Archive | February 2015

Will Climate Get Even Weirder?

Even though we just lived through the warmest calendar year, the warmest twelve month period, the warmest January and probably the warmest February on record, the most entrenched deniers cite the arctic conditions this winter in the Eastern US as proof that there is no, “global warming.” Even so, easily observable weather events of the last few years – superstorms, torrential rains, mudslides, derechos, heat waves, droughts – are slowly beginning to turn the tide of public opinion on Climate Change, or perhaps Global Weirding. But according to a paper in Science Magazine, we’re in for a lot worse very soon. I don’t have a subscription to Science Magazine, and the abstract is just abstract, but here is a slightly edited version of the Editor’s summary:

Atlantic and Pacific multidecadal oscillations and Northern Hemisphere temperatures
Byron A. Steinman, Michael E. Mann, Sonya K. Miller

Which recent climate changes have been forced by greenhouse gas emissions, and which have been natural fluctuations of the climate system? Steinman et al. combined observational data and a large collection of climate models to assess the Northern Hemisphere climate over the past 150 years … At various points in time, the Pacific Multidecadal Oscillation (PMO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) have played particularly large roles in producing temperature trends. Their effects have combined to cause the apparent pause in warming at the beginning of the 21st century, known as the warming “hiatus.” This pause is projected to end in the near future as temperatures resume their upward climb.

On Science Blogs, Greg Laden discusses the article and shows some helpful charts. The paper notes that Pacific Ocean temperatures have been low, but are due to swing back up, and since the Pacific is so large, it will drive the whole system temperature up. Even with the Pacific trending low we have seen record warming and bizarre weather. What happens next?

Study author Michael Mann told me, “The PMO appears to be very close to a turning point, based on the historical pattern. So we don’t expect it to continue to plunge downward. We expect a turning point soon.” In his summary of the work in Real Climate, Mann notes that “the most worrying implication of our study [is] that the “false pause” may simply have been a cause for false complacency, when it comes to averting dangerous climate change.”

There won’t be any averting. There will be a great deal of death, loss, hardship and regret, followed by half-measures and finger-pointing.

Update 20150301: Scientific American, The Pause in Global Warming Is Finally Explained

Can We Trust Our Experts?

I haven’t had time to read more than the executive summary yet, but in, We’re Fat and Sick and The Broccoli Did It! – which I found on LinkedIn – David Katz MD defends the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and attacks the Nina Teicholz Op Ed I quoted in my previous post:

“That someone with book sales at stake might inveigh against the collective judgment of the diverse members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is also not much of a big, fat surprise. That the person in question might misconstrue her own, strong opinion for genuine expertise despite lack of relevant training is no big, fat surprise either. …

But that the New York Times would allocate its imprimatur and rarefied real estate to an infomercial masquerading as an Op-Ed is, well, a genuinely big, genuinely fat, and lamentably disappointing surprise. That journalistic standards are complicit in the death of expertise is a sad surprise. Oh, well.”

I suspect Katz and Teicholz primarily disagree about meat, but Katz claims that, as a population, we never really cut back on other fatty foods, either, we just ate around them:

” … the now famous notion that we decreased our intake of dietary fat, or even saturated fat, is mostly belied by national trend data. We actually kept our total fat intake, and saturated fat intake, nearly constant, but diluted it down as a percent of total calories by eating more low-fat junk food. The idea that cutting saturated fat doesn’t foster cardiovascular health is based on the antics of a population that never cut their saturated fat intake in the first place.”

But while he lauds the work of the current committee, Katz doesn’t address why the Dietary Guidelines established by previous committees had to be changed so radically:

” … they also chose to remove guidance against dietary cholesterol. This appears to be at odds with the gist of the report, but that’s the beauty of it. The committee members looked at a vast array of evidence, and did the hard work of research: considering conclusions they didn’t necessary hold at the start. …”

Teicholz probably has an agenda, but I do have to wonder if these guidelines are any more reliable than the last ones. The committee scientists may not work for the government, but they are probably not independently wealthy, either.

