US Environmental Policy (Part 2)

12 November, 2020

On his first day in office, President-elect Biden plans to have the US rejoin the Paris climate accord. He has also pledged to sign ten executive orders on his first day in office:

• Requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.

• Using the Federal government procurement system—which spends $500 billion every year—to drive towards 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.

• Ensuring that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation.

• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation—the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution—by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles.

• Doubling down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.

• Saving consumers money and reduce emissions through new, aggressive appliance- and building-efficiency standards.

• Committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

• Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.

• Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

• Protecting America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.

According to article in today’s Washington Post:

In a sign of how Biden has already elevated the issue, he discussed the topic with every European head of state with whom he spoke on Tuesday, including the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Biden has started frequently referring to the climate “crisis,” suggesting a heightened level of urgency.

A team of former Obama administration officials and experts have created a 300-page blueprint laying out a holistic approach to the climate while avoiding some of the pitfalls that hampered President Barack Obama, who shared some of the same goals but was unable to enact all of them. Dubbed the Climate 21 Project, it took a year and a half to develop and was delivered recently to Biden’s transition team. The document outlines how the incoming administration could restructure aspects of the government to move faster on global warming.

For more, see:

Climate 21 Project.


US Environmental Policy (Part 1)

8 November, 2020

This blog does not allow discussion of partisan politics. But I can still list some ways in which US environmental policy will change if Biden becomes president.

First and foremost, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

Besides leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump administration did many other things that didn’t require approval from Congress:

• Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis, The Trump administration is reversing nearly 100 environmental rules. Here’s the full list, New York Times, 15 October 2020.

Here’s the list. Biden can reverse or halt all these actions without approval from Congress:

Air pollution – completed:

  1. Weakened Obama-era fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks.
    E.P.A. and Transportation Department
  2. Revoked California’s ability to set stricter tailpipe emissions standards than the federal government.
    E.P.A.
  3. Withdrew the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that limited mercury emissions from coal power plants.
    E.P.A.
  4. Replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, with a new version that would let states set their own rules.
    Executive Order; E.P.A.
  5. Canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions.
    E.P.A.
  6. Revised and partially repealed an Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions on public lands, including intentional venting and flaring from drilling operations. A federal court struck down the revision in July 2020, calling the Trump administration’s reasoning “wholly inadequate” and mandating enforcement of the original rule. However, the Obama-era rule was later partially struck down in a separate court case, during which the Trump administration declined to defend it.
    Interior Department
  7. Withdrew a Clinton-era rule designed to limit toxic emissions from major industrial polluters, and later proposed codifying the looser standards.
    E.P.A.
  8. Revised a program designed to safeguard communities from increases in pollution from new power plants to make it easier for facilities to avoid emissions regulations.
    E.P.A.
  9. Amended rules that govern how refineries monitor pollution in surrounding communities.
    E.P.A.
  10. Weakened an Obama-era rule meant to reduce air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas.
    E.P.A.
  11. Weakened oversight of some state plans for reducing air pollution in national parks.
    E.P.A.
  12. Relaxed air pollution regulations for a handful of plants that burn waste coal for electricity.
    E.P.A.
  13. Repealed rules meant to reduce leaking and venting of powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons from large refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
    E.P.A.
  14. Directed agencies to stop using an Obama-era calculation of the social cost of carbon, which rulemakers used to estimate the long-term economic benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
    Executive Order
  15. Withdrew guidance directing federal agencies to include greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews. But several district courts have ruled that emissions must be included in such reviews.
    Executive Order; Council on Environmental Quality
  16. Revoked an Obama executive order that set a goal of cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 10 years.
    Executive Order
  17. Repealed a requirement that state and regional authorities track tailpipe emissions from vehicles on federal highways.
    Transportation Department
  18. Lifted a summertime ban on the use of E15, a gasoline blend made of 15 percent ethanol. (Burning gasoline with a higher concentration of ethanol in hot conditions increases smog.)
    E.P.A.
  19. Changed rules to allow states and the E.P.A. to take longer to develop and approve plans aimed at cutting methane emissions from existing landfills.
    E.P.A.
  20. Withdrew a proposed rule aimed at reducing pollutants, including air pollution, at sewage treatment plants.
    E.P.A.
  21. Relaxed some Obama-era requirements for companies to monitor and repair leaks at oil and gas facilities, including exempting certain low-production wells – a significant source of methane emissions – from the requirements altogether. (Other leak regulations were eliminated.)
    E.P.A.

