Alarms and Excursions

The politics of tempo are picking up.

Stuff is on a busy simmer here at the home office, including a fevered push to finish—though by this point, it honesly feels more like finish off would be the appropriate phrasing—The Snap Forward final manuscript. I’ll send out fearsome howls as events warrant, but for now, I just wanted to note that a bunch of the forces we’ve been talking about have been in the news lately.

Okay, actually, I do have one anouncement, which is that I’ll be giving the closing keynote at the BusinessGreen Net Zero Festival this Thursday, September 30th, followed by an evening address by the legendary science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, on A Climate Plan for a World in Flames. I’m of course stoked to talk about The Snap Forward and how we tackle the planetary crisis in the midst of discontinuity, and KSR has long been a hero of mine. Both talks are free with registration online, I believe.

The illustration above is the latest in Ed Hawkins’ excellent Warming Stripes series. The stripes represent degrees of warming of the Earth, past and future. The darker the band, the warmer the world, and the more powerful the planetary crisis grows. This is a brilliant illustration of how meeting even our most ambitious goals will, at this point, bring on a worsening of the discontinuity around us that’s truly hard to grasp. We’re not yet ready for what’s already happened.

I talk a lot about the loss of predictability that comes from the rapid and unprecedented shifts in the systems around us. Kate Mackenzie (@KMAC) lays out some specifics on how models of financial risk are failing by deciding to ignore that unpredictability. Turns out, deciding things that are difficult or impossible to accurately quantify must not be very important is not the best way to manage risk during a discontinuity.

Predatory delay is pretty much the core mechanism of slow politics. Now, the U.S. House Oversight Committee has widened its inquiry into the deceptive practices the oil and gas industry has used “in spreading disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.” They say:

“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world. …to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.”

The Carbon Bubble exists because we don’t price high-carbon and unsustainable assets at their true value in a world about to be forced into much more rapid decarbonization. National banks, with their ability to regulate a variety of other financial institutions, are seen as one of the main ways of putting pressure on the financial system to reduce its exposure to the risks of the unsustainable. And in most countries, central banks and international finance institutions (95 of them) are working to do just that, in part by pushing for “stress tests” on regulated financial institutions’ portfolios.

Not here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., though. Here, there are still few serious rules to ensure that the Carbon Bubble doesn’t become a replay of the Subprime Crisis. But a coalition of interests is putting pressure on President Biden to appoint a replacement for the Fed’s chairman, Jerome Powell—one who will push “stress-test-and-divest” policies. With Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (the Rhode Island Democrat) saying,

“If Powell still wants to find ‘middle ground’ between the warnings of science and the lies of the fossil fuel industry, he has to go.”

The Brittleness Bubble, too, is finally seeing some sunlight here in the U.S. as well. Federal regulators are moving forward with a long-delayed plan to slash government insurance subsidies and begin charging homeowners in floodplains and on the coasts insurance rates commensurate with the actual risks they face.

“Subsidized insurance has been critical for supporting coastal real estate markets,” said Benjamin Keys, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Removing that subsidy, he said, is likely to affect where Americans build houses and how much people will pay for them.

Speaking of bubbles, it may pay to take a closer look at what’s in your portfolio. I’m no investment advisor, but it may be a very bad time to own the market as a whole:

[T]he sudden bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric Company [is] an example of such a failure. On paper, PG&E might have looked like a good buy for savvy investors. It outperformed other utilities in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) assessments.

But those assessments failed to anticipate the climate risk that forced the company to seek bankruptcy protection this year: increased heat and drought, shifting land-use patterns, lapses in safety measures. PG&E equipment sparked wildfires that killed dozens of Californians, destroyed thousands of structures and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres. The company faces $30 billion in liabilities.

Finally, this is one of the best lines I read this last week, about the challenges of oil-producing nations that want also to demonstrate climate leadership:

"When it comes to climate change, Norway’s like a vegan with a beef farm." —Neal Freyman

Okay, while I was writing this, my neighborhood got hit with a blackout, which somehow seemed very much aligned with the background vibe of slight menace I think we’re all feeling as the torque cranks up behind our society’s walls of denial. The stars came out, candles were lit, smallest human argued for a later bedtime, and then lights came back on. It’s still not too late.

Yours, interruptedly,


PS: Spread the words, folks, if you feel ‘em.

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