Saturday, May 30, 2009

Human Impact Report: Climate Change-The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis

On May 29 the Global Humanitarian Forum introduced a new report , "Human Impact Report: Climate Change-the Anatomy of a Silent Crisis" (available here in its entirety), highlighting not just the dangers climate change poses in the future, but the damage that is already happening as a result of this already rather advanced process. As the executive summary (which you can read here) notes, the study's findings are that
every year climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of US$125 billion. 4 billion people are vulnerable, and 500 million people are at extreme risk.
Furthermore,
These already alarming figures may prove too conservative. Weather-related disasters alone cause significant economic losses. Over the past five years this toll has gone as high as $230 billion, with several years around a $100 billion and single year around $50 billion. Such disasters have increased in frequency and severity over the past 30 years in part due to climate change. Over and above these cost are impacts on health, water supply and other shocks not taken into account. Some would say that the worst years are not representative and they may not be. But scientists expect that years like these will be repeated more often in the near future.
Additionally, the situation may significantly worsen within a matter of decades.
Within the next 20 years, one in ten of the world’s present population could be directly and seriously affected.
Already today, hundreds of thousands of lives are lost every year due to climate change. This will rise to roughly half a million in 20 years.
This report-not at all unprecedented in its presentation of this data, reports on the subject having long noted effects in the world today-is a reminder that this is not some hypothetical future issue, but very much a problem in the here and now, and not a small or distant one, as the late Michael Crichton (whose reasoning on the issue was identical to that of a tobacco company exec arguing that medical science hasn't "proved" a link between smoking and cancer) and Bjorn Lomborg (that darling of D.C. think tanks) try to make it out to be in their dubious analyses-which, alas, reached a far larger audience than this report is ever likely to. Hoperfully, however, they will prove less influential when we look back at the big picture.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Incredible, Shrinking GDP

Last week I offered a round-up of the economic news from around the world.

Today the news is buzzing with the latest numbers from the U.S..

This morning's news release from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that U.S. GDP fell at a 5.7 percent annualized rate during the first quarter of 2009.

A common refrain in the commentary is that this is not as bad as feared (indeed, the story at the Christian Science Monitor is headlined "U.S. Recession Eased in First Quarter"), since the fourth-quarter 2008 numbers showed a slightly sharper 6.3 percent rate of contraction, and preliminary estimates for Q12009 were in the 6.1 percent range. Additionally, as the coverage in Forbes notes, there is some hope among economists surveyed by Dow Jones newswires that the data will be revised downward further to a 5.5 percent rate of shrinkage.

Of course, the word that the news is slightly less bad than the awful picture earlier predicted leaves the news still awful-indeed, the second-biggest one-quarter drop in GDP in twenty-seven years (the first being in the previous quarter, of course) since the brutal recession of the early 1980s (itself, the deepest since the Great Depression in many ways). Additionally, it marks three consecutive quarters of shrinkage in U.S. GDP, a first since 1975, as the BBC noted in its report.

And it is worth examining the numbers more closely.

In the words of the Washington Post's blunt assessment, the data
continued to show a near-collapse in business investment, with spending on equipment and software falling at a 33.5 percent annual rate, and investment in structures falling at a 42.3 percent rate. Those numbers continue, even after the revision, to support the idea that businesses are aggressively trimming their sales, unwilling to take any risk.
Moreover, "Gross private domestic investment continued to be a major factor in Q1 GDP decline, plummeting 49.3%, the largest decline since 1975" according to Forbes.com. (Incidentally, it is this which has pushed up corporate profits, by about $42.6 billion, though by only a sixth of the $250 billion drop in Q42008. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Year-over-year, profits were down 22 percent.")

Indeed, the BEA release notes "larger decreases in private inventory investment and in nonresidential structures" compared with the previous quarter.

It is also worth noting that one reason that the GDP numbers were "not as bad" as feared is a slight uptick in consumer spending (consumer durables-goods expected to last over three years-playing an important role), and the fact that imports (a subtraction in GDP) fell more rapidly than anticipated. (The unrevised number is 34.1 percent, "the largest decline since 1975.") The export numbers were a little better than anticipated, but at an updated rate of 28.7 percent, still showed their "largest decline since 1971."

