Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Another Very Hot Year: Things I Learned in 2016

Another year, another hot one.

In fact, it was a record year for global heat, by a significant margin.  This follows the hottest five-year period on record.  As I write this, the North Pole is 50F above normal.  In the Antarctic, C02 levels hit 400 parts-per-million for the first time in four million years.  For those of you just joining us, welcome to the New Anthropocene.

America's President-elect signed a public letter in 2009 calling for cuts to America's greenhouse-gas emissions.  Three years later, he dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax.  When he needed votes he promised to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.  After he was elected he admitted to "some connectivity" between climate change and human activity. And then there was the wall he wanted to build at his luxury resort in Ireland to protect his property from the impact of climate change. More recently, a Trump transition official said that the new President might try to eliminate NASA's Earth Sciences department.  And the President-elect in December said, "Look, I'm somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows.  It's not something that's so hard and fast."  (More on this insane flip-flopping is here.)

Imagine a cabinet where the only official who admits that human beings contribute to climate change is the former head of ExxonMobil.  You cannot make this stuff up.  (Seth Meyers has a good piece here.) In the end, The Huffington Post wrote, "It's hard to overstate how anti-environment Donald Trump's cabinet picks are."

So, to begin 2017, we've got that going for us.

The truth is, we're pretty much done debating climate change.  As scientist Kevin Trenberth said, "Just look out the window."  Alaska is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the US, with 31 towns and cities in imminent risk of destruction.  In April, the chief economist for Freddie Mac wrote that it was only a matter of time before sea level rise and storm surges become so unbearable along the U.S. coast that people will leave, ditching their mortgages and potentially triggering another housing meltdown.  Three-quarters of America's national parks are experiencing early spring.  In the American West, the fire season has lengthened by an incredible 78 days since 1970.  Sea level rise threatens Fort Monroe in Virginia and the Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland.  Jamestown is under immediate risk from rising waters.  And we'll be plum out of glaciers at Glacier National Park--down from 150--by 2030.

By 2085, most cities in the world will be too hot to host the summer Olympics.  Too hot in Rome.  Too hot in Paris.  Way too hot in Tokyo.  Maybe Dublin, Calgary, and Vancouver.  And yes, San Francisco, but even with global warming it'll still be foggy and cold every day until lunch.

Close to home, every tenth storm in Boston by 2050 will put 7 percent of the city underwater, including subways and evacuation routes.  (That's going to make it hard to get to Tom Brady's 27th Super Bowl appearance.)

The Southeast states are most vulnerable to climate change.  That's ironic, of course, because these are the states--Virginia excused--who voted for the new administration.  To wit, folks in Arkansas (60%+ Trump) can expect 82 days a year (vs. 19 now) over 95F by 2050.  Tennessee, which Trump won by 25 points, has 79,000 farms covering 40 percent of the state; thanks to climate change, soybean yields could decrease 31 percent and corn 47 percent.  North Carolina could lose $4.4 billion in coastal property by 2030, South Carolina $5.7 billion by 2050.  Oh, and tropical bedbugs have been reported in Florida for the first time in 60 years.

If you think addressing climate change will hurt American competitiveness, watch what happens when we officially deny it.  And China?  It's poised to cash in on the goodwill it could earn by taking on leadership of an issue that has become urgent--really life or death--in many parts of the world.  (Visited the Maldives lately?)  And when the new administration ditches the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China will fill that void, too, "in the free trade pole position, with opportunities for writing new rules for international trade."  This is all fitting because China will become the world's largest economy in 2018.

So we've got that going for us, too.

Climate refugees are already on the move in Bolivia, China, and Niger, all part of the U.S. national security community's fear that climate change poses a "significant threat" to national and global security.  Along the Nile, Egyptian farmers are "quietly panicking" while their yields fall below population growth.  The Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst coral die-off ever recorded this year; about two-thirds of the shallow-water coral on the 430-mile northern stretch is now dead.  Dramatic melting of ice is already going on in Greenland, but now, a team of European scientists have found a significant amount of ice sheet melting in East Antarctica during the summer months, in an area that is supposed to be too cold for perceptible ice loss.

And it's not just the Great Barrier Reef, Greenland, and East Antarctica.  A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature calls soaring ocean temperatures "truly staggering" and the "greatest challenge of our generation."  Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the extra heat created by human activity.  "If the same amount of heat that has been buried in the upper 2 km of the ocean had gone into the atmosphere," the report says, "the surface of the Earth would have warmed by a devastating 36C, rather an 1C, over the last century."

