Risk and reward

Depressing fact: apparently, one third of global banks still offer multi-year guaranteed bonuses to new hires. It is fantastically absurd that they are still able to convince shareholders that such payments are justified by the need to acquire ‘top talent.’

One cannot escape the feeling that banks and bankers have come out of the credit crunch having successfully bilked taxpayers out of billions of dollars, while avoiding reforms that would make future crises more rare or less severe.

Donate art for Haiti

Ottawa Centre Member of Parliament Paul Dewar is collecting art, which will be sold to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Local artists who want to donate something should get in touch with his office (Dewarp1@parl.gc.ca). All donations must be confirmed by February 5th. Only one work per person will be accepted.

The art will be sold on Tuesday, February 9th at the Cube Gallery, on 7 Hamilton Street. It will be on display as of 11:00am, with a sale starting at 6:00pm and an auction at 8:00pm. Some light snacks will apparently be provided.

I will be donating one of the remaining prints from my Raw Sugar photo exhibition.

[Update: 10:43am] An error was corrected in the post above. The date listed is now correct.

[Update: 2:23pm] Readers in Toronto may be interested in attending the Haitian relief fundraiser my friend Tristan is organizing. It is on Saturday, February 6th at 8:00pm. $10 will get you a buffet vegan dinner and the chance to hear music from Tyler Shipley and several other musical acts.

LIDAR for wind turbines

This is a neat idea: wind turbines that use LIDAR (akin to RADAR, using light) to anticipate the strength of wind, and prepare for it in advance:

Dr Mikkelsen and his colleagues worked out that they could use lidar to scan incoming wind and determine how it was behaving before it struck the turbine. To try this idea out, they first placed lidar devices at the base of 120-metre-tall wind turbines at Hovsore, the Danish test site for such devices. The lidars scanned the approaching winds with a laser that produced infra-red light with a wavelength of 1.55 microns. Reflected light was detected by a device so sensitive that it could pick up one returning photon (the quantum-mechanical particles of which light is composed) out of every thousand billion fired by the laser. The device measured wind movement at 40, 60, 80, and 100 metres above the ground, and 100-200 metres in front of the turbine. The data it collected were then compared with wind measurements taken by cup anemometers (the sort that spin when struck by wind, to record its speed) in order to calibrate the lidar. That done, the computer which analyses the lidar data can be connected to the motors that adjust the pitch of the turbine blades, in order to maximise energy production and reduce damage.

Such technologies could help deal with minute-to-minute changes in wind speed, improving the reliability of wind farm output.

Four instruments, to understand aerosols

One of the enduring uncertainties about climate change is the importance of aerosols. Their chemistry and effect on the climate is complex. Some of them reflect sunlight immediately back into space, having a net cooling effect on the planet; others (like black carbon have a warming effect. Some aerosols interact with one another, and with other chemicals in the atmosphere, in ways that affect the climate. All of this ought to be better understood, if we want to understand how human activities (and natural phenomena) are affecting the climate, and so that we can prioritize on what sorts of emissions to reduce.

I was surprised to learn, from James Hansen’s recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren, that we have known since the 1970s what sort of instruments would be necessary to understand how aerosols affect the climate system, including whether their net effect is a warming or a cooling one. We need:

  1. A polarimeter, measuring the polarization of sunlight reflected off of aerosols
  2. An interferometer, measuring the infrared radiation being emitted by the Earth
  3. An instrument to measure the sun’s irradiance
  4. An instrument to measure aerosols and gases in the highest layers of Earth’s atmosphere, by observing the sun shining through them at sunlight and sunset.

The first two would have to be on the same small satellite. The other two would be on small satellites of their own. Together, these would allow us to determine the total forcing effect of aerosols on the climate.

The fact that we apparently aren’t rushing to get these devices built and launched has to be considered a massive failure of intelligence, far beyond the WMD-tomfoolery that preceded the Iraq war. These four instruments could be producing key data to let us understand our climate, at a time when we are running a dangerous global experiment on how it responds to our pollution.

Getting this data must become an international priority.

Overreacting to fears of terrorism

Writing for Salon.com, pilot Patrick Smith makes some excellent points about the breathless paranoia we now display about terrorism:

What has become of us? Are we really in such a confused and panicked state that a person haplessly walking through the wrong door can disrupt air travel nationwide, resulting in mass evacuations and long delays? “The terrorists have won” is one of those waggish catch-alls that normally annoy me, but all too often it seems that way. Our reactionary, self-defeating behavior has put much at stake — our time, our tax dollars and our liberties.

In fact, over the five-year span between 1985 and 1989 we can count at least six high-profile terrorist attacks against commercial planes or airports. In addition to those above were the horrific bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772, the bombing of an Air India 747 over the North Atlantic that killed 329 people, and the saga of TWA Flight 847.

