31 Oct 2017

Review: The Sound of Thirst

David Lloyd Owen gave me a copy of his 2012 book on urban water supply. I read it quite some time ago (maybe a year ago) but did not have time to write up a review until now. This review is based on my notes more than my recent impressions :)

This 450pp book summarizes Owen's 20+ years of experience in the water/wastewater sector. The message of his book is in the subtitle ("why urban water for all is essential, achievable and affordable") and the means of delivering on that message is in his analysis of how basic water services are allowed to fail through a combination of political neglect, counterproductive ideology, and weak performance incentives.

The book has 10 chapters. It begins with the goal (Safe Water and Risk), defines the situation and explains supply technology (Water Cycle, Supply Management, Sewerage), introduces the user (Demand Management, Affordability and Choice), looks into the main challenges of spending money and aligning incentives (The Paradox of Bottled Water, Fear and Finance, Private Vice; Public Virtue) and then ends with a New Vision.

In all, these chapters provide plenty of detailed, documented information along with a clear analysis of the real (as opposed to imaginary or naive) issues. Owen has degrees in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology, so his strong quantitive analysis complements his experience in analyzing and advising the sector. If there's one fault in this book, it's that it's too long and too thorough for most people.*

I will not go through the details, but there is plenty here to allow a beginner to grasp the goals, operations and challenges in the water/wastewater sectors as well as how policies and attitudes have kept that sector from delivering water to its many potential customers. In many cases, service failure results from water's paradoxical nature as an essential good that's ridiculously cheap to supply:
Power cuts invariably take place when you have been tapping away at something unusually compelling and lucid on your PC that has not been saved. This is a blip. In water, you don't get outages, you get outrages. This is one of the paradoxes with water, the more value-added the service, the more cheerfully lapses are accepted. But the political media angst when the water utility comes up short is not a pretty sight, and this is why the water and wastewater utilities can be so risk-averse [p 47].
That anxiety -- and pressure to minimize prices -- hampers the sector.**

I read this book while "on mission" in Kazahkstan last year. The problems of the water services sector there are identical to those Owen identifies: prices are too low and government transfers too stingy for the sector to maintain -- let alone improve --- services. Owen should get his book translated into Russian and air-dropped in the EX-USSR. They've gone from excellent water services to "developing country" in only 30 years through a combination of mismanagement, corruption and starving the utilities of adequate funding.

The book also discusses several issues that I have covered here but deserve repetition, i.e., why there are more mobile phones than toilets in the developing world (hint: monopolies), how the UN has underestimated (and underserved) the 800 million 3 billion people without clean drinking water, how recycled wastewater is cheaper (and just as safe) as desalinated seawater, and how Singaporeans have excellent water services that are both affordable to customers and sustainably financed at the utility.

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for providing abundant evidence on the importance of water services for all and clear, documented arguments on how that service can be achieved through "commitment (against corruption and a desire to deliver service extension), consistency (in policy development and implementation, free from conflict between competing regulators), and capacities (build capacity for regulation and implementation so that the benefits of capital spending justify the costs and that utilities have to justify their performance or face financial penalties)" [pp 428-29].

For all my reviews, go here.

* My Living with Water Scarcity boiled down the ideas in my 80,000-word End of Abundance to 30,000 words without much loss for most readers. (TEoA is still useful to those who want a better-documented, deeper exploration of the issues.)

** Owen read an early draft of my paper ("The struggle for residential water metering in England and Wales") and gave me very helpful comments on how the privatized utilities in England are less trusted than the "social enterprise" that runs Welsh Water in a way that directs "profits" to projects customers care about. That paper also explores how competition among Welsh Water, Scottish Water and 15-20 private English firms has led them to better service, without regard to their ownership structure.

30 Oct 2017

My Amsterdam International Water Week keynote

Me, preaching...
I was not invited to AIWW, but I'm not upset, as these events tend to focus more on selling goods and services than thinking different or making plans on how to improve water services.

