Thursday, January 23, 2020

Wealth, Whence and Whither.

Wealth, Whence and Whither, and the basis for funding a Universal Basic Income.

From where does wealth arise and to where does it (should it) go?

There are three sources of wealth creation:

1. Land
2. Capital
3. Labour

'Land' in this context doesn't just mean the ground, but all the stuff we get from the natural environment, such as minerals that are mined and quarried, energy from fossil carbon, radioactivity, wind and sun, and food grown from the soil. It is essentially the province of the primary industries, mining, agriculture, fishing and energy.

'Capital' is the machinery, factories, buildings and infrastructure used to convert 'Land' into things we actually want to use. It is either owned by individuals, capitalists, or by the state or other community enterprises. The employment of 'Capital' adds value to 'Land' and thus creates wealth. 

'Labour' is what we do when we, er, labour, work, toil or maybe invent and create. There are different forms of 'Labour' from slavery, through employment by others in exchange for wages, to self-employment and voluntary work.  Whatever, it all goes to add value to 'Land' rather like 'Capital' does.

Much of the day to day cut and thrust of political debate concerns the second two sources of wealth, Capital and Labour and the traditional left-right spectrum reflects the arguments about who the owners and beneficiaries of Capital should be and how Labour is regulated and how the wealth created is distributed. Libraries enough have been filled with writing on the subject so I will not add much more. I will concentrate on Land.

Once upon a very long time ago there were no people. In the case of Britain let's begin after the ice left, roughly 10,000 years ago. Nobody owned the land, folk walked north following the retreating ice and advancing animals and vegetation. The land provided food for all able to take it. The wealth created by the Land was a common good, distributed amongst all the people.

Somehow, sometime between then and the time when people started writing down their affairs, Land came to be possessed by individuals and laws were created to maintain possession. The powerful took unto themselves at least some of the Land and devised a system of governance that entrenched their ownership of this form of wealth creation. Some Land continued to be held communally for the common good, the wealth being distributed amongst all the citizens, but this fraction dwindled over the centuries, famously contracting with the Enclosure Acts but continuing to this day as public assets are privatised, the common ownership of Land being transferred to individuals and the arising wealth transferred with it.

Most of this transfer of ownership of Land to private individuals took place without the consent of the previous owners, most of the population.  It was theft, though the people doing the thieving were also the law-makers and they made the laws that called it not theft.

To right this wrong the transfer could be reversed, the ownership of the Land transferred back to the common ownership of all the citizens. The wealth arising from Land could be distributed to all the citizens as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). We could still have capitalists owning and benefiting from the mean of production and we could still have labourers being exploited to greater or lesser extents by employers. Enterprise and hard work could still be rewarded.The arguments between left and right could continue. But now all citizens would enjoy their fair share of the wealth of their own Land.

There has been much talk (and a few limited trials in other countries) of UBI recently. Critics have questioned where the money to fund it would come from. The discussion above provides the answer; UBI is funded from the birthright of the citizens, the Land component of the nations wealth. Such a basis for UBI would be the most significant change in the economic relations of the people since the Neolithic. We could do it now.
Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah
The world's largest mine; how is it that this mine and its products are in private ownership and the wealth created enjoyed by the few?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What the Girl Said

Today, 21st January 2020, a seveteen year old girl spoke to the grown-ups at Davos. This is what she said:

I will speak later today so I just want to take this opportunity to once again remind everyone of our current situation.

In Chapter Two, on page 108 in the SR 1.5 IPCC report that came out in 2018, it says that if we are to have a 67 percent chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had on January 1st, 2018, about 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget.

And, of course, that number is much lower today, as we emit, about 42 gigatons of CO2 every year, including in land use. With today's emissions levels, that remaining budget is gone within less than eight years. These numbers aren't anyone's opinions or political views. This is the current best available science. Though many scientists suggest these figures are too moderate, these are the ones that have been accepted through the IPCC.

