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August 10, 2019

Equity First

We humans have a fine nose for fairness, or lack thereof. Even before they learn about fractions in school, children can tell whether or not a pie is equitably divided. So if you're trying to propose a plan that makes things less equitable, you'd better have a convincing story.

Reagan's "A rising tide lifts all boats" was one of those stories. The 1980s rang in an era of rising inequality not seen since the Roaring Twenties.

This is true globally as well: the global version of Reagan's story was that globalisation would lift all boats, including those in developed countries. It did work out that way, but only for selected countries, like South Korea. In general, globalisation has caused the playing field for the accumulators to expand, so that now a handful of people - 26, to be precise - owns literally half the wealth in the world.

What did the rest of the world get out of it?

August 6, 2019

Low-Carbon High Rise Buildings? Bring It!

The skyscraper was the twentieth-century symbol of power and success, forming the highrise jungle of successful cities like New York, and copied in Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and a long list of cities arriving into the fast growing global club of movers and shakers.

Most modern skyscrapers are of the steel-and-glass construction pioneered by the architect Mies van der Rohe. Here's one example: the building that houses the Department of Electronic Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Sciences at the University of Delft.

Its still a handsome building to look at. But its windows, facing east and west, catch the sun very efficiently and turn the place into a giant greenhouse. A very long time ago, as a physics freshman, I used to take an introductory electronics lab on some high floor on afternoons, but nobody ever enjoyed the view as the teaching assistants always kept the shades down and closed as tightly as possible. Even so, I sweated over those labs, and not just because I wasn't all that good at electronics.

As it was a fall course I never did find out how the building did in winter, but since it was constructed before double-pane windows were a thing, my guess is it could get pretty cold on the side that was not in the sun, which was at least half the place.

What I'm getting at is that climate control in this type of building is an energetic nightmare, even in the kind of temperate climate Mies van der Rohe hailed from. I shudder to think of the carbon footprint required to keep highrise livable in places that get cold, like Toronto, or that get super hot, like Dubai.

Yet here is New York, a place that gets both cold winters and hot summers, whose climate action plan calls for its buildings to cut their carbon footprint by 40 percent by 2030, which is only a decade away. On the other side of the continent, Vancouver's glass towers are said to undercut the cities nice climate action plan.

What to do?

August 2, 2019

Holiday Travel in the Age of Climate Change

When I was growing up, come the summer holidays my parents would pile our stuff in the VW van that my dad had converted into a camper, and drive around Europe for four to six weeks. They always took care not to leave on the vacation rush: that weekend when half the Netherlands seemed to start their holidays, and highways to sunnier destinations could be congested for literally hundreds of miles.

In fact, "Black Saturday" is still a thing. It's on today for France, where there is a warning out not to travel unless you really have to, especially on the roads around popular destinations like Bordeaux. There's a total of 800 km (500 miles) of stuck traffic on French highways.

These days, vacation travel is hard for other reasons as well. A few years ago, we had to cancel a trip due to heat: I had been watching the weather forecast at our destination, and each day in the week before our departure the predicted temperature kept rising. The night before we were to get on the train, the forecast called for 38C (100F) temperatures.

Reader, we cancelled the entire trip.

We were lucky that our reservations were refundable (except the first leg of the train, as we made the decision within 24 hours of departure). Since then, we've made sure that our holiday reservations are of the cancellable type, even if doing that costs more.

This summer, that really worked out. Temperatures were coming down after two heatwaves that hit western Europe hard. Things were looking good. But then, a few days before our departure there was an intense, record-breaking heatwave. We took my aunt to cool off at Ikea, and started watching the weather and the travel advisories.

Rail operators started to report trouble on the lines: there were disruptions in the electricity supply or mechanical issues. Thalys, the high-speed operator, was briefly even forced to close ticketing.



This is travel in the era of the climate crisis: you need to monitor whether you can actually make that trip. We cancelled our hotel reservation. We discussed flying, but only briefly. My family knows I'm, putting it mildly, not in favour of short haul flights. Anyway, flights were being disrupted by thunderstorms at our destinations, so that was that.

