Archive for the ‘global warming’ Category

Where I live, we are about to have two elections – state (NSW) and federal (Australia). So in this household we’ve been talking a lot about politics, and in particular, priorities. But this particular post came about because, in researching my local member, I came across this facebook feedback form.

Priorities You can tell just by looking at the framing that this local member comes from the conservative side of politics (“securing Australia’s borders”). But it is actually a useful thought starter. If you can only pick four, what are your top four issues? And what do you want done about them? I’m a big fan of forced prioritisation. So I gave it a go. This list is for the Federal (Australian) election. Despite the state election being first, I haven’t figured out my priorities there, although they aren’t actually all that different.

  1. Climate change – Take seriously that we need to reduce carbon emissions in Australia to net zero by the middle of this century. Australia is in the top 20 carbon emitting countries on the planet (not per capita – per capita we are much worse). We are also one of the richest per capita countries on the planet, and we have access to more renewable energy than most countries, if we have the political will to transform our economy to use it.
  2. Indigenous policy – add an indigenous voice to Parliament. When indigenous leaders from around Australia were asked what they wanted in response to the terrible inequality facing indigenous people in Australia, that was their request in their Statement from the Heart. While in one sense it seems symbolic, rather than practical, the practical actions taken by both sides of politics have failed over many years. It isn’t a coincidence that indigenous voices have not generally been involved in deciding on those actions. Having diverse views involved in decision making changes the framing as well as the decisions.
  3. Inequality – Inequality in Australia is increasing. That’s not just bad for people at the bottom of the spectrum. It’s bad for everyone. Increasing inequality makes the whole financial sector less stable (it’s thought to be one of the major causes of the 1930s Great Depression and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis). Newstart – the support for unemployed people – has not kept pace for inflation and is increasingly hard to live on. Our country as a whole does better when everyone has a chance to succeed – see this research from the OECD.
  4. Education – closer related to my third priority. Education in Australia is some of the least equal in the world, in terms of resources per child. As a country, we will do so much better if we educate everyone well. Plus it is an ethical issue – children’s opportunities to be educated shouldn’t depend on their parents wealth and location. My issue is making it more high quality, equal and accessible to all Australians – at all levels (preschool, primary, secondary, tertiary) – although I feel that the biggest issues are at the preschool and secondary levels.

So in choosing those four issues, I have left out two more that I feel very strongly about.

  • Stop demonising the “other” – Australia’s political system is worse than most of the western world in its willingness (sadly from both sides, although more from the right than the left) to demonise refugees, muslims, and african immigrants. Particularly today, seeing the terrible events in Christchurch, which are at least partly the result of increasingly racist language being seen as acceptable in public life.
  • Stop the killing of women – 63 women were killed by violence in Australia in 2018. And for each of those women killed, there are many who are damaged, physically and psychologically, by intimate partners who have nowhere to go. Supporting the funding of shelters and changing the conversation about what is acceptable could fundamentally improve those statistics.

Given I gave myself only four, I’m stuck with which ones I would switch out for my next two. So I’ll let myself look at those issues also in choosing how to vote.

What are your top four?


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Today’s book review is The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.

I’ve known, fairly well, for years, that we are overfishing the seas. Reading Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was the first book that brought it home to me, as it covered the complete collapse of the Cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Canada. But this book was a much more concentrated taste of much that is wrong with the way in which we fish the seas. Depressingly, because it is written by a European (Charles Clover is the environment editor of the Telegraph in the UK), it doesn’t cover all of the issues that I’m aware of with the fisheries in our part of the world (most notably the dynamite fishing of South East Asia).

The book starts with a series chapters of set around the world – outlining the different ways in which fish stocks are being overfished in all parts of the world, and taking us to the world famous fishing markets in many traditional fishing areas. One of the first fish described is the bluefin tuna, once one of the most important fish in the Mediterranean, and still a key fish for sushi. In October last year was listed as an endangered species under CITES, five years after this book was written, and seventeen years after Sweden first tried to list it in 1992.

