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Rising Sea Levels, Rising Awareness, Rising Resilience?


IN GENERAL, HISTORY SAYS HUMANS DO BETTER WHEN IT GETS WARMER AND WORSE WHEN IT GETS COLDER. There are a number of reasons for this, but the simplest explanation is energy: (1) it's easier to cool people than to warm them; and (2) it's easier to grow human energy (food) when it's warmer than when it's cooler. But that's a uber-macro take on the subject, when regional variations in climate change will be the real story of this century — namely, the middle regions of the world will get much hotter and drier while the most northern and southern bands will grow more temperate. Humans will adapt to all this, and huge numbers will be put on the move — poleward (just like plants and animals have been for decades now), but there will be a tremendous die-off of species from this rapid change (not rivaling other mass extinction periods in Earth's history in scope [one, for example, encompassed 96% of all species], but apparently surpassing them in speed). None of this is really negotiable at this point; it's a done deal. We can delay some impacts, or take the worst edge of others, but they are coming — with the bulk arriving in the lifetimes of our children.

No, we're not going to roll back human progress, nor will we succeed in demanding that the still undeveloped regions of the world stay that way to atone for the North's sins. And yes, we will engage in Noah's Arc-like activities designed to transplant vulnerable species to new areas where they might survive and hopefully thrive.

In short, we will continue remaking this planet in our image, because that's what humans do.

But it's the oceans where we have so little say in the matter, even as we have had enormous impact. This is where community, regional and national resilience will be tested the world over.

On that score, lots of new studies just out suggesting that rising sea levels and associated flooding will likely be as bad as most of the scariest predictions have indicated — but again with significant regional variations.

First, from a WAPO story on one just-published study:

A group of scientists says it has now reconstructed the history of the planet’s sea levels arcing back over some 3,000 years — leading it to conclude that the rate of increase experienced in the 20th century was “extremely likely” to have been faster than during nearly the entire period.

“We can say with 95 percent probability that the 20th-century rise was faster than any of the previous 27 centuries,” said Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who led the research with nine colleagues from several U.S. and global universities . . .

The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seas rose about 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) from 1900 to 2000, the new study suggests, for a rate of 1.4 millimeters per year. The current rate, according to NASA, is 3.4 millimeters per year, suggesting that sea level rise is still accelerating.

So, rising more than twice as fast this century versus last — achieving the dreaded "hockey stick" graphs displayed above.

Now, for the variation in the US, from another WAPO story on anther study:

Writing in Nature Geoscience, John Krasting and three colleagues from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration find that “Atlantic coastal areas may be particularly vulnerable to near-future sea-level rise from present-day high greenhouse gas emission rates.” The research adds to recent studies that have found strong warming of ocean waters in the U.S. Gulf of Maine, a phenomenon that is not only upending fisheries but could be worsening the risk of extreme weather in storms like Winter Storm Jonas.

“When carbon emission rates are at present day levels and higher, we see greater basin average sea level rise in the Atlantic relative to the Pacific,” says Krasting. “This also means that single global average measures of sea level rise become less representative of the regional scale changes that we show in the study.”

The Atlantic suffers this additional stress because it churns/circulates/ventilates more than the quiet Pacific.

But, getting it back to us humans, these are emerging realities for our local ecosystems, and, by that, we mean the local operating environment of families, businesses, communities, cities and the like. Our local support systems, or the networks upon which we rely for our organizations' smooth functioning, are all going to come under more regular stress and suffer more regular crises. This will arrive in the form of increasingly weird, unpredictable, and severe weather all over America, but with the added danger of storm surge flooding and destruction along the lowest portions of the coastlines (particularly along the Atlantic).

According to NOAA:

In the United States, counties directly on the shoreline constitute less than 10 percent of the total land area (not including Alaska), but account for 39 percent of the total population. From 1970 to 2010, the population of these counties increased by almost 40% and are projected to increase by an additional 10 million people or 8% by 2020. Coastal areas are substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole, and population density in coastal areas will continue to increase in the future. In fact, the population density of coastal shoreline counties is over six times greater than the corresponding inland counties.

Globally, it's even more concentrated, with 44% of humanity living within 150 km of coastlines.

How prepared are we for rising sea levels?

If you're the Dutch, you're feeling pretty confident, because (a) you're rich, and (b) you've been doing this for centuries. If you're Bangladeshi, you're a whole lot less confident ...

The good news is, globalization is reducing global poverty dramatically (spreading wealth) while spreading technical know-how. So we can all be more "Dutch" over time (with their help, as the Netherlands' aid agency specializes in transferring such knowledge).

On that score, we have plenty to do, says Time:

The [recently published] research adds to growing evidence that communities around the world are vastly unprepared to defend against the effects of sea level rise in the coming decades. Rising sea levels erode coasts and place coastal cities in danger. Even areas that may seem safe will be vulnerable to floods that could inundate entire cities and contaminate freshwater supplies ...

“We’re just at the beginning of the curve,” says Benjamin Strauss, co-author of the Climate Central central study. “I think in the next two decades things will deteriorate a lot faster than they did over the last two decades.”

But that's how it is for most things in life: it gets slightly worse for a long time and then gets dramatically worse in a short time. Solutions, per the Dutch and others, are well known:

In addition to mitigation, vulnerable communities should adapt to protect themselves from rising sea levels, researchers say. Those protective measures can take the form of levees, pumps and elevated homes. In other places, policymakers have built up natural defenses like mangroves and reefs. These provide the added benefit of sucking up carbon from the atmosphere and they often cost less than their steel and concrete equivalents, according to Jane Carter Ingram of the Nature Conservancy’s Science for Nature and People Partnership.

The problem is local leadership:

But many of the most vulnerable communities have been reluctant to change. Policymakers in Florida, for instance, have been hampered by elected officials who question the science of climate change despite the state being among the country’s most vulnerable.

