Month: December 2016

Science battles conservative politics. #auspol A fight for our survival.

In the two decades since Ben Santer helped write a landmark international report linking global warming and human activity, he’s been criticized by politicians, accused of falsifying his data and rewarded with a dead rat on his doorstep. 
He describes it as “background noise,” and he tries to tune it out as he presses forward with his research from a dim office the size of a walk-in closet at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory east of San Francisco. But the presidential election could crank up the volume for Santer and his colleagues: As federal government scientists, their new boss will be President-elect Donald Trump, who once described global warming as a hoax.

“Imagine, if you will, that you devoted your entire career to doing one thing. Doing it as well as you possibly can,” Santer said. “And someone comes along and says everything you’ve done is worthless.” 
Trump’s victory sent shockwaves through the environmental community, but fears are particularly heightened among scientists who are employed by the federal government or rely on the data it generates. There are concerns that younger generations may avoid working for U.S. agencies or decide not to focus on climate change because they don’t see a future working in the field.
The election may have already had a chilling effect: Some working in national laboratories declined to speak about the impact the next administration could have on research they consider to be crucial to the fate of the planet. 
Santer has responded differently. Although he’s soft-spoken in person, the 61-year-old scientist has become more vocal over the years in hopes of beating back claims that climate change isn’t real. Noticing the grim mood in his office after the election, Santer wrote an essay that he forwarded to friends to post online. 
“This is not the time for despair,” wrote Santer, who is as meticulous with his words as colleagues say he is with his research. “It’s time for leaving the sidelines and entering the public arena.”
Perhaps, he said, incoming officials can still be convinced of the science to which he’s dedicated his life. 
“Maybe there are people in the new administration who are willing to sit down and be educated and have a conversation,” Santer said. “I have to hope that there are those people.”
While Trump has pledged to keep an “open mind” when it comes to addressing climate change, he’s also expressed doubt about the scientific consensus on the topic. His choice to lead the Department of Energy, which oversees national laboratories like the one where Santer works, is former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once suggested abolishing the department altogether. He’s also described climate science as a “contrived phony mess.” 

Scientists have viewed other actions by the Trump transition team with alarm, such as a request for the names of department employees who have worked on climate issues.
“They can do a lot of damage in a short period of time,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization is working on a secure channel for government employees to report alleged attempts by the incoming administration to interfere with their research.
Scientists also worry they’ll lose critical information streams from federal agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Trump and congressional Republicans will manage personnel and determine funding. 
“In the current administration there is support … for climate science, and a respect for its findings,” said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University. “I fear both will simultaneously evaporate in an anti-science presidential administration.”
A spokesman for Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment about whether or how the federal government will support climate change research under the new administration.
National laboratories could prove to be a flashpoint in the brewing tug-of-war between California and Trump. Although Livermore is better known for its nuclear weapons research, there are also 50 researchers, computer scientists and software engineers focused on climate change, with $16 million in federal funding backing them.
“They’re concerned that they could be blacklisted,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), whose district includes Livermore. Swalwell wrote a letter with 26 congressional colleagues pledging to protect scientists in national laboratories, perhaps with legal action. 
Because the laboratory is managed in a partnership with the University of California, Gov. Jerry Brown has promised to protect their work as president of the Board of Regents.
“I am going to say, ‘Keep your hands off. That laboratory is going to pursue good science,’ ” Brown said in a Dec. 14 speech at a science conference in San Francisco.
“And, if Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite,” he added. “We’re going to collect that data.”
Santer has spent years examining that data. His specialty is “fingerprinting,” or identifying the causes of global warming. For example, an increase in the sun’s output could increase the planet’s temperatures, but in a different way than greenhouse gas emissions from cars and factories.
The ultimate prize, he said, is “the sense that maybe once or twice in your scientific career, you got one tiny piece of the puzzle that nobody else in the world has.”
Follow live coverage of the presidential transition »
Santer went to Madrid in 1995 to help write the second report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” 
“That sentence changed my life,” Santer said. He went on to become a MacArthur fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Santer also became a target, as industry-backed groups attacked his research.
The goal of these campaigns is to “create the appearance that there’s still a ‘scientific debate’ over the existence of global warming,” said Erik Conway, the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” which chronicled attempts by industry to undermine scientific findings. “And that debate has been over within science since the 1990s. What the fossil fuel lobby doesn’t want is the public debate to shift from science to solutions, because solving man-made global warming means the end of their current business models.”
It was a disorienting experience for Santer, who remembers his first time testifying before Congress as terrifying.
“It did not feel comfortable or natural for me to be in public settings,” he said.
But instead of retreating, Santer decided to speak out more, viewing that as part of his responsibility as a climate scientist. He said he tailored a research paper to combat attempts by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to cast doubt on whether the planet was significantly warming. 
But Santer knows the playing field is uneven. While his research gets published in scientific journals, politicians are invited on popular late-night shows, like when Cruz chatted about climate change with Seth Meyers in March 2015.
“I would love to have set the record straight on Late Night with Seth Meyers,” Santer deadpanned.
Santer said scientists need to push against misinformation, even if it comes from the federal government that issues their paychecks. And communication is key, he said.
“Why do you think ‘Make America Great Again’ worked?” Santer said. “My theory is the repetition. A simple message, repeated again and again and again.”
He added, “There’s an important lesson there for climate scientists. Somehow we’ve got to find an equally effective way of communicating the message again and again and again.”

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Emerging Markets Lead the way to Cheapest-Ever Solar Energy #auspol 

Emerging Markets Lead the Way to Cheapest-Ever Solar Energy

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

Energy experts have long predicted we’d eventually shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. They were right, but there have been a few surprises along the way.
The shift is happening faster than anyone thought it would, particularly in solar energy. Solar is now the cheapest form of new electricity there is. And an unexpected sector of the market is leading the way: the developing world. This market comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges, and they need to be navigated wisely.

Predictions were too conservative
Nine to ten years ago, predictions from the International Energy Agency and Greenpeace pegged global installed photovoltaic capacity by 2013 at 20 and 60 gigawatts, respectively. The actual 2013 figure? 140 gigawatts, more than double the most aggressive projection. By 2015, that was up to more than 227 gigawatts.
Contributors to this huge gap included:
Governments—most notably, Germany—heavily subsidizing solar energy.

International agreements and domestic legislation requiring a minimum percentage of energy to come from renewables.

The plummeting cost of the panels themselves.

How solar’s getting so cheap
The average cost of solar cells has gone from $76.67/watt in 1977 to just $0.26/watt in 2016, and costs are dropping still. On top of improvements in technology and use of more cost-effective materials, production costs dropped significantly with China’s entry to the market as a supplier in the last decade.
Besides the panels themselves falling in price, auctions motivate providers to offer electricity at the lowest cost they can to win contracts. August of this year saw a contract for $29.10 per megawatt-hour, the lowest price ever for any kind of electricity. The deal took place at an auction in Chile, with Spanish company Solarpack winning a bid to sell solar power from a plant being built in the Atacama desert.

