Theatre of the absurd

The title of this post refers to the Climate Change Summit held recently in New York coinciding with the annual session of the UN General Assembly. As a former Minister (Amanda Vanstone) in the Howard (Australian) government wrote, it is even politically incorrect to write against the manufactured outrage. It was theatre. See her piece here.

Of course, agreeing with her comment on the meaning of the protest speech by Greta Thunberg does not mean that one has to agree with her on the relative contributions of nations to carbon emissions.

A timely publication by Deutsche Bank Research puts the global challenge in perspective:

Possibly, the key elements of the climate action package are a fairly accurate reflection of the German public’s attitude towards climate protection. It is illusory to believe that a rapid “grand transformation”, the maximum demand of some climate activists, would be supported by a democratic majority in Germany.

Although 61% of Germans voice concern about climate change, according to a recent survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute, “only” 33% are willing to pay higher energy prices for climate protection. And just 21% are in favour of a CO tax. The respondents either prefer further incentives to stimulate behavioural change over financial burdens, or they are pinning their hopes on technological progress towards climate-friendlier products. Moreover, a majority of Germans (rightly) believe that Germany and Europe by themselves can do little to mitigate climate change. [Emphasis mine]

Source: Germanyʹs climate action package – Foul compromise or a reflection of society? Deutsche Bank Research, 25th September 2019 (

That is right. Everybody thinks that everyone else should pay for mitigating climate change. Also, a vast majority of those who claim to be immensely worried by the havoc that climate change is wreaking and could wreak are unable to make meaningful changes to their lifestyles. That is what Deutsche Bank research says.

This paragraph is even better:

These survey results fit in well with actual human conduct: Private transport continues to rise more or less steadily, the average house size per capita is edging up, demand for electronic consumer goods is increasing across all generations, and consumers are only gradually becoming aware of how much food is actually being wasted. Moreover, fossil fuels still account for 79% of primary energy demand in Germany. The upshot is that the average citizen is not (yet) prepared to drastically reduce every-day consumption, even though more and more Germans claim to have cut down on their consumption in some areas for climate protection reasons.

The climate doomsday train left the station long ago. A chart in ‘The Economist’ published in 2012 showed how much humans have compressed economic activity into a very short time-span. If one is unable to understand the full import of the chart, then, there is no way to understand the time for redemption is long gone. I cannot reproduce the chart here lest I am accused of copyright violation. Here is the URL.

Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1 AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

That is more output than the first nineteen centuries combined.

The 20th century alone produced 55% of all output since Christ (since 1 AD). If we remember that the first half was marked by two world wars, an economic depression and hyperinflation, then bulk of that 55% must have been produced in the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, humanity has produced output in the sixty years to 2010 many times more than the rest of the 1950 years combined.

No wonder that climate, environment and whales are protesting and wish to be restored. It is too late, methinks. Here is one proof:

Forest and land fires burning in Indonesia have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since August, said Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli on Thursday (Sep 26) [Link]

Economic growth amidst sinking cities

A story in Mint on my way to the Mangalore airport from Bekal last Sunday caught my attention. Kerala has borne the brunt of extreme rains last year and this. More importantly, human non-response or even callousness has compounded it. It is one thing not to be prepared for climate change and its fury. It is another thing to put ourselves in a disadvantageous position. See this:

In sharp contrast, in another corner of the state, public protest is preventing the state from tearing down four urban apartment complexes near Ernakulam city, as ordered by the Supreme Court on 6 September. The court found that the flats are built in a no-construction zone, close to ecologically fragile backwaters. It set a deadline of 20 September, but the occupants of these flats, including movie star Soubin Shahir, are fighting the order and garnering public sympathy and support across the political divide. [Link]

On the same day or next, I picked up the story of Bangkok and Jakarta sinking and the plans of the Indonesian President to shift his country’s capital out of Jakarta.

The developing world does not have the luxury of not minding the climate as it minds economic growth and prosperity. As they try to live like the West did – without worrying about the environmental consequences- they are coming up against the fast deteriorating climate caused by the actions of their developed country ‘seniors’. Not fair, one might say.