In the end, on the morning of our departure we made a decision to take a chance, and we did make it without delays and without getting trapped in a hot train car. We made hotel reservations from the train (yay for WiFi on the rails!) Then we had a good time exploring, using the local public transport cards. We haven't had a car vacation in years, and don't miss sitting in the kind of holiday traffic that's out there today.

 

 

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July 12, 2019

Is the Flying Dutchman a Myth?

Of course the flying Dutchman ship is a myth. But I'm talking here about today's average flying Dutch person.

But that word "average" contains a thousand pitfalls: in a recent column, Tim Harford points out that there is no such person who is the "average" person. In talking about populations, the average tells you something, but is far from the complete picture.

The distrbution is the important thing.

One - rather extreme - example is that of the United States, which is said to be one of the richest countries in the world but has plenty of citizens who go to bed hungry.

Meaning, the "average American" is a myth.

So it comes as no surprise that the "average American eater" is also a myth. A recent study has shown that only 20% of Americans are responsible for 46% of American's food-related emissions. This would be the 20% who eat a lot of beef and dairy.


Infographic by Sara Chodosh

July 7, 2019

Why Bicycle Riding Is Good For Democracy

"Which way shall we go?" says CelloDad.

There's no question where we're headed: to the Market Square in Delft, the Netherlands, which hosts the City Hall where we were married all those years ago. But today we were headed to have pancakes at one of Delft's many find establishments.

When we borrowed my dad's car, we would not have sweated the question. I would be at the wheel, and we went however I decided to go, and that was that.

But we're on bike, and that changes everything.

From my dad's place, it takes less time to reach the market square by bike than by car, and you don't have to pay the horrendous parking fees. But it takes negotiation, because there are lots of ways to reach downtown by bike.

May 28, 2019

Dutch Public Transit Strike: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Dutch public transit services went on strike today over a disagreement on the retirement age (which is set to rise to 67 years and then to track the life expentancy).

And this is how you find out just how good the Dutch public transit is: when it gets taken away for a day. A million people (out of a population of 17 million) depend on it to get to work or school. It is used by a broad section of Dutch residents (unlike in the United States where, outside a few coastal cities, trains and buses are occupied mostly by the poor and by hapless foreigners).


Photo by Yintan

As one example: Arriving at Schiphol airport generally involves going through immigration, picking up your luggage, and rolling it straight downstairs to the train tracks: the railway station is an integral part of the airport. On weekdays it's serviced by 25 trains per hour.

It's no wonder that the union action struck fear and panic among the operators at Schiphol. If all their passengers arrived or left by car it would be total chaos. They sued for retention of train service. A judge granted the exception, and today air travelers can expect 4 trains every hour at Schiphol.

May 13, 2019

Fossil Fuel Subsidies Far Higher than Companies' Profit.

This is a bold claim to make, and one that you might expect from radical groups like Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. But it came from that staid, wholly establishment organisation, the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF estimates that in 2017 global fossil fuel subsidies reached a mind-blowing 5.2 trillion dollars, or 6.5 percent of global GDP, up from $4.7tn in 2015.

These costs include not only direct subsidies but also tax breaks that dinimish national budgets, health care costs from fossil fuel related pollution, the cost of traffic congestion, and so on. It's a pretty thorough assessment of all the indrect costs to society.

Worldwide subsidies for coal is about $2tn, subsidies to oil and gas about $2.5tn.


Now here's the truly gobsmacking thing about all this:

March 15, 2019

#SchoolStrike4Climate: Why I've been quietly crying

As is the way with worldwide events, New Zealand and Australia took the lead on the School Strike for Climate. Young people skipped class and took to the streets by the tens of thousands. I watched them from fourteen time zones away.

 


They came out in mountains, by rivers and in cities.

 


They walked in sunshine and steady rain, in grassy fields and by stately cathedrals

March 10, 2019

What do YOU see in the Green New Deal?