The markets he goes to are also fascinating. Lowestoft, where he starts, which was once a key fishing port for the east of England, is now just a market. Hardly any fish are landed there in boats any more. The fish traded there come from all over the world – Sri Lanka, Oman, New Zealand and Australia. But the key merchants, who built up their trade buying from the boat, have diversified into supplying their British customers from the whole world.

Many of the European fleets, which have run out of fish at home, have moved on to Africa, where the poorer countries are willing to sell fishing rights to huge factory ships in return for cash. Clover spends some time describing the negotations between the Senegalese and the EU – fishing rights gave the Senegalese £42m in 2002, which doesn’t seem much for what was a hugely productive fishery.

There was much to be indignant about, after reading this polemic, extraordinarily well researched book. The way in which fishing quotas completely ignore the “by catch” – fish which are caught and killed and don’t even make to port, even as fish oil. The subject is rarely researched, but when it has been, most fishing methods end up with at least 50% “bycatch” which often includes quite endangered species (loggerhead turtles, for example) and also kill many other animals as a byproduct (long baited lines, for example, kill manta rays and even whales, at times).  And the way in which food companies have made a credit out of selling “dolphin friendly” tuna, and ignoring all of the other ways in which fishing for tuna harms the ocean environment, most notably by killing species of tuna (such as the bluefin) which are seriously endangered.

In the end, in Clover’s view there are three dimensions to a fishery – the ecological, the economic, and the social (the life of the fishermen). He outlines three options in managing a fishery:

A. You can have a fishery that is healthy ecologically and economically, but you have to forget about supporting fishing as a cultural (i.e. subsidised activity all the way round the Scottish, Iberian or Newfoundland coast).

B. You can have a fishery that works economically and socially but not ecologically (but presumably not for very long because the resource will be gone in a few years once you have mined it).

C. You can have a fishery that works ecologically and socially but not economically (conceivably by making its money out of something else, such as tourism or nature conservation grants, like paid graziers on a nature reserve).

The world has been taking option B for the last 50 years, and is getting to the end of the line. But moving to either option A or option C creates enormous political pain in any society where fisherman have a serious voice, which is most societies with a long fishing tradition. Newfoundland, where the cod fishery has already collapsed, has move to a combination of option C and B – they’ve moved on down the foodchain to lobster and prawns, and paid unemployment benefits to many fisherman who can’t fish any more, so that the villages and towns still have people in case the fish ever come back.

So the political will is not there, until the collapse of Option B takes A and C off the table. Option C could conceivably still be implemented at that point, but will make fish an occasional treat for the rich, rather than a key food of many different cultures.

Clover has a plan.  His key steps (for all major fishing countries are):

  • Cut the fleet – preferably by setting up a system of individual transferable quotas for fishing off-shore, allocated to existing fishermen, vessel owners and processors. Contravening the rules would mean losing the quota forever, with the vessel seized and scrapped.
  • Set up a serious proportion of the key fisheries (he suggests 25% of the North Sea, for example) as marine reserves with no fishing vessels even allowed to pass through them
  • Provide transparent information on fishing vessels movements to the public, so that anyone can see what they are doing, and ordinary citizens can help in the policing of the rules

But he freely acknowledges the political difficulty of implementation:

The chances of all this happening, of course, are zero…. Until then, I’m afraid, Europe will go on backing towards a cliff in a fog.

He suggests way in which that might change – if public opinion changes in a serious way, or there is a cod crash in the North Sea, or if (for British fish at least) Britain leaves the EU (although given his evidence of how much cheating there is on the current rules in the Scottish fishery, I’m sceptical of this last one).

Clover gives quite a good review of the Australian and (particularly) New Zealand fisheries management. I fear that is because he hasn’t spent as much time digging for problems as he has in the UK, rather than because our fisheries are superbly well managed. But we don’t have quite the same cultural expectations of our fisheries management, at least in Australia, which helps. Fishing has  never had quite the same mystique here, as the Trawlermen in Scotland, which makes Option A an easier management option. We still have orange roughy in the fish shops, though – a slow growing fish which has collapsed to 10% of its initial biomass after 20 years of fishing.