Butter and Egg Money

The latest US dietary recommendations – Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – are available online as a series of PDFs. The skinny is that we are once again allowed to eat some (but not too much) of eggs, butter and other fatty foods without guilt. But we are still supposed to avoid meat. Based on the old advice, I spent years avoiding eggs, thinking that was good. I stopped eating butter and didn’t like margarine, and my wife still can’t believe it when I eat plain toast.

In response to the report, Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, wrote an OpEd, The Government’s Bad Diet Advice, for the New York Times. She takes them to task for being so wrong for so long:

How did experts get it so wrong? Certainly, the food industry has muddied the waters through its lobbying. But the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,” studies in which researchers follow large groups of people over many years. But even the most rigorous epidemiological studies suffer from a fundamental limitation. At best they can show only association, not causation. Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

Remember, “Fair Harvard holds sway,” the next time some astroturfing commenter insists that anyone who challenges industry-funded, “settled” science is just a Luddite science denier. With apologies to Tom Lehrer:

Observe fiercely, Harvard,
Observe, observe, observe!
Impress them with our findings, do!
Oh, fellows, do not let the crimson down,
Be of stout heart and thru.
Come on, chaps, publish for Harvard’s glorious name,
Won’t it be peachy if our studies prove true?

So now that I can spread butter on my toast again, is the food pyramid all good now? Maybe not:

Today, we are poised to make the same mistakes. The committee’s new report also advised eliminating “lean meat” from the list of recommended healthy foods, as well as cutting back on red and processed meats. …

It’s possible that a mostly meatless diet could be healthy for all Americans — but then again, it might not be. We simply do not know. There are no rigorous clinical trials on such a diet, and although epidemiological data exists for adult vegetarians, there is none for children.

Raising cattle requires significantly more fuel and water than vegetable crops, so cutting back on meat is worth a blip towards slowing down climate change – though rebound effect skeptics would insist that others will simply eat more meat. I eat less red meat today, but I enjoy it more because I buy grass-fed, which simply tastes better. I try to find better sources of chicken as well.

I think eliminating the processed foods is the primary goal. After that, your budget will probably limit the amount of real food you can buy.

Shooting Zombies

I haven’t watched all the zombie shows, but I watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Omega Man (1971) a long time ago, and Shaun of the Dead (2004) a few years ago. A month ago we watched The Last Man on Earth (1964), an old Vincent Price flick in which the infected folk were a lot like vampires. All these films were loosely based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954). Matheson wrote part of Last Man‘s screenplay, and Living Dead and Omega Man were each influenced by their predecessors.

Matheson’s vampire-zombies didn’t move slowly, didn’t stumble around, did use firearms and other hand weapons, and actually replaced uninfected humans on Earth, but most zombie films and tv shows feature strong but slow, thick-headed zombies that are more like the Hollywood mummy than the Hollywood vampire. Omega Man’s “Family” were fairly spry, but chose not to use technology, which made life possible for Charlton Heston and his new friends.

The underlying morality of zombie flicks is that zombies are no longer human, and that you are doing them a service by killing them even more – which usually involves separating the body from the brain, or destroying the brain. Since film zombies rarely use firearms or other weapons on the uninfected, the premise allows for a great deal of weapon brutality by otherwise sympathetic characters towards hordes of sick, but dangerous, strangers – some of whom may be former loved ones. (Blam! “Sorry about that, Uncle Bob!”).

Reading the news, however, it occurs to me that Hollywood could breathe new life into the genre by making films about armed zombies that shoot unarmed, uninfected people. We actually are infested by zombies – gun zombies – who carry guns and shoot uninfected people, each other or even themselves. Many gun zombies give their children guns and then act surprised when they shoot another child. One gun zombie was shot when her child reached into her purse and found a gun; another shot herself in the eye as she was adjusting her pistol in a brassiere holster.

