Climate alarmism?

The warnings of the National Climate Assessment are somewhat overblown. Still you should worry.

The Trump Administration scored an own goal by its Cunning Plan to release the mandated National Climate Assessment on the Friday after US Thanksgiving, counting on comatose satiety to distract public attention. In fact, it was such a quiet news day, without outrageous Trump tweets, that the report’s dire warnings got unusual coverage.

The usual shills, rallied by the Leader himself, promptly decried the report as the usual alarmism.

For once, I have to say that the shills have half, or perhaps a quarter, of a point. The NCA makes the situation worse than it really is (which is bad enough). Here’s my take.

The issue lies in the use of a piece of professional jargon, the RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways). These were defined ten years ago in 2008-2009 by the climate science community to provide benchmarks for comparing different climate models, using a short list of different assumptions about future emissions. RCP 8.5 is the highest emission track, leading to at least 4 degrees C of warming by end century. The best, RCP 2.6, represents early peaking of emissions and the prospect of climate stabilisation.

It matters a great deal which we are on. The NCA says it’s RCP 8.5. Overview (pdf page 10), my emphasis:

The higher scenario (RCP 8.5) represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100, whereas the other RCPs represent more rapid and substantial mitigation by mid-century, with greater reductions thereafter. Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP 8.5.

But wait, the full Chapter 2 on climate science, box 2.4, is more nuanced (references omitted):

Which scenario is more likely? The observed acceleration in carbon emissions over the past 15–20 years has been consistent with the higher future scenarios (such as RCP 8.5) considered in this assessment. Since 2014, however, the growth in emission rates of carbon dioxide has begun to slow as economic growth has become less carbon-intensive with the trend in 2016 estimated at near zero. Preliminary data for 2017, however, indicate growth in carbon emissions once again. These latest results highlight how separating systemic change due to decarbonization from short-term variability that is often affected by economic changes remains difficult.

Well, which is it? Continue reading “Climate alarmism?”

Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering

Brazil’s war dead.

Since I have been harsh on the citizens of Brazil for their crass irresponsibility in electing Jair Bolsonaro, I’d like to recall a time when Brazil did the right thing. In August 1942, Brazil declared war on the Axis. 1,600 Brazilian sailors drowned in sinkings by U-boats during the conflict, and as many again in an undeclared naval war before it was made official. 948 soldiers of the 25,000-strong expeditionary force sent to Italy died in combat. (I’m not sure I am reading the Wikipedia article right on casualties, there may be some double counting. )

Brazil’s entry into the war resulted from strong American pressure, aided by the German own goal of U-boat attacks on merchant shipping when Brazil was still technically neutral. It was preceded by other Latin American countries: Cuba and the Dominican Republic (after Pearl Harbor); Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in January 1942. Colombia and Bolivia followed in 1943. Still, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given Vargas’ quasi-fascist ideology, and Brazil’s military contribution was much the largest of any Latin America country.

The episode is remembered in Brazil, though it obviously does not loom large in the national myth. There is a rather bland but okay monument to the Brazilian war dead on Flamengo Beach in Rio.

So: Obrigado. There was a time when Brazil did the right thing, and 4,000 of its young men and women paid the price to join a very big club. If they play football (soccer) in the Elysian Fields, you can guess who wins. Continue reading “Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering”

The Queen of Hearts

A lament on Brazil’s election of Bolsonaro, with tips on what to do.

Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.

A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.

Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.

The character in fiction that Bolsonaro best matches is neither Brecht’s Arturo Ui  nor Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel but Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? Continue reading “The Queen of Hearts”

Another liar

Another liar surfaces, a nominee for FERC

President Trump has nominated a fossil fuel advocate, Bernard McNamee, for a vacancy on FERC. McNamee is a professional energy lawyer, and has worked for a big utility and a Koch-funded think tank. He is currently executive director of the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy.

He wrote an op-ed for The Hill on Earth Day, a ridiculous paean to fossil fuels. It includes this sentence (my italics):

Some suggest that we can replace fossil fuels with renewable resources to meet our needs, but they never explain how.

This is a lie. McNamee is not a fool and the carelessness explanation does not wash for the head of the DoE’s policy shop. Continue reading “Another liar”

Evidence-based catfighting

Lessons of the great row in the Cochrane collaboration.