That said, here's what I'd say if I was giving the opening keynote today:

Good morning everyone!

Please put down your phones and take a moment to meet someone you don't know nearby.

[3 minutes of chatter]

Ok, great. Now that you know someone, I want you to listen to this little talk with the intention of discussing what I get right or get wrong. The point is that I want you to think with someone, as if you're on a team.

(Far too many people in the water sector are distant from their customers -- the ones who depend on us and make our jobs possible. Perhaps we can get better at listening to them, and helping them understand what we do?)

So, here's my wishlist of policies and products that we need if the water sector is going to deliver on its promise of bringing the most value for the least cost.
  1. We need a better platform (or set of platforms) that makes it easier for us to, for example, share data or find jobs.
  2. We need better customer (and citizen engagement). I suggest starting with citizen regulators.
  3. Many people are suspicious of their water's quality. This is not a problem of them being too dumb to trust you but of you being too frightened to have an adult conversation of an important topic. You need to invite citizen-scientists in and test quality at the tap to get them onboard.
  4. We need better prices and measurement of water use. Have auctions among major users within watersheds...
  5. Reliance is extremely important in the water sector. Supply failure, whether due to incompetence, corruption, inadequate finances, or unmanaged demand, has massive impacts on health, quality of life, food security and business. Thus, I propose using insurance [pdf] to both promote best practices and reduce harm from failure.
Got any suggestions for improving incentives, efficiency and outcomes? Great! I'm giving the rest of my 45 minutes to you so you can talk to your neighbors, understand the issues and work on solutions.


28 Oct 2017

Where are the Donald reaction videos?

MV sent this [real] gem. Now read it and imagine what a camera on your face would reveal?
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are — nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right, who would have thought? — but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”
We need a YouTube channel for reaction videos to that magnificent moron they call 45... Dolt 45.

27 Oct 2017

Friday party!

I just got back from Tallinn, Estonia, which definitely deserves to be the European Capital of Innovation (Amsterdam is the current Capital).* Watch this:

These contests are great for promoting "benchmark competition" (a type of Tiebout sorting), which helps current citizens get better services and would-be migrants decide where to go.

* Three French cities are in the running. It seems they plan to "innovate" without speaking English. I worry about that.

26 Oct 2017

Review: Merchants of Doubt

I watched this 2016 documentary a few weeks ago. You should too. (Also watch Thank You for Smoking.)

It uses clever graphics, archival footage and expert interviews to explain the "Industry of Denial" that came to life in the era of Big Tobacco and grew under the care of Big AgBig BankingBig CarbonBig Sugar, and Big Social Media.

In most cases, these industries have hired lobbyists, "scientists" and politicians to push the same message over and over, i.e.,
"There's no clear evidence that...
  1. current subsidies and lax regulations mess up our diets and pollute the environment;
  2. the financial system transfers money from the poor to the rich;
  3. cigarettes cause cancer;
  4. fossil fuel consumption drives global warming;
  5. sugar consumption leads to obesity and diabetes; or
  6. use of Facebook and other "slot machine in your pocket" apps lower your IQ and happiness;
... but we are dedicated to preserving...
  1. food buyers'
  2. savers'
  3. smokers'
  4. drivers'
  5. citizens'
  6. childrens'
... freedom to choose based on the best information available. That's why we call for more study of this problem."
Their strategy, in other words, is to obfuscate for as long as possible while continuing to sell a product that they -- the ones who have the motivation, data and money -- know to be harmful to their "customers" and society.

It would be funny if it wasn't so pathologically evil.

Bottom Line: Some people are willing to lie to you to make money. Don't believe them. I give this film FIVE STARS to bringing abundant, believable evidence to that reality.

For all my reviews, go here.

24 Oct 2017

Some problems with peak water and decoupling

There are two definitions of "peak water," an idea borrowed from  "peak oil," which the fracking revolution -- as yet another example of profits from scarcity attracting innovation and thus abundance -- has effectively blown into pieces.