We can't be resilient if we can't look problems straight in the eye.



There Are No Development Short-Cuts, But You Can Compress the Costs - the Energy Example

BJORN LOMBORG HAS LONG BEEN A FAVORITE OF MINE, POINTING OUT VERY UN-P.C. TRUTHS ABOUT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND THE HYPOCRISY OF WELL-MEANING LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES ABOUT THE "RIGHT PATH." Lomborg tends to split those differences and does so most contentiously on climate change, arguing that humanity should balance benefits against costs, calm adaptation against frantic action, and measurable progress in the here-and-now against strident urgency for fantastically-ambitious-but-likely-counterproductive achievements in the distant future. In short, he's annoyingly pragmatic in a debate that's grown far too ideological and shrill on both sides. He is a person out of time – like any good strategic thinker.

This is a subject upon which I've long harped as an apostle of the true faith in capitalism: the average person in the Developing South wants all the same things we've long enjoyed in the Developed North, so – duh(!), they're not interested in pathways that continue to delay that glorious achievement, particularly when it comes to foregoing economic advance in the name of keeping their local environments "pristine" to make up for the fact that we in the North totally altered ours when grabbing for all the wealth and comforts we now enjoy. Simply put, they have no desire to pay for our "sins."

Indeed, the most notorious types in the global South who embrace this self-denial "imperative" offered by the North are the very same civilizational fundamentalists whom we now so clearly fear for their tendency to go religiously rogue in championing the mass murder of "infidels" by any means necessary. That nasty crew is more than happy to go back to the 7th-century paradise when men were nasty, brutish, and short, and women and children were just this side of sex slaves and chattel (and no, the historian in me doesn't allow me to add the word "respectively" to the end of that sentence).  If you want to see what truly constitutes preservation of the developmental pristine, spend some time within the Islamic State (Iraq, Syria) or the ranks of Boko Haram (northeast Nigeria) and al-Shabaab (south/central Somalia).  There is nothing noble in their rejection of a consumer society and all the "dangerous" liberties it presents.

What we truly know from history is that people – the world over – become more tolerant, better stewards, and more socially charitable oncetheir incomes rise to the point where they're no longer obsessed with their personal/family's/clan's survival. Just those first couple of steps up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and – man(!) – does humanity's innate capacity for empathy surmount darn near all, unleashing the social resilience that has defined our species' mastery of this planet.

It just takes a wee bit of strategic patience on our part (hard for us Northerners so long used to getting every material and emotional need almost instantly met), or an acceptance that economic development, while it can be sped up, isn't subject to short-cuts, much less magical leaps.

Now to Lomborg's recent op-ed on the subject of what we should or should not expect Africans to do to atone for our past mistakes/gluttony/greed for a better life, while they seek the same for themselves (I know, how dare they!):

Africa is the world’s most “renewable” continent when it comes to energy. In the rich world, renewables account for less than a tenth of total energy supplies. The 900 million people of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) get 80% of their energy from renewables ...

Ah, the "noble savage" who can teach all us "lost souls" how to reconnect to nature, except ...

All this is not because Africa is green, but because it is poor. Some 2% of the continent’s energy needs are met by hydro-electricity, and 78% by humanity’s oldest “renewable” fuel: wood. This leads to heavy deforestation and lethal indoor air pollution, which kills 1.3 million people each year.

Nobody wants to hear this, but humanity's journey through phases of economic development has progressively de-carbonized our energy sources, moving us from wood (don't even ask) to coal (high CO2 emissions) to oil (lower) to natural gas (still lower) to (God forbid!) nuclear (very low) and ultimately hydrogen (way low if generated by nuclear power plants).  Thus, to be pristine is to be incredibly dirty – by today's environmental standard.

But let's skip all that, say the visionaries ...

What Africa needs, according to many activists, is to be dotted with solar panels and wind turbines ...

Right on!  Fast-forward to the good parts! Like we finally figured out how to do – emphasis on the word finally:

Europe and North America became rich thanks to cheap, plentiful power. In 1800, 94% of all global energy came from renewables, almost all of it wood and plant material. In 1900, renewables provided 41% of all energy; even at the end of World War II, renewables still provided 30% of global energy. Since 1971, the share of renewables has bottomed out, standing at around 13.5% today. Almost all of this is wood, with just 0.5% from solar and wind.

YaleWeird fact: the most developed countries in the world today tend to be the most environmentally "clean," while the least developed tend to be the most trashed. The big difference: people with money have the option to care.

So what should we reasonably demand of Africa? After all, it's home to droughts and famine that would rival America's Arizona – if the latter wasn't populated with retirees with enough wealth to make both problems go away with the swipe of a card.

... By 2040, in the IEA’s optimistic scenario, solar power in Sub-Saharan Africa will produce 14kWh per person per year, less than what is needed to keep a single two-watt LED permanently lit. The IEA also estimates that renewable power will still cost more, on average, than any other source – oil, gas, nuclear, coal, or hydro, even with a carbon tax ...

Oh my.  Still, wouldn't it be more fair to ask Africans to forego all that dehumanizing consumption for a simpler, more satisfying – and admittedly far shorter – life? Lomborg suggests "no":

Few in the rich world would switch to renewables without heavy subsidies, and certainly no one would cut off their connection to the mostly fossil-fuel-powered grid that provides stable power on cloudy days and at night (another form of subsidy). Yet Western activists seem to believe that the world’s worst-off people should be satisfied with inadequate and irregular electricity supplies.

I believe we call that "living off the grid," and doesn't that make you a better and happier person?

In its recent Africa Energy Outlook, the IEA estimates that Africa’s energy consumption will increase by 80% by 2040; but, with the continent’s population almost doubling, less energy per person will be available...

Providing more – and more reliable – power to almost two billion people will increase GDP by 30% in 2040. Each person on the continent will be almost $1,000 better off every year.

