May 20, 2020

In Basketball the Virus Would Only Get an Assist

Keeping score correctly is crucial to planning the recovery.

The novel coronavirus didn’t kill J Crew, Nieman Marcus, or J C Penney; it only gave them a little shove. Their business models were broken and failing before C19 came out of the bat cave. Neither recovery energy nor recovery money should be aimed at resurrecting them as zombies or protecting others like them who will likely fail soon. Their demise makes room for new businesses and new business models just as winter clears the deadwood to make room for spring growth.

Four colleges closed last year in Vermont before anyone here even knew where Wuhan was; they were done in by a lethal combination of demographics, over-pricing and over-building spurred on by government loan program, and their failure to prepare their graduates for even the best job market in decades. The virus will probably give other colleges the final push into oblivion, but it won’t deserve the blame for their demise. Higher education (in fact all education) badly needs to be reinvented in the US. That reinvention will be retarded by any attempt to go back to the old normal. We may have learned some of the ways education can change from our forced response to the virus.

Supply chains over-optimized to bring the very cheapest goods and components to the US were a bad idea. The virus didn’t only break them; it demonstrated how fragile they were. If we subsidize the companies that relied on these broken supply chains back into business, they are much more likely to continue their bad old ways than new companies which reinvent a balanced supply chain that combines local and global sourcing, diversity of supply, shared inventory, and just-in-time manufacturing of critical components.

The virus didn’t force us to over-leverage; blame for that belongs with the Federal Reserve which could never bring itself to allow the wealthiest to suffer losses from the 2008 recession. Now the virus has brought the danger of all that over-leveraging home. What is the Fed doing? Doubling down on its last mistake and practicing the wealthfare it has become so good at. Cheap credit for corporate dinosaurs and no credit for startups and small business prolonged the last recession. I fear it will do even worse when disguised as pandemic relief.

On a much more human level, the virus is getting credit for even more deaths than it has caused. This disease has been a ruthless killer of the vulnerable; but underlying diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and obesity as well as simple old age were as responsible for many of these deaths as the virus which was the last straw. I’m 77 and hypertensive; if C19 gets me, it won’t have acted alone.

If we incorrectly give coronavirus full “credit” for all these deaths, we are making the implicit decision that almost all health spending should go to fighting this particular disease. That would be a mistake. There’s a huge amount we must do to reduce diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and obesity (we can’t do much about old age) so that the next pathogen doesn’t have as much vulnerable tinder.

The novel coronavirus ruthlessly mowed down the most vulnerable people and institutions. Even in the short-term we cannot make it our Moby Dick and focus on it alone.  Our recovery efforts should be towards a new and more anti-fragile normal; the old normal was broken in too many ways before the virus struck; now it is Humpty Dumpty and we need to move the eggshell out of the way.

See also:

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Wealthfare Cheats

The Internet Turbocharged Globalization

May 18, 2020

Judging the Swedish Experiment with Covid-19

Only time will tell

Unfortunately discussion about Covid-19 in the US has become highly political. Contrary to what both Donald Trump and his adversaries in the mainstream media think, it’s not all about him and his reelection chances. Lives and livelihoods can both be saved by learning what there is to learn about dealing with this virus; that learning can’t happen with partisan blinders on.

Sweden has taken a different course than much of the rest of the world. They haven’t shut down their economy; they haven’t closed their schools; they haven’t told people to stay at home. As quoted in The New York Times, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell said: “Once you get into a lockdown, it’s difficult to get out of it. How do you reopen? When?” Much of the US is facing that problem now.

Sweden’s infection and death rates are higher than neighboring Scandinavian countries, which did lock down. Does that mean that the Swedes were wrong to take this approach? We don’t know yet.

On the other hand, estimates are that as much as 25% of the Swedish population may have been infected by May 1 without overwhelming their medical system. Sweden’s death rate is much lower than that of hard-hit European countries like Spain, Italy and France and about the same as Ireland (locked down). It’s quite possible that Sweden will be less affected than its neighbors by whatever next wave of the virus hits because of partial “herd immunity”. Does that mean they were right to take this approach? We don’t know yet. Maybe there’ll be a vaccine by this fall (don’t count on it) and herd immunity will be injectable everywhere.

Obviously, all things being equal, you’ll have a higher initial death rate if you don’t lock down than if you do. On the other hand, if Sweden has minimized the danger from future waves of the virus, it’s death rate over time may be equal to or lower to its neighbors. The Swedish experiment would have obviously been a failure if their health care system got overwhelmed, but it didn’t. If Sweden has a roughly comparable mortality experience to its neighbors over time and has better preserved its economy, their experiment will have been a success although probably not one that could have been replicated everywhere.

But was Sweden right to take this risk even if things turn out well? Nassim Taleb, a wizard of black swans, says you don’t congratulate someone who wins at Russian Roulette. Were those leaders who called for a more severe lockdown wrong if their countries do no better or perhaps worse than Sweden? Maybe not. They had to make decisions with what they knew at the time. I think I would’ve chosen lockdown over the possibility of an overwhelmed health system. Bending the curve to below our hospital capacity made sense to me and, in general, the US has succeeded at that (for now).

But the history of viruses is that, once they evolve into dangerous pathogens, they don’t go away. Their effect can be minimized by vaccination (if it’s invented), treatment (once it’s invented), herd immunity, and contact tracing as we have done successfully (so far) with Ebola. Continuing shutdown to suppress the number of cases far below our treatment capacity may lead to more infection later and the perceived need for a ruinously long lockdown.  

How do we decide?

We must decide what levels of risk we are willing to take. “Zero” is not an answer; it’s always been riskier to leave the house and drive to work than to stay home. There’s always been risk of contagion in public places; the more crowded the more the risk.

We must look dispassionately at the results of experiments like Sweden’s and the US State of Georgia. We must ignore what is or isn’t good for Donald Trump. And we should judge our leaders by whether what they did seemed right at the time they did it, not with 20-20 hindsight.

May 13, 2020

The Elephant That Is in the Airport

A humbling experience.

Heathrow

The poster in the foreground of the nearly empty airport is about C19, the elephant which is clearly in the room. Apparently no one had time to change the poster in the background which identifies climate change as “the greatest challenge of our time”.

I blame it on the drug companies. If only they’d been as good at marketing as the renewable energy industry, every hospital in the world would’ve been overstocked with protective equipment and ventilators long before the pandemic hit. If we spent what we spent on the ethanol boondoggle and subsidizing electric cars for rich people on pandemic preparation, we might have had templates for diagnostic kits, therapeutics, and vaccines ready before C19 came out of the bat cave. We needed an Al Gore of plagues.