And please note that these figures are global and therefore do not say anything about the aspects of equity, which is absolutely necessary to make the Paris Agreement work on a global scale. And that means that richer countries need to get down to zero emissions much faster and then help poorer countries do the same so that people in less fortunate parts of the world can raise their living standards.

These numbers also don't include most feedback loops, non-linear tipping points nor additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Most models, however, assume that future generations will, however, somehow be able to suck hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 out of the air with technologies that do not exist today in the scale required - and perhaps never will.

The approximate 67 percent chance is the one with the highest odds given by the IPCC. And now we have less than 340 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget to share fairly.

And why is it so important to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius? Because even at 1 degree people are dying from climate change because that is what the united science calls for, to avoid destabilising the climate so that we have the best possible chance to avoid setting off irreversible chain reactions.

Every fraction of a degree matters.

Since last summer, I've been repeating these numbers over and over again in almost every speech. But honestly, I don't think I have once seen any media outlets or person in power communicate this and what it means. I know you don't want to report about this. I know you don't want to talk about this, but I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.

And later in the day, this:

One year ago I came to Davos and told you that our house is on fire. I said I wanted you to panic. I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do. But don’t worry. It’s fine. Trust me, I’ve done this before and I can assure you it doesn’t lead to anything.

And, for the record, when we children tell you to panic we’re not telling you to go on like before. We’re not telling you to rely on technologies that don’t even exist today at scale and that science says perhaps never will.

We are not telling you to keep talking about reaching “net zero emissions” or “carbon neutrality” by cheating and fiddling around with numbers. We are not telling you to “offset your emissions” by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate.

Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature.

Let’s be clear. We don’t need a “low carbon economy.” We don’t need to “lower emissions.” Our emissions have to stop if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target. And, until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero. We need real zero.

Because distant net zero emission targets will mean absolutely nothing if we just continue to ignore the carbon dioxide budget — that applies for today, not distant future dates. If high emissions continue like now even for a few years, that remaining budget will soon be completely used up.

The fact that the U.S.A. is leaving the Paris accord seems to outrage and worry everyone, and it should. But the fact that we’re all about to fail the commitments you signed up for in the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to bother the people in power even the least.

Any plan or policy of yours that doesn’t include radical emission cuts at the source, starting today, is completely insufficient for meeting the 1.5-degree or well-below-2-degrees commitments of the Paris Agreement.

And again, this is not about right or left. We couldn’t care less about your party politics. From a sustainability perspective, the right, the left as well as the centre have all failed. No political ideology or economic structure has been able to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world. Because that world, in case you haven’t noticed, is currently on fire.

You say children shouldn’t worry. You say: “Just leave this to us. We will fix this, we promise we won’t let you down. Don’t be so pessimistic.”

And then, nothing. Silence. Or something worse than silence. Empty words and promises which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.

All the solutions are obviously not available within today’s societies. Nor do we have the time to wait for new technological solutions to become available to start drastically reducing our emissions. So, of course the transition isn’t going to be easy. It will be hard. And unless we start facing this now together, with all cards on the table, we won’t be able to solve this in time.

In the days running up to the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum, I joined a group of climate activists demanding that you, the world’s most powerful and influential business and political leaders, begin to take the action needed.

We demand at this year’s World Economic Forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments:

Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies.
And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.
We don’t want these things done by 2050, 2030 or even 2021. We want this done now.
It may seem like we’re asking for a lot. And you will of course say that we are naïve. But this is just the very minimum amount of effort that is needed to start the rapid sustainable transition.

So either you do this or you’re going to have to explain to your children why you are giving up on the 1.5-degree target. Giving up without even trying. Well I’m here to tell you that, unlike you, my generation will not give up without a fight.

The facts are clear, but they’re still too uncomfortable for you to address. You just leave it because you think it’s too depressing and people will give up. But people will not give up. You are the ones who are giving up.