In the first, water demand exceeds renewable supplies, which requires that additional supply be "mined" from aquifers. This definition implies "unsustainable" because demand exceeds supply.

It's misleading because... read the post :)
In the second, used by the Pacific Institute and USGS, the term refers to a peak in demand for water in some or all sectors of the economy (see figure at right), which can be sustainable, as it refers to a "decoupling" of economic activity (e.g., GDP) from water use, a phenomenon also labeled as more crop per drop, doing more with less, and so on.

Back in 2009, Damian wrote how "peak water" is the wrong analogy to use with water because its physical and economic supply is much more the result of governance than physical or economic factors.*

These two definitions are simultaneously talking about the same thing and different things, which can be confusing. The first definition is more closely aligned with "supply," while the second is more about "demand." Although both can be used in any discussion of total water use, their conflation can lead to muddled thinking, e.g., falling groundwater levels (supply) leading to lower water use (demand), rather than lower water use resulting from a change in technology (demand) that ignores supplies.

Now, this short introduction puts the topic in context, but this post is really about the ridiculously bad data that are underlying the entire "debate." I came to this realization while trying to understand the "decoupling" cited by the Pacific Institute in a 2014 post, which shows a "break" around 1975-1980. What happened then? Did Reagan make some big change in economic policy that changed the nature of the economy or led to more sustainable water management?

After spending a few hours looking at data [here's my spreadsheet] and reports [past USGS reports], I am pretty sure that (1) peak water is not even well understood and (2) decoupling has long been the trend outside of agriculture but not within agriculture. Let's look at these in turn.

First, I tried to understand the 45 billion gallons/day (bgd) of "industrial use" from 1980 [see page 23 in the 1980 USGS report], but then I ran into two important issues with definitions. The first was that ALL these data are reporting "withdrawals" without regard to return flows. Even worse, "consumptive use" (the type that really does matter) is often calculated using ratios, leading to an estimated consumptive use of about 6 bgd. Second, the numbers combine freshwater & saline sources (39 & 6 bgd for withdrawals and 5 & 1 bdg for consumption, respectively), which also mixes metaphors in terms of sustainability (saline use is sustainable, by definition of "the ocean is really too big to drain"). These two examples should be enough to make you question any aggregated figures on peak demand, especially since REAL sustainability depends on local demand and supply.

Second, I used these figures (flawed as they are) to look into decoupling. I had a suspicion that much of the decoupling was related to the growth of services (tertiary production) at the expense of manufacturing (secondary) and agriculture (primary). Although I was right in a way, I was surprised to see such a strong trend in the data, i.e., that services and manufacturing have left agriculture in the dust mud in terms of value added to GDP (see same spreadsheet linked above for data) -- a fact that's obvious in this figure:

What does this figure show? That decoupling had occurred for manufacturing (averaging gains of 10 percent per five years, 1950-2010) and services (averaging 15 percent) but not for agriculture (averaging -1 percent). In other words, we're seeing "more crop per drop" for silicon chips but not for  potato chips.

Bottom Line: Do not trust aggregate measures of water use compared to accurate accounting at the watershed level. Do not mistake aggregate "decoupling" for improved (water) productivity in the agricultural sector. Farmers, as "residual claimants," are using as much water as they can get. Is that sustainable? I'm not sure, but missing and inaccurate data on withdrawals and consumptive use along with the entire absence of discussion of environmental water in the USGS report (the 2010 version!) tells me that we don't even know.

* Damian read this post and said: "Looks good to me. Those water figures from the USGS always were too aggregated to mean much to me, and given how unreliable CA water data is, and the lack of water data to begin with, it is surprising to base much on those numbers.

And then to the more general point about trying to find some peak - I agree as well. It's a muddled conversation, in part because of the data, but mostly because supply and demand matter, and trying to talk about one without the other is confusing."

19 Oct 2017

I want to trade water...

Just another reminder that Australia has "normal" markets for water:

Check out their website here.

What's the value of water?