It’s not as if we didn’t have early warning. There was H1N1; there was avian flu; we worried about Ebola, but it has been too ruthless in killing its hosts to be a successful pandemic. Bill Gates warned that pandemics were the greatest near-term danger to our civilization and even put 100s of millions of Gates Foundation money into preparation. But we weren’t ready; weren’t nearly ready.

Ironically the pandemic has done much more to reduce CO2 emissions than climate change treaties, incentives, mandates, and angry 17-year-olds at the UN. Emissions were flat last year before the pandemic; they are, of course, way down this year, far below even the most optimistic assumptions used in climate change models. The scenario where large numbers of us simply stop driving and flying were not modeled; who would’ve thought…

That’s where the humbleness comes in. We really don’t know as much as we think we do about our future; nor do we control it nearly as well as we think we do. Even with the world fully focused on this pandemic, the models of its likely spread are consistently wrong on  both the upside and the downside. We don’t know why New York City was hit as hard as it was and why even more crowded Mumbai has (so far) not been. We are only beginning to learn that infections in China and the US and everywhere else may have started long before they were detected. We don’t know why some people seem to super-spreaders. We have no idea whether C19 will come back with a vengeance this fall, even where it appears to be waning. We don’t know why the irresponsible partying in Florida during spring break didn’t lead to traceable outbreaks wherever the partygoers returned to.

 At least four lessons from this rant:

  1. Pilots are taught never to focus on a single threat or a single instrument to the exclusion of everything else in and around the plane, sure way to fly into the ground when a lightbulb malfunctions. Letting the threat of climate change overwhelm consciousness of all other threats was poor public policy.
  2. Models are of much less use than a non-mathematician would think in projecting the course of mathematically chaotic phenomena like disease or climate or the economy. Models are a tool for understanding through simplification; but not all complex interactions can be simplified usefully.
  3. “Listen to the science” is a guide but not a panacea. Climatologists (and those who fund them) will tell you that climate change is the elephant in the room. Epidemiologists (and those who fund them) will tell you we should focus solely on disease. An asteroid could smash into earth – it’s happened before. In a democracy, political leaders must balance the warnings and the threats and the limited resources available and make choices. In a democracy we must chose smart leaders.
  4. When everyone is looking in one direction, look the other way. Otherwise you could get your pocket picked.

See Also:

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

May 11, 2020

The Internet Turbocharged Globalization

Just in time, it is becoming local as well.

Back around the turn of the century, the Internet reduced international communication costs by 99% in just a couple of years. In 1998 phone calls to China and India from the US cost more than $1.00/minute and data communication costs were similarly high. International supply chains were very difficult to set up and costly to manage because of the cost of communication. Internet telephony brought call rates down to pennies per minute, partly through technology and partly by making an end-run around the international telephone cartel managed by the UN. A huge investment in undersea fiber and technical advances in fiber capacity as well as Internet pricing brought data rates down as well. The Internet model made these advances in communication accessible to almost anyone who could get access to the Internet, not just to large corporations.

A factory in China could then look at graphic specs from a US prospect as easily as a US-based competitor could. Discussing a bid across oceans was no more expensive than across town. The enormous amount of data exchange needed to manage an international supply chain was no longer significantly expensive. Collaboration was enhanced in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years previously. Innovation flourished. Globalization was turbocharged.

Globalization accomplished many great things. Worldwide, there was an explosion out of poverty with a consequential increase in education and life expectancy. Child mortality plunged and birth rates went down in tandem. Consumers in the already-developed world had access to a plethora of incredibly cheap goods including generation after generation of more and more powerful electronics – almost all of which were built in the developing world.

We ignored the dangers of over-concentrated and complex supply chains. In a world where prices can be readily compared, the temptation to go for a momentary price advantage by concentrating supply overshadowed the fragility of single-sourcing and long supply chains.

Then the virus hit the fan.

We couldn’t even get enough masks to protect our hospital workers. They come from abroad and “abroad” needed its own production. Tried to make masks and found out we don’t make enough specialty paper or elastic domestically. Tried to make ventilators but all the parts come from somewhere else. South Korea went immediately to test and trace; we couldn’t because we didn’t have enough test kits or chemicals to use with them. South Korea is a lot closer to the beginnings of its supply chains than we are. Many of our supply chains run through South Korea.

The Internet made it too easy for us to outsource too much to too far away; short-term thinking made us ignore the risk of no plan B.

Better late than never, the Internet has also come to the rescue.

Work at home let many of us “non-essential” workers continue to work.

Americans all over the country began making masks. They used the Internet locally both to scratch up raw materials and to make their masks available to those in need. Local businesses and non-profits with 3d printers downloaded open source specs for face shields and other medical necessities and started printing. The Internet made it easy to find a local restaurant that can deliver and possible for the restaurant to stay at least partially open. Those who needed to stay tightly locked down were able to find local delivery services for groceries; those who couldn’t pay found local volunteer organizations, which had sprung up to meet their need. Certainly no nirvana but better than it would have been if the Internet weren’t there for us to collaborate on.

After years of talking about it and experimenting around the edges, both education and medicine went online because they had to. We learned how to Zoom.

Local has been everything in this crisis. One state is not like another; even regions of the same state are different. Local news and information are critically important. In Vermont and much of the rest of the country local daily newspapers have withered away and local tv and radio have cut their news staffs. VTDigger, Vermont’s online news source (on whose Board I am) has had a fourfold increase in traffic. Hyper-local Front Porch Forum is at the heart of self-help and help-your-neighbor efforts in almost every town in Vermont. Select Board meetings on Zoom are at least as accessible as they were in person.

Some of this has been so good that we won’t try to do it all in person even when the bug’s been banished back to the bat cave. Traffic may be reduced permanently by telecommuting. We can make room for social distancing in offices by having only a fraction of the workforce come in each day (if at all). Perhaps the same will be true for schools. Telemedicine can increase the availability of healthcare and reduce cost. Online college might actually be free. Just-in-time local 3d print-to order-shops will take some of the business from globalized supplied chains and add security.

But there is one enormous “but”: we must make sure everyone has access to highspeed broadband. The quality of all these online solutions is marred by the fact that a small minority does not have broadband access; we can’t switch service delivery online while even a small minority don’t have access.  It will be a crucial part of planning for not only the next emergency but also recovery from this one to achieve broadband for all. We can do that.