Air pollution – in progress:

  1. Eliminated Obama-era methane emissions standards for oil and gas facilities and narrowed standards limiting the release of other polluting chemicals known as “volatile organic compounds” to only certain facilities. A federal court temporarily halted the rollback from going into effect after environmental groups and several states filed suit.
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed revisions to standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new, modified and reconstructed coal power plants, eliminating Obama-era restrictions that, in effect, required them to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions.
    E.P.A.
  3. Began a review of emissions rules for power plant start-ups, shutdowns and malfunctions. One outcome of that review: In February 2020, E.P.A. reversed a requirement that Texas follow emissions rules during certain malfunction events.
    E.P.A.
  4. Proposed a rule limiting the ability of individuals and communities to challenge E.P.A.-issued pollution permits before a panel of agency judges.
    E.P.A.

Drilling and extraction – completed:

  1. Made significant cuts to the borders of two national monuments in Utah and recommended border and resource-management changes to several more.
    Presidential Proclamation; Interior Department
  2. Lifted an Obama-era freeze on new coal leases on public lands. In April 2019, a judge ruled that the Interior Department could not begin selling new leases without completing an environmental review. In February 2020, the agency published an assessment that concluded restarting federal coal leasing would have little environmental impact.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  3. Finalized a plan to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development, a move that overturns six decades of protections for the largest remaining stretch of wilderness in the United States.
    Congress; Interior Department
  4. Approved construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. (The Obama administration had halted the project, with the Army Corps of Engineers saying it would explore alternative routes.) The pipeline is embroiled in a lengthy legal battle, but has been allowed to continue operating by the Army Corps of Engineers even though a federal court reversed the Corps’ decision to allow the pipeline to run along its current path.
    Executive Order; Army
  5. Rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands.
    Interior Department
  6. Scrapped a proposed rule that required mines to prove they could pay to clean up future pollution.
    E.P.A.
  7. Withdrew a requirement that Gulf oil rig owners prove they can cover the costs of removing rigs once they stop producing.
    Interior Department
  8. Moved the permitting process for certain projects that cross international borders, such as oil pipelines, to the office of the president from the State Department, exempting them from environmental review.
    Executive Order
  9. Changed how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers the indirect effects of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews of pipelines.
    Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  10. Revoked an Obama-era executive order designed to preserve ocean, coastal and Great Lakes waters in favor of a policy focused on energy production and economic growth.
    Executive Order
  11. Loosened offshore drilling safety regulations implemented by the Obama after following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, including reduced testing requirements for blowout prevention systems.
    Interior Department

Drilling and extraction – in progress

  1. Proposed opening most of America’s coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, but delayed the plan after a federal judge in 2019 ruled that reversing a ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans was unlawful. Ahead of the 2020 election, Mr. Trump announced he would exempt from drilling coastal areas around Florida, a crucial battleground state, Georgia and South Carolina.
    Interior Department
  2. Repealed an Obama-era rule governing royalties for oil, gas and coal leases on federal lands, which replaced a 1980s rule that critics said allowed companies to underpay the federal government. A federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s repeal, but another court froze the original rule pending litigation.
    Interior Department
  3. Proposed easing the approval process for oil and gas drilling in national forests by curbing the power of the Forest Service to review and approve leases, among other changes.
    Agriculture Department; Interior Department
  4. Withdrew proposed restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska, despite concerns over environmental impacts on salmon habitat, including a prominent fishery. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has so far denied a permit for a proposed project, known as the Pebble Mine, noting it “could have substantial environmental impacts,” but left the door open for a revised plan.
    E.P.A.; Army
  5. Proposed revising regulations on offshore oil and gas exploration by floating vessels in the Arctic that were developed after a 2013 accident. The Interior Department previously said it was “considering full rescission or revision of this rule.”
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  6. Proposed opening more land for drilling in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a vast swath of public land on the Arctic Ocean. The Obama administration had designated about half of the reserve as a conservation area.
    Interior Department
  7. Finalized a plan to allow logging and road construction in Tongass National Forest, Alaska, by exempting the area from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which applied to much of the national forest system.
    Interior Department
  8. Approved the Keystone XL pipeline rejected by President Barack Obama, but a federal judge blocked the project from going forward without an adequate environmental review process. The Supreme Court in July 2020 upheld that ruling, further delaying construction of the pipeline.
    Executive Order; State Department
  9. Approved the use of seismic air guns for gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration had denied permits for such surveys, which can kill marine life and disrupt fisheries. However, the Trump administration’s permits to allow seismic surveys expired following a protracted lawsuit, ending the possibility of seismic air gun surveys in the Atlantic in the near term. Companies would need to restart the months-long permitting process.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Infrastructure – completed:

  1. Weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country’s most significant environmental laws, in order to expedite the approval of public infrastructure projects, such as roads, pipelines and telecommunications networks. The new rules shorten the time frame for completing environmental studies, limit the types of projects subject to review, and no longer require federal agencies to account for a project’s cumulative effects on the environment, such as climate change.
    Council on Environmental Quality
  2. Revoked Obama-era flood standards for federal infrastructure projects that required the government to account for sea level rise and other climate change effects.
    Executive Order
  3. Relaxed the environmental review process for federal infrastructure projects.
    Executive Order
  4. Overturned an Obama-era guidance that ended U.S. government financing for new coal plants overseas except in rare circumstances.
    Executive Order; Treasury Department
  5. Revoked a directive for federal agencies to minimize impacts on water, wildlife, land and other natural resources when approving development projects.
    Executive Order
  6. Revoked an Obama executive order promoting climate resilience in the northern Bering Sea region of Alaska, which withdrew local waters from oil and gas leasing and established a tribal advisory council to consult on local environmental issues.
    Executive Order
  7. Reversed an update to the Bureau of Land Management’s public land-use planning process.
    Congress
  8. Withdrew an Obama-era order to consider climate change in the management of natural resources in national parks.
    National Park Service
  9. Restricted most Interior Department environmental studies to one year in length and a maximum of 150 pages, citing a need to reduce paperwork.
    Interior Department
  10. Withdrew a number of Obama-era Interior Department climate change and conservation policies that the agency said could “burden the development or utilization of domestically produced energy resources.”
    Interior Department
  11. Eliminated the use of an Obama-era planning system designed to minimize harm from oil and gas activity on sensitive landscapes, such as national parks.
    Interior Department
  12. Withdrew Obama-era policies designed to maintain or, ideally, improve natural resources affected by federal projects.
    Interior Department

Infrastructure – in progress:

  1. Proposed plans to speed up the environmental review process for Forest Service projects.
    Agriculture Department

Animals – completed:

  1. Changed the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it more difficult to protect wildlife from long-term threats posed by climate change.
    Interior Department; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  2. Ended the automatic application of full protections for ‘threatened’ plants and animals, the classification one step below ‘endangered’ in the Endangered Species Act.
    Interior Department
  3. Relaxed environmental protections for salmon and smelt in California’s Central Valley in order to free up water for farmers.
    Executive Order; Interior Department
  4. Overturned a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands.
    Interior Department
  5. Overturned a ban on the hunting of predators in Alaskan wildlife refuges.
    Congress
  6. Reversed an Obama-era rule that barred using bait, such as grease-soaked doughnuts, to lure and kill grizzly bears, among other sport hunting practices that many people consider extreme, on some public lands in Alaska.
    National Park Service; Interior Department
  7. Amended fishing regulations to loosen restrictions on the harvest of a number of species.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  8. Removed restrictions on commercial fishing in a protected marine preserve southeast of Cape Cod that is home to rare corals and a number of endangered sea animals. The Trump administration has suggested changing the management or size of two other marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean.
    Executive Order; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  9. Proposed revising limits on the number of endangered marine mammals and sea turtles that can be unintentionally killed or injured with sword-fishing nets on the West Coast. (The Obama-era rules were initially withdrawn by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but were later finalized following a court order. The agency has said it plans to revise the limits.)
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  10. Loosened fishing restrictions intended to reduce bycatch of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Nonprofits have filed a lawsuit challenging the rollback.
    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  11. Overturned a ban on using parts of migratory birds in handicrafts made by Alaskan Natives.
    Interior Department

Animals – in progress:

