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Archive for April, 2020

Is This Really a Turning Point?

People who look for silver linings (aka optimists) think that Covid-19 might be the inflection point where we start getting serious about our relationship with the planet. There’s no direct link between coronavirus and climate change, but if a tiny virus can bring our whole bustling civilisation to a halt, then how vulnerable will we be to a disordered environment driven by out-of-control global heating?

Just in time we are being taught humility and perspective, the optimists say. Even better, some of the things we urgently needed to do are now happening without our help. People are learning to work from home, air travel has been closed down, the oil industry is collapsing. Etc., etc.

By contrast, the pessimists (who often refer to themselves as realists) believe that crises don’t make people behave better. The Great Depression led to the Second World War, 9/11 led to wars all over the Middle East, the Crash of 2008 led to ‘austerity’, slow growth, mounting popular anger and the rise of populist regimes across the world. Don’t expect any better from this crisis.

Moreover, they say, most people can only process one problem at a time, and that has the unfortunate ring of truth.

Last year saw an unprecedented upsurge in public concern about climate change – Australian wildfires, record floods all over the place, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg – but all that has now been pushed aside by the coronavirus. Global heating and its associated disasters will kill far more people in the long run, but Covid-19 is killing them now.

There’s no time for climate this year, and last year’s climate momentum will not automatically return when the virus is under control. Momentum takes time to build, and we are running out of time. There is no magical deliverance on the way, and on balance the current health emergency is setting back the cause of climate sanity, not advancing it.

Nevertheless, we can take some comfort from the fact that behavioural moulds are being broken all over the place, and several generations are learning together that disruptive changes, even very big ones, can be accepted by most people if they understand the need.

A small example from my own trade: this column has appeared in newspapers all over the world for decades, but the relentless retreat of the print media before the online onslaught has eaten deeply into the revenue base of the press everywhere.

Many papers have died, almost all have downsized, and that hit my own income hard. My solution was to do more speaking engagements, which involved more time away from my real job and a lot more travel. No show, no dough, so I did it – but then came coronavirus, social distancing and a temporary halt to air travel. End of that solution. What to do next?

So I put my talks on video and offered them to the usual suspects – universities, schools, libraries, conference organisers – saying I could do a live Q&A session afterwards on some web hosting site for the widely distributed audience. They would never have accepted that arrangement two months ago. Now there is no alternative, so we’re back in business.

Some of this business will go back to the old model when normal service is restored, but I suspect quite a lot of it will not. This is happening all across the business world, and will mean permanent, significant change: more working from home, less commuting, more teleconferencing, less travel. And lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Another positive change coming out of this emergency is that we are finally beginning to take a chunk out of our biggest problem: our heavy dependence on oil. Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, has been declining fast as an energy source for years in most places, but oil, the second-worst fossil fuel, just kept going up.

In January the world was pumping and burning 100 million barrels of oil a day. (That’s about two litres a day for every man, woman and child.) Demand this month has fallen to 70 million bpd, and while some of it will return when the coronavirus is contained, it will probably never see 100 million again. The inexorable decline of oil has begun.

But those are about the only bright spots. This year is forecast to be the hottest ever, and the major climate summit that was scheduled for November has been postponed until next year. Total annual emissions may be down by a few percentage points this year, but most of the decline is only temporary.

Do not despair. The planet is now hot enough to produce several major local calamities every year, so we’ll quickly get re-motivated to worry about global heating once the current emergency is past. Although probably not fast enough to save us from having to resort to geo-engineering by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Last…advancing it”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Covid-19 Death Rates and Arrogance

Something has gone wrong in the ‘Anglosphere’, as the English-speaking countries are known in some other parts of the world.

Smaller English-speaking countries are coping with the Covid-19 emergency quite well. New Zealand’s coronavirus death toll so far is eighteen, and Australia’s is 83. Even Canada, despite being next-door to the United States, has only 2,500 fatalities.

But the two big English-speaking countries are taking worse losses to the coronavirus than anywhere else. The United Kingdom has 20,000 dead already, and the United States will hit 60,000 by Wednesday at the latest. At the current daily death rate, the US will reach 100,000 in about two weeks.

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”, but the final British death toll in this wave of the pandemic will probably be between 30,000 and 40,000 people – the highest loss in Europe.

The United States is almost as bad. Early this month President Trump congratulated himself for his belated conversion to lockdowns, boasting that “The minimum [predicted] number was 100,000 lives and I think we’ll be substantially under that number.”

American infection rates are still going up, so that is highly unlikely. But even if the US stops at the ‘minimum’ level of 100,000 deaths, that would mean Americans are dying from Covid-19 at eighty times the death rate that Chinese citizens suffered before Beijing got the virus under control. Or, if you doubt China’s statistics, at 1,515 times New Zealand’s death rate.