See also:

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

May 07, 2020

Beware Phishing on Facebook

Facebookphish

I got the message above which said it came from a person (blacked out) who really is a friend on Facebook and otherwise. I clicked on it to see what video I might or might not be in. A new page opened in my browser which looked like it came from FB. It said the video required additional verification and asked me for my email address and FB password. Stupidly I gave these even though a quick look at the URL would've told me the page didn't come from FB and a closer look at the message would've told me this friend would never have used such bad grammar. The page that then came up was an ad for a direct marketing company - no video. But I think that page was just meant to make me think I clicked on a come-on and forget about it.

In fact I'd been hooked by the phish. Just gave my FB credentials to someone who can use them for who knows what and certainly would use them to phish for my friend's credentials by sending messages from my account. There is a black market on the Internet for stolen credentials. I came to my senses within five minutes and changed my FB password. Fortunately, I only used that password with FB.

It is possible that a highly efficient bot phished my friends before I got the password changed. If you got something strange from me, DON'T click on any link, please accept my apology, and also let me know.

Quick lessons:

1) Once you've logged into FB, do not give your login credentials again. The one exception is that FB will ask you for your old password when you are changing to a new one.
2) Don't assume a message comes from the friend it says it came from and don't click on any links in a message unless you're sure that it actually came from your friend.
3) If you're sending a message with a link to a friend, tailor the message with something personal to give the friend some assurance it is from you.

BTW, email phishing is very similar. I wrote about it at https://blog.tomevslin.com/2006/02/dont_be_a_phish.html. Too bad I didn't follow my own advice.

April 30, 2020

25th Internet Independence Day is Today

It's the 25th anniversary of the official birth of the unofficial Internet.

I'll be on a streamed Zoom panel with some of the people who made the Internet what it is at 5PM EDT today https://livestream.com/internetsociety/iid25 moderated by futurist Dan Berninger. other panelists are Esther Dyson, Gary Shapiro, Jeff Jarvis, James A Lewis, and Andrew Odyzko, May be interesting to see what can we see of the future from inside the c19 discontinuity.

Scratch in Quarantine

Grandchildren to the Rescue

We can’t touch our grandkids physically now, but we are in touch with them more than ever while they have no school and we can’t socialize otherwise. Usually we Skype but with a purpose. Mary reads books online with granddaughter P and does sewing projects with granddaughters M and L.

I Scratch. Scratch is a very graphic programming language invented at MIT and an excellent tool for teaching programming (except when it isn’t. complaints below.). 10-year-old granddaughter M is planning on being an astronaut and is assiduously preparing for her career. We’re working on multiplication tables and “scratch cards”, which she’s coded so that she and other home bounds can practice the times tables online. Her scratch cards are shared at https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/387802724/ in case your grandkids might enjoy them.

Wizard

Along with the rules of if, else, when etc., I use Scratch to teach the programming ethic of sharing tips and code. We grownups use sites like stackoverflow to share; but Scratch has its own simplified sharing mechanism and its own wiki to consult for hints on hard-to-figure out things. With Scratch you either share or you don’t. I’d prefer more selective ways to collaborate, but the designers and overseers of Scratch consistently opt for simplicity.

Grandson J, 12, is an accomplished artist. He drew the quarantine mask on my avatar. He also loves games. So no surprise that he likes to use Scratch to build games with Anime-like characters. He’s become particularly adept at using the signaling and sensing structure of Scratch (its best features IMO). Two of his games are shared at https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/377539440/ and https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/377243754/.

Crabby

Scratch is always open source; that means that you can see and learn from and copy the code from any shared project. You are asked to credit projects you learned from. Comments are open for all these projects and I hope we get some constructive comments.

Granddaughter L, 10, and I have always enjoyed exchanging riddles. She excels at logic puzzles and math. She and I have been working on formal Boolean logic, but Scratch is not particularly good for that. It has the logic operators AND, OR, XOR and NOT; but you can only assign the value “True” by assigning 1=1 or some other tautology. Complex mathematical and logical statements are almost impossible to read. L and I are going to move on to Python soon and I look forward to showing you what she does with that.

 See: An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

April 27, 2020

Wealthfare Cheats

Trotters in the Trough Threaten Relief Programs.

The Payroll Protection Program(PPP) is a pretty good idea, especially seeing how quickly it was thrown together and the partisan atmosphere that produced it. Money is lent to “small” employers if they need it to keep the doors open and people on payroll. The loan is at 1% interest but can be forgiven if used for rent, mortgage, utilities, or salary; essentially it is free money but well-spent compared to having the businesses close and more people go on unemployment, potentially for a long time. Obviously businesses which don’t have to lay everyone off will have a better chance of restarting once the crisis abates.

Businesses which want the money must certify “Current economic uncertainty makes the loan necessary (emphasis mine) to support your ongoing operations” according to the terms factsheet. The banks which actually make the loans on behalf of the Small Business Administration (SBA) are not required to verify this assertion for the very good reason that the money would not be dispersed in time to keep people employed if there were a verification process. But lack of verification immediately led to abuse.

We’ve all read about public corporations like Shake Shack which were shamed into giving back the 100s of millions they’d scoffed up. The Treasury Department made it clear that it is not “necessary” to have this money if you have other sources of cash, as public companies usually do.

Nominally the loans were restricted to organizations with 500 employees or less, but this limitation is riddled with exceptions left over from other SBA programs (footprints of lobbying past). The total loan to any one company was supposed to be $10,000,000 but companies were able to apply multiple times through multiple subsidiaries.

Not surprisingly, the money ran out long before the needs of small organizations were met. You must apply through a bank which is a certified SBA lender (most are). If you were an organization with a good banking relationship, you found a banker on your doorstep with an application (almost no risk for the bank and they get the deposit). But, if your organization needed to establish a banking relationship, by the time you’d done this, the money was gone. Not good.

A fair amount has been written about abuses in the private sector and shaming seems to be correcting some although it’s hard to know what’s happening in companies which aren’t public. What has not been written about (that I’ve seen), is abuses by non-profits, which I think may be more widespread than we’d hope.

I was on four boards when the program was announced, three nonprofit and one for-profit. All were approached by their banks urging applications for PPP money (and making light of the word “necessary”). One of the nonprofits had already had a layoff and would’ve had to cut further without a loan. The PPP loan was clearly necessary and was approved. Two of the other nonprofits, like everyone, were anxious about what the future will be; but they finally decided that, since they were not facing near-term layoffs, they should not take money from those organizations that would otherwise let people go. The for-profit company was also not immediately affected, and its investors made some funds available because of uncertainty and their feeling that they should not personally profit from the receipt of PPP funds. No application there either.

