Friday, November 11, 2016

and... steps backwards on climate

The next four years are going to be... something. Here's Trump's energy policy.


One faint bit of good news is that the prices of oil and coal are really low right now, limiting the attractiveness of newly opened lands to mining and drilling. Hopefully Elon Musk can keep driving down the cost of solar power and electric vehicles so there is even less interest in burning coal or drilling oil.

We are in for a bumpy ride.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Progress on Climate

You probably heard that the Paris Agreement has come into effect, and you may have heard that the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) is starting today. It seems like the world is taking steps- small steps, and much later than they should have been taken- but still, it's reason for optimism.

One particularly appealing prospect is that of saying "yes" to more forests rather than just "no" to coal, fossil-fuel powered vehicles, etc. This writer thinks that forest development should be the heart of any strategy against climate change. Obviously pro-forest policies are costly too- preventing someone from developing their land keeps them from becoming richer, and people living near restricted land might have a hard time, say, getting access to electric power. Clearly the goal is not to keep people in the dark ages!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rebound effect: death prevention version

One reason energy-saving technologies don't always make as much a difference as expected is the "rebound effect" (WikiLink)- if something becomes easier/ cheaper/ safer, people will do more/ spend more/ take more risks. If cars use less gas, people may drive farther, since it has become cheaper to travel. People don't feel bad about eating a whole pack of cookies as long as they are "low-calorie" cookies.

The scariest version I've seen of this is right here. Since paramedics have really good medicine to help save people from overdoses, drug users may feel safer in shooting up, putting their lives at risk assuming that paramedics will reach them in time. Alternatively, drug users may mix narcotics with the life-saving substance to do "yo-yoing": shooting up to a high and bouncing back down as the other drug in the cocktail (hopefully) brings you back.

Scary stuff!

GMO's are worthless

That's what the NYT would have you believe. They compare US productivity against European productivity, noting that GMOs are rare in the EU but productivity levels are similar. (This is attributed to "European anger at the idea of fooling with nature.") They do note that no health concerns have been convincingly shown: GMOs are as healthy as any other crop variants.

Further, they contend that GMOs haven't curbed insecticide use, and they have increased herbicide use. The latter claim is almost certainly true: some GMO crops are designed to encourage use of herbicides. Why would anyone want to plant those crops? Well, every farmer has to deal with weeds, and think about how nice it would be to just spray chemicals that know to kill every plant except the good ones. That's what this GMO seed is: the plant isn't affected by the herbicide, so farmers can spray with impunity.

Leaving aside the question of what it means to "fool with nature" (for example, is a human artificially putting a seed into the ground "fooling with nature"? How about killing the bugs that eat the plants?), a few shortcomings of this analysis are apparent.

1) I think most advocates of GMOs would contend that GMOs improve "total factor productivity" whether or not they improve yields. In other words, you might not get more grain per acre of land, but you might get more grain per ton of fertilizer applied, or more grain per hour of human time invested. I don't have any numbers off the top of my head, but these are questions the article doesn't address.

2) Herbicide use is bad, but the alternative is watching your soil be carried down the river. While that sounds like a disaster for the environment, consider this: the other way that people fight weeds is by plowing the land, tearing plants up and driving parts of them underground. this has the effect of facilitating soil runoff. I'm as unhappy about chemicals being sprayed on the land as the next person, but I'm also unhappy when I see the Mississippi River Delta expanding every year because of all the soil carried down the river. Losing soil is a real problem, potentially threatening agriculture itself, and applying herbicides slows the rate of soil loss. (Also, saving soil prevents the release of carbon into the atmosphere, slowing climate change.)

3) Take a look at my former professor David Zilberman's ode to Monsanto, describing his very positive view of the company. His research has shown that skepticism of GMOs has cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars in value... as well as millions of people's eyesight lost due to short-sighted (yuk) resistance to Golden Rice, a genetically engineered product designed to get vitamin A to populations who normally don't get enough, and who often lose their eyesight because of it.

No fooling!