In the north Atlantic, fish are moving by nearly 30 kilometers every decade in search of cooler waters.  Sadly, the Brits are soon going to have to make their fish and chips out of something besides cod, which is migrating to Scandinavia while sardines, anchovies, and (especially) squid are moving in from the waters around Spain and Portugal.

That assumes someone will be around to eat the fish and chips. University of Arizona Emeritus Professor Guy McPherson predicts human extinction in ten years.  Fortunately, the professor says, "I am open to miracles."

One simple miracle would be for people to understand the difference between climate and weather.

For those not expecting miracles, however, there are plenty of good people still willing to fight, protect the data, and ignore the questionnaire.  And most promising (and unthinkable not long ago), peak oil demand is now a scenario being forecast on spreadsheets around the globe.  To help that along, and to counter the likely destruction about to be done by the incoming administration, Bill Gates has founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures to focus on low-carbon energy R&D.

It was speculated once that Thomas Midgley, Jr., the scientist who put lead in gas and invented some of the first chloroflurocarbons, was the single organism that did more damage to the earth than any other.  I thought for a while the Koch boys were giving him a run.  Now, unfortunately, we may soon have a new, undisputed, "unpresidented" winner.

So, we've got that going for us.

Other Stuff in 2016

My post on Hamilton, which was really about entrepreneurship, was the most viewed of 2016.  (They call that the "coattail effect," I think.)  Entrepreneurs and the Mythical Big Idea (Weathermakers 2016) was a close second, and a nice chance to revisit Weathermakers to the World.  My favorite post to research was Roger Babson and the Wisdom of Dogtown (Redux) because it meant hiking the ancient neighborhood of Dogtown in Gloucester and stumbling upon these bits of wisdom carved in stone.

My favorite post to write in 2016 was the interview with Malthus, just cause I enjoyed listening to him vent. And the post to take to the bank, of course, is Useful Math for Liberal Arts Majors.  (Sommeliers deny it, but do not order the second cheapest wine on the list.)

I also enjoyed my visit with all of the dead entrepreneur at Yale, even if my finger froze to the shutter button.

Countryman Press/W.W. Norton has decided, after 17 years of steady sales, to spruce up and re-release King Philip's War in 2017.  Historian Nat Philbrick was kind enough to write Mike Tougias and me a foreword.  Mike and I get to visit together every year, despite his writing career going Hollywood.

UTC will launch a Chinese edition of Food Foolish in 2017; John Mandyck and I wrote an update (in English, mind you), which reminded us that there's been lots happening with new initiatives to reduce food waste since initial publication of the book in mid-2015.  (ReFED seems particularly effective.)  To build on that, UTC and Carrier hosted the third Cold Chain Summit in Singapore; I got to hang with bankers from India's YES Bank and the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund.  The people responsible for moving food around the world are not debating climate change, believe me.  And, if the U.S. pulls out of the Green Climate Fund, you can guess which Asian world power will be ready to step in and exert its influence.

So, we've got that going for us.

A Little Steam, ah, Stream of Consciousness

You know you're getting old when you go through the first 25 albums of the top 100 of the year and cannot find a single song worth downloading. (Sorry, David Bowie.). . .Always, always read the book before seeing the movie. . .I still admire the Wall Street Journal; its work deconstructing Theranos and piercing the Silicon Valley veil of mishegas was excellent.  Still, I would pay twice as much if I could get an edition without the "Opinion" section.  And God Bless The Economist, which is rapidly becoming the new WSJ. . .Our President-elect deserves Peter Thiel, every bit of him.  Which begs the question: Shouldn't you have dismissed crackpot Ayn Rand once you graduate middle school?. .If Yahoo were a ship, no sailor would dare climb aboard.  It seems to be just one rocky shoal after another since Jerry Yang turned down Steve Ballmer a hundred years ago.  And, how soon till we think about Facebook ("we're-a-technology-not-a-media-company") with the same utter contempt with which we think about Comcast?  And for that matter, is Uber the best idea run by the worst people in the history of innovation?. . .The richest country in the history of humankind now ranks 37th in healthcare. . .And speaking of broken, I am so tired of having to fix technology that worked yesterday but doesn't work today because of some update or "improvement" I didn't want. . .Favorite fact of the year: New York City's population is growing by 10 people per hour; Delhi's population is growing by 79 people per hour.  Favorite new podcast of the year: Malcolm Gladwell's "Revisionist History."  Favorite new show: Westworld.  (After the finale, I chained the Roomba to the leg of the kitchen table.)  Favorite fiction of the year: Lily King's Euphoria, William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, and Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life and Others (which, like I was saying, I should have read before I saw Arrival.)  Favorite non-fiction of the year: Ron Chernow's Hamilton, Sean Carroll's The Big Picture, and T.J. Stiles's (3 books, 2 Pulitzer's, nice average) The First Tycoon: Cornelius Vanderbilt.