Sharply reduced investment, nervous and tight-fisted managers, and the weakening of exports even below their "normal" trade deficit-inducing levels are all particularly bad signs (particularly from an employment standpoint), though plenty of analysts are betting on the leanness of inventories (and on government stimulus, not just in the U.S., but elsewhere, and perhaps China in particular) to produce a better second quarter 2009 (better in the sense of a smaller drop, at a rate of maybe just two percent of GDP per year) and a turnaround in the second half of the year.

If so, then the U.S. would be an exception to the general pattern, given the grim prognosis for Europe (EU officials expecting contraction to continue not just through 2009, but 2010 as well), and the severity of the situation in Japan (where the UN's relatively optimistic World Economic Situation and Prospects 2009 anticipates stagnation "at best" for the coming year).

At the very least, it should not be assumed that things can only get better.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New From Scientific American ("The Nuclear Renaissance")

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in nuclear energy due to rising oil prices, fears of fossil fuel scarcity and the interest in atomic power as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This has extended to a flurry of applications, orders and announcements all around the world, both in the developed countries of North America, Western Europe and East Asia, and the developing world (particularly China and India, but also dozens of countries in regions where there has been very little use of nuclear energy to date, like the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America).

This new article from Scientific American, which reports on an update this year of a 2003 study undertaken at MIT (which had focused on nuclear power as a way of alleviating climate change), holds that the "renaissance" has to date seen little of practical consequence (e.g., completed, operational reactors) outside of Asia (again, concentrated mainly in China, India, Russia and Korea). In the U.S. and Western Europe, plans to get new plants online have been severely behind scheduled and overbudget.

In addition to noting this state of affairs, the study's update discusses an important factor in this-namely, that the per-kilowatt price of nuclear power having seen sharp rises in recent years, and presently estimated to be nearly twice that of coal- and five times that of natural gas-supplied power ($4,000 vs. $2,300 and $850, respectively), and acknowledges that many of the thorny issues raised by nuclear power have not been resolved (or even seen significant progress), particularly the waste management issue and the risk of proliferation (so that the study's authors are no more given to recommending fuel reprocessing than they were six years ago).

The Scientific American article also quotes (and misspells the name of) University of Greenwich professor Stephen Thomas, who included in his recent comments to reporters the argument that the slowness of the U.S. to move on nuclear power may actually represent an opportunity-to make more practical progress on the problems of energy scarcity and environmental policy with investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy production.

In my article on "The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation" in the Winter 2008-09 issue of Parameters (which considered a much larger expansion of nuclear power than is considered in the MIT study, and focused on the relation of such a development both to fossil fuel scarcity and nuclear proliferation), I made a similar recommendation, arguing for the international promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy as preferable to the looming global rush on nuclear power.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Items of Interest (New From Gyre.org, Dwayne Day on Space Colonies, Charles Stross on American Trains)

Gyre.org has identified plenty of interest in recent days, including a piece from Scientific American on the rush on the world's seabed (recently highlighted by Russia's claiming of the North Pole, though this is far from the only instance); work on instilling "ethics" in robots; the ecological impact of space debris (extending to ozone depletion); an article discussing a recent GAO report on the prospect-and implications-of GPS service deterioration; and the capabilities of next-gen telescopes with regard to the spotting of "biosignatures" (like atmospheric water vapor) on exoplanets.

Additionally, Dwayne Day has produced another excellent article on the space colony concept as it was once presented, and their fading from the popular consciousness, in "The God That Failed" (a topic I've touched on in pieces like "Revisiting Island One", where I considered the finances and logistics of trying to realize Gerard K. O'Neill's plans with the space shuttle as we know it); while science fiction writer Charles Stross recently weighed in on his own blog on the subject of his own recent experience riding American rail, and how it stacks up against service in Europe and Japan (a topic timely again with new attention being drawn to American infrastructural deficiencies, and Keynesian policies which may help to correct them).

Update on the Global Economic Situation

In part due to the concern over swine flu (and in the U.S., optimism about the housing sector which strikes me as rather exaggerated), the global economic outlook remains pretty lousy, most of the major players logging scary drops in GDP during the first quarter of the year. Forbes recently presented us with a round-up of developments worldwide, but here's

* The Washington Post on Japan, where the 14.4 percent "annualized" decline in GDP over October to December was followed by a 15.2 percent drop in the first three months of this year, though the observers quoted believe the situation is bottoming out.

