Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rape Pillage and Burn

California's record drought has been making the news, and its images from NASA have gone viral (above). It's the result of a long-term shift into drought conditions, exacerbated by climate change. However, the unseen tragedy unfolding beneath our feet is the groundwater dessication that's been happening over the years as water has been extracted by wells for urban areas and agricultural use to compensate for growth and development that exceeds the normal capacity of the local aquifers. This is partly because water laws in the western United States are based upon the Homestead Act instead of common law. At this point, the ground beneath our feet has literally no moisture in it, and our trees are beginning to die. This is what a long drought does to natural systems, and it's made exponentially worse by the groundwater retreat throughout our southwestern watersheds.

The groundwater level in the San Bernardino Basin area is at its lowest point in recorded history.That would put it below the previous low recorded in 1964, a period that followed a 20-year drought. A study now reveals that the Colorado River Basin drying up faster than previously thought.In the past nine years, the basin — which covers Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California — has lost about 65 cubic kilometers of fresh water, nearly double the volume of the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. That figure surprised the study’s authors, who used data from a NASA weather satellite to investigate groundwater supplies.These groundwater supplies take a century to recover, if ever. As our drought deepens, this situation takes on nightmarish proportions as farmers begin to drill ever deeper to save their unsustainable crops, going far beyond historic well depths.

The grimmest part of this picture is the unregulated fracking that's now taking place in California, since it was allowed starting back when the EPA was restricted by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that excluded hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Underground Injection Control’s regulation. The Bush administration was very interested in supporting companies like Texas-based Halliburton in its rape, pillage and burn model. California farmers are alarmed as energy companies outbid ag water districts for resources, the most obscene aspect of the fracking issue. Millions of gallons of groundwater are polluted and used up while agriculture and urban areas go dry. Out-of-state, (primarily Texas-headquartered) energy companies with deep pockets from record profits and the strongest lobby in Sacramento are anxious to extract as much severance tax-free California oil from the ground as quickly as possible.Anticipating that a Democratic two-thirds majority could finally mean an end to their decades long free ride they spent so much political action money achieving, not just Exxon/Mobil, but Texaco, Chevron and British Petroleum are all outbidding agricultural water interests by a 3-to-1 margin.

The California water market has been roiled with skyhigh prices. Some water economists have called for more regulations to keep aquifers from being depleted and ensure the market is not subject to manipulation such as that seen in the energy crisis of summer 2001, when the state was besieged by rolling blackouts caused by the Enron (Texas-headquartered) electrical market manipulations before its scheme imploded.The prices are so high in some rural pockets that water auctions have become a spectacle. For example, the California-based wine industry is fighting to maintain its resources of clean water against these petroleum companies.

Meantime, the California regulators have not seen fit to exercise their oversight of fracking, specifically the Division of Oil and Gas of the California Department of Conservation, probably for longstanding politcal reasons as well as a lack of awareness of its impacts. What has been considered a "bridge" to clean power is actually a "green" road to hell.

Some of many nonprofit groups working with residents to stop fracking in this state are Clean Water Action and the The Environmental Working Group. They act as public advocates to try to shut down the fracking formerly regulated by EPA oversight. They are assisted in cause by the larger national groups such as Earth Justice, the NRDC, and the Sierra Club.

As a result of this unprecedented challenge, a coalition of water districts has formed to manage California's groundwater, known as the Association of California Water Agencies. Their Director says "there is a nervous consensus in the water management world that we have to bite this bullet and deal with the groundwater crisis. There's a lot of angst, but no one is saying don't do it. Our position has astounded a lot of people."

Let's hope for all our sakes that the guys in the white hats win.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


This pictogram, presented at a municipal building industry conference in Los Angeles this April by DNV-GL, reveals a growing concern about climate change by the insurance and reinsurance industry.

This company, along with the big reinsurance corporations that handle the majority of global risks undertaken by companies, cities and countries, is educating its clients and investors about the increasing vulnerability of physical assets and human welfare to the volatility of climate change events. The largest companies, Munich Re, Swiss Re, Berkshire Hathaway/Gen Re Group, Hannover Re Group, and Lloyd's of London are all addressing this progression in risk exposure in their public and private communications. Munich Re, for example, lays out the possible dynamics of the upcoming El Nino oscillation this year.

