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What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change

Human beings respond well to a crisis that is familiar, especially if it is also imminent. They don’t do nearly as well when the threat is unfamiliar and still apparently quite distant. Consider our response to the current coronavirus threat.

Countries in East Asia with recent experience of similar viruses (SARS, etc.) immediately responded with ‘test, track and isolate’ drills, plus instant lock-downs if the virus had already gained a foothold in the population.

Other countries, just as rich and well-educated, had the same information, but they still waited several months before taking emergency measures that upset the comfortable routine of their lives. So the United States, Britain and France all ended up with death rates per million more than fifty times higher than China, Korea and Japan.

The same applies to global heating, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us has prior experience of a genuine climate crisis, and although we have known enough about what’s going to happen to justify urgent action for thirty years now, we have done nothing decisive about it.

We have lots of ‘clean’ technology, but total demand for energy has grown so fast that we are still getting a steady 80% of our energy from fossil fuels. Realistically, this is not going to change much. We are who we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors didn’t do long-term planning; they had to concentrate on acute short-term problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat will therefore come only when it is actually starting to hurt. Unfortunately, by then it will probably be too late.

The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks, all the components that govern the climate – plays by its own rules. It will absorb new inputs like warming for a long time while changing as little as possible: it’s a ‘homeostatic’ system.

We are still benefiting from this feature now: a full degree Celsius of warming already, and not much to show for it except hotter summers, shorter winters and bigger storms. But when the pressure on the climate system gets too great – reaches a ‘tipping point’ – it is liable to charge off in unpredictable directions at high speed.

‘Non-linear change’, they call it, and we won’t like it a bit. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will start to die.

THEN we’ll be ready to make great changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will be collapsing under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees, and besides once the climate hits non-linear change it’s almost impossible to bring it back. We’re stuck with wherever it ends up, whether that new state will support a large human civilisation or not.

How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.

‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.

Every bit of emissions we can cut now gives us a little more time before we reach the edge, but the global population will still be going up and people in the poorer countries will still be increasing their energy use. (It’s their turn; you can’t deny them that.)

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

In fact, you could say that it is ‘positive’ geoengineering, as opposed to the large-scale ‘negative’ geoengineering we have been doing for the past two centuries by dumping huge amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively on global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes that are required to preserve this global civilisation and the biosphere it now dominates. Only geoengineering can create that window.

We don’t need to start geoengineering now. It would be wonderful if we never have to do it, but that would take a miracle. We cannot know how long we would have to go on doing it, either: long enough to get the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to a safe level, certainly, which would be at least a matter of decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we clearly need to speed up research and testing of the various potential techniques for geoengineering now.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Cutting…that”)

Hong Kong: What Went Wrong

“We are the meat on the chopping board,” said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “They have set a precedent for Beijing to legislate on Hong Kong’s behalf.” Or as Dennis Kwok put it, former member of the Legislative Council, put it rather more succinctly: “This is the end of Hong Kong.”

It’s a premature death. The ‘joint declaration’ of 1997 by which Britain handed over its wealthy colony on China’s south coast to the Communist regime in Beijing promised that Hong Kong could keep free speech, the rule of law and a high degree of autonomy for fifty years. Twenty-three years later, it’s over.

Those characteristics, so different from the Party dictatorship, contempt for human rights and lawlessness that rule in the rest of China, were precisely the qualities that made Hong Kong Asia’s financial capital. That was to Beijing’s advantage in 1997, so it agreed to live with ‘one country, two systems’. China would be reunited, but Hong Kong would remain different.

That served China’s purposes at the time, because it still needed a capitalist ‘window on the world’. It’s not very relevant today, when the country has the world’s second-biggest economy and companies that want to trade with China are much likelier to set up in Shanghai or Beijing. Hong Kong retains a residual value for Beijing, but it shouldn’t push its luck.

Most people in senior political, business and media positions in Hong Kong understood that and acted accordingly. They walked a tightrope, defending the territory’s essentially ‘democratic’ values, but they never, ever suggested that Hong Kong should have full democracy, because that would be intolerable to the Party in Beijing.

So the modus vivendi between Beijing and Hong Kong rattled along year after year, until eventually a new leader came to power in Beijing who dreamed of standardising, centralising and controlling everything. Last year, Xi Jinping started trying to whip Hong Kong into line.