Last week I met with Polish coal miners who lost their jobs because their mine was closed. And even they had not given up. On the contrary, they seem to understand the fact that we need to change more than you do.

I wonder, what will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leave them facing a climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them? That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resign the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying?

Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour. And we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.

Thank you.

Greta Thunberg

Monday, January 20, 2020

Turned out NIce

In early 2014 I wrote a couple of blog-posts here and here about the extreme weather that caused flooding in much of southern England and famously in the Somerset Levels. I included this little diagram that reminds us that common events are, er, common and rare events less so.

Extreme weather events are not always as unpleasant as the floods of 2014. Today, January 20th 2020 we have another extreme weather event but it has been largely ignored as it has merely produced a nice day.  Here's today's isobaric chart from the Met Office:

There have only been two previous occasions when air pressure has topped 1050 mb in the English record: on the 28th of January 1905 at Falmouth, Cornwall, (1053.1 mb) and  on the 26th of January 1932 at Stonyhurst, Yorkshire (1051.0 mb). There have been another half dozen such events in Scotland.

Extreme weather events are, of course, more noticeable when they affect people adversely. Just at the western edge of the chart above one can see the depression that brought extreme snowfall to Newfoundland, described anecdotally by the good folk of St Johns as like nothing they can remember, as they dug their cars out of the drifts. The past three weeks have seen two cyclones cross Fiji. The bush fires of Australia have dominated the headlines, leaving little room for the floods in Indonesia. Southern Africa is dominated by drought and earlier flooding in South Sudan, which wiped out crops, threatens to conspire with poor governance to produce famine over the coming months. The climate change attribution to all these events becomes ever more clear. We have 'only' had a little over 1 degree of global heating so far. As average temperatures rise past 2 degrees towards 3 or four later this century we will need to do more than hold on to our hats.

Yet sometimes, an extreme weather event just produces a nice day.

Post-script Wednesday 22nd January 2020
Our extreme high pressure (1050.5 hPa in South Wales on Monday, a new record) is linked to the extreme rainfall on Spain's east coast, connected by an extreme jetstream going in an unusual direction.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Rainbow Diagram

Here is Julia Steinberger's Rainbow Diagram

Professor Julia Steinberger is a Swiss-American economist at Leeds University, who researches and teaches in the interdisciplinary areas of Ecological Economics and Industrial Ecology. Her research examines the connections between resource use (energy and materials, greenhouse gas emissions) and societal performance (economic activity and human wellbeing). She is interested in quantifying the linkages between resource use and socioeconomic parameters, and identifying alternative development pathways to guide the necessary transition to a low carbon society. Research focus on living well within planetary limits.

On the 4th of January 2020 she posted this diagram on Twitter,  listing 10 basic facts for human and planetary survival, and then footnoted it with multiple tweets to add a little help to interpretation and understanding. I've copied out her notes, with just a little editing to improve readability, below:

 The #RainbowDiagramToSaveEarth (that hashtag's definitely going to catch on.😆 No doubt.)
 (1) This is the domain of the IPCC and other large research assessment reports. So much evidence, just a few links.