Hmm.  That sounds like they'll just be lost to the "rat race" of modern consumerism (he sanctimoniously intoned, pecking away at his $1,000 laptop in his toasty-warm Madison Wisconsin home mid-winter).

But what about the costs of his selfish hedonism?

In other words, the total costs of the “African Century,” including climate- and health-related costs, would amount to $170 billion. The total benefits, at $8.4 trillion, would be almost 50 times higher.

The same general argument probably holds for India and other developing countries . . .

Annoying, isn't he?

But let's be clear about his argument, brushing aside the usual straw-man criticism that he cares not for the environment:

One day, innovation could drive down the price of future green energy to the point that it lifts people out of poverty more effectively than fossil fuels do. Globally, we should invest much more in such innovation. (emphasis mine) But global warming will not be fixed by hypocritically closing a path out of poverty to the world’s poor.

Just think about how much we in the North now naturally obsess over our own perceived lack of resilience or brittleness in the face of today's global complexity, uncertainty, and challenges. And then imagine doing that on a dirt floor in a one-room hut in rural southern Ethiopia while you breath in the fumes from your dung-fueled cookstove.

Which sounds easier to you?

We all want to manage this world with greater care, more foresight, and kind accommodation of each another's basic and higher needs. And we will get there, increasing our collective resilience as we go. We just won't take any shortcuts, nor leave anybody behind - much less ask them to do so to make up for our past transgressions.


The Stunning Cancer Experiment That Is China, And How It Might Just Improve The World

IF NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION, THEN TRAGEDY IS THE MOTHER OF RESILIENCE. Right now China, home to 19% of the world's population, is enduring a national tragedy when it comes to environmental pollution delivering carcinogens to the citizenry, who, in turn, now suffer extraordinary cancer rates. That's the bad news. The good new is that China, like so many economic "risers" before it, is certain to surmount its local pollution issues as its per-capita income reaches that level - seen in previously industrialized nations like the UK and the US - when the public begins to prefer a cleaner environment more than that next additional bit of income.

Environmntal_Kuznets_CurvePer the observed Kuznets Curve on environmental damage suffered by industrializing nations, we know that countries, when they traverse a certain per-capita income trajectory, begin to clean things up.  London's famous "fog" of the 19th century was really coal-burning-generated smog, and New York of a century ago was amazingly unhealthful due to local pollution.  But each metropolis, reflecting larger national trends, eventually cleaned themselves up. Better-off citizens simply began prioritizing that demand in political discourse, elections, candidates and the like. Didn't happen overnight, but like with everything witnessed in today's globalization era, we should expect it to happen at record speed with China.

(And yes, the environmental Kuznets Curve is subject to two key criticisms: 1) nations often clean-up by moving their dirtier industries to other nations (pollution haven effect); and 2) the notion applies well to local pollution, but not to global pollution of the sort represented by CO2 emissions. Of course, from my economic determinist perspective, these caveats only highlight the need to bring along - even faster - the less-developed parts of the global economy, so that they too reach proper national "incentivization" levels.)

But no matter how fast it happens, China's frightening cancer experiment is just beginning. Yes, we can cite the high smoking rates of the sort not seen in the U.S. since the 1940s-50s - a development that led to our own cancer-treatment boom in the 1960s-70s (when systematic work on virtually all of today's treatment protocols began).  But that's only responsible (it is estimated) for roughly one-quarter of China's current explosion of cancer cases. Another huge chunk is due to the population's unremitting exposure to carcinogens in their environment - the dark cost of the nation's rapid industrialization of the past several decades.

Now we get word of just how costly that trajectory, which lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, is turning out to be in the realm of cancer.

From the Medical Daily website (along with the scary photo above, credited as bl  michael davis-burchat, CC by 2.0):

new report illuminates one aspect of this country’s current reality — the health of its citizens. Researchers estimate China endured 2.8 million cancer deaths during 2015 and 4.3 million new cancer cases, with lung cancer the most common of all.

“Cancer incidence and mortality have been increasing in China, making cancer the leading cause of death since 2010 and a major public health problem in the country,” wrote the researchers. Quality data from population-based registries has recently become available through the National Central Cancer Registry of China, giving researchers a better view of the country's health.

The key to the new understanding is meta-analysis of cancer registries around the country - in other words, Big Data to the rescue:

To penetrate the shadows and learn more about the current situation, a team of scientists from the American Cancer Society, University of Sydney, and National Cancer Center Beijing used mortality data compiled by 72 local cancer registries to estimate the numbers of cancer deaths in China in 2015.

Given the recent, rapid industrialization and the relative infancy of anti-smoking public campaigns in China, it's no surprise that the nation "outperforms" it global population share of 19% by accounting for 22% of new cancer diagnoses and a whopping 27% of global cancer deaths. But what really sticks out is the distribution of cases across organs:

Specifically, the four most common cancers diagnosed in China are lung, stomach, liver and esophageal cancer, representing 57 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the country. By comparison, these cancers account for only 18 percent of total incidence in the United States.

Have no doubt, Chinese are living longer and - in general - more healthy lives. As the study also notes, mortality rates have plummeted in the last decade alone - 21 percent for both males and females.  That's amazing.

But that also makes the spiking rise of invasive and fatal cancer cases all the prominent. People are living longer in China, but dying harder - and local pollution is the rising killer.

“Outdoor air pollution, considered to be among the worst in the world, indoor air pollution through heating and cooking using coal and other biomass fuels, and the contamination of soil and drinking water mean that the Chinese population is exposed to many environmental carcinogens,” wrote the authors.

Some efforts are being made to reduce the burden of environmental pollution in China, they say. Though the effects of these endeavors will not be felt immediately, the rates of cancer deaths could be reduced by increasing the effectiveness of care and treatment, particularly among the disadvantaged and those living in rural areas, the researchers conclude.