Here in this proclaimed new “age of terrorism,” we act as if the clock began ticking on Sept. 11, 2001. In truth we’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades. Not only in the 1980s, but throughout the ’60s and ’70s as well. Acts of piracy and sabotage are far fewer today.

Imagine the Karachi attack happening tomorrow. Imagine TWA 847 happening tomorrow. Imagine six successful terror attacks against commercial aviation in a five-year span. The airline industry would be paralyzed, the populace frozen in abject fear. It would be a catastrophe of epic proportion — of wall-to-wall coverage and, dare I suggest, the summary surrender of important civil liberties.

What is it about us, as a nation, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?

The message is similar to that of the excellent essay “Milksop Nation,” which won an Economist essay contest in 2002. Namely, that we do a poor job individually of assessing risks. We obsess over rare risks in which malicious actors want to do us harm, and we downplay common risks that are enormously more likely to injure or kill us. Worse, our political systems amplify our fears to the point of absurdity.

One thing we certainly need are people with the clear-sightedness and bravery to point out that we are fearful about the wrong things, and that we have real, pressing problems that we ought to be concentrating on instead.

Fight censorship, join TOR

Google’s decision to challenge the Chinese government on their censorship policy is a bold one. It remains to be seen whether it will end up doing more harm or good. In the mean time, there is at least one thing that ordinary computer users can do in order to fight censorship around the world: set up a TOR relay. TOR is a project that allows for anonymous internet browsing through a system called onion routing. It is maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

By setting up a relay, you allow people whose internet access is censored by their governments to access sites that would otherwise be blocked; you also facilitate important democratic processes, such as the actions of whistleblowers. The process of installation is relatively simple, and you can easily cap how much of your bandwidth is given over to the TOR network. By sharing a bit of your bandwidth, you could be helping out human rights activists in China or Myanmar, or just helping some ordinary computer user circumvent annoying restrictions imposed from above. Systems like TOR help the internet to retain some of its vast potential, even in the face of fearful governments that want to control it or shut it down.

One thing to watch out for is that acting as a webserver may be forbidden by your internet service provider (ISP). I checked with mine (TekSavvy), and they have no objections to customers running any kind of webserver, provided they stay within their bandwidth limits.

People interested in this sort of thing may also want to learn about Project Honeypot – a distributed mechanism for fighting spammers.

LORAN being shut down

The ground-based LORAN network has been aiding navigation since WWII. Now, it is being shut down to save money, based on the thinking that the GPS system has made it obsolete. I had direct experience with the Pacific LORAN array and its coordinate system during the LIFEboat Flotillas. Most of the LORAN stations will go offline on February 8th, with the rest shutting down in the fall.

It is probably fair enough to say that LORAN is antiquated and redundant, though GPS is not without problems. It may eventually get a backup, if the EU finishes building their Galileo navigation satellite system by 2013, as planned.

Both LORAN and GPS function on the same basic principle: that if you know where certain radio transmitters are, and how far you are from each, you can sort out where you are located. GPS has the virtue of being global and increasingly ubiquitous, as more and more devices become capable of locating themselves using the system.

My fantasy climate change policy

Even once you have reached agreement that there must be a cost associated with dumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there are countless ways in which you can choose to do so. Many different instruments could be combined in many different ways.

Some argue that the simplest policy that corrects for the market failure is the best. I think there are multiple interlinked market failures, which require multiple policies to correct them.

If I had the power to dictate a climate policy for a developed state, it would look something like this:

1) Ban coal

Coal has no place in our energy future, given the terrible climatic effects that would result from burning the world’s massive reserves of the stuff. As such, no new coal-fired facilities should be allowed. Existing facilities should be subjected to the same carbon pricing mechanism as the rest of the economy, with no refunds, exemptions, or special treatment.

If someone wants to build a coal-fired facility that captures and stores its greenhouse gas emissions, they can be free to do so, provided:

  1. The firm pays the full cost for the equipment;
  2. They demonstrate that the technology is safe and environmentally effective;
  3. They continue to pay the market price for any greenhouse gas emissions not captured.

In practical terms, the demand for subsidies may be impossible to resist. At the very least, they should be directed towards research and demonstration projects, not towards commercial ventures.

2) Set a hard cap

This could be done in either of two ways. You could calculate the quantity of emissions likely to be produced by burning a unit of any particular fuel, then cap how much can be extracted or imported. Alternatively, you could require permits for the emission of greenhouse gases and only sell a set number.

