Pope is at it again

Last week, Pope Francis again revealed why he is a global leader. Leveraging the biblical teachings that God wants us to take care of our environment, he reiterated his concerns on climate change to oil executives. Per a Wall Street Journal article called “Pope Francis Criticizes Continued Search for Fossil Fuels at Meeting with Oil Executives,” he encouraged oil executives to find ways to leave fossil fuel energy in the ground. Per the WSJ article:

“’Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!’ he said at a Vatican climate change conference attended by top executives including Exxon Mobil Corp. Chief Executive Darren Woods, BP PLC Chief Executive Bob Dudley and BlackRock Inc. Chief Executive Laurence Fink.

At the conference, co-sponsored by the University of Notre Dame and featuring nearly 20 speakers Friday and Saturday, the pope said that an estimated 1 billion people still lack electricity and noted that access to energy is an essential resource for escaping poverty. But he warned that a failure to reduce the use of fossil fuels would lead to a ‘spiral of extreme climate changes due to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty.’

The poor ‘suffer most from the ravages of global warming,’ he said, through water shortages and extreme weather which in turn drive mass migration, among other ways.
Pope Francis commended oil and gas companies for adopting policies that account for ‘assessment of climate risk’ and he encouraged the practice of environmentally sensitive ‘green finance’ investment strategies. But he warned that ‘markets and technology’ wouldn’t be sufficient to stop climate change, since our ‘current economic system thrives on ever-increasing extraction, consumption and waste.’

Earlier this year, BlackRock’s Mr. Fink in a letter urged chief executives at global companies to ‘make a positive contribution to society.’ The world’s largest asset manager has played a key role behind the scenes in insisting that companies take action to respond to climate change.

Pope Francis’ meeting with oil executives and investors comes almost exactly three years after the publication of his encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he called global warming a major threat to life on the planet and said it is mainly caused by human activity. In that document, which as an encyclical ranks among the highest levels of papal teaching, the pope blamed special interests for blocking policy responses and indicted the market economy for plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and future generations.”

With the US President announcing his intention to leave the Paris Climate Change Accord, other global leaders, like Pope Francis are continuing the push. Ironically, Exxon Mobil’s shareholders voted (the day before Trump’s announcement to leave the Accord) to obligate the company leadership to inform them of what they are doing to address climate change. Fortunately, US cities, states and businesses are picking up the baton dropped by the President. The US has passed the tipping point on renewable energy, in spite of the President and his EPA head’s efforts.

Pope Francis should be commended for leading the charge. Taking care of the least of us has been a mantra of this leader. I recognize he is not perfect, but is concern for people and the environment is meritorious. And, unlike Messrs. Trump and Pruitt, the pope is a scientist, with a Masters in Chemistry and has worked as a chemist.

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Messers. Trump and Pruitt – it is the Environmental Protection Agency

Almost one year ago, the President of the United States announced a plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord making the US a very isolated country on the world stage. That announcement both betrays and galvanizes further the significant efforts and science behind America’s push toward renewable energy and conservation.

Yet, that is only part of the attack by this administration on our home planet. Under the tutelage of Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency, has decided to have an all out war on science and the environment. The orchestrated removal of climate change science data accessible by the EPA website and the repositioning, demotion or firing of some scientists, is indicative of a parent wanting to mask the fact they do drugs from their kids.

Pruitt has also tried successfully and unsuccessfully to let companies pollute waterways and the environment with fewer repercussions. The fact we have a global water shortage is irrelevant. He has also championed the ability for industry to question the EPA’s data. That may sound good, but industry has challenged data for years and, as a country, we do not adhere to the Precautionary Principle.

This principle states that if it is believed an industry is polluting the environment, then they must prove they are not before going further. In the US, industry has to be proven they wronged people many years after the fact. The reason Erin Brockovich is so famous is it is rare to win against industry. The sad part is people have died or been made ill by then. The Pruitt change is to let industry cherry pick data more easily. I should note the flame retardant industry used a study that had nothing to do with that issue to show the retardants were safe – it was proven they cause cancer in firefighters, toddlers and mothers.

Last week, a new report came out that noted the Outer Banks of North Carolina will be the hardest hit region by rising tides by the end of the century. Yet, the report eliminated any reference to man’s influence of climate change. It should be noted a few years earlier, the NC General Assembly refused to accept a similar finding, but paid for a report that used the past 100 years sea level increase as a guide for the future showing an increase of 8 inches versus 39 inches per the scientists. Apparently, that report has been proven faulty.

Finally, a report by the United Nations has estimated the failure to address climate change will cost the world $100 trillion in US dollars. Some have cried foul over this number, but I would add a study sanctioned by the world’s largest pension scheme (plan) investors in 2010 estimated the cost of repairing climate change problems in the $10 trillion to $20 trillion range. The key word in both is trillion.