Gun zombies don’t stumble or shuffle or moan, but they are greatly influenced by their firearms, and do spend a great deal of time preoccupied with “situational awareness” and the Federalist Papers. Situational awareness is the task of deciding how to best shoot anyone you meet in case they try to shoot you. I suppose it saves on small talk. Often they train by firing at pictures of movie zombies, or black zombies, or women zombies.

Sometimes the influence of owning a weapon becomes too much and a gun zombie will snap and shoot someone at random, or maybe just their ex-wife and kids. Other times they spend a lot of time planning to shoot as many people as possible, after which they will shoot themselves for good measure.

Some gun zombies wear uniforms, and are essentially allowed to shoot uninfected people, or even uninfected dogs, if they feel threatened. Not surprisingly they often do just that.

The only way to stop a gun zombie is to separate the body from the firearm. That, however, has become increasingly difficult because many non-zombies are convinced that guns will protect them from gun zombies. Buying more guns, of course, just leads to more gun-zombies, but no one seems to realize they are infected even when a bullet is heading their way. Even worse, many legislators are deathly afraid of the powerful gun-zombie lobby.

All I need is a title, like The Last Unarmed Man on Earth, or Night of the Good Guys with Guns. The screenplay will practically write itself.

Flipping It Backwards

While we were skyping last night, my wife relayed a story she had heard that  Home and Garden Television (HGTV) had dropped a show because someone had complained that the hosts – brothers Jason and David Benham – were devout Christians. That sounded like more of the right-wing War on Christianity meme, so I checked it out.

According to CNN, the Benhams had been scheduled to start a show called Flip It Forward, a play on the phrase Pay It Forward, in which they would be helping families renovate and buy homes, instead of flipping them for profit. That’s a virtuous premise, but apparently they (and their pastor father) are also very vocally opposed to non-traditional and LGBT lifestyles:

The brothers ran afoul of the network after the site Right Wing Watch published a post about the pair, labeling David Benham as an “anti-gay, anti-choice extremist” for reportedly leading a prayer rally in 2012 outside of the Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The site posted a recording of Benham talking to a talk show host about “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation” and “demonic ideologies” taking hold in colleges and public schools.

Benham also discusses the fight for North Carolina’s Amendment One, which involved a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state constitution.

I asked my wife, ‘How large a percentage of the core audience of HGTV do you think are gay?’ This isn’t about Christianity, it’s about ratings. Gay viewers are not likely to watch a show starring two anti-gay activists.

David Benham complained:

“We love all people. I love homosexuals. I love Islam, Muslims, and my brother and I would never discriminate. Never have we — never would we, … Never have I ever spoken against homosexuals, as individuals, and gone against them. I speak about an agenda. And that’s really what the point of this is — is that there is an agenda that is seeking to silence the voices of men and women of faith, …”

But, “as individuals,” is not really good enough. If I told the African-Americans I work with that I liked them as individuals, but I thought they belonged in Africa, how happy do you think they would be to hear that? If I told the women I work with that I respected them as individuals, but I thought they should be at home with their children, how happy do you think they would be to hear that?

The Benhams are certainly entitled to their beliefs, and to speak about their beliefs, but they also have to endure the consequences of what people believe about them.

We’ll Always (cough) Have Paris

There has been a steady effort to market fuel-efficient, “clean” diesels in the US. Some cars even feature “biodiesel” with a small percentage – 2%, 5% or 20% – of the fuel sourced from vegetable oil rather than crude oil. Diesels are more fuel efficient than gasoline engines, and have a reputation for durability, but are they such a good idea?

Diesels are très populaire in Europe, and subsidized in France, but as reported in an interview by LeMonde, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has submitted an emission control plan that will banish older, polluting vehicles – especially diesels – from the interior streets of Paris, beginning July 2015. She says that even modern diesel filters don’t capture the fine particles that are most dangerous to health. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA) Paris averages of 147 microgrammes of particulate matter (PM) per cubic metre of air – while Brussels averaged 114, Amsterdam 104, Berlin 81 and London 79.7.