Want a change from watching the turds circle the drain in the Kavanaugh confirmation circus? Let me bring you a nasty academic spat between high-minded medical researchers. This is how learned gentlemen stab each other in the back! With a couple of serious morals. Everybody named below is a highly credentialed professional; I leave the titles out to avoid repetition.

The milieu is the Cochrane collaboration. Inspired by and named after the  epidemiologist Archibald Cochrane  (d. 1988), the Cochrane people promote evidence-based medicine through meta-analyses of randomised clinical research trials using methods as rigorous and objective as they can make them. (Our own Keith Humphries has been a Cochrane reviewer.) [Update] The very solid proposition is that if you can analyse correctly a handful of properly conducted trials, you are in effect adding the sample sizes, so you can draw much more statistically reliable conclusions than by cherry-picking one. There is of course a lot of art here behind “correctly”, “properly”, and “in effect’. [/update] They are not the only researchers carrying out meta-analyses, but a Cochrane review is widely regarded as the gold standard. Depressingly often, the answer is “we don’t know”.

One recent Cochrane review (lead author Marc Arbyn) was on vaccines against human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes much cervical cancer among women and lesser numbers of anal and penile cancers in men. This is not a trivial health issue. Fortunately there are vaccines sold by Merck (Gardasil) and GSK (Cervarix). Do these work? Short answer: yes. Are they dangerous? Short answer: no. (Please DO NOT quote me, read and cite the report, they do provide a summary for dummies.)

So far so routine. But then an article was published in the journal BMJ – Evidence-Based Medicine by Lars Jørgensen, Peter Gøtzsche, and Tom Jefferson, alleging that the vaccine review was sloppy on several counts and hinting that it was influenced by pressures from the Big Pharma vaccine vendors. (Note that while they argue that the side-effects are greater than the review says, the critique does not recommend stopping or curtailing vaccination programmes.) This naturally provoked a rebuttal from the Cochrane management (David Tovey and Karla Soares-Weiser), saying the criticism is wrong on all counts.

It did not stop there. Gøtzsche is, or rather was, a member of the Cochrane board, indeed a founder member of the organisation. He could presumably have raised his concerns there first rather than publicly. After a presumably furious board meeting, Gøtzsche was expelled and four other board members quit. The great collaboration is now in existential danger. Will donors, including the Gates Foundation, keep the funding flowing? Will Gøtzsche set up a breakaway fitzCochrane, applying his own higher standards? Will anti-vaxxers and misogynists exploit the row to attack the vaccination campaign? Only 27 % of American men under 26 are vaccinated.

It’s important that the crisis be resolved quickly and the collaboration continue. There’s not much outsiders can do to help this in the short term, and I am quite unqualified to take sides. I have though one reflection and one suggestion for the future. Continue reading “Evidence-based catfighting”

Judge Incitatus

Caligula did not make his horse a consul, but the story fits Trump and Kavanaugh.

You all know that the crazy Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula (ruled 37-41 CE) made his horse a consul. Right? Wrong. There is no evidence whatever he did.

The main source of the story – Google tells me the only one [update correction, see comments] – is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. Roman History, Book LIX, 14.7:

One of the [chariot-racing] horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.

So the source of the story claims that Caligula talked about making Incitatus a consul, the way Trump talked about assassinating Bashir al-Assad, but did not go through with it.

Even the watered-down version is fishy. Dio Cassius comes across as quite sober and was certainly very industrious, but he was writing 180 years later. The earlier historian Suetonius, whose gossipy Lives of the Caesars consists largely of lurid anecdotes, does not mention the incident mentions the consulship as a mere rumour. [Correction update, see comments]. Nor do the contemporary sources Seneca, Josephus, and Philo, writers of an altogether different calibre and reliability, and hostile to Caligula. So at most, Incitatus’ equine magistracy is something a mentally unfit four-year Roman Emperor may have joked about at drunken parties.

As a legend, it can still serve as an illuminating model. Fictional Caligula made his horse a consul. President Donald Trump is also clearly a work of dystopian fiction in progress, and the episode entitled “The Nomination of Brett Kavanaugh” is curiously parallel to Incitatus. Continue reading “Judge Incitatus”

Hurricane season again

There are more Florences to come.