Nevertheless, the cavalier attitude that bankers, lawyers, accountants and advisors take towards the certification of necessity make me certain that there are abuses of PPP waiting to be discovered in the nonprofit world.

We need emergency programs like PPP. However, it becomes impossible to reach the needy when the well-connected jump into line ahead of them. The programs are, of necessity, light on pre-verification because the money is needed now. However, we the people must make clear that there will be post-accounting. Fraud must be punished legally; unethical behavior, which may not be illegal, should be punished in the marketplace.

April 24, 2020

Live on WDEV

This afternoon (April 24)  at 1PM ET I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing how our federal system is working in addressing the C19 crisis. Appropriately the show is postponed from its usual morning slot because of Gov. Scott's news conference at which he'll announce the next step in opening up Vermont's economy. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

see:

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

April 21, 2020

It’s Time for a $15 Minimum Wage – At Least

We Know It’s Deserved.

I’m economically conservative and a capitalist. Higher wages will tend to raise prices. There will be at least a marginal loss of job opportunities when paying very low wages is no longer an option. However, minimum-wage and near minimum-wage workers taking risks have made it possible for the rest of us to shelter at home. They earned a big raise. Many employers will not be able to afford higher wages in the tough times ahead UNLESS higher wages are required by law.

The minimum unemployment check is temporarily $600/week. That’s $15/hour for 40 hours of NOT working. Certainly the gross wages for working ought to be at least as much as for not working. Even if the unemployment payment comes down as currently scheduled; wages ought to stay at least at $15/hour.

Full employment was driving wages up above the minimum wage before C-19 hit. That’s great when it happens, but wages are likely to plummet as many people find that the jobs they had are not there to return to. We cannot let that happen. From a practical PoV, we as taxpayers will end up supplementing low wages with various forms of needed welfare. Frankly, I’d rather pay enough at the grocery store so that the grocer can pay workers a decent wage than have to make up the difference through taxes which will support the workers unevenly and much of which will have to pay for the bureaucracy which administers the various programs.

Businesses with low margins and for whom labor is a significant cost CANNOT pay significantly more than the prevailing wage or they lose business to competitors who pay lower wages and therefore have lower costs. When all competitors were forced to pay more due to low unemployment, individual businesses were not disadvantaged competitively by paying more. The purpose of a minimum wage is to avoid a rush to the bottom in tough times. All things being equal, higher wages mean higher prices which means less demand which means less sales. If there is a sales decline because of higher prices to pay higher wages, it will be spread evenly.

However, demand for essential things like groceries and trash-hauling is not very elastic. We have to eat; we have to get rid of the trash. Restaurants are more of a luxury, but the sad fact is that many restaurants won’t reopen. Those that do will not be able to serve as many people, at least initially, since there’ll be a need for distancing. It will not be terrible if restaurant wages go up, so long as wages go up for all restaurants.

Some costs are going to go down and those lower costs will at least partially make up for higher wages. The cost of oil today – for the first time in history – is negative. We won’t be paid to drive gas-guzzlers.  Oil won’t stay negative, but I think energy costs in general will stay historically low for years to come. That means the energy cost of farming, of manufacturing, and of transportation will go down. Downtown real estate may be cratered by Zoom; the cost of retail space is going down quickly. Unless the government pulls another massive bank and corporate bailout – which it may, the price of assets like planes, oil wells, and even banks themselves will fall. The cheaper these assets are, the less capital businesses need and the more people businesses can hire. Recessions used to cause this sort of redistribution of wealth – but, following the recession of 2008, wealth was protected by government bailouts and wage and employment growth were both sluggish for ten years. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

The $15/hour minimum wage should be federal. States, like businesses, have a competitive problem if they raise their minimum wages faster than their neighbors. States should be free, as they are now, to set their own minimums higher than the national floor as their conditions warrant.

There should be some narrow exceptions for very small startups, perhaps work-from-home jobs, and some summer jobs for kids. We are paying essential workers more now because we see they are essential. We owe it to these veterans of the C-19 war to pay them what they are worth when we’ve won.

See also:

Don’t Bail Out the Oil Industry (or the Banks)

We’ve Been T*RPed

April 13, 2020

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Predicting Tomorrow is More Fun than Watching Today

Work from Home

I’ve been wrong many times in predicting that remote work-at-home would cut way back on the amount of commuting people do. This time it’s going to happen because it’s already happening. The tools for remote collaboration have gotten much better; the Internet held up (fingers crossed) under an enormous shift in volumes. We have been forced to learn what we needed to learn to work mainly from home.

Many of us have taken a crash course in remote meetings. They’re a hell of a lot better that the old phone conferences. With Zoom and other tools, I’m even spared my usual problem of not remembering people’s names since the names are with their video feeds. Side bar texts are a much better way to make snide comments than passing paper notes or whispering.

The last company I started had no servers even though it was information intensive because our information and access to it was safer and more flexible if the servers were in the cloud. Turned out, of course, that cloud-based servers (as long as security is good) make it much easier to shift work from an office to home.

If I were starting a company today (I’ve given up on that), unless there were machines to run, crops to tend, people or animals to care for, there’d be no office at all. For the foreseeable future, hotel rooms will be cheap enough to rent whenever and wherever we need to be together. Ditto for restaurants.

It will be almost impossible to convince people that they need to drive an hour or more for a one-hour meeting, find parking, and then drive back an hour. “Why?” we will ask. Can’t we do this online? A lot easier to schedule one hour than three. Don’t even have to worry about feeding the dog or letting him in and out.

The Implications are Huge

Downtown office space is going to have a long and severe recession. Some businesses won’t reopen, of course. But many businesses won’t choose to have an office even when people can work together again. Offices are expensive. Offices are as much a relic as typing pools, coffee carts, carbon paper, and filing cabinets. Why heat and cool both a home and an office when just one will do? And why commute?

Downtown hotels and restaurants will suffer except to the extent they quickly adapt to become the meeting place for those without an office.

If you don’t have to go downtown to work, then you don’t have to live downtown unless you want to. Downtown rents will come down. Sprawl will be enabled by remote working and partially driven by health concerns whether urban planners like it or not. The environmental price of sprawl will be mitigated by both no commuting and much less need for separate heated and air-conditioned workspaces.