It is also used as a clever weapon to keep the prosperity gap between the two – Developed and Developing – wide. Stories such as this and this (ht: Arjun, my former student) leave me with mixed feelings. They are too tough on developing countries and it involves a growth penalty on them. This is another one of the ladders being kicked away by the developed world.

Well, climate change (extreme weather, rather) and its consequent impact on the environment are realities.

Developing countries have three tasks: (1) they have to do what needs to be done to save their cities and lives. (2) They have to find the money for it. (3) They have to keep up the moral pressure on the developed world to finance them. But, will it pay off? I doubt. Those guys in the West have lived profligately and do not have money to pay for their own unemployed and the elderly. It is a tough road and, to me, looks like a dead end, at least for now.

See here for a news-report on India’s demand for climate finance pledges made by the developed world to be met. The story also has the link to a discussion paper that India had released prior to the Climate Change summit held this week on Monday.

Exceptions apart, for the most part, the world will bicker over who will finance the battle against climate change induced calamity while it continues to cause havoc. On top of it, humans will continue to focus on short-term prosperity goals and not long-term sustainability.

Monsoon forecasts

The June 2019 Monthly Bulletin of RBI has an article on the accuracy of monsoon forecasts by India’s Meterological Department and Skymet, a private forecaster. The conclusion of the paper is sobering:

There is no significant correlation between the projected rainfall (IMD and Skymet) and actual rainfall in India. While none of the forecasts are close to the actual, the performance of the IMD’s SSLRF is better than FSLRF and Skymet. Both IMD and Skymet have failed to predict drought and excess rainfall in most of the cases. Nevertheless, the SSLRF nailed down the 2015 drought and its probability of predicting near-normal monsoon has been reasonable and higher than FSLRF and Skymet. In contrast, the predictive power of the international agencies, viz., BOM and NOAA in forecasting extreme rainfall (which generally coincides with the El Nino and La Nina conditions) is much better than that of the IMD. The comparative assessment of all forecasts suggests that for generating macroeconomic forecasts, the use of IMD’s SSLRF and the predictions of international agencies like NOAA and BOM in conjunction may be appropriate as the preliminary forecasts of IMD (FSLRF) and Skymet released in April appear to be noisy. [Link]


It is very easy to write about ‘climate change’ and ‘denial’ in the same sentence. But, ‘denial’ is a human reaction to many things. When faced with a difficult situation or adversity, we first respond with denial. So, one of the usual cycles goes like this:

Crisis – anger – denial – acceptance – action – recovery – complacency – crisis.

Another situation in which we first respond with denial is when we come across something decidedly superior to our work and our knowledge, we respond with denial and then try to belittle it. When it fails, then we begin to accept it grudgingly. Perhaps, the ‘grudge’ never goes away.

So, the theme of this blog post is ‘denial’ in different contexts.

Here is a news-story on Miami going under water and how real estate agents are responding to it. The interesting lines that caught my attention are these:

The sea level in Miami has risen ten inches since 1900; in the 2000 years prior, it did not really change.

The second one that caught my attention is this:

This is the neoliberal notion, that the reasonable and mature way to think about this stuff is: Get more efficient and find the right incentives to encourage the right kinds of enterprise. But my friend wondered, what if the mature thing to do is to mourn – and then retreat?

I really liked this second one because it is in line with this blog post of mine, done a few days ago: ‘Problems and Solutions’. Humans do not or cannot have answers for all issues. In many cases, the ‘fix’ is to retreat, admit that we made a mistake and that we cannot fix it. Most of the time, the ‘fix’ is about continuing with our preferred way of living, not wanting to change it and that somehow we could have the cake and eat it too.

