Welcome back to Sunday reading. It is a black week: The erratic man-child in charge of the US government has announced that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which commits signatories to set and periodically review voluntary targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. If you’re under the age of 50, this decision will define much of the rest of your life.

My parents were born in a world with a stable climate. By the time I was born, it was apparent to many scientists that human activities were beginning to change that climate, with unpredictable effects. By my teenage years, there was a broad scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change was happening, and emerging evidence of the human and ecological catastrophes it would bring. The Bush administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which would have set us on a path to avoiding climate disaster.

I have lived my entire adult life under the shadow of climate change. When the Paris Agreement was signed, I was disappointed by past failures to cooperate and increasingly worried by the rising lines on graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature. Paris was a sign of hope: It wasn’t perfect, but it would give us a basis for cleaning up and protecting our environment. An environment that I hoped to continue living in.

And now a man elected by a minority of Americans and aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has turned nihilistic in its pursuit of power has torn the fabric of that agreement. He won’t be alive to see it, but Donald Trump will be remembered as one of history’s worst betrayers: A Quisling to all future generations. I have no words that are strong enough. May God have mercy on his soul, because I cannot.

So what can we do?

America’s moral failure in the face of a pressing collective-action problem is a serious problem: Since 1850, the US has contributed roughly one-quarter of the total human-emitted carbon in the atmosphere. It remains the world’s second-largest carbon polluter, after China.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are helpless. Former California governor / time-travelling robot impersonator Arnold Schwarzenegger had some words: We must fix the problem at any level where we have leverage, because it’s the right thing to do:

European leaders – and, importantly, China – have committed to stick with the Paris Agreement, as an Associated Press story summarises:

Top European leaders have pledged to keep fighting global warming as US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Paris climate accord, but they rejected his suggestion the deal could later be renegotiated.

The leaders of France, Germany and Italy said in a joint statement they regretted the United States’ decision to withdraw from the accord, but affirmed “our strongest commitment” to implement its measures and encouraged “all our partners to speed up their action to combat climate change”.

While Trump said the United States would be willing to rejoin the accord if it could obtain more favourable terms, the three European leaders said the agreement couldn’t be renegotiated, “since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economics”.

French President Emmanuel Macron repeated that belief in an English-language speech from the presidential palace, unprecedented from a French president in an address at home. He said, “I do respect this decision but I do think it is an actual mistake both for the US and for our planet.”

“Wherever we live, whoever we are, we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again,” Macron added.

Macron’s statement, by the way, was excellent:

One factor moving in our favour is that the cost of solar power has reduced massively in recent years. This is a big deal. If rapidly-developing countries like India can fuel their growth with solar rather than coal, it will take a big wedge out of our future emissions. We will still be faced with the hard task of reducing our current emissions, but the target won’t be getting harder, faster. Ian Johnston (Independent) reports on recent solar auctions in India:

India has cancelled plans to build nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations – about the same as the total amount in the UK – with the price for solar electricity “free falling” to levels once considered impossible.

Analyst Tim Buckley said the shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel and towards solar in India would have “profound” implications on global energy markets.

According to his article on the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’s website, 13.7GW of planned coal power projects have been cancelled so far this month – in a stark indication of the pace of change.

…an auction for a 500-megawatt solar facility resulted in a tariff of just 2.44 rupees – compared to the wholesale price charged by a major coal-power utility of 3.2 rupees (about 31 per cent higher).

“For the first time solar is cheaper than coal in India and the implications this has for transforming global energy markets is profound,” Mr Buckley said.

As David Roberts (Vox) discussed last year, the path to a zero-carbon economy will mean converting all our electricity generation to zero-carbon sources… and then electrifying everything that needs power to run:

Tackling climate change is a complicated undertaking, to say the least. But here’s a good rule of thumb for how to get started:

Electrify everything.

Replace technologies that still run on combustion, like gasoline vehicles and natural gas heating and cooling, with alternatives that run on electricity, like electric vehicles and heat pumps. Get as much of our energy consumption as possible hooked up to the power grid.

The need for electrification is well understood by climate and energy experts, but I’m not sure it has filtered down to the public yet; the consensus on it is fairly new. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been the other way around: Electricity was dirty and the process of generating it and transmitting it involved substantial losses, so from an energy conservation point of view, the best thing to do was often to burn fossil fuel on site in increasingly energy-efficient devices.