Much schooling can stay at home.  Maybe we’ll have free online college for everyone. There’s no reason why every young adult shouldn’t be able to take the best online courses in the subjects they’re interested in. No need to incur huge debt to live in a palace just so you can get to a lecture by a local “expert”. Socialization is important but it’ll cost extra.  

Check the price of oil. The crash in oil prices is caused not only by less driving, of course; but the Saudi’s and the Russians and even us Americans aren’t going to be able to sell our oil at very high prices when driving doesn’t resume at its former level and offices stay shuttered. Cheap energy is like a huge tax cut except we don’t have to pay for it later. Environmentalists will be concerned that low energy prices will incent energy use. But, for the next couple of years, crippled economies and much less driving and office space will push emissions way below the rosiest UN scenarios. Renewables have already become a much bigger part of our energy supply because fossil fuels bear the brunt of any cutback.

We must finally finish the job of getting broadband everywhere people live, especially since where you live often will now often be where you work and learn.

Vermont Will be Aided and Challenged by Another Wave of De-urbanization like the one which brought Mary and me here long, long ago. More on that later.

We’ve also learned that the real essential workers are the ones who can’t work from home. If they weren’t on the job, we’d be starving and sick. Remember the scorn people had for burger-flipping and shelf-stocking and trash-hauling jobs. Turns out these jobs are more essential than what most of us do. People who do these jobs will be paid more and all of us who depend on them will pay higher prices. Fair enough.

April 08, 2020

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

Governors Led Containment and Now They’ll Lead Release

The Lockdown

America’s system of states with a great deal of independence from the federal government has served us well during the pandemic. Most Governors acted quickly to shut down schools, public gatherings, and businesses as the magnitude of the threat became apparent. Note that the areas hit first like the State of Washington already seem to be on the road to containment if not recovery. With hindsight, we’ll say some states acted too quickly or too slowly – but that’s only with hindsight. We’ll also never know whether states which get through this relatively unscathed would have fared worse if they hadn’t shut down. This is the real world and not a case study in a classroom.

States have been able to learn from each other. That’s one of the advantages to having more than one approach to solving a problem, particularly a problem no one in office in the US has ever had to confront.

Even if you approve of the President, it is highly unlikely that he or she would be able to do the right thing (whatever that is) for each area of our huge and diverse country. Vermont doesn’t need special provisions to keep subways running and New York City doesn’t have to make sure the maples get tapped while the sap is still running.

BTW, the federal government has so far not done a good job of keeping national stockpiles of critical items or speeding their manufacture. That is its role – but the governors have coped the best they can, and states are beginning to share supplies as needed.

The great release

Just as it would have been a grave mistake to wait too long to take precautionary measures, it will be a mistake if government attempts to keep individuals and the economy in lockdown. The “economy” is not just some abstraction which makes money for capitalists, it’s the environment of goods and service we all live in. Many of us can shelter in place for a while because the economy was strong and because it can coast for a while and use its surpluses to help those in need. We are also only able to duck exposure because other people are taking risks for us. That is not a “sustainable” situation.

Once we are past peaks which would have overwhelmed our hospitals, first responders, and medical professionals, we must go back to work and makes sure that the essential workers who have been sheltering us have whatever “non-essential” things that we provide. We quarantined to “bend the curve”; and, fingers-crossed, we may be close to having done that in many places. Now is the time to look at where, when, and how the rest of us can get back to doing our share.

The when and how isn’t going to be the same everywhere. That’s why states have a key role. Even in Vermont, our metropolis of 40,000 people is a relative hot spot while two of most rural counties have no confirmed cases at all. The government of Vermont is going to be able to do a much better of job of deciding under what circumstance and with what appropriate precautions we can go back to work, occupation by occupation, than anyone in Washington, DC could possibly do. We will experiment in some ways; our neighbors will experiment in others; and we’ll learn from each other.

Of course, there is still a huge role for the federal government. The availability of kits for “test and trace” will help determine how quickly we can emerge from our bunkers; getting those tested and produced should be a federal responsibility. We can’t wait for a vaccine before we come out of hiding; but we’ll need vaccines approved and manufactured and available before we’re truly out of the woods. Getting a vaccine out is a job for the feds and private businesses although it will be up to the states to make sure everyone who is medically able to take the vaccine gets a shot.

As the stimulus dollars trickle in from Washington, DC, we don’t want them all to flow right back to Washington the state where Amazon is located. We want to be able to spend locally to restart our local economies. We can’t do that if the stores are shuttered. We can, though, if the stores are following appropriate local guidelines which allow social distancing.

All governors (and state legislators where they’re involved) will make some mistakes either in moving too quickly or too slowly. Those who are politically courageous will continue to shoulder responsibility and make decisions as the facts on the ground in their states seem to warrant. The best leaders admit their mistakes promptly and fix them. The worst mistake is to think that one federal policy will fit this whole huge country coming out of lockdown.

Tom, having some places under quarantine and other not is like having a peeing area in a swimming pool

Many smart people are concerned that coming out of lockdown in one place puts everyone else at risk. It’s hard to deny that there’s some risk. But the history of this virus is that it can be contained locally with only the worst clusters shut down. There was a crisis in Wuhan but not Beijing. There is certainly a crisis in NYC; but there is not in Plattsburg, NY. My son and daughter-in-law just had a healthy baby born by c-section in a hospital in Italy (you better believe I was worried). There is only one ridge line between the city they’re in and Lombardy, from where we have seen the terrible pictures of exhausted medical workers in over-burdened facilities.

Thanks again to all those who are working to keep us safe. We’ll be out and about soon, so we can do our share for you.

April 02, 2020

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

Back in 2015 Bill Gates wrote in his blog:

“The world is simply not prepared to deal with a disease—an especially virulent flu, for example—that infects large numbers of people very quickly. Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.”

He was right. This year, in an interview you may already have seen, Bill explains what we should have done and now can do to prevent another pandemic.

Even since 2015, medical and computing technology have advanced so far that, given a year or two, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again at an almost trivial price compared to what a pandemic itself costs. Since it is human nature to always arm for the last war, I’m confident that we the world will do what needs to be done to cancel at least viral pandemics. Doesn’t mean we won’t face other catastrophes, but we can put this threat behind us.

One reason that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates understands what must be done to fight human viruses is that computer viruses are very good models of the human pathogens they are named after. Even better, lessons learned in keeping computers safe can save human lives

Computer viruses

A computer virus captures your machine and forces it to send out replicas of itself to infect other machines.  A human virus forces your cells to make zillions of replicas of its nasty self; if it’s a respiratory virus, it forces you to cough and sneeze to infect other people. Gastrointestinal viruses cause you to spew liquids. Yuk.