Hurricane Florence, from the International Space Station

Hurricane Florence, downgraded to a tropical storm, continues to dump massive quantities of rain on South Carolina, with more to come. She looks like a rerun of Harvey, which flooded Houston last year, cost $125bn. Are these “Acts of God or of the Queen’s enemies”, in the picturesque language of old British insurance contracts?


A bit of both. IPCC 4th Assessment Report, 2007, WG1:

A synthesis of the model results to date indicates that, for a future warmer climate, coarse-resolution models show few consistent changes in tropical cyclones, with results dependent on the model, although those models do show a consistent increase in precipitation intensity in future storms. Higher-resolution models that more credibly simulate tropical cyclones project some consistent increase in peak wind intensities, but a more consistent projected increase in mean and peak precipitation intensities in future tropical cyclones.

We’ve known for at least a decade, for the subset of “we” capable of wading through IPCC prose or reading more popular transcriptions of the science, which should include the press, TV weathermen and policymakers. In this case, the science is extremely simple in outline:

Warmer tropical seas → warmer and wetter air above them → conversion of extra heat energy into rotational energy by the cyclone mechanism → bigger and wetter hurricanes.

Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Florence have been hurricanes modulated by the modest global warming of 0.8 degrees C since 1880, the period with a full and accurate instrumental record. To be generous with the earlier uncertainties, let’s say at most 1 degree C above pre-industrial (say 1750). There is quite certainly more warming to come. Jerry Brown’s recent executive order, aiming at zero net emissions in California in 2045, was rightly hailed as brave political leadership (grandstanding to opponents). Sweden was there first, with the same date.  These are the cutting edge of real policy commitments; most countries have done nothing to translate into action their vague Paris Agreement commitment to zero carbon “in the second half of this century” (Article 4(1)).

Suppose by a miracle everybody else joined Jerry Brown tomorrow. We would, it seems, be on track to the more ambitious 1.5 degrees aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement. Meeting the main 2 degree cap only calls for moderate optimism, not a miracle. The range of good outcomes – never mind the bad ones – lies between doubling global warming from the pre-industrial level, and only increasing it by half.

More storms like Harvey, Irma and Florence are certainly on the way.

Continue reading “Hurricane season again”

The free lunch revisited

A blue-ribbon committee estimates the net economic gains from the energy transition at $26 trn – same as I did

Three years ago I wrote a post in my grandest style, with tony literary references and a Veronese set piece, on the negative costs of the energy transition. Remember it? I thought not. To refresh your memory, my back-of-an envelope calculation ran:

  • Net cash cost of energy transition to 2040, based on IPCC: $0
  • Health saving to 2040 from energy transition, using a straight-line reduction from $3.5 trn a year in 2015 to zero in 2060: ≈ $25 trillion
  • Net undiscounted cost to 2040 of the energy transition (cash for energy plus health only, ignoring mitigation cobenefits): minus $25 trillion.

Now a committee of the great and the good called the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has issued another report (website, pdf). What do you know, they have an estimate of the net costs of the transition to 2030 (pdf pages 12, 22):

Transitioning to this low-carbon, sustainable growth path could deliver a direct economic gain of US$26 trillion through to 2030 compared to business-as-usual, according to analysis for this Report.

These people are obviously more credible than me, and far more influential. The Commission is top-heavy with ex-politicians like a former president of Mexico, CEOs of big companies like Unilever, and the like. The only real expert is Lord Stern. But the actual work was done by kmowledgeable people at Brookings, the WRI, Grantham Institute, and Cambridge Econometrica (not to be confused with the FSB’s tame skunk works Cambridge Analytica). So it looks pretty solid.

How did they get their $26 trillion? Continue reading “The free lunch revisited”

Two iconic portraits

An exploited girl and a goddess-queen.

My reaction to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague surprised me. I was expecting to admire this famous work by a great master, the favourite painting of the Dutch. It is indeed technically marvellous. Vermeer was one of the greatest technicians of oil painting ever. My problem with the picture is as a portrait. It’s formally a tronje, a painting of an unidentified and representative human figure. But it’s plainly not a stylised ideal but a portrait of a real girl. She has no name, perhaps (as in the film) a servant paid a few ducats to sit. I find it unflattering, and not by any lack of skill. Newspapers rightly get criticised for printing photos of politicians with their mouths open: everybody looks stupid when caught like this. Vermeer went to enormous trouble, over multiple sittings, to make his subject look dimwitted. She was exophthalmic anyway, and he faithfully reproduced or exaggerated this. The combined effect is disrespectful and exploitative. And to what purpose? Possibly to make a trite contrast with the perfection of the enormous pearl earring lent her for the occasion. Pshaw.