We should recognize these numbers are guesses backed by science and some rationale. I would quibble less if the numbers are toward either end and focus on the observation that doing nothing will cost money and a lot of it. Hurricanes are more severe now when they hit shore from elevated sea levels. The costs to fix the damage run in the tens to hundreds of billions range. When you multiple just the hurricanes by these cost fixes, then one can see how the numbers can rise.

If that does not scare, there is a new term that should called “sunny day flooding.” These are days when high tides flood the streets of coastal cities when no storm is present. These days are increasing significantly in places like Miami, Hampton Roads, Charleston, New Orleans, etc. In the next fifteen to twenty years, some of these cities may have fewer non-flooding days than flooding ones.

So, Messers. Trump and Pruitt, you can choose to play ostrich all you want, but the people that care about our home need to move forward. It would be nice if you were an enabler rather than a blocker.

A Portugese Energy Company knows about US Growth

An article in Reuters earlier this week noted a Portugese energy company that knows first hand where energy growth is occurring in the United States. It may be surprising to the current White House, but not the market, the growth is not in the coal energy sector.  Per Timothy Gardner’s article “EDP bullish on US renewable power despite Trump’s support for coal” in Reuters, the following quote is compelling.

“‘U.S. renewables represent the growth engine of our company,’ António Mexia, who since 2006 has run the power utility EDP (EDP.LS), one of Portugal’s biggest companies, said in an interview on Tuesday.

U.S. wind and solar power projects represented 65 percent of new investments last year at EDP’s renewables arm EDPR (EDPR.LS), and are expected to continue at that rate in 2018 and in 2019, Mexia said. EDPR operates renewable projects in 11 other countries in Europe and the Americas.”

This is not inconsistent with other measures in America as solar and wind energy growth have risen with the continual fall in pricing. And, it is showing up in recurring double digit job growth in solar and wind energy.

I have cited the significant increase in wind energy across our plains states, but this is following the forecast of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who appeared on “60 Minutes” more than five years ago. He noted that natural gas expansion is a bridge to wind energy. It is just buying us time to get the infrastructure ready and prices to get more effective. It should be noted that several states get over 10% of their electricity from wind energy, with Iowa  at just under 33% leading in percentage of total and Texas at 16% producing the most wind energy due to its size.

In California, North Carolina, Florida and other southern states in the east and west, solar energy is growing significantly. California, by itself, would be one if the most prolific solar countries. And, Tesla is more of a battery storage company than car company. Elon Musk went live with a massive battery storage site to help a French company power southern Australia with solar energy. It truly is a global industry, so seeing a Portugese company invest here in the US is not unusual.

The growth in energy jobs are in renewables. It would be nice if this was more publicly recognized by all of our elected leaders, not just the ones who are not funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Water – the real crisis facing us

While Americans are distracted and consumed by the routine chaos out of the White House, we are letting huge problems go unaddressed. One of the major problems is the current and growing global water crisis. For several years, the World Economic Forum has voted the global water crisis as the greatest risk facing our planet over the longer term, defined as ten years. But, this is not just a future problem, the city of Cape Town in South Africa is in severe water crisis and continues to ration pushing forward their Day Zero as long as they can

Per The Guardian in an article this week, the United Nations warns that water shortages “could affect 5 billion people by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies, according to a UN report on the state of the world’s water. The comprehensive annual study warns of conflict and civilisational threats unless actions are taken to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs.

The World Water Development Report – released in drought-hit Brasília – says positive change is possible, particularly in the key agricultural sector, but only if there is a move towards nature-based solutions that rely more on soil and trees than steel and concrete.

‘For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or ‘grey’, infrastructure to improve water management. In doing so, it has often brushed aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches,’ says Gilbert Houngbo, the chair of UN Water, in the preface of the 100-page assessment. ‘In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation and the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways of manage competing demands on our freshwater resources.’

Humans use about 4,600 cubic km of water every year, of which 70% goes to agriculture, 20% to industry and 10% to households, says the report, which was launched at the start of the triennial World Water Forum. Global demand has increased sixfold over the past 100 years and continues to grow at the rate of 1% each year.

This is already creating strains that will grow by 2050, when the world population is forecast to reach between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion (up from 7.7 billion today), with two in every three people living in cities.

Demand for water is projected to rise fastest in developing countries. Meanwhile, climate change will put an added stress on supplies because it will make wet regions wetter and dry regions drier.