Both human and computer viruses spread “virally” (of course), so long as each infected person or machine infects more than one other person or machine. Once the transmission rate goes below one, the infection dies out in the human and computer population.

For computer viruses we all run anti-virus software which detects known incoming viruses and blocks them before they can do damage. Since new viruses are created by evil hackers all the time, the software must be updated constantly with new detection methods for new viruses. This updating happens in the background and we don’t pay much attention to it. New viruses still claim some victims; but, once they are known, new detection and destruction algorithms are developed (sometimes automatically) and distributed before the virus can become epidemic.

Human viruses

Human viruses are made of genetic material (RNA or DNA). They each have a distinct fingerprint. The human immune system learns this fingerprint and builds a chemical template to not only recognize the virus but to neutralize it. The immune system doesn’t forget; it keeps the virus description filled away for future use. That’s why we have an immunity to most viruses assuming we survive them. Vaccination is effective against viruses because it teaches our immune system what to look for and how to disable it BEFORE the actual attack.

Each year we update our flu vaccine to keep up with continual mutation of the flu virus. Enough of us are vaccinated or have immunity because we’ve had a similar virus so that the annual flu “only” takes 290,000 to 600,000 lives/year according to the World Health Organization. Many people that an infected person comes in contact with are immune; and so the spread rate is kept low enough for our medical people and infrastructure to cope.

The virus which causes COVID-19 is called a “novel” coronavirus because no human has ever had It before. None of us has an immunity; there is no vaccine for it. When a community or family is first exposed, everyone is a potential steppingstone for the virus. Stopping the spread is extremely difficult before we have a good and speedy way to identify who is infected, before we have effective treatment, and before we have a vaccine.

We may have good detection for coronavirus in the next few weeks and good distribution of the detection kits shortly thereafter; that will slow the spread but not before a terrible price has been paid. With luck we may soon have medicines which are effective against it; but they do have to tested both for efficacy and possible side effects and then manufactured in large quantities. We won’t have a vaccine safe enough for mass distribution before the end of this year at the earliest.

Fast forward a few years and this doesn’t happen again

We can and will use the tremendous advances in gene science over the last decade to develop the super-computer powered ability to recognize even a novel virus within days if not hours of having a sample – just as we do with computer viruses.

For respiratory viruses there will be machines like breathalyzers readily available all over the world (perhaps they will even be used as breathalyzers) which can recognize specific genetic material. These are analogous to the virus detection software you already have on your computer. These breathalyzers will be updated constantly with the super-computer developed detected algorithms for each new virus emerging from the bat cave or wherever. Testing will be easy, cheap, and almost immediate. Contact tracing and selective quarantine can happen as fast as they are needed. Similarly, detection mechanisms for gastrointestinal pathogens may be built into smart toilets. Just fast detection will be an enormous step.

But, better yet, we will be able to able to use genetic recognition capability to fabricate vaccines which need minimal testing before being widely used. Machines to manufacture the vaccine will just download the pattern and we can have huge supplies almost immediately. Early detection will give us time to test the vaccines; we may pre-manufacture some when a new virus is detected just in case it becomes epidemic. It’s our own antibodies, again like preloaded antivirus software, which will fight off infection as soon as there is a vaccine to tell them what to look for.

It’s a little more of a stretch but I think we will similarly be able to do quick and safe fabrication of new pattern-based medicines to help those who do get infected.

BTW, annual flu deaths will also be vastly reduced with these same capabilities – assuming people do get vaccinated.

We don’t need to have another pandemic.

We do need to get through this one. Please stay safe and join me in thanking the heroes who are working while we self-isolate. One of the great pleasures after the pandemic will be figuring out how to reward them.

March 16, 2020

Don’t Bail Out the Oil Industry (or the Banks)

Economic justice and capitalist principles agree.

We need relief for the people who are laid off or can’t work because the schools are closed and their children need care. We don’t need and shouldn’t have relief for large businesses or banks; been there and done that in that last recession.

I have lots of friends in the oil and gas industry. I wish them no ill and even believe that their constructive use of fracking and horizontal drilling has made America stronger and richer. In the course of this bust and boom cycle (and many before it), large fortunes have been made. Doesn’t bother me a bit when the fortunes go to those who took risks or were innovative. One of the risks they took in exchange for their wealth, however, was that one day a bell would ring and the next bust cycle would be upon them.

Ding. The bell rang when the coronavirus shock was too much for the unholy Saudi-Russian alliance. Down came oil prices.

Economic justice

 Intolerable income equality comes from creating a ratchet where wealth can be gained but never lost. The rich have more to lose and lose more when assets lose value. Bailing out the banks and others in 2008 was a huge mistake both because it left assets over-priced and in incompetent hands and because it took the risk out of risk/reward. Economic justice requires that the people can both get rich and unrich.

Wealth which just keeps growing becomes so powerful that it tends to monopolize future wealth creation. It dominates both the political and the economic sphere. Recessions are “nature’s” way of making sure fortunes don’t grow to the sky. Bailouts interfere with that natural cycle. They are a constant threat because the rich have political power.

If oil prices are allowed to continue crashing (as they will for a while absent a bailout), consumers will benefit. This is the same as a tax cut except that it doesn’t compete for government money and it is progressive in the sense that the rich spend very little of their income on heat and transportation. Cheap oil is a great stimulus.

Cold hard capitalism

Let’s assume we DON’T bail out the oil companies. Many will stop drilling whether we bail them out or not. Some of them will go bankrupt. That’s what Putin thinks he wants so that they’ll stop taking Russia’s marketshare and he can raise prices again. But he’s wrong.

Let’s say oil has crashed to $20/barrel. Could easily happen. The price of oil won’t be enough to both pay the loans that financed the drilling and pay the incremental costs of production. Many drilling rigs will end up lying down; wells will be capped or never completed.  So far, so good for Putin. But then what?

When the oil companies go bankrupt, their assets don’t disappear. The banks (who shouldn’t be bailed out either) will have to sell these assets for any price they can get. Eventually someone with some money and lots of nerve will buy them for a song. The assets are in the hands of innovators. Now there are no loans to be paid off; just workers to be paid and wells that were near completion. Now land with drilling rights is available for a song. So, when Putin and the Saudi’s try to raise prices because their populations are restive, the capped wells with no great debt burden get uncapped; the debt-free rigs get raised; and American oil is back supplying not only America but most of the rest of the world. Whoops.