Why emerging markets are the trailblazers
Developed countries have largely plateaued in their energy needs; each household can only have so many appliances (and these are getting ever more energy-efficient), and there’s less incentive for growth of large-scale manufacturing, since the same products can be made at a fraction of the cost in Asia.
Meanwhile, the energy needs of emerging economies are only going to grow in the foreseeable future. As more people rise out of poverty, they’ll acquire more goods that need plugging in. Besides the energy needed to power all those goods, they’ll need even more energy to manufacture them.
Of course, most of these countries won’t opt to supply energy via solar (or renewables) only. There will still be a mix of energy options, but the mix will likely look different. Providing electricity via solar, for example, doesn’t always require expensive, centralized infrastructure; a solar panel on the roof can provide enough electricity for the basics.
While coal, oil, nuclear, and natural gas won’t disappear in developing countries, many may invest in solar in rural areas because it’s a cleaner and more practical near-term option.
In 2015, countries in the developing world invested a collective $154.1 billion in renewable energy, while the 35 member nations of the OECD invested $153.7 billion. Given the difference in GDP between these groups, the proximity of how much money they threw down for renewables is striking, and says a lot about what’s to come.
Countries located on or near the equator get the most sun, and they’re where three-quarters of the world’s population lives and where electricity is most lacking. The International Energy Agency estimated that 1.2 billion people—16% of the global population—did not have access to electricity in 2016. How quickly will that figure drop?
It’s already down 15 million from 2015. New York City has 8.5 million residents, so think of it as almost double NYC’s population joining the grid each year—and declining costs will help this pace accelerate.
Challenges ahead
The plummeting cost of solar is good news both for our wallets and our planet. But cheap panels alone don’t mean the transition to clean energy will be a breeze. For example, cheap, large batteries to store energy for when the sun isn’t shining are still a bottleneck.
Also, renewables funding may have peaked in 2015 and is predicted to fall 15 percent by the close of 2016. The good news is, thanks to constant efficiency improvements, over time the same amount of power—or more—can be generated with less investment.
The bad news is, at their current pace, renewables are growing too slowly to meet international targets, such as the Paris agreement’s goal to keep global temperature rise in the 21st century below 2 degrees Celsius.

Also, while emerging markets have both the highest need and the most potential for solar energy, they’re also more challenging and more high-risk than established markets. Corruption, bureaucracy, nationalistic policies, and poor infrastructure all hinder efforts to establish new energy networks.
It takes more than technology
This year in South Africa, the building of 13 privately-held renewable plants was put on hold by the country’s national utility giant, provoking accusations of protectionism and cronyism.
In Mexico, complex property rules and incomplete land records have made it hard for developers to secure land for their projects.
In India, power losses in transmission and distribution average around 25 percent, meaning a quarter of the electricity being generated in the country never reaches an end user, or is used but not paid for. 
Barriers like these can pose as much of an obstacle to clean energy adoption as high costs. So while technology on its own can’t get us all the way there, it’s worth noting that cheap, decentralized power can help take change out of the hands of policymakers and governments, especially when prices fall to a level where incentives and subsidies aren’t necessary.
How cheap can solar power get? Is there a price floor, and if so, how long will it take us to hit it?
Both the developing and the developed world will be watching as the movement towards renewables continues.
Vanessa is associate editor of Singularity Hub. She’s interested in renewable energy, health, the developing world, and countless other topics. When she’s not reading or writing you can usually find her outdoors, in water, or on a plane.

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How to manage the end of fossil fuel era. #auspol

Consider how to manage end of fossil fuel era
Georges Alexandre Lenferna Correspondent —

At the UN Climate Negotiations in Paris the world agreed to keep global warming to well below 2°C, above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement was welcome news for averting the worst impact of climate change. But it was pretty bad news for the fossil fuel industry.

About three-quarters of the fossil fuel industry’s coal, oil and gas reserves have to remain in the ground unburnt if the world is to keep warming to 2°C — never mind well below it.
This raises a challenging question: who gets to sell the remaining burnable fossil fuels? Fossil fuel markets have historically been defined by forces like economics, oil cartels, and coal barons, counterbalanced against the rights of states to exploit their natural resources. But policy makers and academics are starting to ask whether the right to sell the last fossil fuels should be allocated according to the logic of equity and justice instead.

The relevance of equity becomes clear when considering who will be most affected by the move away from fossil fuels. Richer Western countries have already exploited the vast majority of fossil fuels, and will be least affected by the transition away from fossil fuels. Developing countries, on the other hand, are set to potentially lose a significant percentage of their GDP from lost fossil fuel revenues.
For instance, sub-Saharan Africa has around 65 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, 5 percent of the world’s total. Three-quarters are situated within Nigeria and Angola. Both are in the United Nations Development Programme’s low human development category. Countries like Angola and Nigeria could see significant reductions in export and government revenue from fossil fuels as the world transitions to clean energy.
Equity and stranded assets

According to a recent study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute, acting in line with climate targets would see: the loss of a sizeable revenue stream specifically for developing country regions, the magnitude of which can be a significant percentage of GDP. This is especially true of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America.
Alongside other developing regions, the African continent is set to be among those hardest hit by lost fossil fuel revenue. Stockholm Environmental Institute
The study shows that richer regions like North America and Western Europe are also set to see foregone fossil fuel revenue. But they have already exploited much of their burnable reserves and won’t be hit as hard as the developing world.
This unequal impact echoes broader trends of climate and global injustice: the richer global north has benefited the most. The global south, meanwhile, will be hardest hit by climate change in the future unless the world acts in a more equitable way moving forward.
Disruption ahead

Economies that depend on fossil fuels need to act swiftly to diversify their economies. If not, they may suffer a similar fate to Venezuela. Its heavy reliance on oil revenues helped destabilise the country in the midst of the current oil glut.
Saudi Arabia is taking heed. It is already planning for the end of the oil age by ploughing revenue from its oil reserves into diversifying its economy away from oil.
The speed of the transition ahead, however, may be too fast for many fossil fuel reliant countries to fully keep up. Environmental regulations and the rapid progress in clean and alternative energy are stranding coal assets across the globe.

The confluence of electric vehicles, increased efficiency and alternative modes of transport means that oil demand could peak as early as 2020. It could shrink thereafter, potentially creating another oil crash. Such trends are already sending shockwaves throughout the fossil fuel industry. They pose significant risks to countries heavily reliant on fossil fuel revenues, such as Nigeria and Venezuela.

If we are to act in line with the Paris Agreements, we will need to move even faster. Global emissions have stagnated over the last three years. But to keep global warming to 1.5°C, they need to be reduced at about 8.5 percent a year. That, according to Oxfam researcher James Morrissey is the equivalent of pulling about 980 coal fired power stations off-line per year.
For a less ambitious 2°C, emissions need to be reduced by 3.5 percent per year. This is a transition which could still represent close on $30 trillion in lost fossil fuel revenue in the next two decades, and $100 trillion by 2050.
Importantly, both the 2°C and the 1.5°C target provide major net positive economic benefits. For instance, estimates show that a 1.5°C pathway would avoid major climate impacts, ensure the global economy is 10 percent bigger by 2050. It would also create many more jobs, improved health and access to energy than business as usual. Nonetheless, the negative impact of losses from fossil fuels raise questions of equity.

An equitable way forward?

According to political philosopher Simon Caney, to act equitably, priority in the sale of fossil fuels should be given to countries with: a low level of development; who have benefited the least from past extraction; and who have the least alternative available forms of energy or resources for development.
The story is more complicated though. Equity does not always align with efficiency.
Some fossil fuel reserves are more carbon and capital intensive than others. To act efficiently and avoid wasting resources, one would give priority to the least carbon and capital intensive fossil fuels, such as those of Saudi Arabia.
An efficient allocation of stranded assets. Nature

One proposal to combine both equity and efficiency is to follow the most efficient route, and then to compensate developing countries who will be hardest hit by stranded assets. The politics surrounding such a proposal would likely be difficult. But there are no easy political answers here.
Ending the fossil fuel era will constitute a major shift to the current global geopolitical order, one dominated by major fossil fuel producers like Russia and the United States. It’s hard to see petrostates eagerly facilitating a transition away from that order, never mind funding a globally just transition away from it.
Given that hard political reality, we need to be careful to not allow questions of stranded assets and equity to derail progress on climate change. It may be an injustice to not strand fossil fuels equitably. But much graver injustice and harm will come from not acting on climate change, particularly for least developed and developing nations.