The oscillation in and of itself isn't unusual, but the increasing average surface temperature is, which creates more disruptive events in the weather. These factors are becoming more critical in human habitation, and so the entire building and planning industry is affected, requiring more resiliency in architectural design, urban planning and industrial systems. As NOAA has documented, the entire planet is rapidly becoming warmer. This drastically impacts food and water supplies for an overburdened planet.

These damages are becoming a major factor in the costs to provide all products and services, not only reducing profits, but actually creating negative economic growth by mid-century. This is the actual, real damage that will be inflicted on the planet as carbon emissions continue to heat up the planet.This is driven by the atmospheric carbon concentrations which are increasing rapidly now, potentially moving into an irreversible runaway cycle because of the increasing natural methane emissions from a collapsing arctic environment.

This issue is more comprehensively covered in Mark Schapiro's LAT Op-Ed piece, "The Carbon Taxes We're Already Paying", and reviews the risks and damages that have been accumulating over the last decade or more because of externalized costs being borne by the public. He points to the $2.5 trillion annual environmental costs which are not accounted for in corporate profit and loss statements.

We're facing an unprecedented problem that the world must decisively deal with very soon, and fortunately other global players besides the oil hegemony are now coming into the mix. The twentieth century should not be allowed to make a wasteland out of the 21st.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lets Frame It

Our world is facing a crucial point of decision making as a civilization, in that climate change must be grappled with very soon, before we enter an irreversible environmental collapse because of our carbon emissions.The graph above shows rather simply that we've almost burned up the entire safe budget of emissions to stay under 2C temperature increase from 1750.

The US Congress needs to support the US participation as signatory to the global climate agreement at COP 21 for carbon emissions. The agreement is scheduled to be finalized via the UNFCCC in December of 2015 in Paris, France. There is a Key Drafting Step in December 2014 (COP 20 in Lima, Peru).

1. This is necessary because we are facing a global climate emergency due to excessive carbon emissions.
2. This deeply impacts every citizen, country and corporation on the planet, thus the US must be present, given its extensive presence in policies and economies of all other countries.
3. The UN is negotiating a total carbon budget with the world; it should be the smallest carbon budget on the table, a precautionary approach. Based upon the preliminary total Absolute Limit IGPG UNFCCC IPCC allowed REMAINING carbon budget of 250 Gt C emitted since 2010 to keep global temperature increases under 2C, it is necessary to allocate future emissions goals to each country. Best estimates are that we have already burned through most of the 1 trillion ton budget overall i.e. going back to ~ 1800 budget and face the necessary implementation of a rapid reduction of carbon emissions to avoid dangerous climate change.

4.The UN is negotiating a rate of carbon reduction with the world based upon equity and fairness with zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is important to agree on a neutral equity framework rather than ones that require damages from richer nations. The US must be at the UN table to defend an equitable framework instead of fighting a "damages" framework like GDR.

"Developing nations see [damages] as a way to underline the fact that the rich have burnt most fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Rich nations say it would take too long to figure out, and that blame is constantly shifting. A related idea by developing nations to ask the IPCC to examine historical responsibility for causing global warming, as a guide to future action in sharing out emissions, is also a minefield at the Warsaw talks...Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, said it would be disastrous to try to apportion historical blame."

Frameworks that attempt to address this by incorporating a GDP formula are bound to fail because of the arbitrary nature of that metric.It's already outdated as a basis for a true measure of economic value because it ignores damages and risk and relies on growth. This would be the GDR framework as well as others that import arbitrary GDP formulae that distort the emissions budget allocations along economic lines to the point where the first world countries are pushed into "negative emissions" and will therefore never agree to or comply with such a framework. Carbon doesn't disappear from the environment because you pay money to someone.

One framework that works fairly is Contraction and Convergence, by GCI. It is based purely upon the science of carbon impact on global climate and resulting concentration of atmospheric gasses. We must return to a carbon level of 350ppmv in the atmosphere for a safe climate; we are now at 400ppmv, according to global carbon emissions measurements.