I myself love eating fish, particularly (I’m afraid) sushi’d tuna, but tonight when we went out for fish and chips for dinner, I did make sure I had hoki, which has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an organisation that gets a fairly good review in the book) as a sustainable fish.

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Miranda Devine had a rant this week about cyclists:

But hostilities were fed by the lies told by the Government and the RTA, which gave cyclists unreasonable expectations and ideas above their station. The former roads minister Carl Scully, a vegetarian cyclist, threw $250 million at the lobby, further fuelling expectations which were dashed by subsequent roads ministers.

Most bike paths turned out to be little more than white paint on a road, with no room for a bike between parked cars and traffic. But they sent a signal to cyclists that motorists were somehow in the wrong.

In Devine’s view, it seems the fact that cycle paths were promised and then built so badly that they are dangerous and force cyclists on to the roads is proof that the cycle paths should never have been built at all (she has a slightly more balanced view today, calling for courtesy from everyone).

I was pondering this as I went on my first bike ride of  the summer today. I am normally an overly conscientious rule follower. If there is a rule, I know  about it, and follow it. Daggy, I know. But put me on a bike, and I become the person who convinces themselves that the rules are stupid, and I am trustworthy enough to break them. For example, today I rode my bike for 10 metres on the footpath to avoid about 200m of busy traffic filled road that was a bit too scary for my current inexperienced biking state. I rode at a maximum of 10km an hour, and easily avoided the two people walking towards me.

But I broke the law.

Many cyclists go much further, and do quite dangerous things (to pedestrians – I still find it pretty hard to understand the motorist who is scared of cyclists). I know, I’ve been knocked down by a cyclist while I was a pedestrian. But the problem is that nearly anywhere you go in Sydney, while you are safe for most of your journey, there are spots where your choice is to do something illegal (but safe) or something legal, and much less safe. Cyclists get into the habit of breaking the law because the infrastructure makes it so hard for them to obey it. And then they get to the sense of entitlement that sees them knocking pedestrians over on the footpath. The local mayor says that gaps in cycleways are what caused the incident that got Devine so hot under the collar.

I’m never quite sure how far cycling can go in becoming a serious form of transport in Sydney – it’s very hilly, and hot and humid in summer. But it’s a bit silly blaming only the cyclists for their bad behaviour when the road system almost forces them to break the law.

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Extreme distributions

John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, made a speech today talking about bushfires. I’ve been pondering one of his key points for the last two weeks, ever since the bushfires.

Climate change is not just about warmer weather, it is about wilder weather.

One of the lessons I learned early on as an actuary is that the extremes of any distribution do not behave the same way as the middle. So if the middle of a distribution of temperature rises by 1 degree, the effects on the extremes are not intuitive.

Something that was a 1 in 100 chance of occuring in the old distribution is not just slightly more likely. Moving the distribution up the curve can significantly increase the chance of that 1 in 100 event. For an extreme event that is three deviations away from the mean of a distribution, moving the mean up 20% of a standard deviation doubles the chance of that extreme event. So put it in temperature terms – say the summer mean maximum temperature is 25 degrees, with a 1 in 400 chance of a 40 degree day. Increase the mean maximum temperature to 26 degrees, and there is a 1 in 200 chance of a 40 degree day. And that is assuming that the climate follows a nice stable normal distribution model (or bell curve – the one that statisticians like, because it’s easy to work with mathematically).

You don’t need complex models of extreme weather events following climate change to realise that extreme events become much more frequent if the average temperature moves up a little bit. But complex models of extreme weather events suggest that the extremities move even further than a very simple normal distribution would suggest.

The Climate Institute put out a very detailed  report from in September 2007.  They first of all looked at the increase in extreme fire danger in the two global warming scenarios – low global warming (0.4 degree by 2020 and 0.7 degrees by 2050) and high global warming (1 degree by 2020 and 2.7 degrees by 2050)  – based on projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The number of extreme fire danger days in 2020 in the low global warming scenario increased by 5-25%. And the number in 2050 using the high global warming scenario increased by 100-300%.  