Closely related to this theme is the story published in FT is on a study by Blackrock that investors fail to price in the potential impact of climate change on their portfolios. No surprises there. The story has the link to the full study for those interested. [Link]

In the same issue of FT, there is also the story of the Great Barrier Reef slowly disappearing due to the effects of…….. ahem…. climate change. The first sentence of the article is a good-enough summary:

The damage caused to the Great Barrier Reef by global warming is severely compromising the ability of its corals to recover with a near 90 per cent slump in new coral growth last year, a study has found.  [Link]

This is from the story in the ‘New Yorker’ on migration from Gautemala into the United States:

In a sixteen-hundred-page analysis, government scientists described wildfires in California, the collapse of infrastructure in the South, crop shortages in the Midwest, and catastrophic flooding. The President publicly dismissed the findings. “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it,” he said. There was a deeper layer of denial in this, since overlooking these effects meant turning a blind eye to one of the major forces driving migration to the border. [Link]

Another sentence in that long ‘New Yorker’ article on Gautemala, climate change and forced immigration to the United States caught my eye:

When the program started, the names we took down were all men,” Loyda Socop, another staffer at the C.D.R.O., said. “But it turned out that it was mostly women who were behind it. They were the ones who wanted to give this a try.” [Link]

Probably, it is worth studying if men are more prone to ‘denial’ and all the dangers associated with ego and hubris than women and, second, if they are more willing to adapt and change than men.

If at all there is some hope for a resilient response and recovery from the ravages of climate change, does it lie with women than with men?

Not that I think Sapiens have left much room for recovery. I think we may have gone past the doomsday clock with respect to climate change. We may mitigate, we may delay but not deny the impact.

Lastly, an illustration of the other form of ‘Denial’ – intellectual and/or ego-induced denial. My colleague, Raghuraman, pointed the ‘denial’ out to me.

This is a (very) long-form article I read in the early hours of Sunday before going to bed, on the Asteroid strike on the planet some sixty-six million years ago – on the moment the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began. A young Paleontologist (Robert DePalma) may have discovered the ‘record’ of that event in a place called ‘Hell Creek’ (what an apt name?!) in North Dakota.

What comes through, among many other things, in that article is the reluctance of the scientific community that this young man might have discovered what they have not been able to:

All expressed a desire to see the final paper, which will be published next week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so that they could evaluate the data for themselves. [Link]

The article was published on March 29, 2019. The paper must be out by now. Those interested and capable can go through the paper and decide for themselves if the young paleontologist has indeed stumbled upon the most amazing recorded evidence of the asteroid strike on Mother Earth.

For those interested, Robert DePalma is related to Hollywood Director Brian DePalma.

Lastly, I read that young Republicans are forcing their elder counterparts to shed ‘climate change’ scepticism (or, denial):

Mr Gaetz said: “One of the problems Republicans have with climate change is they assume if you accept the science of climate change, then you are [required] to embrace the left solution set.” But he added: “I recognise the obvious science of climate change. I didn’t come to Congress to argue with a thermometer.” [Link]

It is not just the Republicans who are to be blamed for climate change. One should blame even central bankers. Low interest rates and high debt have brought forward economic growth mindless construction – think Miami real estate!) that did not exist and have brought forward climate change. So, solutions have to start from the pursuit of mindless and structurally unsound economic growth. But, it might all be too late.

Well, we are like this only. We need asteroids to start afresh.

Recommended reading – 10th Feb 2019 edition (part 2)

We need positive change to avoid climate hell. Can we? Colour me sceptical.

This is grim stuff:

Total student loan debt rose 161% for people aged 60 and older from 2010 to 2017—the biggest increase for any age group, according to the latest data available from TransUnion.

Between 2010 and 2017 people in their 60s, like most other age groups, accelerated their borrowing in nearly every category, according to the TransUnion data.

Seniors are finding they have to work longer, holding onto positions younger adults might otherwise receive. They’re relying on credit cards and personal loans to pay for basic expenses. People 65 and older account for a growing share of U.S. bankruptcy filers, according to the Consumer Bankruptcy Project; unlike most consumer loans, student debt is rarely dischargeable in bankruptcy. [Link]

The DNA kit can and did unravel families. What will happen if it becomes ubiquitous in India? Absolutely fascinating reading.

A fiction explores the dark side of Sweden. FT has a book review on it.

A friend forwarded this Brookings blog post on ‘joyless growth’ in India, China and in America. I think it is mostly right.

Jason Gay thanks Katelyn Ohashi for her perfect and joyful 10 in the floor gymnastic exercise. She deserves it every bit. Watch the 2 minute video embedded in the article.