As translated by France 24, Hidalgo said, “We are determined to act quickly, … The fine particles emitted mostly by public buses and coaches are a major health concern. … It is true that older diesel vehicles are more polluting than modern ones, but the filters in even the latest models can’t get rid of the most dangerous fine particles.”

As in nearly 200 European cities, Paris will designate a, “low emission zone,” which will gradually prohibit the dirtiest emitting vehicles, with a complete ban by 2020. Discussions seem to be underway for Paris to partially fund a transition to electric utility and delivery vehicles.

“This will include up to 50 percent of the cost price, with low-rate loans to cover the rest,” Hidalgo said. “We are already in talks with banks and shops as well as transport companies to get this in place.”

Parisians’ ownership of automobiles has dropped from 60% to 40% since 2001, but Hidalgo also intends to provide incentives for greater use of electric car-sharing (Autolib), personal EVs and bikes.

As reported in The Connexion, many owners of older vehicles have not embraced the plan, and motorbike riders took to the streets:

HUNDREDS of motorcyclists ignored a police ban and took to the streets of Paris yesterday to protest against plans to stop motorbikes made before 2000 taking to the city’s streets – and there are plans to repeat the rally in front of City Hall today.

Describing the plans as “pure nonsense”, the French Federation of Angry Bikers (FFMC), which has organised both protests said in a statement that, “because of their low fuel consumption, reduced size, mobility and shorter journey times, they are a solution to the congestion of urban traffic and of value in the fight against pollution.

But the plan could boost sales of the electric Renault Zoe, and Hidalgo appears to want something to show off when Paris hosts the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in December 2015.

Me Hiding Me Head in the Sand

I learned of economist James Hamilton through The Oil Drum, which linked to his studies linking oil price spikes and recessions. Since then he has perplexed me by supporting construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and by defending the flawed Reinhart-Rogoff report despite its justification of austerity policies. Over at Econbrowser, he posted, Another Solid GDP Report, which seems to tell us that we have to admit it’s getting a little better, all the time:

Fixed investment remains disappointing. But … there’s still lots of room for growth there and reasonable basis for expecting it’s still to come. Residential fixed investment is still way below normal when expressed as a percentage of GDP – added confirmation of Reinhart and Rogoff’s observation that recovery from an event like the U.S. has gone through takes a long time. Once housing makes a decent recovery, we might expect business plant and equipment and structures to follow.

On most websites, most comments are drivel and astroturfing, but a few of Econbrowser’s commenters improvise a discordant chorus in which it can get much worse:

JBH – The relevant perspective for businesses and investors who need to make real world decisions in a world of uncertainty extends far beyond last quarter. US debt-to-GDP is not far off its historic peak. That puts it far beyond optimal. Globally, the burden of debt has never been higher. The US is running budget and trade deficits. Net national saving since the crisis is lowest since the Great Depression. The housing market is in a modest bubble. The stock market is in a gigantic bubble. The 10-year trailing S&P PE ratio has been higher only a few times in history. Each culminated in a devastating bear market. Asset markets around the world are in bubbles. Yields are artificially depressed in a way never before experienced. The interest-sensitive arm of the market has been twisted out of joint. The Fed did not allow the recession to fully cleanse the economy of the malinvestment that accrued in the heady days of the Greenspan-Bernanke put prior to the crisis. Over the past 5 years, ZIRP and QE laid down a fresh new layer. Global investors, fed one QE after another like a Christmas goose, are on a quest for yield that has flatten risk premiums to nonsensical levels. In the current environment, this is an unmistakable sign that systemic risk is on the rise. NIPA is silent on the balance sheet consequences.

