Sunday, November 18, 2007


Over the last ten months we've followed the release of the Fourth Assessment Report on global warming from the IPCC. Since they've won the Nobel Prize for Peace, we don't really have to spell out Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anymore. We looked at the fact of global warming in February, the consequences of global warming in April and the good news that we might all prosper in May. Now there is a synthesis of all of these pieces just before the week of Thanksgiving. And, now we stand with the biggest corn harvest ever (13.2 Billion Bushels) though here on the edge of the great southeastern drought yields have been too low for farmers to break even. We might give thanks for the bountiful harvest but we might also consider if we are using it wisely. World grain stocks won't replenish based on this harvest, in part, because we are converting much of the extra yield to fuel.

Both the Australian and Southeastern droughts have had an effect on wheat supply with Tennessee and Arkansas seeing lower yields though increased land in wheat. The droughts in both areas are part of what we might expect from global warming. The Australian drought has already been tied to warming through the increase in evaporation that higher temperatures bring. The drought in the US southeast is likely just a preview of reduced precipitation expected in the region as temperatures rise. On page 890 of the Working Group 1 report in figure 11.12 we see a projected 12% reduction in summer precipitation centered on Louisiana. Already the high heat and reduced river flow have shut down a nuclear power plant in the region while an emergency declaration seeks to override environmental protections for waterways Georgia shares with Florida and Alabama. It is easy to see why the new report from the IPCC favors mitigation over adaptation. We are slow to adapt when we won't even look straight at the problem and that slowness means people won't eat as grain stocks fall. Adaptation, planting crops in new areas and abandoning old areas that used to be fruitful, takes just as much effort, if not more, than working to decrease emissions and restoring the climate to the state we have adapted to for 10,000 years. But the report itself mentions both biofuels and nuclear power on the mitigation side, so there is more thinking to be done. We can't both eat well and burn biofuels as a substitute for fossil fuels. And, we can't both wait for nuclear power plants to attempt to displace coal plants and expect them to continue to work properly in a changing climate. They take much too long to build, and then may be inundated by the extra sea-level rise that the delay causes or be unable to run without killing a river because of the higher temperatures caused by that same delay. Reliance on nuclear power does not just mean large stranded costs as plants are closed before the end of their design lifetimes owing to both changing climate and lack of fuel, but huge opportunity costs owing to the lack of investment in more suitable technology.

The reason for the inclusion of these distractions from the main task, I think, is the involvement of economists in the preparation of the report. There is a obvious distinction drawn between the growth of mitigation efforts at a rate that markets can support on their own and at a rate that whole economies can support, but these economists, because they concentrate on failures rather than successes in their training, miss the even more obvious. Many of them have benefited from a gift of land from John Bulkeley, George Downing, Samuel Winthrop and John Alcock in 1649 that has since grown into $35 billion dollars in assets.

The economists ignore this even though many of them get almost monthly reminders in the mail that this small gift of land accounts for about half the of the $35 billion owing to compounding over 350 years and the other half owing to the example the first gift set. The economists do understand the compounding part though they often misapply it as discounting, but they don't understand that their very incomes depend, in part, on this initial gift which has played such a large role in the development of their field. The work is not done, of course, since there is still an obvious lack of rigor. Because economists are used to the dead end dynamic of exploitation of depletable resources, they apply discounting indiscriminately, implicitly assuming that anything we do today has a finite benefit. Thus, they include dead end and desperate technologies like large-scale biofuels, nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration together with endowment technologies like wind and solar. They don't see that appropriate renewable energy technology takes progressively less and less effort just as the management of the Harvard endowment needs (proportionally) less care as it grows. As the fractional cost of renewable energy reduces, prosperity increases in a way that cannot be discounted away.

Buckminster Fuller understood the different nature of the dead end technologies and the endowment technologies. Perhaps economist would gain something by considering the role a perfidious rogue has played in making the ongoing support of the study of their subject possible, and come to draw reasonable distinctions between kinds of technology themselves. It is time for wisdom to take back the helm from the discounting pirates.

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