I participated in a debate on that question two weeks ago at IHE-Delft (formerly IHE-UNESCO). It's worth watching the whole thing, but I start at 26:30.

18 Oct 2017

Links of interest

  1. Do you know your WaterHood? (Urban watershed?)
  2. The GAO says the EPA doesn't have good data on lead/copper in water [pdf]
  3. MMM explains why electric cars are the future NOW
  4. How Mexicans in Baja California are protecting their seas (and whales!)
  5. Hacking OKCupid to find love :)
  6. The Experian breach may blow up the credit industry. Did you freeze your credit?
  7. The Dutch call attention to Americans' unhealthy habit of shooting each other
  8. ...and how the Dutch grow enough food to be the world's 2nd largest exporter
  9. Trump's dream of banning the EPA means a return to the pollution levels of the 1970s
  10. Google and Facebook insiders on how they avoid the addictive technology they invented, and how Facebook lost the plot in the 2016 election. Related: Dutch employee fired for paying more attention to her phone than customers and do you know the ideology of the "futurist" talking about technology? A white male may have a biased perspective of the impacts on minorities. Definitely read this piece on Zuckerberg's "vision,"
    The policy changes announced by Zuckerberg in September represent an effort at self-regulation — Facebook’s way of saying “Trust us, we can handle ourselves.” But this isn’t a particularly appealing pitch. Facebook has been wrong, often: It spent most of the year insisting that it had sold no political ads to Russian actors. Twice in the past year, it’s admitted misreporting metrics to advertisers. Earlier in September, ProPublica discovered that it was possible to purchase ads targeted at self-described “Jew-haters.” Maybe more important, it’s not clear why we’d imagine that Facebook’s interests are the same as the U.S. government’s.
    Why does this matter? Besides the fact that Facebook is tracking EVERYONE (account or not, signed in or not) via its website, the "like buttons everywhere, and its WhatsApp, NOW Facebook will be tracking your movements and selling the data:
    A new set of tools businesses can use to target Facebook members who have visited their stores: Now the experience of briefly visiting Zappos.com and finding yourself haunted for weeks by shoe ads could have an offline equivalent produced by a visit to your local shoe store (I hope you like shoe ads). Where Facebook’s new “offline outcomes” tools promise to entrap more of the analog world in Facebook’s broad surveillance net, Zuckerberg’s promise of transparency assured anxious readers that the company would submit itself to the established structures of offline politics.
H/T to VR

17 Oct 2017

San Diego loses against Met. Time for solutions?

Back in 2003, I was working over the summer after my first (very tough) year in graduate school at UC Davis when I got to talking about a fight over water and money with Richard Howitt, a professor in our department. That fight had begun in the early 1990s when some member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Met) had been unevenly ("unfairly") protected during the 1987-1991 drought.

That conversation got me curious about the origins of the fight and my quest for an answer eventually  led to my doctoral dissertation, Conflict and Cooperation within an Organization: A Case Study of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, in which "I show that Met is inefficient by demonstrating that its members have heterogeneous preferences over outcomes: Members that are more dependent on Met prefer policies that increase water supply; others prefer lower rates... If Met is inefficient as a cooperative, we should see evidence of this inefficiency, and Met's pricing policies (setting annual prices in the prior year and selling water for the same price to all locations) provide this evidence. With increasing water scarcity, the damage from these policies is growing... I describe how marginal water can be auctioned after inframarginal, lifeline water is allocated..." such that allocations are both fairer and more efficient.

The upshot of all this is that Met was in the middle of a civil war, with San Diego being the most obviously upset about its policies and other members suffering from the same worries or from the conflict. Those "organizational frictions" (further explored in this chapter [pdf]) meant that my auction solution (mentioned above and published here [pdf]), which required cooperation among Met's member agencies, was premature.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when TL sent me this article reporting that San Diego had finally lost its appeal on the allocation of costs (and water) at Met, which means that Met's existing postage-stamp-pricing system for allocating costs and its "maybe historic, maybe not" system for allocating water was recognized as legitimate.