What’s clear is that the problem shouldn’t be exacerbated by investing in new fossil fuel projects. There are already more than enough fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure to push past climate targets. Investing in more will only exacerbate climate change, deepen the problem of stranded assets, and make an equitable solution even harder to attain.- Conversation Africa
· Georges Alexandre Lenferna, South African Fulbright Scholar, PhD Student in Philosophy, University of Washington

Strategies for urban economies #auspol 

The effects of human activity on the environment over the past few centuries have given rise to some of today’s most pressing challenges. This article is the second in a five-part series outlining economic, ecological, political, and cultural stratgies for creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

By Glenn Robert Erikson
Given today’s concerns regarding global warming, mass extinctions, and income inequality, we must address the underlying economic facets of these challenges to our urban fabric. Following the foundations put forward in the lead article, “Strategizing Urban Policies for the Anthropocene,” this analysis will help form strategies for sustainable cities that provide enhanced qualities of life for all citizens.
Economic sustainability. Large global firms cannot be relied on to create and maintain long-term, high-paying, and life-fulfilling jobs. Instead, they too frequently buy out and absorb smaller firms, then export and/or cut jobs in their pursuit of low labor costs, minimized taxes, and increased short-term profits. On the other hand, regional institutional organizations and industrial firms that are tied to local natural resources tend to utilize long-term economic planning, which helps to stabilize communities, while local entrepreneurial firms employing native competitive advantages create a large share of job and income growth for most urban areas. Individual urban economies must subsequently work closely with regional firms and nurture, promote, and incentivize local entrepreneurs.
Present levels of income inequality and poverty are unsustainable. Present rates of growth on capital and high-income earnings together with low tax rates on high incomes and inheritances have resulted in immense wealth gains among the world’s top 1 percent. The worldwide wealth of the richest 1 percent now equals that of the remaining 99 percent. In addition to this stark level of inequality, there is also tremendous poverty, and hundreds of millions of people live in slum conditions.

Both inequality and poverty appear to be as great now as at any time in the past. Income inequality historically courses between peaks and troughs with wars, revolutions, and periods of high taxation creating the troughs. While we lack exact statistics, it appears that revolutions have historically occurred when income inequality reaches levels approximating those of today. To solve these issues, our urban areas should pursue the following policies: first, encourage entrepreneurs who create both jobs and new wealth; second, equalize educational opportunities between the poor and the wealthy; third, distribute low-income housing equally throughout the city to increase education and job opportunities for lower-income families; fourth, curtail public projects that benefit only the wealthy; fifth, encourage a society of authenticity, culture and work/life balance; and sixth, appropriately adjust tax policies that favor the wealthy.
World hunger is a function of poverty, not food production. The world is currently producing enough food to feed today’s population. However, the world’s poor do not have sufficient financial resources to overcome the causes of their lack of food. The most important factors are the use of a substantial amount of these food resources for the production of meat, food waste in its production, transportation and storage, over-consumption or obesity, and international food and agricultural aid policies. While all of these factors can be addressed at the urban level through an appropriate combination of education, regulation, and taxation, cities can also work with organizations to better produce food in their urban environments—be they on rooftops, empty lots, or brownfields.

Present levels of resource extraction are unsustainable. The earth’s resources are being extracted, consumed, and disposed at immense scales. Phosphorus, oil and natural gas, copper, zinc, aluminum, and iron are all non-renewal resources with known available reserves that will likely be economically depleted during the 21st century. Even if new sources or economic alternatives are found, sustainability demands that we conserve. Use of all such materials should be husbanded, and they should be recycled to the extent possible.
Trading economies. Trading has always been a major attribute to a society’s sustainability, as resources, skills, and industries present in the local economy are traded for goods available from other societies. Each region’s trading economy should be developed and supported so it is of long-term value to other regions, and of a nature and supply that is sustainable into the future
Regionalism. Authentic regional distinctions and their associated cultural identities provide residents with an important element of self-concept and contribute to a sense of belonging to a distinct and identifiable community. They also assist tourism and trade and attract individuals and firms with needed skills, jobs, and capital by offering a variety of cultural amenities. Unfortunately, other mediums work to dilute these distinctions and identities, including global media, retail franchising, and many examples of post-modern architecture. This dilution of regional identity works against the interests of a region’s tourism, trade and residents’ quality of life. An authentic regionalism should be encouraged and promoted.
Global finance and small business. Both the financial meltdown of 2007-08 and the Dodd-Frank response to it in the U.S. created a global financial system more attuned to large corporations than to smaller, entrepreneurial firms, which decreased both the formation and growth rates of small businesses. This in turn has had an impact on economic growth, especially in the U.S. Cities should not only encourage local and regional banks to make more small business loans available, but also encourage crowd-funding through incentives and other forms of financial support.
The Collaborative Commons. Historically, public ownership of and access to important Collaborative Commons, including but not limited to utilities, roads, waterways, schools, parks, entertainment, and cultural venues, has been considered a given. However, in today’s context, the Collaborative Commons also includes the internet, higher education, and basic health care. Where available, many of these Commons are now under threat of corporate ownership and thus profit-maximizing fees, or of being crowded out for funding due to mega-projects that are unresponsive to most citizens’ needs, such as Brazil’s 2016 Olympic village, which displaced thousands in its creation. Instead, societies should husband and improve these common amenities and resources and at low economic cost for all citizens, especially those who wish to opt out of developing and maintaining high per-capita incomes.
In effect, use of the Collaborative Commons can provide citizens with meaningful alternative pathways to the sacrifices of long hours and unsatisfying jobs too often necessary to acquire high-income jobs and attain wealth and access to education. And as the internet can provide the means for those in the developing world to vastly increase their quality of life as well as income levels, aid to these countries’ urban areas should be directed toward providing dependable, free and fast service.
Quality of life vs. economic enhancement. Historically, quality of life is associated with a sufficiency in food and necessary material goods together with engagement in a worthwhile activity, whether intellectual, religious, or familial. Enlightenment philosophies promoted a belief that scientific progress would increase societies’ overall quality of life through industrial and economic gains. However, two world wars, nuclear weapons, industrial pollution, and global warming tell us that the link is less direct. There is a need to refocus on the ethics of our current economy and what it is that truly enhances quality of life among a society’s participant. Planning and design should follow this focus.
One aspect of this refocusing and rebalancing is that large numbers of individuals would likely prefer to adjust their work/life balance to less work and less income, especially if there are significant Collaborative Commons available for their lifestyle. The coming era of automation and artificial intelligence may well cause this shift to be necessary. It will require urban governments to find ways to provide sufficient amenities free or at low cost, such as internet access, transportation, parks, health care, art and entertainment venues, exercise and sports options, plus other opportunities for socialization and engagement.
Home ownership and pricing. Government-sponsored housing finance was successful when the U.S. and the developed world were growing at a fast pace. However, the financial meltdown of 2008 destroyed many families’ equity, and housing markets have been spotty in their recovery. Home ownership is appropriate for many families when population growth is strong, but the benefits may evaporate when population growth and housing demand stagnate. Policies and programs that encourage or favor urban home ownership should be directly tied to the region’s and/or nation’s immigration and population growth policies.
Revitalization vs. gentrification. From the beginning of urban renewal, planners have worked to re-envision and rebuild slums. The result too often has been displacement of the urban poor, whether through gentrification or the bulldozers of “economic development.” The revitalization of Harlem in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated that well-designed revitalization efforts, which included programs for small business and job creation, along with low-income housing targeted at local residents, can improve neighborhoods both physically and economically, while keeping the vast majority of residents in place.
Economic realignment. Significant societal realignments have occurred over the past 600 years as new economic regimes have replaced previous ones: from feudalism to colonialism to the present regime of global corporate capitalism. We now appear to be entering the latest realignment: an economy defined by robot assembly, artificial intelligence, zero marginal costs of production, and a sharing economy. We need to encourage the positive aspects of these changes and prepare our urban areas for realignment, which will include a significant increase in the turnover of wealth, thus reducing, at least temporarily, income inequality. This entrepreneurial spirit and the interconnectivity it will bring should be encouraged, but with checks and balances regarding privacy, freedom of access, and the potential for heightened income inequality.
Creative destruction. Economic realignment is just one aspect of the force of creative destruction. This is an engine for societal progress and income redistribution as entrenched economic interests falter while new, smaller, more creative and nimble entrepreneurial firms flourish and create jobs. Over 50 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have been delisted since 2000, and the new digital economy accounts for most of the new companies listed. Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucracies tend to assist and promote entrenched economic interests instead of newer entrepreneurs. The cities that sustainably embrace such creative destruction will be the cities of the future.
Time value of money vs. sustainability. The fundamental dogma of the time value of money is that today’s funds are worth more than tomorrow’s. This creates several problems. The first is that this value concept is clearly not consistent with long-term inter-generational sustainability. Second, most non-renewable resources will have a higher relative value to future generations than they have today for a profit-seeking corporation. Third, for-profit corporations seeking to maximize shareholder wealth are intrinsically set up to reject sustainable projects that only provide fair profits in the long run. As a society, we need to reconsider the appropriateness of corporate ownership of valuable non-renewable resources and find fair ways to convert these resources to public and/or non-profit ownership.
Integrating these economic strategies will enhance the sustainability and resiliency of our cities, lessen income inequality, and reduce poverty, and together with the following strategies for an urban ecology, political regimes, and cultural life, will lead to a higher quality of life for all urban citizens.
While free market forces will force corrective responses to many of our challenges, the tipping points for these corrections may come too late for many of society’s least economically resourceful members, with potentially dire consequences for all of society.
Glenn Robert Erikson is a member of the World Policy Institute Advisory Council.