5. Leadership is necessary in Congress to achieve these ends. Ways to accomplish the carbon reductions to meet our agreed emissions goal are:
  • Economic - Carbon tax, remove fossil fuel subsidies, increase subsidies for non-carbon energy sources and technology development. Corporate accountability.
  • Resources - Move rapidly to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, wave technology, hydropower, earth-bio, geothermal, algae fuels and close obsolete power plants
  • Human habitation and buildings - Zero carbon in new construction by 2030, adapt existing structures and recycle all materials, incorporate water collection in native landscapes
  • Agriculture - reduce wasteful watering practices, immediately shift away from oil-based fertilizers and toxic pesticides, shift to appropriate crops and reduce meat production
  • Technology - Rapidly evolve efficient power grids, new ways of power generation and storage, efficient public transportation, electric vehicles
  • Carbon absorption - protect existing natural lands and watersheds with conservancies, regenerate forest lands and wetlands, shrink human habitation. This is absolutely necessary to restore atmospheric carbon to the 1990 level of 350ppmv.
A graphic demonstrating how these can work in concert is here. It's all do-able, and can generate tremendous global revenue, but the need to forge consensus has become urgent, and all of us must be at the table to achieve a global climate agreement. Nothing else really matters any more.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Gross Domestic Product

What is it? Why is everyone using this failed metric? What is this rubric that assumes infinite growth of production and population is rational and sustainable? Why does it ignore the price of risk? Why does it only look at the supply side? Does it even make sense?

John Perkins puts it succinctly: Today we have what can only be described as a global Death Economy – one based on militarization and ravaging the earth’s resources. It is a feudal system that harks back to medieval times – the Dark Ages – but on a far grander scale. A very small portion of the human species, the corporatocracy, represents the lords of the castles; the rest of us are their serfs.

It's time to leave GDP behind as a measure of purely market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. The GDP was born in the shadow of World War II. During the war it was used as a strategic index, as important as the allies' battlefield conquests. It was developed in 1934 by the economist Simon Kuznets for the U.S. Department of Commerce. But it was in Keynes’s master work, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” that GDP figures met their ultimate destiny. The statistics he had wanted developed for the purpose of wartime planning became the building blocks of modern macroeconomic policy.

So it has nothing to do with the actual fiscal state of the global economy, it's a compilation of statistics that show roughly "how big" the materialistic extractive resources are. Note that the stock market shows huge moves on merely social media now, tech companies that make no profit go out in IPO's worth billions. Google and Facebook are just the first. As warfare moves into cyberspace, more and more dollars are attributed to digital infrastructure and the value of information (not things). Entertainment and virtual interaction/communication by people, driven by the digital industry, generate huge value and are expanding exponentially; the takeover of media channels by the Kochs and the Murdochs show how critically important that is to capturing value by steering public information and opinion in order to leverage political power.This yardstick also excludes the work and productivity of nonprofits and NGO's, especially churches. None of these entities are required to disclose finances, yet they influence huge numbers of people and are emerging as big players on the world scene.Their human capital is uncounted.

Then, of course, there's the vast financial corporate assets that are now offshored and are larger than many countries. They're not being held to account in the global calculation of responsibility for damages as a result of their international activities. Much of the supposed real wealth is thus being held off of the official books, distorting the GDP metric.But the sheer scale of the measurements suggest what a grossly inadequate measure traditional gross domestic product actually is when it comes to telling us meaningful things about a society’s sustainability and well-being.

Therefore another metric has to evolve that reflects the true state of this world and its people. Harvard business professor Michael E. Porter, who earlier developed the Global Competitiveness Report, designed the Social Progress Index (SPI). A new way to look at the success of countries, the SPI studies 132 nations and evaluates 54 social and environmental indicators for each country that matter to real people. Rather than measuring a country’s success by its per capita GDP, the index is based on an array of data reflecting suicide, ecosystem sustainability, property rights, access to healthcare and education, gender equality, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, religious freedom, nutrition, infrastructure and more. It's astonishing to see the different view of the world that emerges from something like this.

We need to understand our world far better so that we can see what we're really doing to it, the resources and its people. It's the only approach that will let us address the enormous ecological and political issues facing us now.

Update 7/25:  Robert Rubin Echoes Robert F. Kennedy: GDP Is Fatally Flawed Measure Of Economic Health

Update 5/30:  Krugman's Growthism, by Herman Daly