But legitimate -- as anyone reading the tax code would attest -- does not mean either efficient or fair.  What it does mean is that Met now has clear control over water and cost allocation, which will allow it to consider better ways to manage the water and expenses its member agencies share.

What newer better way might they look into? My suggestion for auctioning water among member agencies with consideration for historic rights (so-called "preferential shares"), changing water demands, and varying levels of dependency on Met (some agencies get all their water from Met, some less than 50 percent). The whole proposal is in Chapter 7 of my dissertation.

Bottom Line: The end of Met's civil war does not mean that Met should stick with its flawed formulas for allocating water and costs. An internal market for Met's water would bring agencies more flexibility and reliability at a lower and fairer cost. More importantly, it would reduce conflict at Met and bring many benefits to the 20 million people of Southern California who depend on Met's imported water.

12 Oct 2017

Fires in the San Francisco Bay Area

I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I'm pretty sad to hear about the "not-so-wild fires" there that have killed over 20 people and devastated communities as well as the famous "Wine Country." Although the fires were started by accident, they have spread so far, so fast, due to the presence of fire-fuel in all the hills that surround many towns in the area. That fuel is there because 5 years of drought followed by an intense rain followed by a VERY HOT summer has left lots of hot, dry grass and trees to burn, and it is.

Sadly, these fires -- like the hurricanes that have wrecked many places and killed many people in the Caribbean and US Gulf Coast -- are entirely consistent with the "increased variation in weather" predicted to result from climate change.

I've been working hard to bring the potential impacts of climate change (and need to adapt to survive those impacts) to people's attention via my project Life plus 2 meters, but it's kinda weird that the world is having disasters faster than we can publish "visions" (climate fiction) of what's possible. I'm starting to think that some of the more far-fetched chapters in the book (there are many authors) may end up coming true.

Bottom Line: Read the chapters, or read the newspaper, but above all: prepare yourself, your family and community for climate change.

Links of interest

  1. An update on the 50-year effort to get mercury out of our ecosystems
  2. The Straight Dope on DNA testing (don't make any medical decisions based on it!)
  3. Londoners take the piss out of a clueless tourist asking about "where the Thames goes"
  4. Investor Risk Analysis: Why Groundwater Matters
  5. This 1933 article ("Water, Cheaper Than Dirt") shows how "full cost pricing" has been an issue for awhile
  6. A 1978 film about the last day of "hot lead," i.e., when the New York Times switched to digital typesetting
  7. Are the Russians as easy to understand as R.E.S.P.E.C.T?
  8. How AI might take over the world (not entirely fantasy)
  9. An introduction to behavioral economics (as compared to neoclassical economics)
  10. When people say "learn to code" they don't mean typing instructions but understanding systems: "Typically the main problem with software coding is not the skills of the coders. The people know how to code. The problem is what to code. Because most of the requirements are kind of natural language, ambiguous, and a requirement is never extremely precise, it’s often understood differently by the guy who’s supposed to code."
H/T to AM

11 Oct 2017

Teaching and learning in the classroom commons

I teach at Leiden University College, which prides itself on its small-class, interactive-teaching environment (we just won a teaching award of sorts). This environment is not just based on head count and physical space, but also rules and norms such as mandatory attendance and a ban on laptops/mobile phones, respectively.

Just the other day, we were having a discussion of which institutions students might want to change at LUC and one student said "I hate mandatory attendance. After all, if I miss the class, then I am the one who suffers, right? Shouldn't I have that choice?"

This logic is pretty sound when it comes to the student's personal experience (a private good), but it entirely misses the point of LUC's model, i.e., a seminar discussion that involves all students in listening and speaking, with the professor introducing new topics and encouraging others to bring their own thoughts, beliefs and experiences into the discussion. (This may sound like a liberal arts caricature, but it's the goal that I and many of my colleagues have, even if we don't always achieve Hollywood levels of humor, sudden genius and random discovery!)