  1. Proposed weakening critical habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to exclude certain areas, including for public-works projects, such as schools and hospitals, and for public lands leased to non-government businesses.
    Interior Department
  2. Opened nine million acres of Western land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled bird. The Idaho District Court temporarily blocked the measure. The Montana District Court also invalidated the directive, nullifying 440 oil and gas leases, but the ruling is on hold pending appeal.
    Interior Department

Water pollution – completed:

  1. Scaled back pollution protections for certain tributaries and wetlands that were regulated under the Clean Water Act by the Obama administration. (A federal judge in Colorado halted implementation of the rule within the state, but it is in effect elsewhere.)
    E.P.A.; Army
  2. Revoked a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping mining debris into local streams.
    Congress
  3. Weakened a rule that aimed to limit toxic discharge from power plants into public waterways.
    E.P.A.
  4. Weakened a portion of the Clean Water Act to make it easier for federal agencies to issue permits for federal projects over state objections if the projects don’t meet local water quality standards, including for pipelines and other fossil fuel facilities.
    Executive Order; E.P.A. holding areas, which can spill their contents because they lack a protective underlay.
    E.P.A.
  5. Withdrew a proposed rule requiring groundwater protections for certain uranium mines. Recently, the administration’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group proposed opening up 1,500 acres outside the Grand Canyon to nuclear production.
    E.P.A.

Water pollution – in progress:

  1. Proposed doubling the time allowed for utilities to remove lead pipes from water systems with high levels of lead.
    E.P.A.
  2. Attempted to weaken federal rules regulating the disposal and storage of coal ash waste from power plants, but a court determined the original rules were already insufficient to protect the environment. The E.P.A. then proposed a new rule that would allow unlined coal ash ponds, previously deemed unsafe, to continue operating.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed a regulation limiting the scope of an Obama-era rule under which companies had to prove that large deposits of recycled coal ash would not harm the environment.
    E.P.A.

Toxic substances and safety – completed:

  1. Rejected a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to developmental disabilities in children. In 2020, the E.P.A. also rejected its own earlier finding that the pesticide can cause serious health problems. (Several states have banned use of the pesticide and its main manufacturer said it would stop producing the product because of shrinking demand.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Narrowed the scope of a 2016 law mandating safety assessments for potentially toxic chemicals like dry-cleaning solvents. The updated rules allowed the E.P.A. to exclude some chemical uses and types of exposure in the review process. In November 2019, a court of appeals ruled the agency must widen its scope to consider full exposure risks, but watchdog groups say the agency has not done so in some assessments.
    E.P.A.
  3. Reversed an Obama-era rule that required braking system upgrades for “high hazard” trains hauling flammable liquids like oil and ethanol.
    Transportation Department
  4. Changed safety rules to allow for rail transport of highly flammable liquefied natural gas.
    Transportation Department

Toxic substances and safety – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting pesticide application buffer zones that are intended to protect farmworkers and bystanders from accidental exposure.
    E.P.A.
  2. Announced a review of an Obama-era rule lowering coal dust limits in mines. The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said there were no immediate plans to change the dust limit but has extended a public comment period until 2022.
    Labor Department

Other – completed:

  1. Repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have nearly doubled the number of light bulbs subject to energy-efficiency standards starting in January 2020. The Energy Department also blocked the next phase of efficiency standards for general-purpose bulbs already subject to regulation.
    Energy Department
  2. Changed a 25-year-old policy to allow coastal replenishment projects to use sand from protected ecosystems.
    Interior Department
  3. Limited funding of environmental and community development projects through corporate settlements of federal lawsuits.
    Justice Department
  4. Stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program to help poorer countries reduce carbon emissions.
    Executive Order
  5. Reversed restrictions on the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks desgined to cut down on litter, despite a Park Service report that the effort worked.
    Interior Department

Other – in progress:

  1. Proposed limiting the studies used by the E.P.A. for rulemaking to only those that make data publicly available. (Scientists widely criticized the proposal, saying it would effectively block the agency from considering landmark research that relies on confidential health data.)
    E.P.A.
  2. Proposed changes to the way cost-benefit analyses are conducted under the Clean Air Act. Similar rules for the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes are in development.
    E.P.A.
  3. Proposed freezing efficiency standards for residential furnaces and commercial water heaters designed to reduce energy use.
    Energy Department
  4. Created a product category that would allow some dishwashers to be exempt from energy efficiency standards.
    Energy Department
  5. Initially withdrew, and then delayed, a proposed rule that would inform car owners about fuel-efficient replacement tires.
    Transportation Department

The SPARC Fusion Reactor

21 October, 2020

There’s a lot of excitement about a new approach to fusion power:

• Henry Fountain, Compact nuclear fusion reactor is ‘very likely to work,’ studies suggest, The New York Times, 29 September 2020.

Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called SPARC, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

But fusion has been twenty years off since the 1950s. What’s the evidence that Sparc will work? I guess most of the evidence is here—a series of seven papers, which luckily are available open-access:

Status of the SPARC physics basics, Journal of Plasma Physics 86 (2020).

I have not read these! And even if I did, since I’m not an expert on fusion reactors—obviously a tricky subject—I’m not sure how much my impression would help.

Do you know any commentary on SPARC from other experts on fusion reactors? The more detailed, the better. All I’ve seen so far are very sketchy remarks from people who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.


Markov Decision Processes

6 October, 2020

The National Institute of Mathematical and Biological Sciences is having an online seminar on ‘adaptive management’. It should be fun for people who want to understand Markov decision processes—like me!

NIMBioS Adaptive Management Webinar Series, 2020 October 26-29 (Monday-Thursday).

Adaptive management seeks to determine sound management strategies in the face of uncertainty concerning the behavior of the system being managed. Specifically, it attempts to find strategies for managing dynamic systems while learning the behavior of the system. These webinars review the key concept of a Markov Decision Process (MDP) and demonstrate how quantitative adaptive management strategies can be developed using MDPs. Additional conceptual, computational and application aspects will be discussed, including dynamic programming and Bayesian formalization of learning.

Here are the topics:

Session 1: Introduction to decision problems
Session 2: Introduction to Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 3: Solving Markov decision processes (MDPs)
Session 4: Modeling beliefs
Session 5: Conjugacy and discrete model adaptive management (AM)
Session 6: More on AM problems (Dirichlet/multinomial and Gaussian prior/likelihood)
Session 7: Partially observable Markov decision processes (POMDPs)
Session 8: Frontier topics (projection methods, approximate DP, communicating solutions)

 


Compositional Game Theory and Climate Microeconomics

5 October, 2020

guest post by Jules Hedges

Hi all

This is a post I’ve been putting off for a long time until I was sure I was ready. I am the “lead developer” of a thing called compositional game theory (CGT). It’s an approach to game theory based on category theory, but we are now at the point where you don’t need to know that anymore: it’s an approach to game theory that has certain specific benefits over the traditional approach.

I would like to start a conversation about “using my powers for good”. I am hoping particularly that it is possible to model microeconomic aspects of climate science. This seems to be a very small field and I’m not really hopeful that anyone on Azimuth will have the right background, but it’s worth a shot. The kind of thing I’m imagining (possibly completely wrongly) is to create models that will suggest when a technically-feasible solution is not socially feasible. Social dilemmas and tragedies of the commons are at the heart of the climate crisis, and modelling instances of them is in scope.

I have a software tool (https://github.com/jules-hedges/open-games-hs) that is designed to be an assistant for game-theoretic modelling. This I can’t emphasise enough: A human with expertise in game-theoretic modelling is the most important thing, CGT is merely an assistant. (Right now the tool also probably can’t be used without me being in the loop, but that’s not an inherent thing.)

To give an idea what sort of things CGT can do, my 2 current ongoing research collaborations are: (1) a social science project modelling examples of institution governance, and (2) a cryptoeconomics project modelling an attack against a protocol using bribes. On a technical level the best fit is for Bayesian games, which are finite-horizon, have common knowledge priors, and private knowledge with agents who do Bayesian updating.

A lot of the (believed) practical benefits of CGT come from the fact that the model is code (in a high level language designed specifically for expressing games) and thus the model can be structured according to existing wisdom for structuring code. Really stress-testing this claim is an ongoing research project. My tool does equilibrium-checking for all games (the technical term is “model checker”), and we’ve had some success doing other things by looping an equilibrium check over a parameter space. It makes no attempt to be an equilibrium solver, that is left for the human.

This is not me trying to push my pet project (I do that elsewhere) but me trying to find a niche where I can do some genuine good, even if small. If you are a microeconomist (or a social scientist who uses applied game theory) and share the goals of Azimuth, I would like to hear from you, even if it’s just for some discussion.


