30 June 2016

Some thoughts on my recent Reddit AMA

My third Reddit AMA on 9 April 2015 was extremely popular (3,800 upvotes, 2,700 comments, me and Obama) so I expected to have some heavy traffic when I did another on Tuesday, but I was a little disappointed that traffic was slow to pick up and overall activity only a fraction of that "highpoint" 16 months ago.

Although I am willing to consider a loss in traffic due to a decay in my dashing-good looks, it's also possible that other issues mattered. It's thus -- with all due respect to its limits -- that I turned to Google Trends, where we see this:

The peak in that figure? April 4-11 2015! A quick look at the four dates of AMAs shows a correlation of +0.62 between upvotes/ "drought" index (pairs are 687/41, 2873/33, 3798/100 and 717/48). I'm not going to bet my career on 4 data points, but it's still a reminder that people (and politicians) tend to pay attention to policy when events are in the news.*

Anyways, the AMA went well as far as I'm concerned, as I got a lot of interesting questions, was able to reply to everyone (sometimes several times), and got some ideas for improving the Life Plus 2 Meters project. Indeed, I did this AMA mostly to boost that project's presence before we left for vacation, so I can't exactly complain about timing around water crisis, drought, etc. (Yes, I have set up alerts on those terms!)

The top rated comment (and my reply) was:
Besides browsing the other questions, answers and discussion, I also recommend my prologue (at the top of the post), as it gives some useful oversight/introduction to what I do and why I like talking with general audiences.

Bottom Line: You always get something out of a water conversation with curious people :)

* More data:

28 June 2016

27 June 2016

Monday funnies

"There's a reason education sucks... and politicians keep screwing us"

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice?

I have both US and UK passports, and I use my UK passport to live in the Netherlands, so I am directly impacted by the recent Brexit vote.

Although "Leave" politicians and "Bregretful" voters appear to be backtracking at a world-record pace from their pre-vote promises and beliefs, I assume Brexit will go forward.

This post will discuss the factors that -- in my opinion -- led to the vote for Britain to leave the EU and the potential impacts of Brexit on Britain and the EU. I think that some of this discussion applies more broadly in the world, i.e., to the US in a Trump/Clinton presidential contest or to NAFTA's trade and diplomatic relations.*

What factors led to the British vote to Leave the EU?

  1. Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened their labor markets to Eastern Europeans after 10 countries joined the EU in 2004. Other EU members put delays and restrictions on free movement of labor.
  2. The arrival of "Polish plumbers" captured the popular imagination, but most communities did pretty well with migrants.
  3. The financial crisis made everything harder by reducing economic activity. Government austerity made things worse by increasing debt and cutting budgets. 
  4. Bailouts to bankers -- and continued increases in inequality -- led natives to see foreign workers their enemy. (Cynical aside: Just what elites want, two sets of working classes hating each other.)
  5. Many people voted to Leave because they thought that Leave would (a) bring jobs "back to British workers" and (b) increase economic activity in the UK.
Unfortunately, the logic on #5 is weak. If the UK wants jobs to come back, then it has to end "free movement of workers," which means the UK also departs the common market with which it carries out 45-50% of its trade. (The figure for the US with Canada and Mexico is 25-30%.) So British leaders are now stuck with explaining to the population that Santa Claus does not exist: they will have to choose between more local jobs in a smaller economy or the same number of foreigners in an economy linked to the EU (i.e., de jure Leave means de facto Stay).

Sadly, it seems that most voters did not understand this logic (let alone the basic facts on jobs, migration, spending, etc.), perhaps due to the lies of Leave politicians or the hubris of Stay elites.**

What is likely to happen to Britain and the EU after Brexit is complete?

I was not around in the 1930s, but it was an era of depressed economies, rising protectionism, and political populism emphasizing how "They" were a danger to "Us." That era ended with World War II, the deaths of 50-80 million people, and vast destruction of human and environmental capital.

That terrible calamity was caused by "leaders" who promised their people that they could just take advantage of other peoples. Although that rhetoric worked (tragically) in the colonial era, it did not in World War II (despite the experience of WWI, "the war to end all wars").

Millions died for lies.

Although I am far more worried about Putin invading other "historically Russian" territories and Trump "doing a Berlusconi" on the US than I am about World War III, I cannot rule out a series of stupid events cascading into civil and then military conflict. It's not as if we lack for haters who don't mind killing innocents or exploding "civilization."

In the best case, a post-Brexit UK will get its house in order, sign free trade agreements to replace EU relations, and reform its migration laws to address fears. Such a country will look better than today's UK because it will be more efficient and fair.

In the worst case, Northern Ireland and Scotland vote to leave the UK for the EU, leaving the English and Welsh rump to an economic and political status similar to, say, Canada. The costs of such a devolution are likely to mirror those of Britain losing its empire after WWII.

The case(s) for the EU are similar in their divergences. In the best case, the EU reforms its internal and external borders (to address the refugee and terrorist crises), puts citizens before bankers (many who have left London for New York or Frankfurt), and "gets religion" about applying subsidiarity (decentralization) in a way that makes Brussels useful rather than the butt of "banana regulation" jokes.

In the worst case, Russia invades the Baltics (the EU cannot respond nor convince NATO to help), Turkey sends a fleet of refugees to Greece, the EU closes borders, and populists take France, Poland et al. out of the EU. Life shifts back to the 1990s of passport controls, tax dodging and mafia operations at all levels.

Bottom Line: A year ago, I wrote that we need to "connect" with others if we are going to have productive conversations about topics of mutual interest, i.e., economy, society, and the environment. The Brexit vote, agrees The Economist, shows what happens when we do not.
* Americans have to realize that there's YUGE populist support for Trump that ignores facts and hates on others in the name of "making America great again." That's how Berlusconi, Putin, Chavez and a number of other disasters-in-chief were elected (sometimes, a la Hitler, without intending to ever leave office).