The student, in other words, had failed to appreciate the importance of their attendance on the experience of others -- a failure that's particularly ironic in the particular context of the current course ("Foundations of common-pool resources management"), which is all about understanding, protecting and building shared spaces -- including learning spaces.

As part of that discussion, I mentioned just how difficult it is to teach students who are neither attending nor following the material, using my experience teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (SFU).

In early 2013, I taught two courses at SFU: a seminar for 15 students and a lecture for 90 students. In both courses, about 80 percent of my students were from mainland China, where plagiarism is tolerated and paper credentials are more important than learning.

But I saw a difference in attendance, participation and learning. In my smaller class, we had interesting, wide-ranging discussions. In my larger class, half the students only attended for exams. On most days, there were usually 40 or so ill-prepared students -- a situation (and norm) that frustrated me, especially as I had had a much better experience teaching the same number of students at UC Berkeley, where attendance and engagement was consistently high.

What does frustration look like? Well, one day I just stopped teaching and cancelled class because I couldn't find a single student who had done that day's reading. Since I was recording all my lectures,* you can watch my meltdown (the video starts at 14:30):

Bottom Line: It's hard to learn if you're not there, just as it's hard to teach if students are not prepared, but most of all it's hard to learn if students are not exchanging ideas, critiques and insights with each other. The professor is there to help learning, not to drop knowledge in your ear. If you're looking for that kind of "school," then watch Khan Academy videos, as they are cheaper and usually better than most "broadcast" lectures.
* I also recorded my Berkeley lectures, which have 20x the views as my Simon Fraser lectures, so watch those if you're interested in Environmental Economics and Policy.

10 Oct 2017

The many impacts of climate change

Some of you may know that I have been running a project named "Life plus 2 meters" that uses fiction ("cli-fi") to help readers think about how we may (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world. Last year, I published Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 1, which had 29 chapters from 27 authors. (It's free to download or $4 to buy.) Just recently, I received 33 new stories ("visions") from 32 authors submitting for Volume 2. (They are eligible for prizes; the final deadline for non-prize-eligible stories is 31 October, so get writing if you want to submit!)

Although, the title alludes to "2 meters of sea level rise (SLR)," the visions -- like the reality -- focus on all types of climate change impacts, i.e., ocean acidification, stronger storms, longer droughts, bigger floods, and greater heat and cold extremes.

Just last week, AS asked if I wasn't putting too much emphasis on SLR and not enough on, e.g., heat stress. That email caught me by surprise, as I was using "2 meters" as a proxy for ALL climate-change impacts, but let me be clear here on my opinions of where the danger lies/damage will come from:

In first place, I put changes in precipitation, which includes everything from stronger storms (=more flooding) to longer dry periods (=dead crops and ecosystems) to changes in where and when precipitation arrives (=overwhelmed infrastructure and species). These changes will be the worst because the atmosphere can push a LOT of water around quickly (the sun delivers as much energy in 2-3 hours as humans use in a year [pdf]), and climate change is speeding up those flows. Humans already spend vast sums on energy and infrastructure to contain flows, and those sums will have to rise by perhaps a factor of 2-3. (The fact that most water infrastructure is missing and/or poorly maintained means the problems will be larger.)

In second place, I put heat and cold stress. These problems will make some parts of the world uninhabitable (a band from the Middle East to India grow too hot for outdoor existence; the UK and Northern Europe may experience extremely cold winters), but people will not be immediately killed or displaced. Some people will "turn up the A/C" (e.g., Phoenix), but others will see big refugee flows.

SLR will probably be quite a small problem relative to the two above. Cities like Miami and Jakarta will be abandoned to rising seas, but most cities will only lose a bit on the edges. (The Netherlands is an interesting exception because half the country is now below sea level so that system may hold or break, in which case multiple cities will be abandoned at once.)

Finally, we must remember that Nature will also be a player (as "Nature bats last"), in terms of how flora and fauna will respond to changes in temperatures, sea-acidity, precipitation and so on. Some crops will fail, some species will go extinct, and oceans may turn into a mass of jellyfish, but most living matter will be adjusting as fast as possible to conditions unseen for 100,000+ years.