Our Final Hour

The subject line is the title of the book by Sir Martin Rees who was also the President of the Royal Society, UK from 2005 to 2010.  I don’t regret spending time on it. With my limited science knowledge and reading, I hadn’t come across scientists who openly admit to the limitations, uncertainties and dangers of their research. Yes, after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombs, there was a push against further nuclear tests and development of bombs. Robert Oppenheimer himself felt a lot of emotions after the bombs were actually dropped and they could see the devastation they caused. The Pugwash Conference happened some fifteen years too late, perhaps. The first conference was held in 1957.

So, it was good to find a scientist who was calling for restraint, for a rigorous evaluation of costs and benefits of science, etc. I found it difficult to concentrate only with the last four to five chapters. Not that they were uninteresting but they did not fit into the overall theme of the first six to seven chapters. At least, that is what I thought.

But, he is going to be 76 soon (end of this week) and I found his overall views on the places of science and religion quite healthy, clear and level-headed. You can read an article here and an interview here. His comment on Stephen Hawking’s comment on God is worth noting:

He is equally scathing about Hawking’s more recent comments about there being no need for God in order to explain creation. “Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic,” he said. [Link]

This is what he had to say about scientific research:

The views of scientists should not have special weight in deciding questions that involve ethics or risks: indeed, such judgements are best left to broader and more dispassionate groups.

Scientific research, and our motives for pursuing it, cannot be separated from the social context in which such research is carried out.

For example, he cites Cass Sunstein here to talk about a ‘networked’ or connected world leads to more polarisation:

In his book , Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago , suggests that the Internet is allowing all of us to “filter” our input , so that each person reads a “Daily Me” customised to individual tastes and ( more insidiously ) purged of material that may challenge prejudices. Rather than sharing experience with those whose attitudes and tastes are different, many will in future “live in echo chambers of their own design” and “need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Sunstein discusses “group polarization,” whereby those who interact only with the likeminded have their prejudices and obsessions reinforced, and shift towards more extreme positions.

Another example: mood-altering drugs:

In Our Post-human Future Francis Fukuyama argues that habitual and universal use of mood – altering medications would narrow and impoverish the range of human character. He cites the use of Prozac to counter depression, and of Ritalin to damp down hyperactivity in high – spirited but otherwise healthy children: these practices are already constricting the range of personality types that are considered normal and acceptable. Fukuyama foresees a further narrowing, when other drugs are developed, that could threaten what he regards as the essence of our humanity.

I found that rather thoughtful of Francis Fukuyama.

However, the caveat:

The difficulty with a dirigiste policy in science is that the epochal advances are unpredictable.

Our (humans’) inability to predict the future is so well captured in this paragraph. In a way, it reminds us that we cannot be sure of what the future holds, when we unleash something:

In 1937, the US National Academy of Sciences organised a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs; its report makes salutary reading for technological forecasters today. It came up with some wise assessments about agriculture, about synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber. But, what is more remarkable is the things it missed. No nuclear energy, no antibiotics (though this was eight years after Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin), no jet aircraft, no rocketry nor any use of space, no computers; certainly no transistors. The committee overlooked the technologies that actually dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Still less could they predict the social and political transformations that occurred during that time.

Bill Joy’s ‘Why the future does not need us’

I must be grateful to Sir Martin Rees for one important reference that I had not come across before. He mentioned about Bill Joy’s article, ‘Why the future does not need us?’ published in the ‘Wired’ magazine in April 2000. I read it this morning and I liked it immensely. The original is here. There are so many quotable quotes from that article. I think, if you had not read it before, you must read it. I am doing a separate post on Bill Joy’s article.

His idea of how the world could support 10 billion people by 2050:

A population as high as ten billion would be fully sustainable if everyone lived in tiny apartments, perhaps like the “capsule hotels” that already exist in Tokyo, subsisting on a rice – based vegetarian diet, electronically networked, travelling little, and finding recreation and fulfilment in virtual reality rather than the consumerism and incessant travel now favoured in the profligate West.

On extinction and its acceleration in the modern era:

Extinctions are, of course, intrinsic to evolution and natural selection: fewer than ten percent of all the species that ever swam, crawled, or flew are still on Earth today.