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Strategizing Urban Policies for the Anthropocene #Auspol 

The effects of human activity on the environment over the past few centuries have given rise to some of today’s most pressing challenges. This article is the first in a five-part series outlining economic, ecological, political, and cultural stratgies for creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

By Glenn Robert Erikson
Many ecologists are disheartened by what is being called the Anthropocene Age, characterized by humans’ capricious manipulation of the environment. The result is the loss of thousands of species; dangerous declines in genetic diversity; increasing ratios of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, warming our world; and the initiation of a devastating rise in sea levels. Meanwhile, economists decry income inequality caused by our present mode of global corporate capitalism while predicting the elimination of millions of jobs through the automation of factory production. Others theorize the potential for economic disruption in the form of a post-capitalist economy. Urban planners decry current levels of poverty and the lack of quality, affordable housing, while demographers predict that the current world population could double by 2100 and that migration could skyrocket from rural areas to mega metropolises unable to provide for newcomers. Regrettably, most of heavily populated cities are near coasts, in areas most threatened by rising sea levels. Clearly, some of the policies of the past 200 years exacerbated problems to the point that they will lead to outright catastrophes. 
At the same time, many politicians seem more concerned with ideology or raising money than with solving problems, and too many policy-makers are locked into old stratagems—many of which are post-colonial, racist, and sexist. Attempting to break out of this deadlock, some researchers and theorists are proposing digital system analytics; others look to foment a socialist revolt of the growing, but until now disparate, groups of urban poor and disenfranchised people. Neither of these paths, however, will solve underlying problems and provide for the quality of life we would like everyone to have.

It is time to reconsider our situation. Jared Diamond writes, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, that the success or failure of historical societies was defined not by environmental and cultural challenges but rather by the societies’ responses to these challenges. The tragic contrast between the collapse of Haiti and the success of the Dominican Republic on their shared island of Hispaniola offers a dramatic example of his thesis. Overpopulation, tremendous economic and power inequalities, democratic failures, and environmental mismanagement led to Haiti’s downward path. Yet with very similar initial conditions, the Dominican Republic has been able to prosper. The first issue that must be addressed is preventing collapses in the short run; the second is to promote environmental and economic sustainability in the long run.
Diamond goes on to show that the leading causes of societal collapse from environmental impacts have been the long-term loss of arable land, lower crop yields due to rapid climate change, and a too-quick rise in population. These issues are fairly well known, even if they are not accepted by some political elites who are less scientifically attuned. However, citizens living in urban areas tend to be more aware of environmental problems and are more open to implementing solutions than are political elites. Therefore, achieving sustainable urban policies (as opposed to national policies) is more likely attainable, at least in the near term. A set of urban policy strategies, as proposed here, can provide the basis for individual urban areas to create region-wide, integrated models that can be applied to national and global contexts.
In our pursuit to improve living conditions worldwide, should we risk environmental collapse, or should we accept a sustainable world that is forever separated into haves and have-nots? The answer hinges on how much we value consumer goods, considered an essential element in the Western notion of “standard of living.” The other attributes important to quality of life—such as freedom, health, family, friends, education, and a satisfying work and cultural life—are conceivably attainable without risking environmental collapse.

A grand strategy is necessary to achieve the goal of a sustainable urban world with a high quality of life for all citizens. Combining and integrating critical theory, critical urban theory, and engaged theory provides the overall principles for a “Critically Engaged Urban Theory.” It can be outlined as follows: Increasing the availability of the components of “quality of life” improves the human condition, maximizing personal freedom and assisting individual engagement in the pursuit of happiness. We must free the objective of attaining high income and wealth from our pursuit of a high global quality of life, recognize that creative destruction will likely be necessary to achieve positive change in urban spaces, and expand the concept of sustainability to include our ethical relationship to both the global population and the earth’s ecology. 
The first step is to steer society away from potential collapse, and the second will be to develop a sustainable relationship with our ecosystems while improving living conditions for all. The next four articles in this series will cover economic, ecological, political, and cultural issues, providing insights into challenges we must confront and strategies we can use to overcome them.
Glenn Robert Erikson is a member of the World Policy Institute Advisory Council.

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Strategies for Urban Ecology #auspol 

The effects of human activity on the environment over the past few centuries have given rise to some of today’s most pressing challenges. This article is the third in a five-part series outlining economic, ecological, political, and cultural stratgies for creating a more sustainable and equitable world.
By Glenn Robert Erikson
History is littered with civilizations whose cities suffered ecological collapses, from the Fertile Crescent to the Indus Valley to the Mayans, Anasazi, and many, many others. As we enter the Anthropocene, we must learn from their mistakes and correct our own civilization’s similar trajectory of inadequate responses to overpopulation, resource extraction, climatic changes, mass extinctions, and more.

Ecological balance. Cities that have existed for centuries, or even millennia, owe their survival to reaching a sustainable balance with their local ecologies. Those that did not meet the challenge ultimately collapsed. Most cities today are significantly out of balance with their environments, given the last 300 years of continuous growth and industrialization. Rebalancing our urban areas with their regional ecologies will require extensive analysis of ecosystems, sustainable energy production, sufficient water supplies, ecologically safe waste recycling, environmentally sustainable materials sourcing, and maintenance of appropriate population levels.