So why did the CW change? There are several factors involved; I’ll run through the three most important…

But it’s not just about electricity generation. Especially in New Zealand, transport and urban policy will have to pick up a lot of the slack to reduce carbon emissions. Fortunately, the technology is already there to achieve a substantial reduction: The more people move on public transport or under their own power, the lower our emissions will be.

This isn’t just a pipe dream, either: there are real-world examples of cities that have chosen to change and succeeded in doing so. For instance, a new study shows what happened when Seville, Spain, radically expanded its network of safe cycleways. Michael Andersen (People for Bikes) reports on the study:

The paper by R. Marqués and V. Hernández-Herrador, published this month in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, provides one of the first academic studies of one of the largest rapid bike-infrastructure investments in world history.

In 2003, the 2,200-year-old Spanish city of Seville (population 700,000) voted more Communists than usual onto its city council. (Yes, this is a thing that happens in Seville.) The left-wing party had pledged a major investment in bike transportation — and after they joined a coalition with the center-left Socialist party, they delivered. In 2007 alone, the city built 40 miles of protected bike lanes, a 542 percent increase to the existing 7 miles citywide. It created an imperfect but connected network through the central city.


The evolution of Seville’s bikeway map, from 2006 (upper left) to 2010 (lower right). Source: Marqués Sillero, R. (2011) via Pensando el Territorio.

Another 46 miles were installed over the next six years, along with a popular new bike-sharing system. (These six years overlapped, it’s worth noting, with the global financial crisis and a particularly deep recession in Spain — national unemployment peaked at 27 percent in 2013. Seville’s tourism-heavy region, Andalucia, had the worst job market in the country, and the city itself fared only a bit better.)

Two things started happening in Seville almost immediately: the number of bike trips soared and the risk of a bike trip plummeted.


Source: R. Marqués and V. Hernández-Herrador (2017).

In the past, New Zealand has been more timid: we’ve let inertia and the easy way guide us, rather than choosing to change. While we have taken a number of steps in the right direction, we often let them unravel in the details, as the interesting example of Gulf Harbour shows:

In Noted, Findlay Macdonald interviews Chris Harris, who has a new book coming out on the mistakes that Auckland made:

And this dismissal of proper urban thinking and planning seems, as you argue, to be part of a wider self-mythologising as a rural Arcadia that New Zealand has indulged in.
A lot of people have written about this. The Arcadian image of New Zealand, it seems to me, is often misleading and tendentious. It creates this image of infinite rural promise, whereas in reality, if we look at the detailed topographical maps, we see that New Zealand is actually the dividing mountain range of a submerged continent, and it’s very mountainous and hilly. I like to say that no frontier society had less frontier. Very little of New Zealand is actually very fertile farmland – about a sixth of it. The rest is just hills.

Which is really strange, because we were arguably more urbanised than many European countries quite early in our colonial history.
New Zealand’s identity and politics are organised around the denial of urbanisation and, presumably, the denial of urban problems and opportunities as well. What we really have is a whole lot of cities, nearly all of them built on some waterfront riviera or on a lake. The only exceptions are Hamilton and Palmerston North, which are cities of the plains … So the Arcadian myth claims that we have this vast frontier of freely available land, and anyone who wants to prosper just needs to get out and work in the countryside. It really serves as a denial of reality and a pretext for ignoring the city – and a pretext for basically allowing the city to go to pot. Public transport, pedestrian amenity and the provision of affordable housing are neglected in ways that are often taken for granted among the long-suffering Aucklanders, but stick out to the overseas traveller who returns to Auckland.

Why do you think this myth is so powerful and persistent?
A part of it, and this is something other historians have said, is that the urban population of New Zealand isn’t concentrated in one big place, or even in a compact sort of region. It’s scattered up and down the country, and in each of these urban centres, people look out the window and see all these mountains and hills and rural landscapes. So the urban principle in this country just doesn’t acquire a critical mass. And, in government terms, Wellington-based agencies tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach, and treat downtown Auckland the same way they would some hill outside Taihape that presents an obstacle to the state highway system.