If we bail out the oil industry so it can keep charging higher prices and survive, if we bail out the banks which lent to them, if save them both from bankruptcy, we let Russia and Saudi Arabia charge more for longer. We delay the day when we’re back in the game. Meanwhile our consumers and manufacturers pay higher prices than if there were no bailout.

The above isn’t economic theory; it all happened four years ago when Saudi Arabia tried to crush American frackers and drove prices from $100/barrel to under $30. One year later oil was back up to $45 and Americans were back taking market share from Saudi Arabia and Russia. Once the debt was relieved and innovation let loose, we could compete at the new lower price.

Bubbles and busts are part of the cycle of economic growth. Bubbles make capital come flooding into finance assets until there are more assets than demand for the product the assets produce. Bankruptcy lowers the cost of the asset and the product produced by the assets enabling future growth in demand.

In the 19th century there were railroad bubbles. Too many railroads got built. Fortunes were made… and then lost as many of the railroads went bankrupt because there wasn’t enough freight to pay the debt. But, after bankruptcy, there were lower freight prices. Crops could get to market economically. Freight increased. Cue the next cycle.

Same thing happened with the Internet bubble. It attracted too much capital; there was a bust; assets were priced down. Cheap always-on Internet service became available. Good times were here again.

And in conclusion

It would be an economic injustice to bail out the oi companies and the banks which financed them; another bailout will (and should) bring the tea party and the socialists out in force. A bailout would also be economic folly; it’ll help block the road to America’s recovery. Meanwhile, low gas and heating oil prices are just what the doctor would’ve ordered if she weren’t so busy treating the virus.

See also:

Why we need bubbles

We’ve Been T*RPed

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

March 13, 2020

It’s Time for Mandatory Vaccinations

Even though there’s no vaccine for COVIX-19 yet, it’s important to reduce all burdens on the medical system which may soon be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. State governments should change their laws to eliminate philosophical and religious exemptions for those vaccinations which are already mandatory; doctors who give phony medical exemptions should be punished.

It’s almost the end of flu season, but flu has the same symptoms as coronavirus. Almost everyone with flu will need to isolate themselves and will require coronavirus testing; severe cases of flu will unnecessarily compete with coronavirus cases for hospital facilities. Even though the flu vaccine may be no more than 75% effective for an individual, immunity for 75% of the population greatly slows the spread of disease since there are less carriers and less targets for it to jump to. This phenomenon is called herd immunity.

If you haven’t had your flu shot, you should do so.

If there is enough vaccine available (I don’t know whether there is), flu shots should be made mandatory to avoid flu cases masquerading as coronavirus. State governments including Vermont’s should look into this immediately.

In years to come, when there may or may not be other pandemics, flu shots should be mandatory and we should consider making proof of vaccination or certified exemption required for purchasing airline and maybe even train and bus tickets.

Mandatory vaccination does pose a tradeoff between individual liberty and societal good. I think its justified to draft everyone able to serve into the war against pandemics.

See also:

Why Vaccinations Need to be Mandatory

March 09, 2020

Live on WDEV

Tomorrow morning (March 10)  at 11AM ET I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing plant-based strategies for CO2 drawdown and the surprising silence about the new IEA report that emissions have flatlined.. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

Good Climate News Travels Very Slowly

Plants to the Rescue

Good Climate News Travels Very Slowly

Back on February 11, the International Energy Agency (IEA) put out a press release with the headline: “Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019”. This news, as they point out, is startling; almost universally expectations were that global emissions will be locked in an upward ramp for years to come; this belief is at the core of the most drastic climate predictions. The IEA is the world’s scorekeeper for things having to do with energy and is quoted almost very time they publish a statistic about oil prices, the effect of the coronavirus on energy demand, or climate. Moreover, the emissions reported by the IEA for 2019 are BELOW those in the UN’s most rosy climate prediction scenario.

What kind of press coverage did this release get? Just about NADA!

If you search the NY Times online for stories containing IEA since Feb. 11, there are four; this story isn’t among them. I do know that the Times had the AP story on this up for a while but don’t think it made it to the print edition.

If you search the Wall Street Journal there are ten stories in the time period quoting the IEA on various subjects. The story on emissions is not one of them.

Time.com has a story. MSNBC picked up the Time story. CNBC has an abbreviated story.

No other significant media is in eight pages of google results you get if you google the headline and IEA. Coverage is so sparse that my blog post about this is on the first page of these google results (it didn’t go viral).

So why no coverage?

You could say that the NY Times doesn’t want to do anything to reduce climate alarm. But what about the WSJ? They have been decrying alarmist views on climate. @realdonaldtrump hasn’t tweeted about this either. I was at a conference on carbon sequestration by plants last week (more about that to come). Scientists there, who care passionately about climate issues, hadn’t heard this news and I had to show some of them the press release to be believed.

I think the truth is that this story is so unexpected that it breaks a narrative we’ve all been trained on: “Emissions just keep going up and up, especially when the economy is good as it was last year. The problem is getting worse and worse. Nothing we have been doing has any effect. Greta has cause to give up on all.” All of a sudden we see some hope: a combination of renewables, abundant natural gas, and new nuclear replaced so much coal use in developed countries that increased emissions in the developing world were completely offset. An all-of-the-above approach seems to be working. It’s hard to process this hopeful sign. Some people’s preconceptions of the futility of renewables is challenged (this includes me); on the other hand, nuclear and natural gas have shown their value. No one from denialist to alarmist knows what to do with this expectation-defying news, and so it’s being ignored for now.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling gives many current examples of good news being ignored. If he were still alive, he might add this story of a possible turning point to his list.

This may not be a turning point. Although 2020 emissions will almost certainly be lower than those in 2019 thanks to the coronavirus, they could go back up again. We are still putting more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than nature takes out; and so overall concentrations are still rising. Nevertheless, this is significant news. If nothing else, it tells us what is working and what we should continue working on.

Read also:

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

A Convenient Urgency

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

March 02, 2020

Trees v. Solar Panels

How would you best spend a million dollars if your goal is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG)? Trees or solar panels?

One million dollars buys about two acres of solar panels installed. Two acres of solar panels in Vermont should generate about 490 Megawatt (MWh) hours of electricity annually. The average CO2 emissions per MWh of electricity in the New England grid in 2017 was 682 lbs. or .309 metric tons (MT); that means your million dollars buys 151 MT of annual emission reduction at a capital of $6590/MT.  Of course, the cost goes up if you need a long connection to the grid or grid capacity must be enhanced to handle generation where you’re feeding the power in. The CO2 savings go down if replacement electricity must be purchased on sunless days. But we’ll ignore those negatives for the sake of this comparison.