Global warming. For the past 1.8 million years the earth’s glacial-interglacial, or Ice Age, cycles have stayed relatively consistent. Based on the historical lengths of these cycles, the earth would now be beginning to transition into a new Ice Age had we not intervened with man-made warming. Our greenhouse gas production since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, however, is more than enough to prevent a new Ice Age. If we wish to resume production that creates unnaturally high levels of greenhouse gases at some point in the future, for now we must halt greenhouse gas emissions, affordably recycle an appropriate quantity of these gases out of the atmosphere, and conserve petrochemical resources.

Planning for rising oceans. Oceans and seas have maintained near-constant levels throughout recorded history, despite considerable variation over geologic time. Due to global warming they will now rise substantially (10-30 feet is probable, while 100+ feet is possible) during this century, flooding many coastal areas. Over 3 billion people now reside in areas less than 33 feet above current sea levels. With planning, some negative impacts can at least be minimized for urban populations. Densely built-up areas should plan for sea walls, berms, and the fortification of harbors with floodgates; other urban communities should direct growth to areas with higher elevations and use earthmovers to fill in low-lying areas they wish to save. Where possible, low-lying populated areas can be completely converted to estuaries and parkland, while settlements can be rebuilt elsewhere. If none of these are viable options, some areas will simply need to be abandoned.

Mass extinction. The past 200 years have seen a surge in global population, resulting in a tremendous expansion of agricultural fields and grazing ranges, the over-harvesting of game and fish, the extensive loss of natural habitat, widespread pollution, the degradation of ecosystems, and the worldwide spread of invasive species. In the last 20 years alone we have lost 10 percent of the planet’s wilderness areas. This perfect storm has resulted in global mass extinction and diminished biodiversity. To reduce the rate of extinction, we need to preserve as much of the natural landscape as we can by halting deforestation, slowing population growth and transferring some of that growth from rural to urban areas, lowering demand for animal food sources, more efficiently utilizing agricultural lands, and minimizing the use of pesticides.   

Delays to renewable energy transformation. The extent of existing urban petroleum infrastructure in developed countries, together with high debt loads in dozens of poorer countries, is delaying a transition to a global renewable energy infrastructure. This process can be accelerated by first adopting conservation measures and funding smaller start-up projects to reduce governments’ institutional energy costs, thereby freeing up financial resources for the transition. Next, large infrastructure projects with all-inclusive financing should undergo competitive bidding processes.

Sprawl vs. urban growth. Sprawl occurs primarily where national subsidies and local zoning codes encourage, or even enforce, this pattern of infrastructure development. Sprawl eats up valuable resources, fractures and destroys important ecosystems, and increases pollution and jobs/housing imbalances. Viable solutions to managing projected growth do exist, from revitalizing and expanding existing downtowns to creating new cities. Between these two extremes are many options. Suburban and urban pockets can be transformed into new urban centers by increasing access to mass transit, through such means as expanded highways, light rail transit, dedicated bus lanes, or (in the near future) dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles. Urbanizing these outlying areas can enhance diversity and density within a broader urban region without increasing the overall footprint on the surrounding landscape.   
New urbanism and edge cities. These relatively new forms of urban development, typified by the Walt Disney Corporation’s Celebration town in Florida and the unincorporated edge city Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, are centers of increased density in the sea of suburbia. However, as privately owned and managed entities, they also tend toward exclusionary practices and lack income equality, job and housing balance, and urban vitality. They also lack public commons and adequate citizen involvement. Thus, there is a need to open these areas up to the public, increase diversity and density, and connect them to the rest of the city with mass transit.
Water supply and quality. In many urban areas, growth has outpaced available water supplies, climate change will exacerbate this problem as rainfall drops in the coming decades. In some areas, water will need to be re-priced to minimize waste, with a sustenance supply provided at low cost for all residents but high costs imposed for additional usage. Other areas will require substantial planning for and infrastructure investments in water recycling or desalination. Where contamination is a problem, “upriver” water supplies will need to be protected from agricultural fertilizers or animal waste.
Regional agriculture and food supplies. Farmers have always selected desirable traits in plants used in agriculture. More recent genetic engineering has been accompanied by an ever-growing use of herbicides, while “superweeds” have developed resistance and ecologically deficient crop management methods have become more common. Many herbicides are harmful to humans, even in small amounts, and as use increases, so does their danger. Urban governments can support further research in enhanced farming systems and crop breeding programs that are not dependent on herbicides. Food labeling laws should be developed and enforced to inform consumers when known cancer agents—such as herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones, or other additives—are used during food production.
Food dumping vs. emergency relief. When international agencies provide food on a regular basis to poor countries, instead of only when emergency relief is needed, they create a post-colonial dependency as local farmers unable to sell their goods become dependent on food aid themselves. International funds should instead be directed to developing local agriculture.
Wasteful agricultural methods. Agricultural systems need to be transformed to reduce waste and feed the world population more efficiently and effectively. For example, corn subsidized and grown for ethanol in the U.S. keeps corn prices artificially high, and prevents agricultural lands from being used for food production. Global food markets can also produce waste—palm trees grown in the less developed world for consumption primarily in the developed world withholds agricultural lands from production of local food supplies. In the developing world, city governments should work with national governments to disincentivize agricultural export at the expense of meeting domestic food needs.
Design methodology. Ancient cities grew incrementally, and in the process respected and worked with natural landforms. However, as the combination of gridded city plans and 20th-century suburbia have extended urban sprawl, the natural topography has too often been treated as an obstacle to be overcome instead of an enhancement to planning and design. While autocratic design solutions overwhelm naturally occurring formations and contribute to a sense of sameness and disconnectedness, emerging urban design should take cues from native ecologies and natural terrains.
The street and the sidewalk. Before 1900, cities were generally designed for walking. Buildings presented appropriate street fronts lined with stoops, balconies, retail shops, and human-scaled entrances. Pedestrians could safely walk in the street as horse-drawn carriages and trolleys moved at a slow pace. The automobile industry lobbied for 30 mph speeds on city streets, which forever changed the streets’ pedestrian character. Zoning has also insulated residential structures from downtown retail and employment, requiring setbacks and parking standards that further deadened streets, especially those in downtown areas in the evenings, which then invited crime. We need to revitalize our streets and sidewalks by increasing the diversity and density of pedestrian-friendly uses.

The failure to create an ecological planning and architectural movement. We have not yet fully developed an architecture that minimizes environmental destruction, in spite of good intentions, many fine individual projects, and LEED and Passive Building certifications. Institutional clients, developers, design educators, architectural publications, and design competitions should require that designs resonate with the regional environment. Ideally, each building should be a self-sustaining, living member of the ecology in which it is set. City building departments can assist in this endeavor by requiring architects to certify that their buildings meet LEED and/or Passive Building standards.  
The above strategies can pull developed economies away from trends that lead to a potential ecological abyss, as well as provide a path for both developed and developing countries toward a sustainable and equitable future. 
Glenn Robert Erikson is a member of the World Policy Institute Advisory Council.

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Al Gore sneezes a hefty achoo. “Excuse me,” the former vice president says, dabbing a tissue at his nose before offering up an explanation. “Spring.”
Outside Gore’s New York City office, spring has certainly sprung—early too. This March was the hottest one ever, beating the prior record set in March 2015. The same goes for February and January of this year, and, oh, the eight consecutive months before. Gore knows these statistics by heart. The fact that you might know them too is likely because of him. These kinds of numbers—and the scary story they tell about the future of Earth—have been Gore’s chief motivation since he failed to win the presidency in 2000. Gore emerged from that weird, disputed election armed with what is now possibly the most famous slide­show in human history. He has traveled the world delivering that deck to hundreds of people at a time, showing in irrefutable detail just how mind-bogglingly badly we have treated our planet and what we might be able to do about it.

