley:
That’s not why we’re here.
Ghost of GI, floating dead in the surf:
That’s not why I’m here.

This insubstantial pageant

British lefty pundit George Monbiot, in a gloomy tirade against the cult of economic growth:

Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues were miraculously to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible ….

The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening.

Monbiot’s argument is wrong. I dug out a nice oddball paper on dematerialization by Austrian scholar Julia K. Steinberger et al, Development and Dematerialization: An International Study, in online peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. Snark if you like, but read it first. They used standardised material flow data still produced by national statistics agencies (perhaps in response to Leontief’s input-output analysis). The three basic categories – fossil fuels, biomass, and minerals – are aggregated by weight into “domestic material consumption”, DMC. It’s a measure of the mass of material resources we consume. Not very helpful for helium and yttrium, but these are of marginal importance.

The chart over the jump shows the trends for a good number of rich and developing countries. Continue Reading…

George Washington’s Cook

Another portrait in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, not as good as Ghirlandaio’s exquisite memorial to Giovanna Tornabuoni but of greater historical interest to American readers. Smartphone photo by me, you get what you pay for here. [Update: commenter npm has found a better quality image on the Thyssen site.]
washington The subject is George Washington’s cook; the painter Gilbert Stuart, who also made the iconic (but actually inferior) standing portrait of Washington as a wooden pater patriae that holds pride of place in the White House art collection.

Our trusty research demon Google tells us (via blogger Leap into the Void) that the cook’s name was Hercules, and he was at the time a slave. Washington freed his slaves in his will – in fact after Martha’s death, not his own. But in the meantime he rotated those he took to his presidential home in abolitionist Philadelphia back to Mount Vernon in Virginia to keep them in their place. Hercules made a run for it in 1797, before Martha freed the slaves in 1801 in self-preservation.

A bleg: who commissioned the portrait? My blogger source suggests it may have been Hercules himself, who had a decent income from kitchen perquisites and dressed as a dandy, while Stuart was hopeless with money and often hard up. I can’t see Washington commissioning a painting of one of his slaves, which could have caused jealousy and heightened Hercules’ evidently already high self-esteem.

Time for another Modest Proposal, inspired by Mike O’Hare’s strictures about the obsessive hoarding of museum curators. Continue Reading…

One cure for one cancer

The Mayo Clinic:

In a proof of principle clinical trial, Mayo Clinic researchers have demonstrated that virotherapy – destroying cancer with a virus that infects and kills cancer cells but spares normal tissues – can be effective against the deadly cancer multiple myeloma. ….. Two patients in the study received a single intravenous dose of an engineered measles virus (MV-NIS) that is selectively toxic to myeloma plasma cells. Both patients responded, showing reduction of both bone marrow cancer and myeloma protein. One patient, a 49-year-old woman, experienced complete remission of myeloma and has been clear of the disease for over six months.

Research report here in Mayo Clinic Proceedings (no paywall, thanks!); WAPO.

“Patient 1” has a name: Stacy Erholtz, and we owe her not only our admiration but thanks for allowing us to put a human face to the antiseptic research prose.

The researchers and the Mayo media people studiously avoid the word cure. Continue Reading…

The greening of Iran

News item:

At a gathering with delegates at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin, representatives of the Middle Eastern nation revealed bold ambitions to add 5 GW of wind and solar power by 2018 …. The bulk of the total 5 GW comprises wind power projects, but 500 MW has already been earmarked for solar PV, with some projects already permitted licenses to commence construction or enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs).

Wind turbine factory in Iran Photo credit

Wind turbine factory in Iran
Photo credit

On the face of it, a pretty routine announcement. Iran’s plans are not particularly ambitious by regional standards, and would meet less than a tenth of the expected increase in electricity demand over the period. Turkey is aiming at 40 GW of renewables (one-third of electricity supply) by 2023. Egypt’s target is 20% renewables by 2020. Saudi Arabia plans to have 24GW of solar by 2032.

These targets are not all equally credible. But since Iran announced actual projects and contracts, we can probably put its programme closer to Turkey than to Egypt for realism.

What makes this noteworthy is the politics. Continue Reading…

Bring back the Yippies

Weekend competition. How would Abbie Hoffman have given testimony to the new House Benghazi! committee?

