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Playing games with the planet

The Economist
A version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” may suggest ways to break through the Kyoto impasse

AT ANY given summit on climate change, it is never long before some politician declares how “urgent” or “vital” or “imperative” it is to stop the planet from overheating. And yet few governments are willing to tackle the problem by themselves. In practice, what these impassioned speakers usually mean is that it is urgent-no, vital!-no, imperative!-for all countries but their own to get to grips with climate change.

That is natural enough. After all, all countries will enjoy the benefits of a stable climate whether they have helped to bring it about or not. So a government that can persuade others to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions without doing so itself gets the best of both worlds: it avoids all the expense and self-denial involved, and yet still escapes catastrophe. The most obvious free-riders of this sort are America and Australia, the only rich countries that refuse to put a limit on their emissions. But they are far from being the only offenders: most poor countries, too, are keen to palm the responsibility for curbing global warming off on rich ones, and to continue to grow and pollute as much as they like.

The problem, of course, is that if everyone is counting on others to act, no one will, and the consequences could be much worse than if everyone had simply done their bit to begin with. Game theorists call a simplified version of this scenario the “prisoner’s dilemma”. In it, two prisoners accused of the same crime find themselves in separate cells, unable to communicate. Their jailers try to persuade them to implicate one another. If neither goes along with the guards, they will both receive a sentence of just one year. If one accepts the deal and the other keeps quiet, then the turncoat goes free while the patsy gets ten years. And if they both denounce one another, they both get five years.

…in a recent paper, Michael Liebreich, of New Energy Finance, a research firm, draws on game theory to reach the opposite conclusion. The dynamics of the prisoner’s dilemma, he points out, change dramatically if participants know that they will be playing the game more than once. In that case, they have an incentive to co-operate, in order to avoid being punished for their misconduct by their opponent in subsequent rounds.
(27 September 2007)

In this age of diamond saucepans, only a recession makes sense

George Monbiot, The Guardian
Economic growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest as it drives inequality. It is time we gave it up

If you are of a sensitive disposition, I advise you to turn the page now. I am about to break the last of the universal taboos. I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises. I recognise that recession causes hardship. Like everyone I am aware that it would cause some people to lose their jobs and homes. I do not dismiss these impacts or the harm they inflict, though I would argue that they are the avoidable results of an economy designed to maximise growth rather than welfare. What I would like you to recognise is something much less discussed: that, beyond a certain point, hardship is also caused by economic growth.

On Sunday I visited the only biosphere reserve in Wales: the Dyfi estuary. As is usual at weekends, several hundred people had come to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity and, as is usual, two or three people on jet skis were spoiling it for everyone else. Most economists will tell us that human welfare is best served by multiplying the number of jet skis. If there are two in the estuary today, there should be four there by this time next year and eight the year after. Because the estuary’s beauty and tranquillity don’t figure in the national accounts (no one pays to watch the sunset) and because the sale and use of jet skis does, this is deemed an improvement in human welfare.

This is a minor illustration of an issue that can no longer be dismissed as trivial. In August the World Health Organisation released the preliminary results of its research into the links between noise and stress. Its work so far suggests that long-term exposure to noise from traffic alone could be responsible, around the world, for hundreds of thousands of deaths through ischaemic heart disease every year, as well as contributing to strokes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, broken sleep and other stress-related illnesses. Noise, researchers found, raises your levels of stress hormones even while you sleep. As a study of children living close to airports in Germany suggests, it also damages long-term memory, reading and speech perception. All over the world, complaints about noise are rising: to an alien observer it would appear that the primary purpose of economic growth is to find ever more intrusive means of burning fossil fuels.

This leads us to the most obvious way in which further growth will hurt us. Climate change does not lead only to a decline in welfare: beyond a certain point it causes its termination. In other words, it threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people. However hard governments might work to reduce carbon emissions, they are battling the tide of economic growth. While the rate of growth in the use of energy declines as an economy matures, no country has yet managed to reduce energy use while raising gross domestic product.
(9 October 2007)

We Are In A Bad Fix

Mathew Maavak, Panoptic World
This is a planet in denial. While the existential question gets a red hot “apocalypse now” for an answer, our stock markets seem to have regained paradise lost.

We are witnessing nothing less than history’s first confluence of unsustainable “peaks.”

…If an all-out war in the Middle East is our worst nightmare, think of the following unfolding crises…

The Peak Crises and its plural

Peak Oil …
Peak Urbanization: …
Peak Grain: …
Peak Fish: …
(9 October 2007)
Also at Counter Currents.

Is this what the world’s coming to?

Amanda Leigh Haag, Nature Reports: Climate Change
With climate change placing increasing pressure on environmental resources, it is now being viewed as a threat to national security.

History is littered with lessons from once-budding civilizations that crashed from their peak of prosperity. From the Anasazi of the southwestern United States to the Mayans of Mesoamerica1 and the ancient dynasties of eastern China2, environmental change has sounded the death knell throughout time for once-thriving civilizations already stressed by factors including high population growth, overexploitation of resources and excessive reliance on external trade. In many cases, severe drought or extreme cold has been enough to push societies to the brink of civil unrest, mass migration and warfare.
Is this what the world’s coming to?

But it’s not necessary to look that far back into history to see how environmental change can result in conflict and the breakdown of society. In a study published in a special issue of the journal Political Geography[3], titled Climate Change-induced Migration and Violent Conflict, Rafael Reuveny, a political scientist at Indiana University, found that, of 38 cases of migration directly attributable to climate change during the twentieth century, half led to conflict, some of which were violent. And existing conflicts, such as that in Darfur4, are already being worsened by the impacts of global warming.
(October 2007)
Long article. The October issue of “Nature Reports: Climate Change” appears to be online and publicly available – in welcome contrast to many scientific journals. The site says more content will be added weekly over the next month. -BA