Ten years ago, the slide­show became An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that spread those ideas to millions. Gore says he still tinkers with the slide­show every day, because, well, the numbers keep changing. Not always for the better. Yet this year Gore and his fellow activists have a rare reason to celebrate. In April, 175 world leaders gathered at the United Nations to sign the Paris Agreement, a global pact that aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Now, a decade after his movie sounded the alarm about climate change and 16 years after he ran for president, it looks like Al Gore might finally be … winning?

WIRED: Why did you want to make An Inconvenient Truth?

GORE: I have to admit to you that initially I did not want to do a documentary.
What? Why not?

It’s a dumb reason. I didn’t think a slide­show could translate into a movie. I thought back to my days in school, when I tried to take a shortcut studying Shakespeare by watching filmed versions of the plays, where they just set up a camera and filmed the stage. It didn’t translate. Participant Media and Davis Guggenheim had to convince me it was a good idea, and I’m so glad they found ways to reveal to me the depths of my ignorance about moviemaking. It’s a message that has to be heard. Sorry to risk sounding grandiose, but the future of human civilization is at stake.  

I saw you give your updated talk at TED this year, and it made me wonder how you stay passionate now that you’ve given it so many times.

Every one is different, but the passion doesn’t require summoning. It just bubbles up. It is a source of some joy to have work to do that justifies pouring every ounce of energy you have into it. And when I’m in front of an audience that can make a difference in solving this crisis, I really want to make every syllable count. Sometimes I gear down the passion so it doesn’t overwhelm the message.
The Paris Agreement must feel like a big point of progress.

It really does. Sometimes in sports you can sense a palpable shift in the momentum of the contest. A team will be behind on the scoreboard, but the shift in momentum is so obvious and dramatic that you just have the feeling they’re going to win. That’s where we are in solving the climate crisis. We’re still behind on the scoreboard, but the momentum has shifted. We are winning.
When renewable electricity becomes cheaper than electricity that comes from burning coal or gas, then that changes everything. The marketplace makes it the default option, and you get what you saw in the world in 2015—90 percent of the new electricity generated in the world last year was from renewables. That is an astonishing change. The Paris Agreement exceeded the upper range of my expectations. Does it go far enough? No, of course not. Can it be improved? Yes, it’s designed to be constantly improved, and that’s what I’m focused on now.
In what way did it exceed your expectations?

I guess having followed the process since I led the Senate delegation to the Earth Summit down in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, my expectations had been kind of beaten down.
You’ve been at this a long time. Was it lonely fighting for this stuff in government in the 1980s and 1990s?

It was certainly a different time and a different environment. But I don’t ever remember feeling lonely, because I was always focused on reaching more and more people. Building a global grassroots movement is really the only way to solve this, because so many political systems have been captured by legacy industries. And that influence over policymaking has to be counterbalanced by a grassroots awareness.
You’ve always said climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But it seems like it’s only becoming more partisan. This election cycle we’ve heard candidates saying things like, “Climate change is a religion, not a science.” Does that make your brain explode?

I actually feel that partisan blockade is coming apart. There were 11 Republican members of the House of Representatives who joined in a very powerful statement last fall. The Republican mayor of Miami is part of a bipartisan coalition of mayors across South Florida who have said the time for partisanship is long past. The city of Georgetown, Texas, announced that it’s going to switch to 100 percent renewables. And one of the city officials said, “I’m about the furthest thing you can imagine from Al Gore.” Great! That works for me!
But there’s a reason President Obama had to initiate his Clean Power Plan without Congress. How do you think we got to this place politically?

Well, to begin with, our democracy has been hacked. It is shockingly unresponsive to considerations of the public interest. But I think technology can come to the rescue here. When the printing press was the dominant medium, as it was when the United States was founded and the Constitution was written, individuals were able to enter the virtual public square and use ideas and the best available evidence as a source of political power. When television displaced print as the principal source of information, the architecture of that new information ecosystem changed radically. Instead of having low entry barriers, people encountered gatekeepers. Money came to dominate policymaking. The third information ecosystem of the modern era, which is Internet-based and includes social media, once again features extremely low entry barriers for individuals and favors a meritocracy of ideas. When members of Congress, who used to be beholden to special interests, are confronted by individuals and small groups who can crowdsource fund-­raising for candidates, that begins to restore the kind of representative democracy that our founders dreamed of.
Bernie Sanders put those issues front and center in this election. What impact do you think that’s having on the race?

I don’t want anything I say to put me in support or opposition to any of the candidates. But I see a lot of hope in the idea that an Internet-based campaign can eliminate the older culture of politics. That’s not to say that candidates who practice those older techniques cannot also break free of the influence of campaign contributions. I think the future is increasingly going to be shaped by candidates in both parties who go directly to the people, by means of social media and Internet-based forms of communication, and over time diminish their reliance on money from big contributors.
What do you think President Obama’s climate legacy will be? He’s done a lot to spur investment in renewables, for example.

I think he’s building an unparalleled climate legacy. He supported legislation in the spring of 2009 that passed the House of Representatives. The legislation stalled in the Senate, and the balance of his first term turned out to be somewhat disappointing where climate is concerned. But starting with his inaugural address at the beginning of his second term, he launched a series of new initiatives on climate. Faced with the opposition he’s encountered in Congress, he came up with the Clean Power Plan. He successfully negotiated a bilateral agreement with China that completely reshaped the prospects for negotiation in Paris. He improved the mileage standards for automobiles in his first term and has continued to do more there. He’s now turned to the issue of methane emissions, and the list goes on.
On the converse side, do you feel like you’ve been able to achieve anything as a private citizen that you wouldn’t have been able to do in the public sector?

I’m under no illusions that there is any position that can compete with that of president of the United States in shaping policy and influencing the way people think. People occasionally say to me, “You’ve been able to do more outside of government than you would have if you had these duties as president.” I don’t agree with that. But I am extremely grateful to have found a way to make a difference outside of the political system. I’m not the best judge of what I’ve been able to accomplish. But when people come up to me and tell me they saw the movie 10 years ago and it changed their life or they started a new business, that is extremely gratifying. It’s also an encouragement to do more. How fast we win matters a lot.
How do you think this conversation would be different if you’d become president?

I like to think a lot of things would be different. I would have done my best to put a price on carbon and taken a number of other steps. I certainly would not have invaded Iraq. There’s a long list of things I like to think would have turned out differently, but it’s pointless, in my opinion, to go down that road, because it’s just fantasy. It’s much better and more productive—and certainly healthier—to focus on the future, and that’s what I’ve been doing since the day of the Supreme Court decision.
So, looking toward the future, what do you think will happen to the climate conversation under the next administration?

Whoever becomes president, whatever party controls the White House and Congress, the fact that renewable energy is now getting cheaper than fossil fuel energy will shape choices and policies. The difference would be how quickly the change will take place.
It’s sometimes tough for people to get climate change because they’re not seeing its effects every day—or at least they don’t realize they are. What have you seen that has stuck with you?

In March, I went to Tacloban in the Philippines and talked with survivors there who endured the ravages of Super Typhoon Haiyan. When you see how their lives were utterly transformed and feel the painful losses they suffered, it certainly will stick with you. I conducted a training in Miami last fall during one of the highest high tides and saw fish from the ocean swimming in the streets in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale on a sunny day.
You talk a lot about “winning” the fight against climate change. How do you define a win?