One million dollars could buy and reforest 250 acres of abandoned or marginal farmland even if we assume that some mitigation of pollution on the land makes the cost $4000 acre. New forest land well-planted will store (sequester) at least 2.6MT of CO2 annually per acre in the tree trunks, on the forest floor, and in the soil. The annual CO2 removed from the atmosphere by your 250 acres is about 650 metric tons, more than 4 times the savings you got with solar panels! The capital per annual MT eliminated is only $1363/ton. We’ll ignore the additional benefits of helping to clean the lake and providing an exit to farmers whose dairy operations are no longer productive. Trees win anyway.

 

Both forest and solar panels require some maintenance; the forest maintenance is cheaper.  Solar panels will need to be replaced in twenty or twenty-five years (probably at lower cost and better effectiveness); but the trees will just be maturing then. Their carbon sequestration rate will go down a little as they get older but not much. If wood is being harvested (sustainably) and used to build things, the sequestration rate goes up and there is income from the wood.

In Vermont we have a million acres of land that are or were used for dairy pasturing, hay, and corn; a lot of it is for sale. We have better opportunity for GHG reduction than most states; but we have limited funds. It’s important that what we spend on reducing climate risk be spent wisely. It seems this means more trees instead of more solar panels.

Full confession: I have some solar panels. I should’ve done the math.

See also: The Science Behind the Trillion Tree Campaign

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

February 26, 2020

The Science Behind the Trillion Tree Campaign

The 2018 report from the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates that an increase worldwide of one billion hectares (2.47 billion acres) of forestland would keep global warming this century below 1.5 degrees centigrade, assuming that emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) don’t increase from current levels. The new trees soak up CO2 from the air and turn it into wood, forest litter, and carbon in the soil (collectively called carbon sequestration).  However, the scenarios the UN uses in its modeling assume much lower levels of reforestation and sequestration and thus require drastic cuts in emissions to keep warming under control.

Last July an article in Science calculated that it is actually very feasible to add the equivalent of .9 billion hectares of forestland to the 2.8 billion hectares we already have. Historically, of course, much more of the earth was forested. The careful study allows for existing cropland, human habitation, soil conditions, slopes, and water availability among other factors. The authors point out that the UN report lists reforestation as the cheapest alternative per pound of CO2 removed from the atmosphere compared both to other ways of removing CO2 and to strategies for reducing emissions. The new forest would almost absorb all the net “extra” GHG humans have added to the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age in 1750. “This places ecosystem restoration as one of the most effective solutions at our disposal to mitigate climate change,” according to the authors.

For a long time people have realized that trees play an important role in climate control. That’s why the outrage at the burning of Amazon forests and why “carbon offsets” have been largely used for planting or saving trees. There have been several successful Billion Tree Campaigns. The UN Report and the Science study show that a major part of the effort to reduce the odds of global warming can and should be reforestation. At this year’s meeting of plutocrats in Davos there was an announcement of the Trillion Tree Initiative to support the Trillion Tree Campaign, which had actually launched in 2011. Trilliontrees.org is a joint venture of Birdlife International, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).; it provides one way to contribute both to prevent further deforestation and to help reforestation. It looks like 2021 is the takeoff year for the trillion-tree concept.

Who could be against a trillion trees? Even Donald Trump said the US is supporting the initiative both when he came back from Davos and in his State of the Union Address (it was one of the few bipartisan applause lines). But the issue didn’t stay unpolitical very long.

Only a few days after the State of the Union, the NY Times ran an op-ed called “Planting Trees Won’t Save the World”. The byline says “the authors are scientists”. They say “Planting trees would slow down the planet’s warming, but the only thing that will save us and future generations from paying a huge price in dollars, lives and damage to nature is rapid and substantial reductions in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, to net zero by 2050.” The first evidence these scientists produce of this assertion is a tweet from Greta.

They also cite some negative comments in Science but somehow miss the original authors’ very effective replies to these.

They go on to say: “Focusing on trees as the big solution to climate change is a dangerous diversion. Worse still [emphasis mine], it takes attention away from those responsible for the carbon emissions that are pushing us toward disaster.” In other words, less expensive and less disruptive plans to save the planet are dangerous because they might cause people to resist the price and disruption of a total ban on fossil fuels. We have to be panicked into doing what the authors want.

The irony is that a total ban on fossil fuel is unlikely to work quickly enough to avert rising temperatures, according to UN predictions, while reforestation and other plant-based strategies have a very good chance to actually reduce GHG levels in the near future so long as emission levels don’t rise any higher.

Last week the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s scorekeeper on energy facts, published a report headlined “Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019”. It has the good news that worldwide emissions have already stopped increasing because of an all-of-the above strategy which includes deployment of renewables, natural gas substitution for coal, and increased nuclear. Developing nations increased their emissions, but this was offset by the emission decrease in developed nations – led by the US.

One year’s flatlining doesn’t mean the problem of increased emission has been solved; but it’s a hell of a good first step. This year, because of the coronavirus and its effect on trade, emissions are highly likely to decline. Meanwhile coal use in the developing world is continuing to decline and both nuclear and renewables are being deployed worldwide (as well as some coal in the developing world).

The stage is set for the Trillion Tree Initiative to help start reducing atmospheric GHG levels.

See also:

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

Vermont Is Already Carbon Neutral

Plants to the Rescue

February 20, 2020

Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Henry II, who is alleged to have said this shortly before the murder of Thomas Becket, must have had a “resistance” faction in his court much like that in the Trump administration. Ordinarily powerful leaders don’t have to be explicit about what they want to happen; most of their staff spends most of its time trying to figure out what the boss wants and doing it without being told. Giving the boss credible deniability has long been grounds for promotion. This is true in corporations, charities, and governments.

But much of the ranks of the US government is left over from prior administrations and wants to do the exact opposite of what the boss wants and would like to implicate him, not give him deniability. That’s why IMO we have the strange spectacle of the President tweeting for lenient treatment of a former henchman. Normally henchmen get favored treatment without the leader having to say a word. I think Henry II must have had the same problem or 1) Beckett would not have defied him 2) he wouldn’t have had to ask for Beckett to be terminated.

The Chronicle of the Kings of England has another version of Henry’s statement: "Will none of these lazy insignificant persons, whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?" Sounds a lot like the self-pitying tone we often hear from Trump.

You just can’t get good help in the swamp.

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