All of these forces will be occurring simultaneously, of course, so planners (and citizens!) will need to consider their joint impacts on where they live (or where they might want to live), as the those impacts will be both novel in their destructive power and expensive to counteract.

Bottom line: Climate change will bring slow, but powerful changes to our lives. Have you thought about those changes and how you, your family, your work and your community will cope? Read a little more over at life plus 2 meters to think about the possibilities.

5 Oct 2017

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

I was in graduate school when this film came out in 2006. I didn't watch it then because I busy with studying local water management failure (at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, or Met) and because I thought I had a pretty decent idea about how climate change was happening, what we needed to do to slow it down (we studied the theoretical equivalence of cap and trade vs carbon taxes -- more below), and how climate change was going to increase variation in water deliveries and supplies. (I was a guest attendee at Met's August 2006 manager's meeting where they got a presentation from a UC Berkeley climate scientist on how precipitation was going to get "unreliable.")

So, I wasn't too shocked by the content of this film when I watched it a few weeks ago (It's a lot more thoughtful compared to DiCaprio's "do-something-now" version from 2016). In fact, I thought it was pretty reasonable and accessible, with Al Gore talking about his "slide show," how people were reacting, and how he had been working for years to bring policy and public attention to the matter.

Sadly, there seem to have been two opportunities that we've missed since that film came out. The first was the hardening of Republican opposition to acting to reduce GHG emissions. This opposition has now taken the form of religious belief for most Republicans rather than a willingness to consider the costs and benefits of action. (Don't forget that Reagan introduced cost-benefit analysis to Federal regulations!)

The second was a preoccupation with regulations, subsidies and over-complex, unworkable cap and trade over simpler measures to reduce GHG emissions. Most of these policies were the result of Democrats and state politicians trying to act without needing Republican approval. In some cases, you might argue that some improvement is better than no improvement, but the high cost (and occasional mistakes, such as the wasted Solyndra subsidies) made "action" a byword for partisan, bureaucratic waste.

On the other hand, there was also an over-reliance on the "elegance" of cap and trade systems, which promised to target the flow or stock of GHG emissions but did not make any predictions about the cost of limiting emissions. As you may have heard, this price uncertainty was not welcomed by businesses (Exxon supports carbon prices!), but cap and trade had two other flaws. The first was its bureaucratic nature (not just measuring emissions but also tracking trades). The second was its "feature" of allowing trade between regions (or countries) with different emissions profiles and -- very importantly -- different political classes and populations. Those differences promised huge gains from targeting "low hanging fruit" in whatever country could reduce GHG emissions at the lowest possible cost, but it ran into problems with fraud and worries that "we're sending our money to foreigners in return for promises to reduce emissions that may not be kept."

The alternative to cap and trade would be a carbon tax, which I favor (read this and this and watch this) for its clear price signal as well as its potential to "recycle" revenue back to the local population (like the Dutch already do), but carbon taxes have been opposed by Republicans (who won't even allow the gas tax to pay for highway maintenance!) as well as environmentalists ("we want money for our toys!") -- an unholy alliance that might go down in history as the worst bipartisan agreement ever.

Bottom Line: We are entering a period of consequences due to our failure to overcome short-term political games, anti-scientific ignorance, and the all-too-human desire to avoid hard choices today for a better life tomorrow.* Americans may be proud of their exceptionalism, but in this case it's an exceptionalism that is contributing to harm around the planet -- and a more difficult future for many Americans.** I give this film FIVE STARS for making climate science -- and our negative impact on the planet -- easier to understand.

For all my reviews, go here.

* It's no accident that the median US household has only $5,000 in savingsthe US ranks 22nd out of 32 OECD countries in terms of national savings.

** It's not hopeless, as this article tracking Republican parroting of fake news and this badass Florida editorial blaming Republican politicians for their willful inaction attest.