* RTTNews and Xinhuanet on trouble in the Eurozone, where all the major economies are still contracting, not as badly as is the case in export-driven Japan, but apparently harder hit than the U.S., their GDPs ending up about 4.6 percent smaller in the first quarter of 2009 than they were in the same quarter in 2008. And there is also some prognostication about the prospects for Europe as a whole from the New Europe newsweekly, positing more shrinkage this year and contraction all the way through 2010 before recovery begins, and also

* Fistful of Euros' briefing on Russia, where the first quarter had the country's GDP 23 percent smaller than a year before, not only because of fallen oil prices, but a very sharp drop in industrial output, and while some are claiming mixed signals, the Russian government is speculating about the possibility of an 8 percent contraction over the year as a whole.

Are we through the worst, with things likely to go back on track (such as it was) later this year, or the next, or at worst the year after that? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not, and this piece from FinFacts on the state of the Irish economy (booming, and until recently, widely held up as a model for others) caught my eye. According to the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, Ireland is looking at a full-blown depression (by virtue of a shrinkage of its GDP by 10 percent), with an employment picture that may not quite return to pre-crisis levels until 2021. (Read the Executive Summary of the report here.)

Interestingly, much of what Ireland supposedly did right (here termed "the one-dimensional economy") seems to be part of what is going so wrong (a point the report's summary notes on page 22), and it is worth noting that a few years ago Finfacts reported on a a study by the International Integration Institute at Dublin's Trinity College in 2006 which discussed the country's vulnerability in the event of a downturn in the high-tech or financial services sectors.

These disproportionate impacts, the questions they raise, and the bleaker possibilities they point to ought not to be overlooked.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Items of Interest (Stross on the Future, Ocean Mining, Reading Round-Up)

Recently of interest: Accelerando author Charles Stross's extrapolation of the future of computer technology (with a focus on gaming) from what he terms a "laughable conservative" set of assumptions in a keynote address at the 2009 LOGIN conference in Seattle (the text of which is available on his site); a recent piece in The Economist on the state of ocean mining, another of those ideas that seemed likely to go much further back in the 1970s (indeed, such expectations played a role in the development of international maritime law in that period); and the latest Reading Radar Weekly Round-Up from the folks over at The New Security Beat.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The New (Spring 2009) Issue of Parameters

The Spring 2009 issue of Parameters is now available. The contents include two-article sections on the issue of proportionality in war, and Afghanistan, a well-balanced article by W. Andrew Terrill on "Deterrence in the Israeli-Iranian Strategic Standoff," and a piece by Roger N. McDermott on "Russia's Conventional Armed Forces and the Georgian War."

I read McDermott's article with particular interest given my own recent examination of the idea of a "resurgent" Russia in The Space Review. McDermott's article does not devote very much to the Russian military's personnel problems, but its examination of other issues is thorough and compelling.

In his assessment of that country's armed forces during the five-day conflict, McDermott mentions improvements in mobility and command and staff arrangements (as compared with Russian conduct in the 1990s), but as one might expect, most of the post-Soviet military's glaring weaknesses have not been corrected, least of all widespread unreadiness and the burden of operating with obsolete equipment. This is especially the case in the area of communications and electronic warfare, Russia's weaknesses in which were especially evident in the failure to suppress Georgian air defenses (which notably cost Russia a Backfire bomber), use satellite data in artillery targeting, and most surprisingly, to employ precision-guided munitions. (Russia's failure to successfully employ its GLONASS satellite system seemed particularly striking to me given the prioritization of that system by the Russian government, which has extended to relatively heavy supplementary spending to maintain the system's extent and operability. Part of the explanation apparently lies in a shortage of GLONASS receivers inside the Russian armed forces, which according to data McDermott cites, had it trying-and failing, because of the "blanking out" of Georgia on the system-to use American GPS.)

It is also evident in the age of many of the major weapons systems used (the Russian army, apparently, relying heavily on 1960s-era T-62s and BMP-1s).