Drought and soil degradation are already the biggest risk of natural disaster, say the authors, and this trend is likely to worsen. ‘Droughts are arguably the greatest single threat from climate change,’ it notes. The challenge has been most apparent this year in Cape Town, where residents face severe restrictions as the result of a once-in-384-year drought. In Brasília, the host of the forum, close to 2m people have their taps turned off once in every five days due to a unusually protracted dry period.”

Here in the states, we exacerbate our drought and other water problems with bad piping and fracking, which waste or use huge amounts of water. But, with our vast agriculture, we need water to produce our and much of the world’s crops. We must manage it better. Two books are very illuminating. “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” by Steven Solomon is a terrific look back and ahead. He is the coiner of the phrase “water is the new oil.” The other book is called “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” by Miriam Horn that details the struggles of these professions and two others with climate change and its impact on water and other things they do.

Folks, this is a major problem. We must address it now before we all have our own Day Zeroes. If this is not enough to raise concern, one of the financial experts who forewarned us of the pending financial crisis, has a new concern – water.

 

Too many questions and not enough answers

While I should be upbeat about the 105th consecutive month of economic growth in the US, the still very high stock values in the market on an uptick since January 2009 and the historically low unemployment rate, I know that too many folks are not feeling the love from this growth. But, I want to set this issue aside for now and just ask some “why” questions as I am beyond frustrated with our failure to address too many issues.

Why can’t our so-called leaders address our never ending gun violence in the US? Yesterday’s tragedy will happen again, just like what was predicted following the last one a few weeks ago. Our so-called leaders are too busy trying to keep their job and need to do their job. It is more than a gun issue, but we need to do something about various causes. Our GOP friends like to say it is a mental health issue, but then try to repeal the ACA and not encourage the expansion of Medicaid. And, Congress permitted last year folks on Social Security disability for mental health reasons to be added back to eligible gun buying rolls.

However, it is a gun access issue as well and the majority of Americans support background checks on all sales and elongated waiting periods. I would do more, but these are “no-brainers.” Yet our spineless Congress and President will not act. Part of my thoughts and prayers are for our leaders to grow a backbone and do something. We need not worry about foreign terrorists as our domestic terrorists do just fine without them in killing innocent Americans.

Why do we fail to act on Russia interfering with our democracy? The leaders of our intelligence agencies testified under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee that not only did the Russians influence our 2016 election, they are continuing to sow seeds of discord driving Americans apart, and will influence the 2018 election. Yet, the President does not want to talk about it and did not extend the Congress approved sanctions on Russia two weeks ago. I would add that Congressman Nunes who is the head of the House Intelligence Committee and author of a memo that has been criticized by the FBI as inaccurate is refusing to call for a similar briefing under oath. It is surmised he is fearful of the same leaders disparaging the veracity of his memo. Is it not the job of the committee to get a briefing or should we just ask Sean Hannity to do it?

Why does are debt problem not elicit more reaction from the public? My former GOP party seemingly no longer cares about the deficit and debt since we have a Republican President. We have made our massive debt problem worse with the last two major pieces of legislation, but it does not seem to matter to the public or these so-called leaders. Both parties are to blame, but taxpayers will be left holding the bag as we have further mortgaged our future to heat up a good economy. It makes no sense, unless you look at this through a donor’s lens, which is the real reason for the tax cuts.

Why do we allow EPA DIrector Scott Pruitt to lie so much about climate change without repercussion, echoing the lines of his boss? Like the debt, our so-called leaders are ignoring a growing problem. It would be nice if they helped, but Pruitt and Trump are being left at the kids’ table, while the grown-ups move forward. Fortunately, the cities, states, universities and companies are moving forward with renewable energy and conservation measures. The renewable cost is more comparable to fossil fuel cost and they do not leave a negative footprint. Plus, when the present value costs of environmental degradation, clean-up and risk are factored in, renewables are cheaper. We could do so more with federal leverage, but at least the President has galvanized other to act since he won’t.

These issues are four of several that need to be addressed, but are not. Our democracy and planet our under attack. These should not be partisan issues. I am independent former Republican voter and these are representative of the issues I am trying to increase awareness of. Ask your legislators what they plan to do about them. If they do not respond or respond to another question, find out who is running against them. A good thing created by this President is very qualified people will be running for more offices.These are real issues. Let’s work on addressing them.

 

 

Stepford Wives, Blade Runner and Ex Machina are here

I have seen snippets about this, but my wife turned over to a Dr. Oz show today whose subject was about “sexbots.” If you have not seen these, they exist, look somewhat real, and have artificial intelligence. Yikes. Dr. Oz first interviewed psychologists, one who was alarmed, while the other who felt it was OK. The former noted those who would be missing out on real intimacy plus some who may have a tendency to act out more violent fantasies, while the latter noted that people need companionship even if electronic.