Other English-speaking countries, including those that use English as a common second language, like Kenya, India and South Africa, are not showing anomalous death rates. It’s just the US and the UK – so what might they have in common that none of the other English-speaking countries share?

Oh, wait a minute. Weren’t these two countries the superpowers that dominated the world one after the other for most of the past two centuries?

Might that have made them a bit arrogant? Unable to see the experience of other countries as relevant to their own situation? Reluctant to follow the advice of international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO)? Am I getting warm here?

Britain ticks all the boxes. It has a nationalistic government obsessed with the ‘greatness’ of the country’s past and unable to grasp the reality of its modest current stature. Hence the Brexit project, for example, but exactly the same attitude is manifest in its coronavirus policies.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was saying “Test. Test. Test.” as early as January. In early March, however, Britain defied the conventional wisdom and all but abandoned both community testing and contact tracing (which is the other essential part of the ‘Test’ strategy).

Instead the UK wandered off into the lethal fantasy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ by letting infections rip, ignoring what first the East Asian countries and later all the other European countries were doing. It only panicked in late March when it realised that its National Health Service would collapse under the weight of so many deaths.

It finally declared a lockdown after all its neighbours, and it is paying the price for the delay with its death rate. This was sheer arrogance at work, with only a slight tincture of ignorance. And even now, with pressure growing for an early release from the lockdown, the UK government is still playing catch-up.

The United Kingdom is only now starting to work on building an organisation to test on a national scale (hundred of thousands of tests a day), trace the contacts of infected people, and isolate them all in order to break the chains of transmission. Yet you cannot safely ease the lockdown until the testing and contact tracing network is up and running.

Wrong at every step, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be very grateful to have Donald ‘Lysol’ Trump to make him look good by comparison. The American president’s sins of omission on coronavirus are why the US has one-third of the Covid-19 infections in the world, with only one-twentieth of the world’s population.

Trump downplayed the threat as long as he could, then became a last-minute advocate of lockdown. He has now moved on to being the liberator of the American people from lockdown (without any contact tracing, of course). The problem with him as a leader is that he is not only arrogant but flighty and astoundingly ignorant.

But his flightiness and ignorance are merely personal attributes, and Boris Johnson is not ignorant at all (just lazy). What the two men and their respective countries both have in abundance is an arrogant exceptionalism that is leading them into increasingly grave errors.

As Joseph de Maistre remarked, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“Instead…deaths”; and “The United…running”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Oil: the Perfect Storm

For the global oil industry, it has been a double whammy. First a foolish price war between two of the world’s three biggest producers, Russia and Saudi Arabia, drove the price per barrel down from almost $70 in early January to under $50 in early March. They were fighting each other for market share, and they were also hoping that lower prices would kill off US shale oil, whose production costs are higher.

Then the second whammy: the Covid-19 lockdowns that started spreading across the world in early March cut total demand for oil by 30% in the next six weeks. By last weekend a barrel of ‘Brent crude’ was selling for only around $20. (There are two oil prices: ‘West Texas Intermediate’ mainly for US oil and ‘Brent’, always a few dollars higher, for the rest of the world.)

Actually, on Monday the US oil price briefly dropped another $60, to -$40, because demand has dropped so far below supply that the world is running out of places to store the excess oil. The producers can’t just pour it on the ground and it’s very expensive to shut wells down, so they’ll pay somebody who still has storage capacity to take it away.

This is currently a problem mainly for inland producers in the US, Canada and Russia, because they are far from the ports where you can still hire supertankers (for up to $350,000 a day) to store the oil offshore. But that cannot be a long-term solution anywhere, so we are starting to see productive wells being ‘shut in’ (closed down) because that’s cheaper than paying for long-term storage of unwanted oil.

This solution has two drawbacks. One is even if the smaller oil producers don’t go bankrupt (they generally carry high loads of debt), their leases will cancel quickly if they stop producing oil. The other is that it will be too expensive to reopen many of the shut-in wells unless much higher prices return – and if they stay inactive for years, the production flow may be permanently impaired.

Last week’s agreement between all the major oil producers to cut oil production by 20% by the end of June does not begin to address the glut of oil. Global production, at 100 million barrels per day (bpd) last month, will fall to 80 million bpd in the next two months, but global demand is already down around 70 million bpd.

Nor is there much hope in sight. Oil demand may drop further, and even in the long run it may never return to pre-January levels. “This is very reminiscent of a time in the mid-1980s when exactly the same situation happened – too much supply, too little demand, and prices of oil stayed low for 17 years,” said John Browne, the former head of British Petroleum.

‘Peak oil’ ceased to be a subject for debate some time ago. More and more countries are committing to net zero emissions by 2040 or 2050, and everybody knows that quite a lot of oil (and coal and gas) will be left in the ground forever. So the topic of concern for the industry is now ‘peak demand’ – and some industry analysts think that it is already past.