300px-Flag_of_Yippies.svg Yes, there is an issue of bad taste since people died in the Benghazi consulate. The issue applies first to the creation of the committee as an electoral stunt.

Yippie flag courtesy of Wikipedia

Close the coalhouse door

The US campus movement for university divestment from fossil fuels has claimed its first big scalp. From Climate Progress:

Stanford University announced Tuesday it would divest from the coal industry, making it the first major university to do so. ..
“Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet, and we work intensively to do so through our research, our educational programs and our campus operations,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “Moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

Stanford is keeping oil and gas shares in its $18.7bn endowment, but the policy is under review. Deborah DeCotis, the chairwoman of the Stanford board’s special committee on investment responsibility:

Don’t interpret this as a pass on other things.

I reckon the oil and gas portfolio is now untenable and will be sold in the next 18 months.

The divestment movement launched by is well-aimed. The endowments of American universities (over $400 billion in all) come from gifts they received as noble and altruistic causes. They can’t with a straight face apply the investment standards of Gordon Gekko. Once they allow an ethical wedge, it is bound to split away climate-destroying investments.

Second, these endowments are very large, and divestment will make waves. More than lowering share prices by the selloff, it will lead other investors, including amoral ones, to treat fossil fuel companies as less reputable, riskier and more vulnerable to adverse policy shocks. Their cost of capital will rise, reducing their capex and eventually production. “Stranded asset” has entered the Wall Street vocabulary.

The Seven Sisters are already in decline as oil producers. They are being forced by nervous stockholders to cut back on their increasingly expensive investments. None of them bid for Brazil’s last deep offshore leases, which went to the Chinese.

Harvard next.

* * * * * *
Alec Glasgow singing the eponymous song of my headline. It’s about the past human costs of coal, but can also stand for the future ones.

Thomas Piketty’s other book

Americans think the French don’t work hard. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the XXIst Century has 970 pages in the French edition before me. That’s with merely a table of contents. Following the annoying and backward French habit, there’s no index. The scholarly apparatus – bibliography, data tables, and more – is shifted to a website. You can download the lot in a zip file of a mere 13 MB.


It matters that Piketty has written a doorstopper not an article. The book is very accessible to the general reader with stamina; in fact it’s too leisurely and repetitive for my taste, more appropriate to the series of lectures on which it is no doubt based. But it is massively learned. My heart warms to a writer who takes Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac as serious and acute witnesses to the economic life of their times. His interest in social history is not that of a dilettante like me. He has done primary research in the Paris city archives on the inheritance patterns of the bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. His research style owes a lot, explicitly, to the Annales school of historians like Febvre, Braudel and Bloch, who were not afraid of the challenge of understanding entire complex societies over long sweeps of time.

Freshwater economists will not be able to challenge this historical depth simply by fanning their vapours with elegant DGSE models. Jane Austen is outside their professional frame of reference. Piketty has restored economic history to its rightful place as the test of large-scale theory, as Milton Friedman accepted. Graduate students in economics are I hope heading for the history departments to learn about the methods. With luck, Piketty may shift the paradigm of economic science in a good direction, with more humility and a willingness to use all the evidence.

Beyond simple praise – read the book! – there are three ways to criticise a magnum opus like this. Niggles: e.g, in his long time-series charts, he often shifts the horizontal scale half-way without flagging it. This sort of thing would be useful in quantity, but requires real work. Frontal attack: the theory is wrong because. Piketty is out of my league and anyway it looks pretty convincing to me. Finally, there’s complaining that the author should have written a different book. That’s my line. It has the additional advantage that I don’t need first to finish the one he wrote.

The book he didn’t write is about innovation. Continue Reading…

Botticelli’s pagan Easter greeting

It’s one of the most famous paintings in the world, deservedly so. A learned pagan erotic fantasy commissioned for his private enjoyment by a member of the tiny cultured ruling class of Quattrocento Florence has been reproduced in thousands of books, websites, coasters, and coffee mugs. I was doing a jigsaw puzzle of it on the iPad when I asked myself the dumb question : what is the subject of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? What is it about?

Obvious, you say : it’s clearly eros, sexual love, desire and fulfilment. Sure. But that covers a lot of ground, and the difficulties start when you try to pin it down a little more. What sort of eros? Continue Reading…