Beijing pressured Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s government, to pass legislation that would let Beijing bring criminal charges against Hong Kongers, extradite them to China, and try them in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). It would have ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and put every one of its residents at the mercy of the Party.

Lam reluctantly put the new law on the legislative agenda, and the people of Hong Kong, led by the students, predictably began demonstrating against it. This is a ritual dance that has been staged before, and when the citizens had adequately expressed their dislike of the proposed legislation, it was withdrawn.

It was never certain that this would work again, for Xi is very determined and Hong Kong’s importance to China has dwindled. But it might have worked, and won Hong Kong another five or ten years of autonomy. Indeed, Lam did withdraw the offending legislation (by slow steps, so as not to embarrass Beijing) – but the protesters did not stop.

The demos continued and grew more violent, and the demands escalated. By the end of 2019 the protesters were demanding full democracy, which was politically suicidal in the Chinese context. Then the coronavirus emergency shut everything down for a few months, and it looked like the political crisis had subsided. But of course it had not.

This week the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing, the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament, will pass a special law banning subversion, separatism, acts of foreign interference and ‘terrorism’ in Hong Kong. The demonstrators are already back out on the streets, and the new law allows ‘security forces’ from the mainland to operate in the city. The stage is being set for the final act.

I don’t usually point out that I called things right (and I NEVER point out when I got things wrong), but it was blindingly obvious where this was all heading by mid-summer of last year.

On 31 July I wrote: “(The protesters) must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force. They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.”

On 2 October I wrote: “The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.”

On 24 November I wrote: “If they go on demanding free elections under universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Assembly, sooner or later Beijing will feel compelled to intervene and crush them regardless of the financial and reputational damage it would suffer. So it could go the distance, and end in tragedy. That would be a great pity.”

And then I stopped writing about it, because I couldn’t stand what comes next. I still can’t.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“Most…Beijing”; and “On 2 October…table”)

Boiling Frogs and Tropical Storms

I’ve never really believed the story climate crusaders tell to explain why so many people don’t get the message. You know, the one where if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will hop right out, whereas if you just turn the heat up slowly it won’t notice. It will stay there and boil to death.

I’ve never actually tried the experiment, but surely not even frogs are that stupid. And I’m pretty sure human beings aren’t.

So why didn’t the good people of Houston start campaigning against global heating after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 left a third of their city underwater?

Why didn’t the citizens of the Philippines demand that their country end its heavy reliance on burning coal for power after Typhoon Haiyan killed at least 6,300 of them in 2013?

Why weren’t the survivors in the state of Orissa up in arms about India’s greenhouse gas emissions after the most intense cyclone in history killed 15,000 of them in 1999?

Well, partly because there were no data proving that the warming was making the tropical storms worse. Pretty well everybody in the meteorological trade and a great many lay people assumed that to be the case, but the evidence just wasn’t there. Until now – and as if to celebrate its belated arrival, here comes another monster storm.

On Sunday and Monday Super-cyclone Amphan spun up quickly over the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, going from nothing much to a Category 5 tropical storm and adding 175 kph (110mph) to its sustained wind speed in only 36 hours. India’s meteorologists are predicting that the surge of water when it hits the coast could be as high as 3-5 metres (10-16 ft).

Cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes (all the same phenomenon, just in different oceans) are capricious. Their winds drop rapidly over land, and they are most destructive if they move slowly and loiter just off the coast. But at best Amphan will be bad, and it could be very bad indeed.

People living around the Bay of Bengal know that the storms are getting worse: 140,000 people died when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma (Myanmar) in May 2008. So do people living around the Caribbean, on the US eastern seaboard, and at the western end of ‘typhoon alley’ (the Philippines, China, Korea and Japan).

But they needed hard evidence, and now they have it. A study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences, confirms that there is a direct link between warmer oceans, more water vapour in the air, and bigger storms.

Not more storms, but MUCH bigger. In fact, the likelihood that any given tropical storm will grow into a Category 3 or higher hurricane (or the equivalent in terms of cyclones and typhoons) is rising by 8% per decade.

Could it just be natural variation? James Kossin, lead author of the new study, doesn’t think so: “We have high confidence that there is a human fingerprint on these changes.” The data extend over four decades, which means the number of Category 3+ hurricanes has grown by a third since 1980.