Winning means avoiding catastrophic consequences that could utterly disrupt the future of human civilization. It means bending the curves downward so that the global warming pollution stops accumulating in the atmosphere and begins to reduce in volume. It means creating tens of millions of new jobs to retrofit buildings, to transform energy systems and install advanced batteries, to transform agriculture and forestry, and to make the solutions to the climate crisis the central organizing principle of our civilization.
You now have Silicon Valley’s help in this fight. What role can tech play in all this?

All the consumer-facing companies—Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, go right down the list—they’re all eager to reduce their carbon footprint, and they’re saving money by doing so. Companies that don’t take that initiative are in danger of losing customers and losing brand value.
We do have the capacity as human beings to communicate and to think together, within the format of our constitutional democracy, about our shared challenges. And then we can devise policies that steer toward the most important long-term goals. We’ve done it in the past. We’ve done it more successfully when the dialog of democracy was healthier. And we’ll do it more successfully in the future, as new Internet-­based forms of democracy once again elevate the importance of ideas and reasoned discourse.

Last question: Darrell Hammond played you on Saturday Night Live, and now he’s playing Donald Trump. Who does he do better?

I think whoever he impersonates, he does an unbelievable job. It’s uncanny. He’s so good.
Did you think that back when you were in office?

Yeah! I mean, you have no choice.

Staff writer Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is covering the 2016 presidential campaign for WIRED.

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2016 was a milestone year for climate change #auspol 

2016 was a milestone year in the continued warming of the planet. From unstable agriculture to the drought in California to melting ice sheets to extreme weather events and heat waves, climate change has disrupted virtually every corner of the world.
It’s impossible to exhaustively list all the ways in which climate change was felt in 2016, but here’s a guide to understanding the year that was for the planet:
   A carbon dioxide milestone
“In the centuries to come, history books will likely look back on September 2016 as a major milestone for the world’s climate,” Brian Kahn of Climate Central wrote earlier this year.
   That’s because, during September, a month in which atmospheric carbon dioxide — a heat-trapping greenhouse gas —is usually at its lowest, the monthly value failed to drop below 400 parts per million. The 400 ppm mark has sad significance in the climate community, as it has long been considered a point of no return for the atmosphere by scientists. 
On pace to be the hottest year yet

This year is poised to be the hottest year in the 137-year official record, with global temperatures climbing even higher than record-breaking 2015, according to data released in November from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Temperatures were particularly high in the first half of the year due to the power of El Niño.

Last month, the average Arctic sea ice extent — the measurement scientists use to represent the area of ocean where there is at least some sea ice — was 17.7 percent below the averages from 1981 to 2010, according to NOAA. That’s the lowest November extent since the NOAA began keeping records in 1979.
“For the people in the Arctic, no one has to tell them an abrupt climate change has hit,” Paul Mayewski, professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, told CBS News in an interview last week.

Continued melting of polar ice could lead to catastrophic sea level rise and flooding on coastlines around the world. Some 13 million Americans could become “climate refugees” by the end of this century if the worst projections come to pass, one study this year warned.
Scientists say human activities are directly linked to Arctic warming: driving a gas-powered car about 90 miles – the distance between New York and Philadelphia – produces enough carbon pollution to melt about a square foot of Arctic sea ice during the critical month of September, research shows.
Around the world, instability in agriculture

The continued warming of the planet in 2016 is having a destabilizing impact on agriculture worldwide. 

Those disruptions were particularly felt in coffee production, which supports an estimated 120 million of some of the world’s poorest people in Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.

In the mountains of eastern Uganda, a coffee-rich region, growers struggled to protect their crops — which require just the right altitude and temperature and the right amounts of rain and sunshine — from the effects of global warming. Faced with headaches such as new pests and diseases, and beans rendered inedible from too much sunshine, many small-scale family farmers can no longer rely on coffee production to feed their families, pay for medical care, and send their kids to school. 
Experts project that by the middle of this century, climate change could rule out as much as half of the land now used for coffee production worldwide, CBS News’ Mark Phillips reported in December.

A troubling new chapter for the Great Barrier Reef
Warming oceans in 2016 caused the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists said in November. The reef’s coral cover suffered significant bleaching this year due to the El Nino weather effect and continued climate change.

Coral bleaching occurs when unusual environmental conditions, like increased sea temperatures, result in corals expelling the small algae which normally provide oxygen and nutrients. The loss turns the corals white. Reefs can recover if temperatures drop and the algae resettle, but if not, the corals will die.
This year’s coral die-off was “substantially worse” than the previous worst-ever event in 1998, Australian scientists reported. Experts estimate the Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the past three decades.
A resilient body, the Great Barrier Reef could regain the corals it’s lost, Australian officials said. But even under good conditions, that could take 10 to 15 years, scientists said, and the acceleration of climate change threatens to derail the natural rhythm of loss and recovery. 

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No Nation can fight climate change alone. #Auspol #COP22 

No nation can fight climate change alone. And few have any reason to do so anyway—overhauling your entire economy is pricey work. So, it was pretty remarkable when nearly 200 countries came together in Paris at the end of 2015 and agreed to take action against catastrophic warming. And for most of 2016, it looked like the momentum from that decision might, just maybe, be enough to save the world.

Then, November: The United States elected Donald Trump as president. The President-elect, who had called climate change a hoax prior to his victory, has since signaled that he will attempt to undo the promises and progress his predecessor made on climate. At this point, it’s impossible to predict how far Trump will go. And, if he does succeed in killing the US’s commitment to global climate treaties, how other countries will react. Rather than speculate, it’s better to understand what is at stake.

The bottom line of that late 2015 climate treaty, called the Paris Agreement, is a collective promise to keep average global temperatures from rising 2˚C above pre-Industrial levels—and have them stay as close to 1.5˚C above pre-Industrial levels as possible. The fact that it took more than 20 years of negotiations for the signatories to agree on this is testament to the difficulty of climate diplomacy.
A fair amount of that diplomatic energy went toward getting the US—history’s largest emitter—to sign on. The US needed assurances that other up and coming economies, like China (the current highest emitter) would shoulder some of the economic burden of cutting its emissions.
Last year, the unbelievable happened. China promised cap and trade—an economic system where the country sets a limit on total greenhouse gas emissions, and power plants buy permits to emit some percentage of that upper limit. In the US, the Obama administration unveiled the Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule that essentially forces coal power plants to clean up, or close down. That regulation was built atop on a Supreme Court ruling made several years earlier that allowed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide using the Clean Air Act.
But the Clean Air Act, it turns out, has some weird wording, wording that opponents of the Clean Power Plan—24 states and a half dozen industry groups—used to challenge the rule’s legality in the Washington DC’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The litigation between the EPA and its opponents was set to begin in summer of 2016, but the rule would have begun going into effect before a decision either way. But, at the behest of the rule’s opponents, the Supreme Court stated that the Clean Power Plan would not go into effect until the lower court had made its decision.
To some observers (including me), this signaled that the Clean Power Plan was probably doomed. Whatever the lower court decided would be appealed and taken to the Supreme Court anyway—and the high court was seemingly signaling its intent to neuter the rule. Without the Clean Power Plan, the US would be stuck looking like it wouldn’t be able to hold up its emissions-cutting commitments to the Paris Agreement. And if the US won’t keep its commitments, why should anyone else in the world?
Then Antonin Scalia died. Whew? Not quite. Because then, congress blocked Obama’s opportunity to fill that seat. But still, the Clean Power Plan’s fate suddenly seemed a bit less bleak, because hey, Hillary was a shoo-in for president, right?.
And that’s where things were, until November 8. Donald Trump has called the Paris Agreement a bad deal, and specifically promised to nix the US’s commitment to it. Trump can do this several ways. In the least extreme version of events, the US would still be part of the agreement, at least in name, until 2020. It wouldn’t actually have to follow through with any of the commitments it made, but would still technically be a party to the ongoing negotiations (oh, there are many) for the next four years. Most extreme—catastrophic, even—Trump could withdraw from the 25-year old UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the basis of all international climate negotiations.
That’s not even getting into domestic policy. Trump has offered administration jobs to a who’s who of career climate action antagonists: Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, his choice for EPA administrator, is currently suing the agency over the Clean Power Plan; Rick Perry, his pick for Secretary of Energy, campaigned for president in 2012 on a promise to dismantle the Department of Energy altogether; and, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, is the CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that spent decades funneling money to climate denier groups, despite evidence that the company’s own scientists had done research proving climate change is real.
Trump’s transition team has also circulated memos through the Energy and State Departments to drum up information on staffers who worked on the Obama administration’s international climate efforts.
Of course, all those people—along with the rest of Trump’s dream team—await confirmation, after the President-elect’s inauguration. In the meantime, President Obama is pushing last minute climate regulations, like this week’s ban on offshore Arctic drilling, that he promises won’t be easy to undo. But, with a Republican-majority Senate and House of Representatives, and an empty Supreme Court seat, Trump and his regime probably won’t be stymied for long in their quest to make America great, the climate be damned.