The US locomotive of the past 5 years – fracking production – is slowing and only months away from going into reverse. China, the locomotive of the global recovery, will slow much further. From 10% on its way to 4. As credit decelerates, China will surely experience a hard landing that will shake foundations. The eurozone is on the verge of a triple-dip recession. Syriza in Greece is the first-ever eurozone government with the common sense, courage, drive, and support of its citizens to take the anti-austerity battle to Brussels. The troika is staring at the beginning of its end. Euro-skepticism is on an exponential rise. Spain is next to change governments with general elections this year. This spells bank runs. Nearly 8 years later, the Stoxx bank index of the largest economy in the world is barely a third of its 2007 peak. And it’s been slowly rolling over the past year. Physical gold is flowing to Asia. Much of the rest of the world outside the US and Europe is fed up with US hegemony and the dollar as reserve currency. Amidst all its other troubles, having just become a trade deficit nation Japan is flailing about setting off destabilizing currency wars. Labor force participation in the US is on a downward trajectory. The implication is fewer workers to support the ever-expanding welfare class whose hands are out for a dole. Global elites are about to level another blow to the US middle class with the secretive (why?) Trans-Pacific partnership that will be every bit as pernicious to middle class workers as was NAFTA. The unintended consequences of ZIRP and QE have only begun to reveal themselves with the first signs in the oil patch.

These factors – most of which lie in the unexplored region of the Solow growth model which is deafeningly silent on the matter of prudent finance and sound balance sheet – are chiseling away at potential. The rope is being further frayed by the less perceptible, though still quite corrosive, acid-etching-away of potential by declining work ethic, falling test scores, stranglehold student debt incurred for increasingly worthless degrees, shrinking entrepreneurship, rising obesity, rising health care costs, increasing claims for disability, baby boom demographics, lopsided cost-over-benefit government regulation, diminishing faith in the political class, and so on and on. It speaks volumes that not one indictment was handed down for corrupt activity in the revolving door nexus of big banks, government regulators, politicians and officials. No longer an iota of difference between the two parties. The same vested interests rule both. This is not the America of the pre-Fed, pre-fiat era. We are in an epochal Era of Debt. With it will come sequentially greater financial crises. That’s a hard and fast prediction. It will be decades before the good times roll. In fact, they may never.

And in response to JBH:

BC – I suspect that most economists will be quite surprised by how quickly the US economy decelerates hereafter as a result of the energy sector bust, which, along with the energy-related transport sector, was overwhelmingly disproportionately skewing higher to an unsustainable rate the growth of industrial production and truck and rail transport since 2011-12.

Because of the nature of the faster rate of decline in the rate of shale extraction than conventional crude oil, the decline in US oil production by 3Mbd+ over the next 2-3 years and proportional decline in oil consumption of 2Mbd or more will catch most economists by surprise (at least publicly).

Real non-residential investment to real private GDP is decelerating to the rate the Fed went “all in” with QEternity and at the rate of the onset of the recessions in 2008 and 2001.

Moreover, China’s industrial sector is contracting, and the labor force and FDI are barely growing, if at all. The implicit FDI multipliers to investment, production, and exports with the industrial sector contracting suggest that China’s economy is growing no faster than 3-3.5% and 3% or slower real per capita. Moreover, China’s M3 is growing at such a rapid rate to GDP to imply velocity is in in collapse, increasing the probability of debt/asset, price, and wage deflation and a deflationary contraction hereafter. China is now at the point of experiencing peak demographic drag effects into the mid-2020s as Japan has experienced since 1998 and the US since 2006-07.

The global structural constraints per capita resulting from population overshoot, Peak Oil, peak demographics, “Limits to Growth”, debt and asset bubbles to wages and GDP, and wealth and income inequality are now fully and cumulatively entrained and will exert increasing drag effects on oil and food production, real GDP per capita, gov’t receipts and spending, and the 10-year rate of world population growth (which will achieve a first-order exponential decay by the early 2020s from the peak in the 1970s, implying population peak in the 2020s and decline by the 2030s), precluding growth of real GDP per capita, and certainly no acceleration, i.e., “escape velocity”.

The post-WW II and peak Oil Age epoch’s real growth of global GDP per capita is over. Unfortunately, there is yet no emerging alternative model to the oil-, auto-, debt-, and suburban housing-based model to permit us collectively to easily transition to the post-Oil Age epoch.