But human beings are perpetrating a “sixth extinction” on the same scale as earlier episodes. Species are now dying out at one hundred or even one thousand times the normal rate. Before Homo sapiens came on the scene, about one species in a million became extinct each year; the rate is now is closer to one species in a thousand.

There were vineyards in England and it was warmer in Northern Europe! So, climate keeps changing. But, the problem is the speed of change.

On Climate change:

Climatic change has, like extinction of species, characterised Earth throughout its history. But it has, like the extinction rate, been disquietingly speeded up by human actions.

It was warmer in Northern Europe a thousand years ago: there were agricultural settlements in Greenland where animals grazed on land that is now ice – covered; and vineyards flourished in England. But there have been prolonged cold periods too. The warm spell seems to have ended by the fifteenth century, to be succeeded by a “little ice age” that continued until the end of the eighteenth century.

Can we always count on this luck? Phew!

Paul Crutzen, one of the chemists who elucidated how CFCs actually acted in the upper atmosphere , has pointed out that it was a technological accident and quirk of chemistry that the commercial coolant adopted in the 1930s was based on chlorine . Had bromine been used instead, the atmospheric effects would have been more drastic and longer – lasting.

The final words:

In the twenty-first century, humanity is more at risk than ever before from misapplication of science.


I think the odds are no better than fifty – fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.

Italy, Europe, Pakistan and the rest

Been six days since I blogged. Was travelling again on May 30-31. Backlog of blogging builds up. So, this one is a potpourry.

Almost done with reading ‘Final hour’ Sir Martin Rees. Recommend it.

Of course, ‘Adults in the Room’ by Yanis Varoufakis remains the highlight of the year in terms of readings completed. He has a fairly sober piece on Germany (Merkel, in particular) being at the heart of the problems confronting Europe. In his attempt to be politically correct, I think, he has finessed his lines.

Paul Krugman has three tweets on the Italian President denying the Italian election winners the right to form the government by denying them their Finance Minister nominee.

But, Yanis makes this interesting point:

Trump understands one thing well: Germany and the eurozone are at his mercy, owing to their increasing dependence on large net exports to the US and the rest of the world. And this dependence has grown inexorably as a result of the austerity policies that were first tried out in Greece and then implemented in Italy and elsewhere.

Today, I heard Raghuram Rajan in Singapore saying that, one of the reasons behind the austerity policies in the UK was (or, could be) that their banks were too big relative to their economies and that the austerity was an accommodation of the demands of such a big banking sector on the government’s fiscal resources. Same goes for Europe. He was not defending this, however. Rajan was delivering the 9th MAS lecture today in Singapore.

Nonetheless, I am not advancing this either as an explanation or justification for the ‘Troika’ to impose austerity – and that too with utter hypocrisy (I am yet to write a full review of ‘Adults in the Room’) – on Greece. Simply recording something I heard today related to the word, ‘austerity’.

Inter alia, UK Government sold some of its stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland at a hefty loss today.

The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has such a massive conflict of interest with what he is doing at the ‘Evening Standard’ that I do not know where to begin. Read this to figure it out yourself. Equally, I am not surprised that Google took up his offer. They should be embarrassed but will they be?

The implications of this story are staggering and overwhelm me. How is India, for example, going to find employment for its youth with or without formal education? Is technology such a holy grail that it should be pursued, no matter what? That is where I find Sir Martin Rees thoughtful and humane. See the beginning of the post.

Prof. Atif Mian at Princeton has a series of fourteen tweets on development, the vicious poverty trap and how public policy and prejudices make it more vicious. First tweet here.

Australia charges Citi and Deutsche Bank for cartel-like behaviour in their underwriting of ANZ shares a decade ago. The authorities have made a criminal charge and that is serious stuff. Banks will be banks, I suppose.

A damning verdict on American universities by Rana Foroohar. They are now hedge funds, she says. Ed Luce wishes she were not right. He concurs.

A powerful way to understand what we (humans) have wrought to the climate. Found it via the twitter handle of Atif Mian.

Gulzar shared this pithy and perceptive blog post by Tyler Cowen on how Trump’s foreign policy might outlast him in America.

This should tell us why Europe has not earned Trump’s respect.

A good summary of Pakistan’s acute ‘Balance of Payments’ situation.

More later.