Inside the climate sausage factory*

We have a sort of draft of the Paris climate agreement, in the form of a “non-paper” (a charming diplomatic oxymoron invented IIRC in Brussels) of Figueres’ two joint vice chairs, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and US envoy Daniel Reifsnyder. (H/t to Sandy Dechert).

It’s true that to get a coherent document out of a long discussion, camels and committees don’t hack it. Real drafting is done by one or two people in a quiet room.  The wider forum then negotiates amendments to the reference text. The Paris agreement will follow the two diplomats’ structure.

Unfortunately it’s still unreadable. What we have is still an ordered compendium of all the positions on record, not a true working draft. I’m not familiar with UN procedures, and just how the UN deals with so many optional drafts is a mystery to me. I suspect that in the end, facing a deadline, a strong chair (and France will provide one)  just shuts down discussion, produces a chairman’s draft, and only important amendments are voted on.

Two sample core provisions give the flavour: Continue Reading…

The Francises, Pope and Saint

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth. Continue Reading…

Brazil and the Iran nuclear deal

You should not evaluate the Iran nuclear deal without reference to data like these:

  • Price paid by Brazil for utility solar power in the October 2014 auction : R$ 215.12 per megawatt-hour  = $68.38 at current exchange rates;
  • Price paid by Brazil for wind power in the April 2015 auction:  R$177.47 per MWh = $56.41.

Why pick Brazil? Recent deals have been struck elsewhere at much lower prices. A company controlled by Warren Buffett has signed a 20-year solar PPA in Nevada for $38.7/MWh, beating the previous record for a plant in Dubai signed in January for $59.8/MWh  (the Nevada deal includes the ITC tax break, worth at most $20/MWH). The LLNL reports that prices for wind PPAs in the US interior in 2013 averaged $25/MWh, again with a tax break, taking the pre-tax price up to about $40. There’s no reason to think that wind prices have risen since.

Iran is unlikely to get these best prices, the fruit of deep and efficient markets. Brazil is medium inefficient and medium protectionist, with stiff local content conditions for getting low-interest finance from the state investment bank BNDES. It has developed an extensive supply chain in wind, but not yet in solar. It’s reasonable to think that Iran could get similar prices to Brazil for an extensive wind and/or solar programme. It should also look at Mexico, Turkey, India and Thailand for realistic benchmarks.

The point is that Iran has absolutely no hope of getting remotely similar prices for civilian nuclear power. You may say: ah, the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme is really aimed at nuclear weapons, not civilian reactors. But it is being advertised by the government, and sold to the Iranian people, as a peaceful civilian one.

But as such it’s a huge waste of money. The output of the prospective Hinkley C EPR in Britain is now advertised at £92.50/MW at 2012 prices, indexed, plus other valuable guarantees. In the USA, the EIA, wearing rosy spectacles, cites an LCOE for new nuclear of $86.1 per MWh; but the schedule and construction costs of Vogtle 3 and 4, with the more buildable AP-1000 design, are slipping badly. An honest nuclear LCOE, based on real not paper construction experience, must now be well north of $100/MWh.

With every year that passes, this gap will become more and more obvious to the Iranians. At the ten-year horizon for new civilian power plants, Iran can meet its electricity needs from wind and solar (with natural gas and hydro for backup) at probably half the cost and at much less risk. On a five-year horizon, the nuclear option does not exist at all.

An expenses-paid trip by Buffett to Tehran would be a good investment by Kerry. Moniz was invaluable in the negotiations as a card-carrying nuclear physicist, but by the same token he’s part of the dwindling club of pro-nuclear old-timers, which Buffett is not.

(Recycling a post from 2012, but why not? It still makes sense to me.)

The German Problem is back

Ever since 1945, it’s been a cardinal principle of German foreign policy to look harmless. Merkel and Schäuble’s mishandling of the Greek eurozone crisis has changed all that. The genie of fear of German power and self-righteousness is out of the bottle.

Comparisons with the Third Reich are as ridiculous as they are offensive. But raise the Second Reich, and you may have a point. Consider the Belgian atrocities.

American bond poster, 1917-18

American bond poster, 1917-18

The accusation implied by this skilfully understated wartime American poster is false. The Reichswehr did not make a habit of raping children, or bayoneting babies. Any large body of men includes some psychopaths (like Feldwebel Adolf Hitler), but there is no reason to think these were any more numerous in the German army than in its adversaries, or its discipline more tolerant of them. For most of the war, the trenches kept the armies largely insulated from the civilian population.

After the war, right-thinking opinion in the Allied countries became ashamed of the excesses of the propaganda like this manufactured by Northcliffe and friends: to the extent that the core of truth in the accusations was forgotten.

What happened was this. Continue Reading…

King v Burwell office pool

Here’s my card. I’m not a lawyer, but do you really think this is about the True Meaning of the Law, and not politics?