It can only get worse, as will almost every other climate impact. The average global temperature now is 1.1°C above the pre-industrial average, but there is already enough carbon dioxide in the air to give us another half degree C of warming when it delivers its final load.

Never mind all the extra carbon dioxide that will be dumped into the atmosphere next month, next year, next decade. What will just the amount that we have already put there do to the tropical storms? The point will come, as with most of the other climate changes, when the local environment is no longer compatible with a normal human lifestyle.

For the 500 million people who live around the Bay of Bengal, the world’s biggest bay, the breaking point may be massive cyclones and floods that are made worse by sea level rise. For others it may be intense heat and permanent drought. In some places, it will be famine. But at least a quarter of the world’s population is going to have to move in the next fifty years.

Where to? No idea. With almost eight billion people, the world is pretty full up already.

Interviewing a couple of climate scientists recently, I saw for the first time a graph, modelling the future of a runaway warming world, that explicitly included a ‘death’ term. Mass death, that is. It made me feel a bit frog-like.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Cyclones…indeed”)

Basic Income: A Done Deal?

The First World War speeded up the emancipation of women; the Second World War led to the creation of welfare states in all the industrialised countries. What great change will the coronavirus crisis bring us?

This crisis has not yet killed tens of millions, and it probably never will. No great empires have fallen, and no human villain can be blamed for the problem. Yet there will probably be changes as great as those after the two world wars.

One great change will be in the pace of automation. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, we have seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two weeks,” as tens of millions of people stayed at home and worked online. A great many of them will not go back to working in an office when the threat of the coronavirus recedes.

So does five weeks of lock-down equal five years’ worth of digital transformation? Probably yes. Last week Twitter became the first major Silicon Valley company to publicly accept this new reality, announcing that “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”

But for the considerably larger number of people whose occupations do not allow them to work at home, the news is not so good. For them, the digital transformation means automation and unemployment. In a recent survey of company executives in 45 countries,
auditors Ernst and Young found that 41% of them are investing in greater automation of their work processes.

More will follow. The reason that the service industries (apart from retail sales) have largely escaped automation so far is that the new technology is expensive, disruptive, and annoys the customers, not that it doesn’t exist. But now the crisis is forcing the customers to get used to that kind of service, at the same time that the owners and managers are realising what a nuisance it is to depend on human employees.

The process that has already destroyed the assembly lines (and given us Donald Trump) will continue through the workforce until around half the existing jobs have been destroyed, as Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University predicted in their famous 2013 study. Their prediction was for the year 2033, but the coronavirus may be bringing that date forward.

However, the other great change wrought by the coronavirus works in the opposite direction. When unemployment suddenly leapt to 30% as lock-downs spread across the world, we were suddenly confronted with a working model of that future – and the social and economic changes that might deal with the mass destruction of jobs by automation are actually being road-tested right now.

In some countries, like the United States, it is real unemployment, only slightly alleviated by hand-outs like a $1,200 cheque signed by Trump. In most richer countries, it is some form of ‘furlough’, with the government paying 75%-85% of people’s wages, up to a limit that is high enough to let them live in modest comfort, until their jobs resume in two or three or four months’ time.

Either way, it does concentrate people’s minds, rather like the prospect of being hanged in the morning. A lot of them will notice a) that this is the level of unemployment that already lies in wait for them down the road; and b) that there is still enough money around to keep them going anyway. Or, in the case of the US, that there could be if the government was willing to try.

It’s a small step from there to the concept of a guaranteed basic income as the long-term solution for a society where half the jobs have been destroyed by automation but productivity is higher than ever.

There are, of course, a number of codicils to this conclusion. The current levels of income support could not be sustained long-term without a significantly higher rate of tax. Widespread job-sharing would be needed to avoid creating a permanent under-class of the unemployed and to keep people connected. There are no magic bullets.

We were already sleep-walking towards this level of unemployment anyway, just over a much longer period. At least now we’re awake to the fact that such things can happen, and we know that they can be managed.

More or less normal service will probably be resumed in a few months, or at worst in a year or so, but automation is getting a big boost and from now on it will be an ever-present companion. But the experience we are going through right now makes it a lot less scary.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4. (“So does…happen”)