Having spent a lot of time in China over the past decade, I can attest to the scary nature of the air quality. Typically, I just start on antibiotics the minute my jet touches down, knowing that the expose will send my sinuses into acute infection - like clockwork. Frankly, it's why I turned down a full-time job offer last year from a Chinese enterprise: it wasn't just the personal health cost I feared, but what it would do to my kids once they made it over. It's when highly-skilled and globally mobile workers - both outside and inside China - start basing job decisions on local pollution that the political tipping point gets reached, simply because the profound economic costs begin to make themselves readily known.

China will process its peaking pollution by massing state resources and power to make it happen, and the government will do this - to a great extent - to avoid the public's political wrath.  The same will happen with China's burgeoning cancer treatment industry. Both efforts will leave China far more resilient on the far side of this development "hump," and the world will likely benefit greatly from the nation's great push on both subjects - just like it did before when Western economic giants went through similar growing pains.


Climate Change Tests Metropolitan Resilience With Wider Array Of Weather Dynamics

I RECENTLY MET A SAN DIEGAN - A TRANSPLANT FROM WISCONSIN (WHERE I LIVE) - AND SHE WAS FLABBERGASTED TO NOTE A RECENT TORNADO WARNING THERE, COURTESY OF EL NINO.  Having grown up with tornados in southwestern Wisconsin, I was curious to discover how often this happens in sunny southern California, and, according to the Tornado History Project, it's not all that often - roughly once every 6-7 years for the immediate San Diego metro area. Having endured 6-7 such warnings every summer as a kid, that strikes me as pretty rare, so, sure, when they happen in San Diego, it must seem awfully exotic - like an earthquake in Wisconsin.

Well, with humanity having so reshaped the planet's surface and atmosphere these past decades and centuries, what were once outliers in probability are becoming more routine.  Yes, fewer people die in disasters today than in decades past - something like 98% fewer people compared to 1900! But the costs and the dislocations are clearly rising with serious speed.  Per the US Global Change Research Program's recent National Climate Assessment Assessment, we can cite the following extreme-weather trends:

As the world has warmed, that warming has triggered many other changes to the Earth’s climate. Changes in extreme weather and climate events, such as heat waves and droughts, are the primary way that most people experience climate change. Human-induced climate change has already increased the number and strength of some of these extreme events. Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts ...

Heat waves are periods of abnormally hot weather lasting days to weeks. The number of heat waves has been increasing in recent years. This trend has continued in 2011 and 2012, with the number of intense heat waves being almost triple the long-term average. The recent heat waves and droughts in Texas (2011) and the Midwest (2012) set records for highest monthly average temperatures. Analyses show that human-induced climate change has generally increased the probability of heat waves., And prolonged (multi-month) extreme heat has been unprecedented since the start of reliable instrumental records in 1895 ...

Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased. Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average. This increase has been greatest in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains – more than 30% above the 1901-1960 average. There has also been an increase in flooding events in the Midwest and Northeast, where the largest increases in heavy rain amounts have occurred.CS_extreme-precip-index_13263_V9

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades ...

The mechanism driving these changes is well understood. Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air. Global analyses show that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has in fact increased due to human-caused warming.,,,This extra moisture is available to storm systems, resulting in heavier rainfalls. Climate change also alters characteristics of the atmosphere that affect weather patterns and storms ...

Flooding may intensify in many U.S. regions, even in areas where total precipitation is projected to decline. A flood is defined as any high flow, overflow, or inundation by water that causes or threatens damage. Floods are caused or amplified by both weather- and human-related factors. Major weather factors include heavy or prolonged precipitation, snowmelt, thunderstorms, storm surges from hurricanes, and ice or debris jams. Human factors include structural failures of dams and levees, altered drainage, and land-cover alterations (such as pavement) ...

There has been a substantial increase in most measures of Atlantic hurricane activity since the early 1980s, the period during which high quality satellite data are available.,,These include measures of intensity, frequency, and duration as well as the number of strongest (Category 4 and 5) storms. The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through. Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research ...

Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, and their tracks have shifted northward over the United States., Other trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds, are uncertain and are being studied intensively. There has been a sizable upward trend in the number of storms causing large financial and other losses. However, there are societal contributions to this trend, such as increases in population and wealth.

All this is to say that US metropolitan areas should expect to suffer weather "freak-outs" on a far more consistent basis in coming years and decades - over a far wider array of dynamics. Right now we're witnessing such a freak-out in the Washington DC area, and, I can tell you, having lived there for years myself, it is indeed a freak-out primarily because local, state and federal agencies there simply don't put in the time and effort to work these extreme winter storms (either in advance or during) and because so much of the population living there is un-experienced in navigating their way amidst such conditions.  And yet, it grows ever more obvious that major US metro areas will be forced to deal with such extreme-weather events on a far more regular basis, meaning those skills will need to be developed and honed - by everyone throughout the government, society, and economy.

Per the NOAA chart above, we will measure these events primarily in damages incurred (private insurance, publicly-funded reconstruction) and lost economic activity (business continuity), and yes, that is a huge improvement over the age-old statistic of lives lost. But we are talking about metropolitan governments needing to be "masters" of so many more "domains" over time that it's clear there will need to be a lot more transparency, planning, and preparation efforts jointly pursued by private and public-sector entities.

You know the old joke about a conservative being a former liberal who once got robbed? Well, a resilience-aware executive/political leader is oftentimes simply someone who's had to answer for a weak response to an extreme-weather event.