Then, he interviewed one of the inventors, who dutifully said it is like owners talking with pets, with the robot being more of a companion. The robots were programmed with favorite movies, books, etc. that could be espoused, if asked. He noted if the owner tried to treat the robot violently (sexual assault, rape), it would shut down. He added with such a high cost (about US$10,000), it would be bad for the owner to treat the robot poorly.

And, if that was not a bridge too far, he said some have made the robot look like a former wife who had passed away. The thought of “Stepford Wives” came to mind. As for the companionship, I was recalling the recent “Blade Runner 2049” movie which updated the earlier version made in the early 1980s. In both, the “replicants” included some that were built to be consorts to men (and I presume women), where few of the opposite sex were present. In the latter, one of the replicants had a holographic live-in girlfriend who offered the companionship. The theme of “Ex Machina” is about a talented AI programmer being asked to test a lifelike, attractive companion.

So, what about this? In the category of “to each his (or her) own,” I guess if this is what floats your boat and provides a solution to loneliness, so be it. I guess we each have fantasy lovers that we can dream about, so is this a natural evolution? Yet, it still gives me the willies. Plus, most movies about robots usually do not end well for humans. So, maybe this could lead to our extinction or replacement. Maybe it will lead to test tube babies as in “Brave New World.” Or, maybe we will become cyborgs like the group in “Star Trek Next Generation” called “The Borg” a collective intelligence embodied in former humanoids.

Tell me what you think? Is this a good thing or a horrible path to follow? I did think of a humorous use for women if they had their own sexbot. The robot would have to be adept at foreplay and cuddling, but would also take out the trash and do the dishes without being asked and could fix a clogged drain or install a dimmer switch. And, if it needed to ask directions, it would do so. But, that internal GPS would forego the need.

 

Headwinds and Tailwinds to the Economy

Presidents get too much credit and blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but global market forces tend to control what happens. By headwinds, I mean the wind is against the economic growth, with tailwinds aiding economic growth.

In the US, we are under the third longest economic growth period in our measured history with 103 consecutive months of growth. We have also had seven consecutive years of 2 million plus jobs created. And, the stock market more than doubled under Obama and continues its rise under Trump. These are great numbers. But, before we pat ourselves on the back too much, not everyone has benefitted and wealth disparity among economic classes has been widening for the past thirty-five years.

Economists I have watched project the good news to continue for the year, but several have cautioned about the future and if we don’t address the inequity, we will have major problems on top of other concerns.

On the tailwinds ledger, the global economy continues to grow and the World Economic Forum projects a 3.9% increase for the year. In the US, the cut back on regulations, plus the reduction in new ones over the rates of the past, have given more confidence to businesses (more on this later). Plus, the reduction in corporate tax rates will help fuel some growth, provided these companies who are sitting on cash, choose to invest it in their people and business. And, with more money in many people’s pockets, this will add some fuel.

On the headwinds ledger, several economists have noted we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, leveraging our future with even more debt. Not only did we not address the expected increase in debt taking it from $20 trillion to $30 trillion in 2027, the tax law will increase it by $1.5 trillion. The interest cost thereon will take a greater bite out of our budget. But, other headwinds are of concern. Retrenching from global markets and trade agreements replacing them with binary ones, will be dilutive to growth. Not investing as much in science and innovation is a major concern to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics.

This will be heightened if we restrict immigration. What seems to get lost in the argument where some have become too cold-hearted in my view, is immigration is accretive to the US economy. Plus, the people immigrating tend to be more entrepreneurial and better educated, in many cases. These sh**hole countries that someone demeaned are sending us more educated people than reside here in the states, on average.

We should not fail to remember that “innovation is portable” so says David Smick, an economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jack Kemp, one of the smartest Congresspersons who considered a run for President. If we do not provide an inviting place, innovation may be hindered. I should note that Steve Jobs was born to Syrian immigrants to the US. What if they had been denied entry? Apple might not have ever come to fruition.

Finally, not all regulations are bad, so restricting regulations may cause headwinds down the road especially with more freedoms given to pollute the environment and take advantage of customers. This is a developers mindset. Remove obstacles to build, but leave the clean up for others. Unfortunately, we taxpayers are the others. We citizens, that must drink and breathe more polluted waters and air and realize the impact of climate change, are the others. As coal ash deposits have taught us, there is a cost to environmental degradation.

So, we need to be mindful of what we are facing. I have communicated with numerous Congresspersons, Senators and the President, that we are avoiding some elephants in the room – debt, climate change, water crisis and income inequity. In my view as an Independent voter, passing a tax law that increases the debt was extremely poor stewardship, as we cannot cut our way out of this problem. The math won’t work.