King to lose 6-3. Majority: Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy, Roberts, Sotomayor. The opinion, written by Roberts or Kennedy, will be on narrow grounds that the plaintiff’s reading would amount to unconstitutional federal coercion of the states, precedent NFIB v Sebelius. So it will duck the statutory construction issue.

Dissent by Alito, Scalia, and Thomas to uphold, because Obama. Scalia’s contortions on statutory construction, contradicting his own previous opinions, will be fun to read.

Dissent Concurring opinion [if I don't fix this I will never hear the end of it] by Sotomayor and Ginsburg listing about 200 reasons why the suit is frivolous, starting with the absence of standing. I’m not so confident about this; Roberts may have extracted their moderation as the price of his vote. But Sotomayor at least was very angry on the record about the Wheaton College double-cross after Hobby Lobby:

Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.

Payback time maybe.

Your counter-offers?

The too sane negotiator

Like you, I’ve been watching at a safe distance the bitter wrangles and brinkmanship in Europe over Greek debt. It is horribly reminiscent of August 1914. Could the disaster have been avoided?

Europe’s financial establishment has been complaining that their Greek negotiators are childishly obstinate. Why don’t they just give in to the astonishingly detailed neocolonial prescriptions they have been mailed?

You don’t win a negotiation by being conciliatory. Possibly, the Greeks have been rather too sane. A proper mad negotiator would have threatened not just partial but complete default if forced out of the euro. What would Greece have to lose? Better wipe the slate of odious governmental debt clean, which would reassure new private lenders (cf the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Argentina). To protect German taxpayers, the correct strategy for Berlin and Brussels at this point would then be surrender on the terms already offered. This gets most of what they want and already more than Greek voters can stand.

Either you have the institution of debt bondage or that of bankruptcy. International law does not provide for the former. The attempt by France to enforce Germany’s Versailles reparations in 1923 by occupying the Rhineland did not turn out well, even from the narrow viewpoint of French taxpayers.

It’s true that Grexit would have costs for Greece too. In the short run it would be even worse for Greeks than the austerity hair-shirt, though it offers better prospects for growth a few years ahead. The non-cooperative bad payoffs still look asymmetric. However, my speculation is unrealistic. Tsipras campaigned on a promise to keep Greece in the euro, not to threaten to take it out. So Grexit is up to Germany, not Greece.

Stuff you couldn’t make up dept.

The ill-loved Confederate flag flies in deluded pride at the South Carolina state capitol.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

Attached to its flagpost by chains.

Image by Reuters, h/t Daily Kos.

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

O Lord, make us green …

. .. but not yet.

Rembrandt, The Actor Willem Ruyter as St. Augustine, 1638

Rembrandt, The Actor Willem Ruyter as St. Augustine, 1638

Declaration of the G7 on climate change, 8 June, my italics:

Mindful of this [2º C] goal and considering the latest IPCC results, we emphasize that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.

The 85-year timeframe that was all they could agree to has attracted righteous scorn from climate scientists. Kevin Trenberth:

Decarbonization by the end of the century may well be too late because the magnitude of climate change long before then will exceed the bounds of many ecosystems and farms, and likely will be very disruptive.

Michael Mann:

In my view, the science makes clear that 2050 or 2100 is way too far down the road. We will need near-term limits if we are going to avoid dangerous warming of the planet.

Sure. It’s still a landmark, an Overton shift, that leaders at this level have spelled out that the goal isn’t a 40% or 50% or 80% reduction in human carbon emissions, it’s stopping them completely. Everybody can understand this. Bye bye coal, bye bye oil, bye bye gas. Like Augustine’s self-reported prayer “O Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”, the G7 have conceded the principle. The rest is just timing.

Activists should note that the declaration was drafted by professionals. Over the course of this century isn’t the same as by the end of this century, and carefully leaves the door open to an earlier target.

The beauty of the full decarbonisation goal is that it immediately generates the full list of problems to be solved and new technologies needed. It’s impossible not to use some oil for petrochemicals? The residual usage will have to be offset by sequestration. Once you have robust sequestration options, the door is open to going carbon negative, as James Hansen insists.

The top of the list is obvious, and under way, if not fast enough.

  • Efficiency: check.
  • Cutting out coal for power generation: check.
  • Rolling out solar and wind generation: check.
  • Electric vehicles: check.

The LLNL energy flowcharts show that electricity and transport between them use two-thirds of US primary energy, so these are the big ticket items.

I am getting a little bored with just cheering on solar, wind, electric cars and buses, and smart controls, and I expect that goes for my readers. Some of the smaller problems lower down the list are technically more difficult and interesting. They include deforestation, aviation, shipping, steel-making, and cement. So let’s get started.

In my next post, I have a suggestion on cement.