(2) Future projections are given by the same reports as above. They are extremely, extremely worrying. Dire. Awful. Not. Good.
(3) is where things get interesting, because a lot hinges on what is considered "feasible" in polite scientific-policy circles. Some people consider radical change "unfeasible." I'm not one of them - I'd much prefer planetary destruction to be "unfeasible," but it's not. So…
So this is where subjectivity, rather than pure objective physical & natural science observations & modelling, enter the picture. I'll try to keep it simple and clean. If we stop emitting now, and I mean NOW, we stay below 1.5°C warming.
If we do this, and remember, all this requires is our *not* emitting, not the invention of new technologies or whatever, we can limit warming and hence limit the climate & ecological crises from engulfing much more than on our current growth trajectory.
(4) There is no doubt whatsoever that reducing emissions at the rate of at least 15% per year constitutes radical change. The IPCC reports agree on this point as well, speaking of "transformations" rather than "transitions" required to remain within 1.5°C.
Does radical change mean reducing consumption? Everyone agrees it means *changing* consumption, away from fossil energy and land-based resources, towards renewable energy, electricity-based technologies, plant-based diets. Will that be enough?
Long story short? No. Doing all we can to stop deadly planetary devastation will require both *changing* and *reducing* consumption. See UK CCC Net-Zero report: lots of supply-side change, but still some demand measures.
I decided to stop waffling and go straight to demand reductions because I think it's the crux of much hesitation and inaction, and I'd rather deal with it full frontally, and also because why the heck would we not do all we can to avoid planetary disaster? Come on.
I understand that some people might disagree with (4). My point is that reductions in consumption should be openly discussed, since they are (a) effective, (b) possible, and (c) necessary.
Not only change, we also have to reduce consumption. The "we" has to be defined: at least everybody in the middle & upper class in the industrialized countries!
So (4) is differentiated by income and need levels. Some groups need to consumer much more than they currently do, and many groups, especially the globally wealthy, need to reduce their consumption A LOT. Inequality is a core focus here.
I should mention that (4) is of course the core domain of degrowth economics, whose main theorist and proponent is the tremendous Giorgos Kallis, @g_kallis, and you should all follow him and read his books.
(5) is where things get interesting because this is my research area. Woohoo! But I'm not alone. Rao, Min & Mastrucci recently  published this great article on "Energy requirements for decent living in India, Brazil and South Africa" in Nature Energy.
Footnotes to (5). The main comments here were that people were not, as a mass, clamouring for lower consumption. But that's not what (5) says: (5) states universal well-being is *possible* at much lower consumption levels. So this is a scientific fact, not a majority political aspiration (yet). And this is where the 2nd socio-economic column is important: it explains my view of *why* we have to fight consumerism full-frontally: because it's the means fossil-fuelled industries use to accumulate wealth and power.
So that's a good jump-off point to talk about (6). I've been writing about (6) a lot, and so have other people. Some of the main references can be found in this google doc (page 3, under "climate & capitalism").  @NaomiAKlein is a core thinker here.
So are Andreas Malm, Ian Gough, Kate Raworth.
In terms of my own contributions to (6), they are mainly this article with @elkepirgmaier
and a nice short blog on climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy:
Moving on to (7), the core references are mainly the same as for (6): understanding how fossil capitalism emerges from the industrial revolution means that we need to see our societies as captive prey of the political economy they have created. I tried to express this here:
"The fossil giants and their adjacent industries, such as automotive & aviation, represent our current capitalist system. Our infrastructure and cities are built for them, our markets function for them, our governments are in thrall to them."
The question becomes: what can we do about this? And this is where understanding the origins of capitalism and wealth accumulation, including the origins of consumerism as a creation of corporate firms (see the excellent "Century of the Self") helps.
Because we have to unlearn (and fast) a vision of humanity as grasping, greedy, selfish, competing ever upwards: that vision itself turns us into a product, a tool of profit accumulation. It turns us into consumers. Moving away from this view of ourselves is essential for (8).
So on to (8) and popular power. If we need to unlearn seeing ourselves as consumers, we need to move towards seeing and understanding ourselves as forces of change in the world. Strangely, even in democracies, the power of social mobilization is not taught explicitly.
I have ideas why this is: probably because our democracies are the uneasy compromise between corporate wealth accumulation and preventing popular uprisings, or because teaching the power of organizing to teenagers is a downright scary proposition. Who knows.

Julia Steinberger
oil on canvas 23 x 23 cm
This portrait features in the Faces of Climate exhibition to be held at the North Sea Observatory, Chapel Point, Lincolnshire this Easter.

Wednesday the 8th to Sunday the 19th of April 2020.