Transparency Begets Measurability Begets Improvement Begets Resilience

YOU CANNOT IMPROVE AN INDUSTRIAL ACTIVITY THAT YOU CANNOT MEASURE, BUT YOU CANNOT MEASURE THAT ACTIVITY IF THE INDUSTRY ISN'T BEING HONEST. The world's fisheries are under a great deal of stress right now, between pollution and rising ocean acidity triggered by higher CO2 absorption rates. Unsurprisingly, the more regulated Western nations, having themselves long overfished, now do a much better job of measuring and managing fish stock. But with the ballooning middle class emerging across the East and South, two global regions even more given to eating fish than the West, the pressure for bigger catches is immense among those very nations featuring weaker governments and regulatory oversight, begetting a classic "tragedy of the commons" that is now being addressed by an aggressive expansion of aquaculture (fishing "farms") across Asia, which, in turn, generates new and profound environmental stresses along that continent's littoral zones.


The key to managing fish stocks is reliable data, which is hard to come by, the crucial requirement being open and transparent cooperation among commercial fishing firms and the scientific community. Where is that going to best happen? Where the regulatory environment is strongest.

However, a recent study suggests that, on a global basis, fish catches are systematically under-reported:

Tens of millions more tons of fish have been taken from the seas than are recorded in official statistics, suggests a huge and controversial project aiming to estimate the ‘true catch’ of the world’s fishing industry.

The work is detailed in a paper in Nature Communications by fisheries researchers Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and it builds on a decade-long project that has drawn in hundreds of researchers from around the world.

According to Pauly and Zeller, global fisheries catches hit a peak of 130 million tons a year in 1996, and they have been declining strongly since then. This is substantially higher than the data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which report that catches reached 86 million tons in 1996 and have fallen only slightly.

Actually, when you look at the above chart (note the typo on the vertical axis) that compares the two estimates (FAO v Sea Around Us), they appear to track with one another fairly tightly, with the new estimate just consistently higher throughout (roughly 50-60% larger).  But that's the point: if your most closely watched official estimate (FAO) is off by as much as one-third (underestimating the "damage"), then your calculations of fish-population resilience are likely to be significantly off.

Here's the real issue in data collection - a weak global authority relying on the honesty of member countries that are highly incentivized to low-ball their numbers to avoid criticism/penalties/etc.:

The FAO numbers have long been the only estimate of how many tons of fish are caught at a global level. But “the FAO doesn’t have a mandate to correct the data they get,” Pauly told journalists during a conference call.

This leaves the organization reliant mainly on the numbers submitted by member countries, he says, and “the countries have the bad habit to report only the data they see”. This means that many official statistics do not account for a huge amount of the world’s fisheries catch, such as that by small-scale and subsistence fisheries or fish thrown back as ‘discards’—species other than those being hunted.

To fill in the holes in official statistics, Pauly’s team embarked on an epic project to supplement the official baseline data from member nations. This included using results from peer-reviewed research, interviews with local specialists and consumption information from population surveys.

What I really about Pauly's team effort: it goes above and beyond the usual official reporting requirements and attempts to amass bigger data that yields more accurate truths.




The pollution trigger in China

I love that building.  Locals in Beijing have dubbed it the "squatting man" or some such (you get the idea), indicating that the Chinese sense of humor is as fine as anybody else's.

But patience wears thin on the subject of pollution, which is stunning to behold in China - as in, take my allergy issues in Indiana and times it by 10 in terms of the resulting agony.

Here we see the same fundamental failure of authoritarian rule that we saw in the Soviet Union:  when the state has unbridled power, it trashes the environment.  The Soviets took that sin to amazing depths, but the Chinese are rapidly closing in on those horrific standards.

And yes, democracy is the answer - the only answer.  We bitch about the BANANAs and NIMBYs (look 'em up) in the US, but frankly, these cranks do God's work day-in and day-out - along with our legal system.  Give me one Erin Brockovitch over a million Maos (or even a hundred Dengs) and we will all live in a much better world.

The strongest grass-roots democratization dynamics inside China involve the environment.  Some of the best progressive elements within the US during our similar out-of-control developmental age (late 19th century) were likewise focused (and again, TR leads the way politically).  It's the easiest and most direct trigger to the whole "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" dynamic that fuels democratization.  You simply push people too far with your incompetence and indifference.

Yes, the new generation of CCP leaders seems far more aware of the issue - Li  Keqiang especially.  But as the NYT front-pager today points out, that lofty talk doesn't surmount the bureaucratic infighting within the single-party state.  Here is where the lack of an out-of-power party is crucial.  No one can sweep in with an electoral mandate to clean things up - hence, nothing significant gets accomplished.  

The great dynamic of America's Progressive Era was that parties won big and ruled big, whether they were Dems or Republicans.  That's how stuff (new rules) got done and things improved dramatically.

That's also what we lack today with the evenly-and-deeply-divided Boomer-centric electorate - hence our deep need for reforms as well.  But at least we have the system in place for when the electorate gets fed-up enought to force action.

China lacks this, and it's getting to be a huge hindrance to its further progress as a nation.


WAPO WonkBlog: "What will we smuggle in the future? Drones, coal, and honeybees."

Psst, got any HCFC-22?Everybody’s making predictions for 2013 right now, but why not aim farther? Recently, the consultancy group Wikistrat ran a large crowd-sourced simulation to try to figure out what sorts of items would be smuggled in 2050.

That’s right, smuggled. The idea is that you can tell a lot about a society by what’s available on its black markets. And over the next four decades the combination of new technologies, environmental pressures and shifting consumer preferences is likely to lead to a whole slew of products and behaviors being banned or restricted.

So here’s what Wikistrat expects will thrive on the black market by 2050. Note that the group mainly focused on identifying new types of contraband — no doubt old crowd favorites like drugs and guns will still be trafficked for decades to come:

Read the entire post at WAPO's WonkBlog.

The pic and caption are apt.  I got the idea for designing the sim from reading a newspaper account of how freon is now a smuggle-able item. Of course, we used it for decades in air conditioning units, but then, about 20 years ago, it was ordered phased out by an international treaty.  So voila!  Two decades later it's perfectly illegal - in some parts of the world, thus the smugglers' market.

