Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Meet the Siemens SP260D

Electric motors are taking over from ICEs, for everything.

To make a change from the ongoing TV fantasy drama The Fall of the American Empire, aka The Game of the Throneless, let me introduce you to the Siemens SP260D.

This is an electrical aircraft engine. More details here.

This is only the second of Siemens’ efforts in the line, though they have been making electric motors since the 1890s. (AEG beat them to it, in 1889.) The striking datum is the power-to-weight ratio: 260 kW (footnote) from 50 kg, making 5.2 kW/kg. What should we compare this to?

A table of power-to-weight ratios for a sample of engines on the market today.

References: Siemens, Magnix, Lycoming, Tesla, Honda, Mercedes-AMG)

Continue reading “Meet the Siemens SP260D”

The cost of the GND, or what’s the price of gopher wood?

“Make thee an ark of gopher wood”, Yahweh told Noah (Genesis 6:14). Gopher is just a transliteration of the otherwise unknown nonce word גפר . Nobody knows what this means; suggestions range from cypress to bulrushes. It isn’t even necessarily a kind of tree: could be “timber” or “any old wood”. The story claims that whatever he used, Noah got the job done. This makes the Ark a good analogy to the Green New Deal. Like the over-specified dimensions of the Ark, parts of the GND are specific, others studiously vague.

Probably not this sort of gopher

The GND in the United States (it’s not likely to work as a meme elsewhere) is a manifesto not a plan. Its promoters have not yet provided one; rational politics by AOC, as she wants to prod establishment Democrats on the committees into action, not engage in a suicidal death ride against them. The lack has created an inviting target for adversaries. However, the conservatives are missing the point about the GND by raising a scare about big numbers. The big numbers are a selling point. Think big! Go for it! Rosie the Riveter can do it! In this, AOC is authentically Rooseveltian.

A conservative think tank (American Action Forum, Holtz-Eakin et al) has charged in anyway and come up with a ridiculous “estimate” of the cost of the GND: $93 trillion. $36 trn of this is the “cost” of Medicare for All, conveniently forgetting the avoided health insurance. (The net cost if any depends on how much it is politically feasible to squeeze medical providers. Net zero cost is technically feasible, based on the universal experience of other OECD countries.) For the jobs guarantee, they put a useless range of “$6.8 trillion to $44.6 trillion”. The only function of this is to create the scary $93 trn total. I have nothing to offer on these areas. What I do know a little about is the energy side, where the GND is groundbreaking.

Continue reading “The cost of the GND, or what’s the price of gopher wood?”

Donald Trump’s War on Coal

Trump will oversee a much steeper fall in coal than Obama did.


“They want to be miners, but their jobs have been taken away. And we’re going to bring them back, folks.” – candidate Donald Trump on August 10, 2016, with similar statements on many other occasions.

In contrast, the Trump Administration action on this promise has been negligible. One regulation on water pollution from mines was reversed (idem). A proposal to subsidise coal on grounds of “grid resilience” was shot down in flames by a unanimous FERC, the majority of whose members are Trump appointees.

Derelict coal mine in Hashima, Japan

There’s been talk of a new plan using emergency powers and an entirely different and equally specious claim of national security, but the Deep State (i.e. Trump officials who still have two working neurones) have sidelined it.
Trump has appointed a key author of Plan A, Bernard McNamee, to FERC – but there is already a serious legal challenge to force him to recuse himself from taking part in decisions on his own proposals.

Meanwhile, the industry has continued to operate under Obama’s rules. Production actually increased a little in 2017, but this was entirely due to a temporary spike in Chinese imports. It fell slightly in 2018, tracking the slow decline in domestic demand. Jobs are holding up pretty well. At first sight, Trump can plausibly claim at least to have stopped the rot.

He has not. The first bad sign is an acceleration in closures of coal generating plants, an equal record 15 GW in 2018. Chart from IEEFA:

It doesn’t look too bad for the years ahead, does it? But in fact the firmly announced closures are the tip of a Titanic iceberg. There is much, much worse to come.

Continue reading “Donald Trump’s War on Coal”

Ammonia: a New Year’s paean

Synthetic ammonia from catalysed hydrogen: yes ,iy’s important

WTF? Has Wimberley finally taken leave of his diminishing senses? Why laud a commonplace and unpleasantly acrid standard chemical, used to make fertilizer and explosives, and still popular as a cleaning agent with traditionalist housewives in Spain and Brazil? (The nasty smell tells germs you mean business.)

Hear me out, kind readers. Ammonia is about to take its place as a worthy piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle of the energy transition.

This will be down to its additional potential use as a carbon-free fuel. Burn ammonia, in an engine or fuel cell, and you ideally get:

4.NH3 (ammonia) + 3.O2 (oxygen) → 2.N2 (nitrogen) + 6.H2O (water)

In an engine, in practice you also get some nasty nitrous oxides, NOX: controllable by clever engine management, scrubbing the exhaust with more ammonia, or reforming to hydrogen just before burning.

Ammonia is not a greenhouse gas, and nor are its main combustion products. So it’s a candidate for a storable renewable fuel to replace oil-based liquid fuels and natural gas. The rivals are plant-based liquid biofuels (diesel, ethanol, kerosene), biogas from digesters fed with biomass, and catalytic hydrogen.

In this competition it has some attractive technical characteristics. Continue reading “Ammonia: a New Year’s paean”

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?”

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”

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”