On the whole, McDermott judges the conflict to be Russia's last 20th century war, fought with legacy Soviet systems and legacy Soviet practices; and the actualities of the conflict belied the idea of Russia resurging as a military power (conveyed by, among other things, recent high-profile military exercises and the renewal of long-range bomber patrols). He also discusses the idea that the conflict has been used to sell reform internally (a contentious issue), and notes (accurately, I think) that given Russian economic realities (which I analyzed in part two of my Space Review article) and political ones (reform will mean a sharp reduction in the officer corps, among other contentious details), successful reform is anything but assured.

There is also a lengthy review essay by Larry M. Wortzel on recent writing on North Korea, and a number of worthwhile book reviews, including Andrew Bacevich on Richard Haass's War of Necessity, War of Choice (admittedly, containing few surprises for anyone familiar with either of them), Jeffrey Record on Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, and Stephen J. Blank on Colin S. Gray's War, Peace and International Relations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Recently on The New Security Beat

The New Security Beat (a blog run by the Environmental Change and Security Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) is currently running an interesting article on what it terms "The Race for the World's Farmland." (In particular, the trend is investment from capital-rich food-importing countries in underdeveloped ones, and while Africa is seeing particularly large-scale investment of this kind, parts of southern Asia, and the former Soviet Union, are also seeing such moves-which certainly have their dark side, explored in the piece.)

And of course, the latest "Reading Radar" weekly round-up contains plenty of interest.

On Shane Fitzgerald's Wikipedia Stunt

If you haven't already heard the story, you can find it here.

Basically, what Mr. Fitzgerald's stunt (planting information in a Wikipedia article that was not only false, but named no sources) boils down to is yet another demonstration of the appalling laziness of far too much of what is sometimes grandiosely referred to as "the fourth estate."

While I certainly do not wish to denigrate Wikipedia unnecessarily-I think the project certainly has its attractions, and its uses-it is also a reminder of certain, likely inextricable weaknesses it has as a source of information. (I consult it from time to time, as a casual source of general information-but I always take anything I see in it with a grain of salt. And I certainly check for attribution on anything that strikes me as the least bit questionable, or important.)

Additionally, it has been suggested that the culprit may be the time-pressure journalists operate under as much as anything else-time-pressure which is far from conducive to checking one's facts. Nonetheless, it is also a reminder of something I mentioned on The Space Show the other day: the mindless readiness of far too many to use anything they find on the Internet, their inability or unwillingness to evaluate the quality and reliability of the information they get.

(And in case you are wondering, yes, Fitzgerald is now the subject of his own Wikipedia page, accessible here.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Space Show Appearance

As scheduled, I appeared on The Space Show on May 8. During my talk with the host and callers, we discussed my Space Review article "'Space Cadet' Politics" (March 16, 2009). We also happened to touch on the space solar power issue I mentioned here on this blog a few days ago.

You can listen to that show here.

The Real Unemployment Rate

Once again the picture has worsened, the unemployment rate rising from 8.5 percent in March to 8.9 percent of the work force in April according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consequently, despite small dips in the numbers of marginally attached workers and involuntary part-timers, the figure provided by this fuller measure of unemployment has risen from 15.6 to 15.8 percent of the work force in the same time frame (and a full percentage point higher than in February this year, just two months earlier).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Space-Based Solar Power

The renewed interest in energy policy to which the oil price spike of 2003-2008 contributed so much has yet to vanish entirely-and this extends partially to space-based solar power. Indeed, The Space Review has run two articles on the subject in as many weeks-the first (April 27, 2009) by John Marburry, and the second (May 4, 2009) by Mike Snead (who also wrote an earlier piece relevant to the subject back in 2007, and posts regularly about the topic on his blog, Spacefaring America).

Are these just blips on the radar screen, or are we looking at a turning point for this concept? I'd like to think so-since there's no denying the abundance of energy which can be collected this way-but the logsitics remain problematic, given the costs of access, complicating the establishment of a really robust infrastructure large-scale energy production would demand.

In other words, I just don't see how they are going to be able to make this work.

Nonetheless, last month Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to buy 200 MW of electricity from the start-up Solaren-estimated to be enough to power a quarter of a million homes-from 2016 on. The details seem very sketchy, but whatever happens next, this will be something to watch.

Upcoming Space Show Appearance
5/1/09

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