If we want to play a positive role in the future – and get a better city in return – we’re going to have to choose to change, and change fast. It’s urgent, but it will be good for us.

To close where I started, writer Rebecca Solnit had a scathing piece on the US president: “The loneliness of Donald Trump“. Even if you’re trying to keep your eyes off American politics, it’s worth considering her comments on the importance of equality:

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

That’s it for the week. Hopefully next week has better news.

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31 comments

  1. China and India also expanding their nuclear fleet quickly as well. India are working their way through to bring Thorium fuelled reactors online while China is converting their Coal fired boiled into Gen III Pebble Bed Reactors.

    China and India (as well as Canada which houses the two largest operation nuke stations in the world in terms of reactor count and energy output (CANDU-6s and CANDU-8s) know for low to zero carbon mixes come from wind + solar + nuclear combined is a good mix for a large nation when hydro-power is possibly not available (otherwise you go hydro + solar + wind).

    The one I like is from Ontario which shows where their power generation comes from: 65% nuclear, very little from Gas and good $/kw/h https://www.cns-snc.ca/media/ontarioelectricity/ontarioelectricity.html

    So at least Canada, China and India are making efforts in place of the US Federal Government

    1. Interesting to see that nuclear plants are closing in the US, due to the competition from cheap natural gas, e.g. the infamous Three Mile Island – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/30/three-mile-island-nuclear-plant-shutdown-pennsylvania

      It’s an interesting conundrum, nuclear power, given its relatively clean (i.e. low-carbon) production but with the very rare spectre of it all going badly wrong as witnessed at Fukushima, Chernobyl, etc. The public perception tends to be worse than the reality of nuclear safety, hence the politics are certainly a minefield.

      1. A few years ago I was pretty skeptical of nuclear power. I’m still skeptical, but I’ve moved towards much more of a “pull all the levers *now*!” perspective on climate change mitigation.

        The problem is that nuclear power costs heaps. South Korea and France seem to have better cost performance, which is interesting given they also build underground rail very cheaply.

        In any case, I don’t think it’s a necessary path forward for NZ. We’ve got enough wind and geothermal consented to meet electricity demand in the near future.

        I think (hope) that we can keep a lid on residential demand by improving insulation. The interesting question, though, is what we will do when the car fleet electrifies. That’s the one factor I can see on the horizon that *would* massively increase electricity demand. But depending upon timing, solar power may be the cheapest option to meet that demand.

        1. Simple answer to provide sufficient electricity for an EV fleet is to increase the cost to Tiwai Pt aluminum smelter to that which would be made from transport usage.
          This would free up more than enough energy as Tiwai Pt would close resulting in an overall financial, and environmental gain to the country.

      2. I see no such conundrum. Nuclear is a techno fantasy that depends on false accounting of its costs to have any future. And not just waste and de-comissioning costs, which are almost always wished away and socialised, but also carbon costs (so much concrete!), and financial and time costs. The renewable cost curve is and will kill nukes everywhere except command economies (where facts can be ignored), as it has killed coal and will eventually eat gas too. This trajectory is very clear.

        Very symbolic for anyone who reads the history of nuclear power that Three Mile Island is now toast. Excellent. Same with Westinghouse and the tragic tale of its new owner Toshiba, that bet big on this wrong horse.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/business/westinghouse-toshiba-nuclear-bankruptcy.html?mcubz=1

    2. The bright future for nuclear, is well, decidedly unclear.

      The only thing (besides intense nuclear radiation and mountains of nuclear waste) that a nuclear power plant makes is electricity.

      Why bother with the nuclear middleman and instead go direct to the source?

      Solar and Wind generation plus storage technologies will run economic rings around any current or “imminent” nuclear technology you care to name. And this includes that perennial excuse for the status quo of Fusion power which just like a mirage, never actually arrives, its always just 20 years away – from now. And has been that way for decades.

      Fusion is always touted by many as the the “best” option to fix global warming, ignoring the better [and very do-able] options of renewables+storage – “ounce of prevention” which is available right now. And also ignoring the other important fact that by the time we get fusion, the state of the planet will be very much worse so we’ll need a lot of them to undo the damage we’ve done meanwhile, if we can.

      Others (including Voltaire and before him Confuscious) have said words to the effect that “don’t let the best be the enemy of the better”.