“The virus will bring forward peak demand for fossil fuels,” Kingsmill Bond of Carbon Tracker told The Guardian three weeks ago. “Peak emissions was almost certainly 2019, and perhaps peak fossil fuels as well. It will be touch and go if there can be another mini-peak in 2022, before the inexorable decline begins.”

So the stock market valuations of most oil majors have halved since January, and the ‘golden dividends’ of 20% or more are gone forever. The rate of return on new oil and gas projects is now about the same as on wind or solar power projects, so where is the smart money going to go? Oil is ‘low return, high risk, high carbon’, so don’t touch it.

This collapse of production and investment in the industry is hard on the millions of people who make their livings from it (including some entire countries), but the writing has been on the wall for some time now. The sensible and humane course is to support them as they seek different ways of making a living, but climate, not Covid-19, is the real crisis of our time. The jobs cannot and should not be saved.

As for the investors, they deserve little sympathy. They are paying the price of not reading the writing on the wall. The real trick in all forms of gambling is knowing when to pick up your winnings and walk away from the table.

And the real question is: what does the decline of oil mean for our civilisation’s prospects for dealing with climate change without a global calamity? That, however, is a subject for another article.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“This collapse…table”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Time for Fauci to Quit?

Is it time for Dr Anthony Fauci to quit?

Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Mandetta, was fired last Friday for criticising the country’s mini-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, President Bolsonaro needs a booming economy in order to be re-elected, and denies the threat from coronavirus because shutdowns hurt the economy.

Mandetta did what he could to control the berserker president, but eventually called Bolsonaro out on his attempts to force Brazilian state governments to end their shutdowns prematurely. He was duly fired, but it does raise the question: should Dr Fauci do the same thing?

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past quarter-century, has served six US administrations loyally through various health crises, starting with the AIDS epidemic. He’s done his best to keep Donald Trump from doing the wrong thing. Sometimes he succeeds – but sometimes the most useful thing an adviser can do is resign.

Fauci has become a familiar figure standing beside Donald Trump at media briefings, never openly contradicting him but subtly trying to steer him away from his worst ideas. It’s a humiliating position to be in, but he has probably saved at least a few tens of thousands of American lives, and many people admire him for patiently, even humbly doing the best he can in impossible circumstances.

There comes a time, however, when staying on the inside and trying to limit the damage by staying on good terms with the author of the disaster shades into complicity in letting the disaster happen. Dr Fauci undoubtedly examines his conscience on this question every single day, and fully understands how tricky his position is.

There was a revealing moment recently when Science Magazine asked him why he hadn’t challenged Trump’s claims to have saved millions of American lives by banning flights from China. “Let’s get real,” Fauci replied. “What do you want me to do?…I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

Well, he could, obviously, but that would be the end of any positive influence he has on Trump. He’s 79, so he’s not worried about saving his job. He’s ignoring Trump’s exaggerations and lies so he can preserve his influence for some more important occasion. We now know what it is.

Trump bangs on obsessively about his ‘China ban’ decision on 31 January because it’s the only thing he did about the coronavirus for the next six weeks, even as the pandemic silently spread among the US population. Last week he even claimed that “It could have been billions of people (who died) if we had not done what we did.”

Around 2,000 Americans are now dying from Covid-19 every day, so Trump clings desperately to his China story. Fauci lets the lie pass because it’s just history and can’t be changed. He’s focussed on the decisions being made now that will determine how many Americans die in the future.

Trump is now frantically trying to end the lockdowns and get Americans back to work because he believes the economic damage is sabotaging his re-election prospects in November. He’s even urging his base to demonstrate against (Democratic) state governors who take a more cautious line, texting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

Maybe this is the hill that Fauci should choose to die on, because ending the lockdowns early could needlessly kill an extra hundred thousand Americans. The United States now has one-third of all the Covid-19 cases in the world (with only 4% of the world’s population), and the number is still going up fast.

‘Liberating’ Americans from lockdown before the number of new infections is clearly in decline will just add fuel to the flames.

The rule is: never lift a lockdown until you are able to test huge numbers of people for the disease. The virus will inevitably start to spread again when you turn everybody loose, but if you test enough people, isolate the infected ones, and trace all of their recent contacts and isolate them too, then you can avoid a new spike in cases.

You will need tens of millions of test kits and hundreds of thousands of trained contact-tracers to do that. Those facilities are currently scarce or non-existent in most of the United States, and so far there is little visible effort to expand them. Ending the lockdowns without them will cause a new peak of cases and deaths by mid-summer, necessitating a new round of lockdowns.

If Fauci’s resignation could prevent this carnage, he surely would not hesitate, but Trump is not as stupid as Bolsonaro. If Fauci hangs in there and stresses the inevitability of a second wave of deaths closer to election time if the lockdowns end prematurely, he might just manage to steer Trump away from this cliff.

So his long martyrdom must continue.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Trump bangs…future”)