** I'm not saying that globalization or competition does not cause harm. I'm saying that it's worth compensating for that harm to get the gains.
Addendum: Tyler Cowen is thoguhtful (as usual) in this and this post. Oh, and the UK can't blame "Europe" for its public spending or debt.

24 June 2016

Friday party!

Paris is still kinda flooded...

but the party goes on!

Les picniks, aussi!

Bottom Line: Life Plus 2 Meters will be normal... and not! Follow on facebook and/or twitter!

Addendum: A nice article on this year's +6.1m flood with discussion of "what would happen" if a "Century flood" (like that of 1910, +8.6m) hit the city. H/T to MV

23 June 2016

Beeping devices

A fascinating insight into our crippled thought processes:
The whole point of accumulating knowledge--and this is true for all species--is to be able to anticipate what might be happening the next minute, the next hour, the next day. And humans have the unique ability--we think it's unique--to be able to think retrospectively and prospectively, not just second-by-second, but weeks, even decades and millennia forwards and backwards. So, we accumulate all this knowledge. We build this mental model of the world. Again, this is very well documented by neuroscientists. We have a mental model of the world by which we actually go into any situation and we anticipate what we are going to see. And the brain, which is assaulted by so much information all the time, without doubt it ignores, it dumps anything that looks familiar and instead focuses on what might be new in an environment. That's why--[?] is able to figure out what threats are, for example--so, something new. So, what this has to do with our inability to attend very much, what we perceive as our shortening attention span in the digital age, is that we haven't got the filters yet in our brains to filter out such an assault on our brains--such a demand for our attention all the time that digital devices, the demand of us, essentially. And in the case of, severe cases--and I talk about this in the book--people like that actually cannot even develop a sense of--they don't understand cause and effect. They don't understand narrative. They actually feel kind of lost. They can't figure out how life works, because there's no pattern that emerges. They can't--there's no ability to extrapolate a general meaning from any particular. And that's a very serious memory affliction. And, you know, that happens to individuals. But culturally, this culture of distraction means that we are going to be very crippled in understanding long term patterns in this digital age.
Two of three are too distracted to learn at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris
And that's why I talk about these "bleeping devices". We need to be able to take in a certain amount of information, and then we need to be able to process it. I mean, scientists have said this processing of short term memory, dumping what's not valuable and turning it into valuable long-term memory--that can take--well, we have to have a good night's sleep; a lot of it happens when we sleep. And sometimes it can take up to months. So, we know very well that people whose attention is constantly interrupted, just like their sleep is interrupted, have chronic problems with developing long-term memories.

22 June 2016

Tomorrow the UK votes on whether to leave the EU

I am against, as a UK citizen who benefits from integration, but I can see how the EU might be better off -- assuming it doesn't break apart on the free movement of people, goods and ideas -- without Britain's Euroskeptics.

That argument was well known over 30 years ago.

21 June 2016

How will we live in a different world?

Long time readers of this blog will know that energy drives climate change, which arrives via the water cycle. It is therefore useful to talk about energy and mitigation but water and adaptation. (The basic science explains that greater warming requires faster air and water circulation to dissipate the heat, which translates into a faster and stronger hydrological cycle.)

The sad news is that we (humans) have been slow -- even negligent -- in taking action to mitigate climate change. Countries cannot agree on who should cut how much. Governments subsidize fossil fuel use. Regulations are designed to obscure, rather than highlight the "negative externalities" of fossil fuel pollution (see this and this on carbon taxes vs cap and trade).

I have therefore put more energy into understanding and explaining how we can adapt to a climate-changed world, via posts on this blog as well as discussions in my books. I put those efforts into overdrive in recent months after reading two papers. In the first, Hansen et al. talk about 6-9m of sea level rise by 2100, far above an IPCC "consensus" figure of one meter due to IPCC's overly conservative methods. In the second, Weitzman explains how economists have really underestimated the danger from "fat tailed" outcomes in a climate changed world.

Those papers, together, provide a frightening vision of what we might (and probably will) face: massive storms, flooding of coastal cities and "record-breaking" variations in weather that will cost billions in damages, drive millions to migrate and destabilize the ecosystems and food chains we all depend on. Even worse, those problems are not going to arrive in the distant future, with years of warning. We are already experiencing predicted impacts (the "record" El Niño, floods in Paris, drought, crop failures in India and Africa, etc.), and those impacts may get radically worse if major ocean currents slow and melting glaciers increase sea levels by "3-4 meters in a few years."

Few people want to think about a grim, rather than ever-better, future (I have for awhile now), but preparation offers more protection than hope. That's why I have started a new project, Life Plus 2 Meters, that will give authors and readers the chance to explore many possible visions of life in a different world. As it says on the project's website:
These visions may bring optimistic, pessimistic, social, technical, macro, and/or micro perspectives to the discussion. There is no right way to engage this complex topic.
I invite you -- and anyone you know -- to contribute your vision to this project. It's only by exploring the numerous facets of life in a different world that we might understand what's at stake as we change our world and how we will learn to live with it.

I will be posting updates here occasionally, but I recommend that you access the site directly and/or follow the project on facebook or twitter if you want to contribute a vision or follow the discussion when I start posting contributions in September. I am hoping to get over 100 contributions from a variety of people with different training, perspectives and cultures.

Here's the page for authors and the scientific background page. Here's my sample post on flying the not-so-friendly skies.

Bottom Line: The best way to understand ourselves is to engage in a broad discussion of how humans, in all their diversity, will live in a different world.