      The world, including India should take heed. Renewables+storage+electricity are the better, and are right now, which are “good enough” to start dealing with the issue of supplying current and future power needs.

      In any case by the time fusion eventually arrives, the world may just shrug our collective shoulders and say “And? *You* were supposed to have been here decades ago. We’ve managed without you, and moved on. We don’t want no expensive, single-purpose radiation spewing fusion reactors on our planet. No, we now know better than that, and harness the free one already provided to us in the sky, for all our power needs.”.

      Countries like India and China may pursue nuclear in a one upmanship way, out of a sense of national pride or misplaced identity. But it will come at a real cost in terms of $ and in terms of delaying an effective response to the actual issue if they do.

      Better they get with the renewables power program now, and stay that way.

      1. The irony of saying go direct to the source points out to your anti nuclear hysteria. Something Ill point out at the end.

        No one touted Fusion at all, touted with already existent Pebble Bed Reactors (already replacing Coal boilers), Thorium fuelled reactors (designs present since the 60s) and for our 2026 suite the Small Modular Reactor and Integral Molten Salt Reactor both also designs from the 60s but were shelved because they could not be used to produce elements for the bomb.

        So while the Cold War marks tragedy for civilian nuclear it never disappeared no matter how much Nixon tried to bin it.

        So no the technology is not emergent but already current and working its way to become commercially operational by 2026.

        Now for the irony, you say go direct to the source – solar aka the sun but you dont give thanks nor respect to the world’s biggest fission reactor – our Core (and the crust + mantle). The very fission reactor that allows us to draw direct from the System’s biggest fusion reactor – the Sun. You can thank the Core, crust and mantle, its fission reactions and the magnetic fields it produces to allow life on this Planet.

        For more: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/nuclear-fission-confirmed-as-source-of-more-than-half-of-earths-heat/

        And

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC58687/

        Oh one thing I forgot to mention
        Those SMR and IMSR deisgns I mentioned earlier? They are designed to burn high level nuclear waste (fuel) as their primary fuel meaning we have a rather large source of nuclear fuel without having to mine – nuclear warheads that are decommissioned under START.

      2. Can someone please point me at the dozens of solar/wind powered aircraft carriers, if solar/wind can produce more power than nuclear for a given footprint? I imagine they must rule the seas?

        1. I think the official answer is that they are coming, but unofficially, only about as fast as Jesus’s second coming.

          We were told the other day that Norway is looking at building it’s first electric ferry – it’ll be quite a while (if ever / never) that Kiwirail buys one for the Cook Strait. But some things move fast – the pace of evolution of battery powered drones over the last 5 years has been intense, and is still continuing to evolve.

          Diesel is the biggest single cost for shippers after the cost of the actual ship, and seeing as they have got rid of virtually all staff costs, if the technology is there and the cost point is right, electric ships will come, eventually.

        2. The strength of solar power generation is not that it follows the model of current power generation systems in that the actual electric generators are concentrated in a few locations producing Mwatts then that power is distributed around the country. Instead solar power lends itself to complete distrubution of many small generators to the end user locations.
          I have generated all my own electricity using PV and a wind turbine since 2000 for my suburban home in Titirangi. 3kw of Pv, a 1.5kw turbine (seldom used) and 1025Ah battery system. Haven’t seen an electric bill since 1999. I estimate I reached break even cost about 2009.
          That’s the future, distributed power generation using PV, no need for nuclear or fossil fuel generators. Battery technology higher power density cells are on the way. Power distribution companies will not exist nor the present billing model.

      3. Fusion actually works really well. You just need to stand well back. If you have a mass of plasma the size of our sun and stand back about 150 million km and aim some solar panels at it then it works incredibly well.

  2. Regarding “The erratic man-child in charge of the US government” – and as to why he behaves the way he does. There are three possible reasons – either he is ignorant (which is quite possible, as he doesn’t read much and has the attention span of a gnat), or he is stupid (which he definitely seems to be, but seems unlikely as he has managed to make lots of money over the years, which requires at least a modicum of intelligence), or he knows exactly what he is doing is wrong but does it anyway, which means he is essentially evil.