Well, that got me thinking:  If we project ahead to 2050, which of today's legal items would become illegal? (And no, I disagree with the blog author noting that we "omitted" foreign arable land sales and leasing as "unconventional" smuggling, because that's an abuse of the term when the item in question cannot be moved across sovereign borders.  Although the concept makes me laugh to remember Woody Allen's "Love and Death" where his Russian father carries around a chunk of sod, pulling it out for friends and declaring, "Someday, I hope to build on it!")

Several dozen analysts cranked a few dozen ideas.  I then grouped them and wrote up the report.  It was a pretty good sim, and it generated (as I suspected it might) the right kind of material that a MSM outlet might like to publicize.

Access the full Wikistrat report (PDF) here and the executive summary too.


Getting Arctic hydrocarbons will be a lot harder than anticipated

FT special report on Canadian energy that highlights the difficulties of accessing Arctic oil and gas and bringing it economically to market.

First is the sheer remoteness.  Then there's the extremely hostile environment.  Even with the ice-clearing in the summer, the genuine window for exploitation is still measured in weeks.  Everything you use must be special built, platforms with extreme reliability.

And the fields in question need to be big - really big - to cover the high costs.  

In short, only the majors and supermajors should apply, because only they will have the "financial firepower."

This is all before governments issue ever stringent safety requirements to protect the environment, a bar that rises with each Deepwater Horizon.

Finally, there's how you get it to market, with the big choice being between fixed pipelines and ice-class shuttle tankers.  Neither is cheap.

Just a bit of cold water thrown on the anticipated "bonanza."

I note it with interest as I write the final report (while traveling most of the week) for Wikistrat's recent "How the Arctic Was Won" simulation.


Fracking confronts the reality of limited water resources

WSJ piece noting that all this hydralic fracturing (fracking) is coming up against local water limits.  Already, US fracking uses water on par with the city of Chicago or Houston.

So the industry jumps into figuring out how to reuse the water multiple times by cleaning it up (not enough for drinking but enough to reuse).  Already in PA the percentage use of recycled water is up to 17% this year, jumping from 13% last year.

This is a huge issue, because we're looking at 1 million more fracking wells globally by 2035, according to Schlumberger (oilfield services co.).  The issue is expressed both in unwanted externalities (enviro risks/damage) and cost within the industry (acquiring and disposing).

Something to keep an eye on, as the industry competes with Mother Nature (climate change), agriculture and urbanization globally.


The Chinese Communist Party comes up with new "test" for industrial projects

Thanks to growing grass-roots protests by Chinese citizens over big industrial projects, the NYT reports that the government there now says all such plans must pass a "social risk assessment" prior to final approval.  

Interesting choice of terms, yes?  The environmental impact is what the people worry about, but it's the "social risk" that gets the government interested.  Apparently this has been done in some local governments for a while now (the experiment, per the Chinese way) and now it's being adopted on national scale.

China already has environmental impact studies, and now the government says (as of 1 Sept) that they must be posted on the internet (also interesting).

Environmental minister says, "By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future."

The tipping point?

Enviro protests used to attract only the old and retired.  Then the young started showing up in numbers, and that's when the Party got scared.

China is, as I argue, on the verge of a huge and prolonged progressive era.  All sorts of things to clean up. Each time such steps are taken, just a bit more power to the people - always defensively offered by the government.


China not-so-bad sign: no longer growth-at-all-costs

Nice NYT story on growth of (primarily) middle class resistance to unlimited growth ambitions WRT environmental damage.  Most experts who track the grass-root democracy arising in China have noted its strong concentration in the environmental realm.  

It's a natural development that we've seen everywhere else a middle class historically arises:  once you get to a certain level of GDP ($4-7,000) you start caring about the environment a whole lot more.

Chart shows all the places where projects have been delayed/cancelled in response to popular demands.

Point being:  all part of the natural slowdown in growth that comes with modernization.  Things get more complex.  The public puts up with less crap.  China is not different in this regard whatsoever.

As I've noted for years now, Asian countries that modernize and open up to globalization typically do so as single-party states (either explicit or de facto) for about 5 decades.  Then things change.

That logic says China goes democratic in the 2020s - or faster.


Where is the world is Wikistrat?

A graphic listing most - but not all - of the sims conducted by Wikistrat this year.  The point is to display the breadth and the volume.  Be impressed, because you should be.

Wikistrat's sims aren't a year in the planning.  Client names the subject and we're off and running in days.  Why? All Wikistrat needs is a framework and then we turn the analysts loose on the scenarios.  The company don't spend countless man-hours narrowing down the range of possibilities so that 95% of the uncertainty and surprise is drained from the exercise by the time we actually start it.  Wikistrat can customize the structure to your concerns and then it brings the masses in to run with that structure and take it places you - the client - hadn't considered.

That approach allows for a huge mapping of possibilities.  You want to find the needle in the haystack?  Well, Wikistrat can run through that hay awfully damn quick.

Spend a minute and see if you can guess the four sims that were my ideas . . .


First one was China as Africa's de facto World Bank.  I'm pretty sure that was based on a WSJ headline noting that tipping point.  It ended up positing a lot of interesting intersection points between the US and China on the continent. Sim ended up generating both a report and a briefing by me.

Second one was the North American Energy Export Boom.  There was a time when Wikistrat asked me what I'd most like to explore in terms of near-term uncertainty in the system, and the whole fracking thing just jumped out at me:  Which way does it go?  Does it work out big-time for the US and - ultimately - the world?  Or does it get aborted like nuclear power for enviro reasons?  That was a very strong sim in terms of output, and all that material (final report and my brief) still tracks incredibly well with headlines.  All we did is simply systematize all those possibilities, organizing them into four major trajectories (usual X-Y approach). But the upshot was, anybody who goes through that stuff now has the capacity to process all the headlines to come.