My second portrait is an extreme contrast: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt for almost 20 years, in Berlin. Again, the extraordinary technical skill of the bust (about two-thirds life size) is indisputable. The effect is remarkable. She is not just beautiful but glamorous: beauty weaponized. (The origins of the word lie in Scottish witchcraft.) For what purpose? The classic glamour photos of Hollywood studio stars were designed to transform their exploited and vulnerable subjects into unattainable objects of sexual desire, in order to sell film tickets. Nefertiti didn’t need that; she was a Pharaoh’s queen already.

The Hollywood stars were metaphorical sex goddesses. Nefertiti was the real thing.

First, the sex part. There is no reason to doubt her depicted beauty. Her husband Amenhotep was portrayed as ugly, with distended belly and elongated limbs, possibly as a result of a congenital condition. So the burden of regal show, and quite likely of day-to-day rule, fell disproportionately on the queen. She rose to the challenge; she even had herself sculpted naked, a radical step in any culture that you can only get away with if you have a great body and total self-confidence.

Second, the goddess. Pharaohs and their consorts were semi-divine personages anyway, on speaking terms with the gods. But Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten – was determined on a religious revolution. He swept away the pantheon, and replaced it by a proto-monotheistic cult of Aten, represented only as the solar disc. The worship of Aten was carried out in courtyard temples open to the sky, not dark labyrinths. The Pharaoh and queen became the unique intermediaries between the people and Aten, and the priests were out of a job. They did not appreciate this, and after Akhenaten’s death staged a successful counter-revolution. His son Tutankhamun (by another wife) was buried surrounded by images of the old pantheon. The Aten cult was forgotten, the new capital at Amarna abandoned. While it lasted Queen Nefertiti was a sacred priest-empress, as near to a goddess as monotheism allows.

Did the cult die? Sigmund Freud for one thought not. He suggested that the Aten religion influenced Jewish monotheism. Archaeologists pooh-pooh this. The Egyptian captivity is generally considered unhistorical; all the evidence points to a Canaanite origin for Judaism. But in that case, where did the story of the Exodus come from? Canaan was often a frontier province of the Egyptian empire. Metropolitan political and cultural upheavals would have filtered there during Akhenaten’s quite long reign (ca. 1350 BCE) . A contribution to early Jewish developments is certainly possible – it’s more believable than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the unread Book of Joshua. Once you ask “Why not one?” the question is hard to put away.

Maybe Nefertiti is still our Queen.

*     *     *     *     *

PS: If you enjoyed my offbeat art history, you might take a look at some older posts on women subjects and great artists: Bernini, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo.

Coal crash in India

New coal plants in India have crashed to under 5 GW a year.

To cheer you up from a news diet of Trump, a chart from IEEFA of new generating plants in India:


Coal fell off a cliff two years ago. The coal additions in 2017-18 (India uses an April-to-April fiscal year inherited from the Raj) were only 4.2 GW. Coal Plant Tracker still reports 39 GW of coal under construction (with 97 GW suspended and a staggering 476 GW cancelled since 2010), but it’s very likely that much of this is walking dead. IEEFA predicts the real pipeline is 10-20 GW, after which no more will (I infer) ever be needed.

You don’t often see turning points advertised in neon like this. India has had since 2003 a modern split electricity market as in the UK and Texas, with a monopoly national grid, monopoly state distribution companies, and competitive generation. So you got a coal bubble, and a coal crash – far more dramatic than in dirigiste China or quasi-socialist USA. It’s pretty certain that the owners of the few plants coming online are not happy bunnies, and their shiny new assets are born lossmakers. India has large surplus capacity (the power cuts come from the rickety grid), so the average coal capacity factor is below 60% and heading down. New solar can beat existing coal on price by 20%, so it’s only going to get worse.

Indian banks have up to $38 bn of bad loans to power companies (Merrill Lynch). Modi’s government is business-friendly to the point of cronyism, so some sort of bailout will be arranged. It is even more voting-farmer-friendly, so the bailout will not be perfect. Gautam Adani will remain a rich man, but not as rich as he is today.