Extreme fire danger

Extreme fire danger: image credit Parkaboy

They developed two new categories beyond the Australian standard ‘extreme’ fire danger days – ‘very extreme’ and ‘catastrophic’. Catastrophic fire danger days, which at the time of the study had occurred 12 times in the more than 30 years of the temperature records studied at the sites studied, were projected to occur once every three years at 7 of the 26 sites studied, and once every 8 years in 12 more.

Given that the flash point of eucalyptus oil is 49 degrees, bushfire risk does not just increase in a linear way with temperature. The closer the air temperature gets to 49 degrees, the more likely that just some random heat point will set something off. The maximum temperature in much of Victoria on Saturday 7 February was around 46 degrees. And there had been little or no rain for the last month, with baking temperatures. Although that weather pattern is quite theoretically possible without global warming, global warming makes it much more likely.

John Connor is right. Time to add Very Extreme and Catastrophic to all those bushfire warning signs you see everywhere in the Australian bush.

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Wildfire scarcely seems an adequate term for what happened over the weekend in Victoria.  To give a sense of the intensity, many cars are unidentifiable, because the numbers on the engine blocks have melted. This article compares the temperature in the worst of the fires to the Dresden firestorms.

John Quiggin has done his usual wonderful job in coordinating blogosphere donations – he’s well over $1,000 now.

Several others have urged blood donations if you’re local – burns victims need lots of blood products.

Anything I can do from Sydney seems woefully inadequate, but this is one of those times that I’m glad I work for an insurance company. The stories from our claims teams for the last few days have been tragic, and worse, but I’m glad to be part of a process that pays money to people when they need it most.

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Mr Penguin alerted me to this interested article in Wired. As you would expect, in the US, Republicans are more likely to be sceptical about global warming than Democrats.  Environmentalism has always been found more on the left than the right, and Republicans have more to lose from action that makes energy more expensive.

But college-educated Republicans are far more likely to be sceptics than their less educated political allies, while a college education makes a Democrat less sceptical. What is about the combination of education and right wing politics?

It’s quite strange, because in all other areas of life I can think of, conspiracy theories are more likely to be found at the loony left end of the spectrum. But in this one, the more educated a right winger is, the more likely they are to believe that the scientific establishment is holding something from them.

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Sydney’s water crisis is over, for the moment. Our dams are now 65.5% full – up from 33.9% on the 8th February 2007. That will last us around two to three years without any more rain, at the current rate, which feels like a reasonable cushion. Not coincidentally, Sydney’s water consumption went from an average of 1,800 or so Megalitres per day back in 2001, to around 1,300 or so now.  Although there has been an increase in price during that time period, according to this study (from Cyprus!), demand in Sydney barely changes with an increase in price – the price inelasticity is -0.09, which means that an increase in price has very little effect on consumption.

So the way in which Sydneysiders have dramatically reduced their water consumption has been through restrictions – good old government regulation.

I find this interesting. It is very common to find economist authored opinion pieces in the papers commenting that if only the government would use price signals for this or that issue, the market would automatically find the correct level.

But, price inelasticity is straight from Economics 101. Some commodities aren’t much influenced by price – at least in the current ranges of prices and consumption (I don’t doubt that if water was per litre as expensive as (say) scotch for the average household, the use of plumbing and tolerance of dirt would drastically change). At the margin, using restrictions rather than water pricing will potentially stop some high value uses of water that would occur if pricing were to be used.

So the government turned to non price signals – a combination of coercion and shaming (mostly coercion, through water restrictions, but public opinion has turned against people wanted to maintain lush green lawns).  This study, from IPART (which is the independent pricing tribunal responsible for setting water prices) suggests that to replicate the effect of the water restrictions we have now you would need around a 200% increase in water prices (if you wanted to have a block safety net of water with an price that didn’t vary).

Although I’m in the camp that we very much need a carbon tax to at least start down the path of reducing greenhouse gases, price increases are not necessarily a panacea for every type of product. Sometimes it is easier to reduce consumption in other ways, particularly if the price is cheap enough to start with that substnatial waste is a result.