Electric Cars

24 September, 2020

Some good news! According to this article, we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheaper to own an electric car than one that burns fossil fuels.

• Jack Ewing, The age of electric cars is dawning ahead of schedule, New York Times, September 20, 2020.

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

However, the article also points out that this tipping point is of the overall lifetime cost of the vehicle! The sticker price of electric cars will still be higher for a while. And there aren’t nearly enough charging stations!

My next car will be electric. But first I’m installing solar power for my house. I’m working on it now.


The Best Work on Sustainability?

7 April, 2020

Some people want to give a $1,000,000 prize for a “discovery of high scientific value that has significant repercussions in the field of environmental sustainability in order to improve the quality of life, in harmony with the production system and the transition to new development models.”

So, they’re looking for people and organizations who have done the very best recent work in these area:

• energy transition towards renewable sources

• sustainable mobility

• clean energy and renewable resources

• energy efficiency

• clean technologies for the exploitation of fossil fuels

• sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources

• eco-friendly management of materials during their entire life cycle

• reduction of CO2 emissions

• innovative systems for the exploitation of solar energy

• discovery and development of new materials for the production

• storage and distribution of clean energy

What are your suggestions?


How to Solve Climate Change

28 December, 2019

Happy New Year!

This podcast of an interview with Saul Griffith is a great way to start your year:

• Ezra Klein, How to solve climate change and make life more awesome.

Skip straight down to the bottom and listen to the interview! Or right click on the link below and

download the .mp3.

I usually prefer reading stuff, but this is only available in audio form—and it’s worth it.

One important thing he says:

We have not had anyone stand up and espouse a vision of the future that could sound like success.

I think it’s time to start doing that. I think I’m finally figuring out how. But this interview with Saul Griffith does it already!




Climate Technology Primer (Part 2)

13 October, 2019

Here’s the second of a series of blog articles:

• Adam Marblestone, Climate technology primer (2/3): CO2 removal.

The first covered the basics of climate science as related to global warming. This one moves on to consider technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the air.

I hope you keep the following warning in mind as you read on:

I’m focused here on trying to understand the narrowly technical aspects, not on the political aspects, despite those being crucial. This is meant to be a review of the technical literature, not a political statement. I worried that writing a blog purely on the topic of technological intervention in the climate, without attempting or claiming to do justice to the social issues raised, would implicitly suggest that I advocate a narrowly technocratic or unilateral approach, which is not my intention. By focusing on technology, I don’t mean to detract from the importance of the social and policy aspects.

The technological issues are worth studying on their own, since they constrain what’s possible. For example: to draw down as much CO2 as human civilization is emitting now, with trees their peak growth phase and their carbon stored permanently, could be done by covering the whole USA with such trees.


Rethinking Universities

22 September, 2019

Izabella Łaba is a mathematician at the University of British Columbia. She works on harmonic analysis, geometric measure theory and additive combinatorics. But this talk is on a different topic:

• Izabella Łaba, Rethinking universities in an era of climate change.

You should read her slides, but she’s given me permission to quote them extensively here. She starts by saying:

This talk came from my frustration with how universities are
responding to climate emergency.

• Corporate-style “sustainability”: VPs, associate deans, senior
administrative positions, fancy webpages, sustainability
rankings.

• Money (millions of $): raising money, spending money,
massive construction projects.

• Feel-good (cheap) projects: plastic straws, bike to work
competitions, etc.

• Climate strike, Sept. 20 and 27. UBC did not cancel classes.
Nor does it plan (as of now) to divest from fossil fuels.

Here is what she wants to argue:

• We need to rethink sustainability, especially at universities.
Maybe we need less activity, not more. Less construction
noise, less fundraising, more room for quiet study and
reflection.

• Stop measuring sustainability by the amount of money being
spent on it. That makes no sense.

• It’s not enough for us, individually, to try to reduce our own
activities that damage the environment. We have to stop requiring others to engage in such activities. That includes indirect pressure through professional and institutional norms.

• Change will be forced on us. We will have to adapt, one way
or another. It’s up to us whether we make the transition humane and how much of human knowledge we manage to preserve.

• The more humane and (relatively) more optimistic scenarios require social justice. We need to listen to local activists. We need to listen to those who have experience living with scarcity and uncertainty. We need redistribution, badly. We need more equality, less competition, more cooperation.