1876 And All That

And, I finished up the year tag-teaming Eric Foner's Reconstruction and Dee Brown's 1876, both of which made me feel a whole lot worse about 2016.  The election of 1876, between Samuel Tilden and eventual winner Rutherford B. Hayes, was as contentious as any in American history.  Tilden won the popular vote by a quarter million votes but, in its own corrupt fashion, the electoral college--the product of slavery--failed to deliver a clean decision.

In Columbus, a bullet was fired into a dining room window at the Hayes home.  General Sherman drilled troops in the streets of Washington in response to threats of fully-armed regiments marching on the city.  Congressmen began packing firearms.  Southern Democrats, finding themselves in the catbird seat, traded their electoral votes to Hayes for the withdrawal of Federal troops and the end of Reconstruction, the one hope black Americans had emerging from the Civil War to make true social, educational, and economic gains.  Tilden, to his credit, chose to end his electoral protest rather than bring on a new civil war.

Hayes swapped the presidency for a new century of violence, poverty, and disenfranchisement of American blacks, who now depended upon the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments for protection.  Immediately the old "states' rights" drumbeats began--always a sign that one group wants to inflict serious pain on another group without pesky Federal interference.  One African-American who had been denied access to a theater lost in court because, the judge ruled, such protections now fell under state law.  Another lost access to a public venue because, another judge ruled, managers can exclude any person who lacked "respectability."  It took about 15 minutes after the last Federal troop departed for "separate but unequal" to arise.  Black Louisianan Henry Adams said, "The whole South--every state in the South had got into the hands of the very men that held us as slaves."

The nation was in full retreat, Foner wrote, "from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful
national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens."  Lincoln's "unfinished work" would, thanks to the 1876 election, remain unfinished.

Meanwhile, having lost the popular vote, and striking a deal with the devil, Hayes would be known throughout his term as "Old Eight to Seven" and "His Fraudulency."  He is now measured, so a Wikipedia entry (that must have been edited by loving descendants) says, "among the high-end of the bottom half" of Presidents.

The high-end of the bottom half: That might be the definition of damning by faint praise.

President Grant, exhausted by eight years of his own administration's scandals, tried to remain impartial throughout the 1876 election but was clear on one thing:  "No man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if 'counted in' or placed there by fraud.  Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns."

1876.  How you get elected really does matter, especially when it creates lasting obligations.  Self before party, party before country, say and do anything to win; it is a disastrous formula.  When Works Progress Administration agents interviewed former slaves during the Great Depression, they heard aching, lifelong disappointment, the impact of the Hayes election still like an open wound.  "The Yankees helped free us," one former slave said, "but they let us be put back in slavery again."

A monument along the Mississippi in New Orleans commemorates the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, when a racist paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League tried to violently overthrow the Reconstructionist Louisiana Government.  In 1932, about the time the WPA was interviewing former slaves, an inscription was added: "THE NATIONAL ELECTION NOVEMBER 1876 RECOGNIZED WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE SOUTH AND GAVE US OUR STATE."  This joyous pronouncement was a direct descendant of the Hayes election.

2016.  I had been buoyed by the hope that one election cannot do too much damage.  After reading about 1876, however, I stand corrected.  One corrupt election and one Village Idiot in office for just four years can devastate the poorest and weakest Americans for a century.   Not long ago, the worst damage Donald Trump could do was poke his own eye out with a sharp stick.  Now he can help cook the planet.  And the folks already on low heat are, of course, the poorest and weakest among us.

2017.  Still, it's time to buck up and let's see what devastation--environmental and otherwise--we can avoid in the new year, which, if nothing else, promises to be another hot one.