4 Oct 2017

Links of interest

  1. "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" (maybe, but they wouldn't know)
  2. The GAO finds that US Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have the right data to manage its water storage properly. Whoops!
  3. The war between bikes and scooters in Amsterdam continues
  4. World Water Assessment Programme on Water scarcity/flooding and migration [pdf]
  5. Is populism the result of cities growing and rural areas fading? Makes sense to me.
  6. Moral hazard, a primer
  7. Uber is less of a "game changer" as much as a loss-making, law breaker
  8. How the Jones Act protects shippers and cripples Puerto Rico
  9. Asia’s longest earthen dam is a disaster-in-the-making
  10. HelloScience wants to improve water quality. They are looking for help from citizen scientists, labs and others who are interested in improving water quality (detection, treatment, etc.)
  11. An absolutely BADASS description of how to defend your credit from fraud:
    What causes a regulatory incident? Bad behavior on the part of the bank? No. Banks screw up all the time; the screwups are literally forecast and budgeted for. Do regulators cause regulatory incidents? Generally no; they’re understaffed and underfunded, and they don’t go on fishing expeditions. The thing which causes regulatory incidents is well-organized people taking paper trails to regulators which allow a regulator to trivially follow up with an investigatory letter. Accordingly, anyone who sounds like a well-organized professional with a paper trail is a problem to be swiftly addressed. That, dear reader, can be you.

3 Oct 2017

Easy ways to reduce energy use and GHG emissions

I'm helping you save energy!
I installed a NEST Thermostat in May 2015, just a few months after we moved into our flat.

The NEST has two use modes. The first is to set minimum temperatures for the times that you want the flat to be warm (or cool down, i.e., by lowering temperatures automatically everynight at 11pm). The second uses "smart" settings based on your presence in the room (it's watching!) and the manual adjustments that you make when you're in the room.

The NEST and installation cost about €335 ($400) all in, and I should have thought of that "investment" in terms of the returns it would bring me, but there's more than that.

I'm going to kill you
First, I can "set it and forget it," which is much better for us than waking up in the middle of the night with the (other) room steaming because I forgot to turn the dumb thermostat down.

Second, I can see use and set temperatures via the app. This is more of a gimmick than necessity for us, but it's sometimes fun to warm the house when we are riding bikes home in the cold and rain.

Third, the thermostat is MUCH better at warming the house in response to temperatures (rather than a dumb schedule). The correlation between average temperature for the month and cubic meters of gas consumption is 0.76, which seems to indicate that we're not wasting heat.

Although I do not have great data on how much we would have spent on natural gas without the NEST, the prior tenants were using roughly double our volume of natural gas, and my energy provider says that our use (at 380 m3 per year) is "a fraction of similar households."

So that's all fine and good, but my real point here is that a carbon tax wouldn't have a major financial impact on households (while saving the planet, obviously!) because we could so easily reduce our energy use. In this post, I estimate that adding a $30/ton "social cost of carbon" would increase the cost of electricity by $0.01/kwh. Using the same logic and a figure of 2.2kg CO2e emissions per m3 of gas, I estimate that a carbon tax would increase our natural gas price by €0.07 on top of the current cost of €0.55/m3. You may think these increases unbearable (and the energy company might agree, if conservation leads to lower revenues), but I think that "price" to be entirely reasonable, because the Nest (and other technologies) make it so much easier to use less energy.**

Bottom Line: We have the technology now to make it easy to "save the earth" by lowering our energy consumption. Sadly, lobbyists have convinced people that such changes would end "life as we know it" (à la Hal 9000) when they would merely end wasteful energy use from inattention.

*Our electricity use is also very low, so maybe we're just a small, efficient household.

** Don't forget that carbon taxes, since they are not covering direct costs, could be used in helpful ways. I prefer to rebate all carbon (or GHG) tax revenue to households (regardless of energy use) as a type of basic income. The Dutch already do a version of tax and rebate on energy, by the way.