Some intermediate system could also be possible: with fuels capped upstream and certain emission-generating activities capped at the point of emission (such as cement production). The important thing is that the cap should include all activities that occur within a country, and which lead to greenhouse gas emissions. This would also include things like land use changes, as well as the emissions embedded in imports. The latter should be addressed with a carbon tariff applied at the border. This could be waived in the case of imports from states that have robust carbon pricing systems of their own.

To get the level for the cap, you would start by choosing an overall temperature target (such as keeping the increase to less than 2°C), then work out a fair way to distribute the global cap that generates between nations. Some kind of contraction and convergence approach would likely be the most fair, with emissions in rich states falling soonest and fastest, but with everyone eventually reaching carbon neutrality.

3) Auction all permits

The revenue from the production/import/emission permits should be used in several ways. Firstly, some should be recycled back to taxpayers. In the event that refunds are granted for children, the level of the benefit should be capped at two per family, as an incentive to constrain population growth in emissions-intensive societies.

Some of the income should be used for basic research into low-carbon technologies, including renewable forms of energy, air capture of greenhouse gases, etc. Some could also be used for feed-in tariffs, to encourage the deployment of zero-carbon forms of energy.

4) Establish rising floor prices for transportation fuels

Fossil fuels were never going to last forever, and volatility in their prices leads to inefficiency and other problems.

As such, the government should set minimum prices for transportation fuels including diesel and gasoline. These should rise predictably over time. In the event that market prices are above the minimum, market prices would prevail. If those fall below the mandated minimum, the government would collect the difference.

The funds that accumulated would go into a fund from which payments would be made to all citizens, without ever drawing down the principle. That way, future generations will benefit from the bounty of fossil fuels, even if they live long after we’ve stopped using them.

5) Coordinate with other policies

Even all together, these approaches might not be sufficient to drive society aggressively in the direction of carbon neutrality. They could be supplemented with additional policies, as the effect of those already enacted becomes clearer. Also, the rate at which the overall cap is tightened could be increased or decreased, as necessitated by improved understanding of climate science or economics. Other policies and incentive schemes may well be necessary to ensure that the costs of complying with the declining cap do not become excessive. These would include support for research and international cooperation on zero-carbon energy projects.

Other existing policies that promote high emissions should be scrapped, such as subsidies to fossil fuel producers or emissions-intensive industries. Climate change must also be taken into account when making policy in areas like urban and transportation planning.

It would also be appropriate to participate in international efforts in areas like climate change adaptation and preventing deforestation.

India’s booming airlines

There are few elements of global climate change policy trickier than the relationship between climate change and development. Developing states insist that they have a right to get rich as fast as they can, with no particular heed paid to their greenhouse gas emissions. The figures for air travel in India show one small part of this:

According to the Airports Authority of India, the total number of domestic and international passengers was 10.7 million in October 2009, up 23% on the same month a year earlier.

Aircraft movements climbed by almost 59% in the same period.

And yet, if billions of people in the developing world follow a high-carbon path to development, the eventual emergence of catastrophic climate change is all but assured.

The future of human prosperity depends fundamentally on a stable climate. Achieving that end will require the recognition in developing states that they cannot pursue a high-carbon form of development indefinitely. To do so would be to grant a bit more wealth to those working now, while undermining the basis of prosperity for all future generations. At the same time, developed states need to show that it is politically and economically possible to have a society with rapidly falling emissions.

Pro-photography protest in London

Yesterday’s pro-photography protest in London was rather encouraging. Amateur and professional photographers came together to protest the restrictions and harassment of photographers that has developed in response to concerns about terrorism. The protest follows a European Court of Human Rights ruling that police don’t have the right to indiscriminately search people, just because they are taking photos. The “I’m a photographer, not a terrorist” campaign has objected specifically to police using Section 44 of the UK’s Terrorism Act to harass photographers. High-profile recent incidents include “7 armed police detaining an award winning architectural photographer in the City of London, the arrest of a press photographer covering campaigning santas at City Airport and the stop and search of a BBC photographer at St Paul’s Cathedral and many others.”

In addition to creating art and a historical record, photography has an important role to play in keeping security entities accountable for their actions. As I have said before, photography is an important mechanism for maintaining oversight over the police and private security forces. Restrictions on photograpy allow for power to be used with less oversight, probably leading to more incidents of abuse and fewer cases in which abusers are punished. Indeed, it has been shown repeatedly that only photo or video evidence is sufficient to produce convictions for police brutality. In short, restricting photography makes us less safe.

Both casual photographers and those with a more substantial connection to the practice should be aware of their rights as photographers, and be willing to stand up when people try to bully them out of taking pictures. The British campaign has produced a pocket sized card outlining what rights individuals have when stopped by a police officer. I have been meaning to print off and laminate a card with the relevant sections of Canadian law, for use next time someone insists that taking photos in public spaces is forbidden.