    Evil is a word not bandied around much these days except by religious nutters, but I believe he is evil to the extent that he probably knows what he is doing has the potential to destroy the long-term survival of many species on planet Earth, yet opts to ignore that. He has been captured by the machinations of the giant oil corporations who run America – it is, essentially, a totally oil-based economy, and by asking America to change from that to a non-oil economy will require massive restructuring – which does indeed mean economic damage. But he is putting short term gain before long term stability. Yes, the rise of solar is fantastic – and a sensible corporation would be investing in both (i.e. BP is now a large investor in solar), but the continuation of car plants making V8 petrol engines is a dinosaur activity which he has to encourage on behalf of his voting public. Voted in by rednecks from the centre swathe of the USA, he is now permanently hobbled to their demands.

    If he was more man than child, if he could look inside himself and find his moral compass, there might be more hope.

    1. I think it’s actually more as quoted from above: “This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it,…”. I think Trump is just somewhat ignorant, and possibly his age is another factor, keeping his marbles together combined with stubborn resolute about certain things.
      Basically, from what I understand, his character/style that propelled him to make is billions from. Living as a typical billionaire may live, has lost touch with the common & particularly poor people. I think it’s just his family that keeps him from REALLY going over the top. My 2c worth.

  3. Trump won because he represents a sufficiently significant section of America. The USA is essentially a violent country based on enslavement while claiming the mantle of freedom. Almost everything that is wrong with the USA is written in its constitution, yet despite that they raise their children to think that deeply flawed document is worthy and righteous.
    Alibaba founder Jack Ma got it right when he said that the US has wasted its wealth on wars ($14.2 trillion in 30years- that is $14,200,000,000,000). What he didn’t says was that the US did that because that is what Americans like to spend their money on. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/jack-ma-america-has-wasted-its-wealth/

    1. Over the last few years I’ve gradually changed my view on the US Constitution from a flawed but improvable document to an intrinsically unworkable roadblock to change. There are good aspirations in there, but the mechanics of it are hopelessly compromised.

      And yes, there are a certain share of Americans who experience an almost sexual type of excitement at the thought of dropping American bombs on foreigners. I’ve always been repulsed by the way the US media talks about war… it’s like opening the sports section of the newspaper and finding a page devoted to breathless full-colour reporting on an orgy.

      1. You may have also noticed that cruise missiles are always launched at night. Not for military purposes but because the footage of them lighting up the deck of a ship looks far better on the TV news.

        1. Actually it’s usually done because cruise missiles are vulnerable to light flak/anything optically guided (they’re small, fly straight, and fly slow) but relatively difficult to hit with SAMs/anything radar guided (due to ground clutter). So night ensures safety

      2. “it’s like opening the sports section of the newspaper and finding a page devoted to breathless full-colour reporting on an orgy.”

        At least no-one dies in the average orgy.

    2. Trump won because a significant chunk of the American population has been completely left behind and abandond. They have no future and nothing to lose. They are dying in their small former industrial towns. Meanwhile for the past couple of decades the business as usual technocratic politicians have offered no vision, no change, nothing to make their lives better. The only alternative they had to Trump was a lady who is well established as part of this problem, who offered them nothing but more of the same which is now not a viable choice for them. The other guy appeared to be bad. Is bad. But at least it was a shot at upsetting the system. People who comment from abroad, even the libtards in the coastal cities, all seem to misunderstand this basic fact. They don’t see how bad things are in middle America. Ultimately I believe this election can be summed up by their two campaign slogans: “I’m with her.” And, “Make America great again.” If you’ve been screwed over by twenty years of the same old politicians which one appeals more to you?

      (On a different note I can see the same conditions for a Trump happening in NZ down the road if things keep going as they are.)

  4. The Paris Accord was a lie and I welcome President Trump walking away. Businesses and individuals can step up and don’t require the government’s permission. Don’t like coal then don’t use it.
    Of course China welcomes the Paris Accord as they got money for doing nothing. The so called leaders at Paris were so keen on the deal they allowed for such a poor deal that I don’t see the fuss Trump pulling out.

  5. It’s nice to know that you don’t care about how shit my future will be simply because you’ll be dead while I’m living it.

    1. Nice one, that’s going in the next Sunday reading (with attribution to you!). I never knew why pennyfarthings were called that.

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