Third one was the China slowdown sim.  That one's been in my mind since I wrote the piece for Esquire back in the fall of 2010 (it came out in the Jan '11 issue).  The idea came to me in the summer of 2010 and it took a while to sell it to the magazine, but it looks fairly prescient today, doesn't it?  Anyway, a very solid sim that ran down all manner of possibilities, and I really loved the quartet of scenarios we came up with (which drew comparisons to historical risers).  Great report and probably the strongest brief I've yet done for WS.

Fourth one was "when China's carrier entered the Gulf."  Wikistrat asked me to generate a host of possible sims way back when, and that was one of them. Just a simple logical progression argument, with the trick being imagining all the possibilities when that inevitability unfolds.  Hence the sim, which turned out great, along with a solid report.  And this one was only a "mini-sim" by WS standards:  just a brainstorming drill on scenarios with a quick follow-up on policy options.  Mostly junior analysts, but the output was as good as anything I've seen from the National Intelligence Council - seriously.

Two on the list I didn't really have anything to do with: NATO and Pakistan.  First one was driven by a client's curiousity.  Second one is just a natural "what if?"  Both turned out quite nicely.

The Democratic Peace Theory Challenged sim is another one I did not design, and I will admit that, at first blush, I didn't much care for the subject.  I was brought in to work the design and shaped it somewhat, but I truly had low expectations.  In truth, those were exceeded by a long shot.  The material needed more shaping than usual, because the sim had a theoretical bent, but what I ended up with at the end in the final report was . . . to my surprise . . . quite strong - I mean, present at a poli sci/IR conference strong (or walk into any command and brief strong).  It easily could have veered into all sorts of panic mongering, but instead it organized a universe of possibilities very neatly.  I was really proud of the overall effort, and it reminded me not to get too judgmental going into sims.

The Syria sim I didn't design, nor did I oversee its operation.  That Wikistrat left to junior versions of myself.  I was brought in at the end to shape the first draft of the report, and, while I moved things around plenty, the material held up very nicely to my critical eye, which is encouraging.  If Wikistrat is going to handle all the volume coming down the pike (contractual relationships are piling up at a daunting rate), then the Chief Analyst position needs to be like that of any traditional RAND-like player:  that person needs to be able to shape things a bit at the start and then at the end, but mid-range staff need to be able to herd all those cats and the resulting material. So that one felt like a nice maturation of the process, because, like with any successful start-up, the real challenge isn't marketing but execution.

This graphic, for some sad reason, skips the headlining sim of the year to date:  When Israel Strikes Iran.  That one I had a lot of fun with, giving it my years-in-the-testing phased approach (initial conditions, trigger, unfolding, peak, glide path, exit, new normal).  That approach goes back to my Y2K work and later after-action on the Station Nightclub fire disaster in Rhode Island (done for the local United Way to provide lessons learned on how well the organization responded). That was the most structurally ambitious Wikistrat sim to date and it - unsurprisingly - produced the best material by far. I'd put that final report and brief up against anything the best elements of the US national security establishment could produce . . . naturally at about 20 times the cost and five times the duration of effort.

The graphic also doesn't include the most recent sims.  I just finished a final report on The Globally Crystalizing Climate Change Event (one of mine), and, despite the great time projection, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the material holds up in the report.  I thought the analysts did a great job there.

Based on that fine crowd performance, Wikistrat pushes the community even harder in the just-wrapping-up sim entitled When World Population Peaks.  This one was truly challenging, but my point in designing the sim was almost to purposefully "test out" analysts in the manner of a language-skills oral exam, meaning I wanted something almost too hard for most analysts so as to press both them and the supervising analysts on how they handled it.  Think of it like a NASA sim where Control is trying to crash the lunar module.  That was a bit stressful, I think, for a lot of the community who participated, but - to me - it was like a nasty cross-country workout (I am assistant coaching my kid's team again for the 8th year in a row and I'm on my third kid) early in the season:  bit of a bitch mentally and physically, but it'll pay off down the road.

Yes, Wikistrat does take all its sims - even the training ones - very seriously.  If you're not growing then you're dying - simple as that.  Start-ups have to have that survival-of-the-fittest mentality and we're talking about a small firm that's come out of nowhere (okay, Israel) in just three years.

So, a nice overview of the year, and it's an impressive body of work.  Would you believe me if I told you that all of it was accomplished within a timeframe and with a far smaller budget that one of those bloated wargames that Booz Allen runs for the Pentagon?

Well, if you did, then you'd know why Wikistrat is going to succeed in this cutthroat business.


Don't export US natural gas!

Also per the recent Wikistrat simulation, a weird alliance of environmentalists and the US chemical industry getting together to try and put a halt to ambitious plans to export natural gas as LNG (liquid natural gas), something that big buyers like Japan are lobbying to see happen.  The enviros don't want all the greenhouse gases released by fracking (mostly methane), and the chemical companies want all that cheap gas to be hoarded by the US economy to keep its feedstock flow as cost-advantageous as possible (ultimately allowing that export profit to be somewhat hoarded by the chemical industry).

If all the planned LNG export facilities were built, as much as 1/4 of US nat gas production could go abroad.

We are now 7 years past when Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned Congress that America needed to build more import terminals.

Peak this!


How you pressure the Chinese into reforms

What Beijingers refer to (roughly) as "the man taking a dump" building, because it looks like somebody squatting over a toilet.US officials trying to get China to go public with genuinely accurate smog/pollution data, but Beijing refuses, despite the obvious nature of the extreme air pollution in the city and elsewhere.

So instead of a frontal assault, the US Embassy just starts posting its own readings on the web via Twitter.

Beijing now becomes the first Chinese city to publish hourly readings based on the preffered tight measurement standard of (PM2.5, which measures the tinier particles that go deep into the lungs). The presumptive new premier, Li Keqiang, gearing up for his own "Grandpa Wen" model, made a public plea for this three weeks ago.