I will focus on one part of her argument, one that resonates with me very strongly. Administrators tend to think quite narrowly about the future of academia. They usually want their universities to do more of what they’re already doing—and to accomplish this, they try to get ahold of more money, hire more people, and get everyone to work harder.

Łaba’s talk is much bolder, but also more realistic: she points out the need for universities to do some things differently, and also do some things less.

She critiques the administrators’ approach, which she aptly calls the “corporate” approach:

• Decisions are often made by people who don’t actually teach or do research. Private consultations with donors, no transparency, faculty and students informed after the fact.

• No regard for actual academic activity. I’ve often felt like construction, landscaping, etc. were treated as top priorities, and my teaching/research were just getting in the way of that.

• Do we still want to have a university? So many sustainability projects involve reducing space and resources available to us on campus. Should we just close campus altogether, except to developers, and have students watch some YouTube videos instead? Would that be “sustainable”?

She points out how the corporate approach puts faculty on a forever speeding treadmill:

Our workloads keep increasing. Faculty often report 50-60 hour work weeks:

• Course loads and/or class sizes.

• Additional administrative duties. (Digitization was supposed
to reduce the bureaucracy. Instead, it has increased it.) Not
only imposed by senior admins. We do it to each other.

• New: long lists of things we are expected to do to support student well-being. It’s additional work, but surely we care about our students, don’t we?

• Oh, and also, could we please ride our bikes to work? Because environment.

It does not work that way.

Tired and overworked people do not have the capacity to accept additional challenges. They will drive to work, order takeout food for lunch/dinner even if it comes in Styrofoam containers, forget their reusable bags, throw garbage in compost bins by mistake, generally waste resources that otherwise could be saved.

Employers/cities can’t just tell us to get on our bikes. They need to understand the reasons why we need cars, and then address that.

She calls us to the scary but also inspiring task of radically rethinking universities:

We will have to slow down and think hard about what is important to us. What do we want to create? What do we want to save and preserve for future generations?

We will probably continue to teach and do math research. Both education and creativity are basic human needs. Look to WW2 in Poland: underground classes were held even when penalties included death and concentration camps. Mathematicians did math in horrifying conditions, if only to distract themselves. We won’t give up on it easily.

But we do need to think about which parts of our jobs are less
important and could be discarded.

• We spend so much time on gatekeeping. Refereeing, proposal evaluations, ranking decisions, writing and reading recommendation letters, deciding whether this paper is just good enough for Journal X but not for Y. What if we didn’t have to do that? We only have limited time available; how much of that time do we want to spend on refereeing?

• Gatekeeping would be less intense if the stakes were not as high. We can’t continue with the Hunger Games model where only a handful of decent jobs are available and everyone else is an adjunct with no job security.

• Hi NSF! Smaller grants distributed to more researchers would
be a great model to adopt.

• A Green New Deal in math would have to mean redistribution of work. Lower the workloads by splitting them up between more people. Creates new jobs, not in construction but in education. I’d accept that, even if it meant lower pay for me.

• Allow for specialization and division of work. Tenured faculty
already do their research, supervise grad students, teach large classes, teach small classes, write grant proposals, hustle for funding. Also asked to learn innovative teaching methods, serve as health counsellors/therapists when needed, engage in public outreach, etc. These are all good things to do, but can one person really do it all? In the limited time we have? And still ride a bike to work?

• But make that division equitable.

And, she points out the importance of dissemination and preservation of knowledge, not mere “production” of knowledge—especially in a time of crisis:

• Do we still have time to read other people’s papers? 30-40 years ago, people would rediscover previously known results because research dissemination was less effective. (No internet, limited access to professional journals, publishing delays.) Now, this happens because young mathematicians are under so much pressure to produce new results that they have no time left for reading. Also because some papers are very
diffcult to decipher, even for experts.

• Knowledge can and does get lost, especially during major upheavals. We need to spend less time “producing” new papers making incremental progress, and pay more attention to consolidation, exposition and preservation of the knowledge we already have.

I’ve quoted so much you may think you’ve read her whole talk here, but you haven’t. Read her slides (she also plans to write a longer version). And if you work at a university, or know people who do, please spread the word.

Some last words:

Universities, as non-profit organizations dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, should be leading the way. We should experiment and model the change for others.

We need more quiet study, reflection and contemplation. We need to learn to make do with less.