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A Moral Economy? #auspol 

Coal shovels at work in Randolph County, Illinois c. 1970. Katy McClelland/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

You know something is grotesquely wrong when the 80 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population, when the combined wealth of the 1000 richest people in the UK is nearly five times the size of the annual NHS budget, and when unending growth is assumed to be possible in a finite, rapidly overheating planet. But conventional approaches to economic matters can’t explain what is wrong.

To understand these problems we need a radically different approach that goes back to basics. Most basic of all is this: the point of economic activity is simply to enable us to live well. Economies are systems of provisioning—ways of providing us with the wherewithal to live a decent life—and of course some ways of doing this are much better than others. Provisioning involves two kinds of relations:
Relations between people, whether as buyers and sellers, employers and employees, lenders and borrowers, landlords and tenants, citizens and governments, or as providers and beneficiaries of unpaid work.
Our relations to the environment, as all material wealth ultimately depends on this. Looking after the environment should make economic sense, degrading it does not.

No one ever got rich or poor outside these two sets of relations. ‘Moral economy’—unlike mainstream economics—focuses on these and examines whether they are fair or unfair, functional for provisioning or not, and sustainable or unsustainable. Particularly at this time of economic and environmental crisis, it can provide us with signposts to a different way of doing things.
Mainstream economics misunderstands people. ‘Homo oeconomicus’ is assumed to be a free-standing, adult man, self-interested and entering only into contractual relations with others where he wishes. But a society comprised wholly of such individuals is an impossibility. We are social beings. That means not merely that we happen to live in groups, but that we are inherently dependent on others. Entering into social relations is not only necessary but unavoidable. Most fundamentally this is because we all start off as helpless babies, utterly dependent on our carers. This is a universal. And particularly in old age or illness we again become dependent on others. Dependency can be good (having good parents), or it can be bad, a source of exploitation. It’s important to know the difference, but mainstream economic thought ignores the first and largely conceals the second.

The road to riches
To recognise the difference we need to notice that there are three ways you can get money:
First, you can produce some goods or services that others want and for which they are able to pay (something-for-something).
Second, if you’re not able to produce goods or services or provide for yourself—because you’re too young, old or infirm to work, or because there are not enough jobs to go around—others may agree to meet your needs, whether privately or through democratically agreed transfers via the state.
Third, you can get money from others by controlling existing assets like property or money that they need but lack, and can therefore be forced into paying for them. If the assets already exist and have been paid off, then the income is unearned (something-for-nothing). And since the money the owners get only has any value if there are goods and services they can buy with it, then those who produce them must be producing more than they themselves can buy with their pay in order to support this free riding.

As I show in my book Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, the astonishing rise in the wealth of the rich in recent decades is mainly the result of the growth of the third source of income—‘asset-based unearned income’. A prime example of the something-for-nothing economy is windfalls going to property owners from inflation in property prices. The neoliberal economic ideology of the last three decades expands this third source of income at the expense of the other two, squeezing wages and salaries of the majority of the population while shrinking the transfers organised by the welfare state. It is a system that has promoted wealth extraction under the guise of wealth creation, producing poverty on one side and extreme wealth on the other.
The difference between wealth creation and wealth extraction can be concealed by playing fast and loose with the word ‘investment’. Investment surely sounds laudable, but it can mean two very different things. Sometimes it refers to funding and providing new sources of goods and services, like infrastructure, new technologies, or training people. Here the focus is on objective benefits—wealth creation. But it’s also used to refer to things that need have no connection to this, such as getting interest on savings, or capital gains from the rise in value of existing property or financial products. Here the focus is on financial gains to the ‘investor’—wealth extraction. Of course, an investor could be funding objective investments in the first sense, though as long as they get a good return they tend not to care. In a neoliberal economy where delivering ‘shareholder value’ is the prime goal of companies, unearned income based on control of existing assets is the chief source of ‘investment income’.

The stock market exemplifies this. At any moment, only a miniscule proportion of share transactions are for newly issued shares; the rest are second hand. So if you buy, say, some M&S shares, the money goes not to the company but to the previous owner of the shares. But having bought them you’ll normally get a stream of unearned income from the company in the form of dividends, and you may be able to get more by selling the shares on at a higher price. And share prices have tended to rise overall, as the growth of pension funds and other big investors wanting to buy shares has not been matched by a growth in the availability of shares. So it’s only an investment in the second, extractive sense; you haven’t created any new wealth.

A more just economy
Obviously, an excess of wealth extraction over wealth creation is ultimately unsustainable—hence the crash of 2008 and its aftermath. So this something-for-nothing economy is not only unjust in allowing free riding on the labour of others, but it is dysfunctional for the economy. An alternative economy that is both feasible and fair must be one that blocks or taxes away asset-based unearned income, and restores transfers and objective, wealth-creating investment.
But it also needs to be sustainable in environmental terms. Our relations to the environment should be central to economics, not left to a marginal, low-status sub-discipline called ‘environmental economics’. On a finite planet, never-ending growth is an absurdity, and yet the vast debts that the financial sector has created through over-lending can only be repaid through such growth. Even if that were attainable it would be utterly unsustainable environmentally.

The amount of carbon dioxide released in making and using particular items may be falling, but nowhere near fast enough to offset overall growth in consumption and population. Forty-five percent of global emissions are attributable to the richest ten percent of the world’s population. Rich consumers and producers emit far more emissions than their share of what the earth can sustainably absorb, trashing the environment of the majority who live sustainably, as well as their own. If we are to stop runaway global warming they will have to cut their consumption, otherwise it will be too late by the time renewable energy resources displace fossil fuels.
Doing so need not lower their quality of life. Plenty of research on well-being and happiness has shown that beyond a moderate level, increases in income do not improve our lives; good relationships with others and fulfilling work are more important. Yet few among the top ten percent will cut their consumption voluntarily, so the 90 percent need to push for policies that reduce their income.
Our democracies are increasingly operating in the shadow of a global plutocracy of the super-rich and major companies, which finance and lobby political parties to do their bidding. Where fossil energy companies are concerned, that means business as usual. So too for a financial sector which, even after being bailed out by the public, has retained its power to extract and hide its vast flows of unearned income. Now is the time to confront those powerful interests.
As the Pope’s encyclical made clear, saving the planet depends on achieving greater social justice. Our relations to each other and to the environment are thoroughly intertwined. We will only find solutions to the climate crisis if we have climate justice. This is why we need to rethink economics in terms or relations between people, and between people and the environment. That means moral economy.

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