Nicely done, US Embassy.


Chart of the Day: Isn't a coincidence that the two biggest energy consumers . . .

 . . . happen to own the world's two largest reserves of shale gas?

Nice timing, huh?

The trick, of course, is the environmental impact.  American companies don't want to reveal their techniques, but the public needs to know so we can judge the impact and enforce the necessary precautions.

How that works and what volumes that ultimately allows us to extract is a big variable going forward.

With China, one assumes the niceties are not observed - until the riots start.


The environmental cost of natural gas fraccing

Solid NYT piece that shows we're just beginning the Erin Brockovitch-style fights over the environmental impact of natural gas fracturing methods.  

I expect the news will get worse before it gets better, but that it'll be a good process of discovery that forces more careful extraction techniques and technologies.

So, bring on the lawyers, say I.


Chart of the Day: the much hyped Chinese lead on green technology investment

Bloomberg Businessweek story about America "sitting out the race" on green technology, noting that a lot of American venture capitalists are putting there money into China, where the market seems more "secure."

This is why:

If America had air like that, we'd have a bigger market.  If we had China's skyrocketing oil and electricity demand, things would be different too, but, frankly, I wouldn't want either.

China's combination of cheap labor and extreme need will make it hard for America to match, especially with a Congress that seems incapable of moving on such issues.  Will China get all these investments right?  Not by a long shot, but I expect a lot of pundits on our side to look at China's mad dash with a lot of envy.  China is expected to spent close to a trillion dollars over the next decade, which I would consider to be a pretty good use for its money.

No question we want to reduce our trade imbalance with China and boost our exports in general, but again, it gets awfully hard to compete with the sort of necessity China is facing, and all that cash, and all that cheap labor.


Chart of the Day: More acidic oceans

From The Economist. 

Basic chemistry:

As carbon dioxide levels go up, pH levels come down.  Acidity depends on the presence of hydrogen ions (the H in pH) and more hydrogen ions mean, counterintuitively, a lower pH.  Expose the surface of the ocean to an atmosphere with ever more carbon dioxide, and the gas and waters will produce carbonic acid, lowering pH on a planetary scale.  The declining pH does not actually make the waters acidic (they started off mildly alkaline).  But it makes them more acidic, just as turning up the light makes a dark room brighter.

Additionally, more hydrogen ions mean more bicarbonate ions and fewer carbonate ions, the latter of which is used by corals and shellfish.  So fewer carbonate ions means slower coral growth and thinner shells.

The increasing acidification of the world’s oceans is referred to as global warming’s evil twin, because the rapid change is expected to wreak all sort of havoc with sea life.


Globalization’s most important politicians will be mayors—not presidents

pic here

Increasingly, I view the globalized world as a network of interconnected coastal megacities.  Get that network right in all its complexity and security, and you’ve covered much of the flows that define globalization (energy, people, money, security, food, etc.).  Doing that in a sustainable environmental fashion and you’ve conquered so much more of the enduring challenges associated with globalization’s continued—and rapid—ramp up.

Here’s a Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece (and yes, the mag is a lot better with Bloomberg attached, I will say) that says major metros increasingly lead the way in the global fights against carbon emissions.  As Toronto’s mayor puts it, “We’re not going to wait for national politicians.”

I think this is true the world over—and a good sign.  Cities share new ideas more easily and faster than nation-states.  Mayors, as a rule, are far more pragmatic than national pols.

Why this especially makes sense on the environment:  major cities, over the past century, have already experienced temperature rises equivalent to what’s predicted for this century due to global warming.  This has happened because of the heat-sink effect created by all those buildings, infrastructure, operations, etc.  Cities are just unnaturally warmer than rural areas.

The variations here globally are profound:  70% of Tokyo residents make their way other than by car; in Houston it’s 95% the other way.

Let the experiments begin!


Why BP should go down

For the record, this is not a great photo op realized.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek pair.

In the lead editorial, Paul Barrett goes after Obama with some cause, saying he knows the president can’t do a whole lot about the spill but that he could make something larger out of it instead of bragging on TV that he talks to experts so he knows who’s ass to kick (when Obama talks tough, he summons his inner Mike Dukakis, spicing his language in oh-so-calculated a fashion).

The bit that caught my eye:  the characterization that the USG was basically unprepared for any deep-water blowout, expecting that the private sector would have such assets in the ready.  BP’s true guilt (as accidents and operational stupidity will happen) is not having those assets in its toolkit—CEO Tony Heyward’s explicit admission. 

That to me is enough for BP to be demolished—not by the government but by shareholders.  This is basic insurance thinking:  low-probability all right but stunning high impact, so you HAVE to carry the requisite insurance, especially when we’re talking the money involved, both upside and downside.  For BP to have taken a flyer on this is just inexcusably dumb.

And dumb companies should die.

But even more annoying than that, and here you have to think Obama could be doing more than just holding Oval Office confabs, is the way BP has hogged control of the response effort while exhibiting a “we’ll-get-back-to-you” mindset on all the ideas flooding their way.

The numbers, say BBW, run like this:  35k ideas submitted, with 800 making the first cut, and 4 ideas tried to date.  You’ve got 200 words to describe your approach to the 70 workers fielding call.  Close to four dozen engineers evaluate the incoming.  They come from BP, the US Coast Guard, and various USG agencies. 

The complaint of serious companies with seriously proven technologies for capturing oil in water?  Everybody comes out of the woodwork when disaster strikes, so the kooky drown out the credible.

But again, my point is, BP shouldn’t be fielding ideas for God’s sake.  That stuff should have all been filed over the past years, leading to action—not some sophomoric all-nighter effort (“Oh my God!  Get me ideas for soaking up oil—stat!”).

When you operate on that level of strategic brittleness, you, Mr. Dinosaur, deserve to die when the big meteor hits.