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Cycle Lanes

In a front page story in the SMH today, the NRMA (NSW’s peak motorist lobby group) accused the government of wasting money on cycle lanes.

“The Iemma Government is building a cycleway alongside choked Epping Road, despite as few as 25 cyclists using that corridor each day. At $7.6 million for the Epping Road cycleway, the NRMA says that would amount to spending $300,000 per cyclist on a lane that is unlikely to attract many more riders, based on the experiences of the M2 motorway. The NRMA wants the Epping Road cycleway to be scrapped to allow lanes to be widened for trucks and cars.”

The SMH goes on to comment that

“The Westlink M7 cycleway added $60 million to the cost of that project, a legacy of the former roads minister Carl Scully.”

As a cyclist, my first reaction was anger, that one of the few places in Sydney that might get to effective cycle access is being targeted. But then I wondered why it is that the cyclist lobby seems to have so much success with getting a lot of money spent on long distance cycling solutions. Most people agree that the trips most likely to be replaced by cycle trips (going by what happens in cities where cycling is prevalent) are short trips of 1-5 km or so (here’s a typical example from an inner city Council website).

To improve the chances of people taking short trips, councils need to think imaginatively about marking out quiet, relatively flat streets as cycle safe places, with footpaths marked out as appropriate for cycling in places where the roads are just too dangerous. I’ve ridden on this path a few times, which is a good example (although not especially useful for transport compared with recreation).

But in Sydney as it is today, with a cycle route almost always involving some serious traffic at some point, the people who are most likely to cycle on the roads are the ones who really want to. They are also the cyclists who would really love a long distance ride, that lets them get up a good speed, without having to give way to pedestrians every 20 metres or so. And until we get cycle paths that less brave cyclists can use, they are going to be the main people putting the real effort into campaigning for better access.

In my ideal Sydney, there would be good cycle routes that I could happily take my children on all over Sydney. But the situation today is nowhere near that. It really annoys me that the NRMA is campaigning to stop spending money on cycle transport. The NRMA is implicitly saying that if you stop spending money on cycle paths, it would instead be spent on roads. And they may be right, the budgeting processes of any large organisation are rarely logical.  But if we as taxpayers have a set amount of money to spend on cycling, I wonder if we’re spending it in the most effective way. Would it be more effective if it was spent on smaller projects dotted around the whole of Sydney?

Edited to add that the main point made in the considerable reaction to this story in the last two days has been more that bike lanes never join up to anything else. Cyclists are expected to live at the beginning or end of the cycleway, but if they want to go anywhere else, they take their chances on the roads like everyone else.

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The Institute of Actuaries of Australia does a quick (36 seconds is the promise) survey of its members once a month, reported in its imaginatively titled magazine Actuary Australia. Of the 345 respondents (self selected, but a good proportion of all the actuaries in Australia) 35% don’t believe that global warming is happening at all.

I find that a bit depressing, that at a time when even the small number of climate change sceptical scientists still remaining are starting to believe that global warming is happening, but just that it is not caused by human kind, actuaries are still sceptics in such numbers. It’s our training to be sceptical, but our training is also to respond to evidence without emotion.

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Tonight, I got the chance to see Al Gore speak live. He was spruiking his investment company, Generation _, which is being launched (via a platform) to retail investors in Australia. I’m not usually seduced by celebrity, but this felt like an opportunity you don’t get every day.

I read on the smoking gun that this would normally cost the company $100,000, plus first class travel expenses (hybrid cars where possible).

 It was a bit of an anti-climax, on the whole. He’s a great speaker, but I think I’ve heard all his good jokes before (“used to be the next President of the USA” got a laugh, but I can’t believe anyone hadn’t heard it before), and the spruiking made it much more like any other fund manager presentation I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a few).

But, as he said, far more money is invested by the markets every day than by governments annually. He’s probably being more effective lobbying for wholesale and retail funds to be invested thinking sustainably, than he is by lobbying any government you would care to name. More power to him.

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