Let's start with a related question: how often do you talk about climate change, with your family, your friends, your colleagues, people at your place of worship? On a personal level, the single most important thing you can do about climate change is to talk about it. This has been the long time advice because with climate change, like with AIDS, silence kills.

Generally, we find it hard to talk about climate: it's like talking about cancer. It puts a damper on parties and convivial meals. So we tend to avoid the topic.

Two developments in late 2018 have changed that, completely.

The smaller thing is a poll from the Yale climate change communication group, that shows that for the first time more than half of Americans are worried about climate change: six in ten, to be precise. And nearly a third of Americans are very worried, or "alarmed" as the label goes.

This means that if you approach a total stranger, they are more likely to be worried about climate than not. Exactly how likely you are to find a like-minded person depends on where you live. But the fact remains that there has been a shift in sentiment from "it's a hoax" and "who cares", more toward "yes, I'm worried".

But what has really put climate change on the national discussion table is the emergence of the Green New Deal. Championed by the Sunrise Movement, young people who don't take no for an answer and lobby their elected representatives hard, it has earned the support of the charismatic young representative from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In a way, the American right has fallen into the Trump trap. In the same way that the left, outraged by the lies in the president's tweets, are complicit in keeping those lies circulating, so now the right keep AOC and her progressive ideas in the news by compulsively trying to take down both her and her proposals.

Of course, the entire American punditry on the left is also jumping into the discussion, and suddenly everyone is talking about climate action.

But not everyone gets the Green New Deal right.

March 6, 2019

I'm Back

The biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage, of being an independent blogger is that you call your own time. This means that when life offline demands your attention, the blog goes by the wayside. That is what happened for the past year or two.

Now that I'm back, I'm going to write more about climate solutions, and maybe more outside the box with four wheels on it.

Not that I will stop writing about cars altogether. After all, a new and exciting wave of electric vehicles are just over the horizon, and, now that my kids have learned to drive with a stick, eventually we will need a replacement for that diesel Golf that we are driving now, so I'll be looking into those EVs.


Photo by Hans Weingartz

There will be no more posts on diesel cars. Europe made a pact with the diesel devil: they were going to put up with the particulate matter pollution for their population, in exchange for the very high efficiency that diesel offers, and a way to cut carbon emissions. Well, the diesel devil did what devils usually do when you make a pact with them, and after dieselgate one European country after another is now pledging to phase out the sale of all internal combustion engine cars, and to transition to electric ones. Who am I to buck that trend?

The sun rises on the EV.

 

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December 14, 2018

Mainstream news and the elusive truth

When Jeremy Clarkson appeared on the automotive scene, he was a breath of fresh air. He said it the way it was. He made a name for being the bad boy of car reviewers, and he often had a point. Loads of people read his pieces, because they were funny, and different from the polite (=boring) reviews that were the norm.

But all that happened in a distant past that is as gray as Clarkson's hair is now. As he became more famous, the reviews started to lose their edgy feel. In 2002, Clarkson became the host of a wildly popular tv show, Top Gear. It had sponsors.

And that, really, was the beginning of the end.

Because it's okay for a kick-ass upstart car journo to make snide comments about the car you were reviewing. But if you're too controversial on a large-following show, your sponsors might balk. Worse, they might walk out on you. If you believe this has zero bearing on how a man presents his show, I've got a bridge to sell you.

I mean, it's okay for a CelloMom to compare a Lexus SUV to a pregnant Honda Civic, or to remark that to me, seeing the 2019 Mercedes GLC brings to mind the word "obese", and prompts a mental note to eat less -- but I'm just a lone blogger writing on my own time, sponsored by nobody and answering to none but my own demons.


Photo by Daniel Blume

And this is why we all need to look critically at our news sources. I'm not talking about the fake news of Fox (which is not a news outlet but a propaganda machine). I'm talking about the "mainstream" media, the well-respected shows and dailies, the ones you don't mind name-dropping.

Let me give an example. Because I think and read about climate change a lot, I have learned that social equity is inextricably linked to the issue of climate. So I'm foraying into a rich and diverse world of writings by people who are not "my" people. I'm painfully wrapping my head around economic issues, for instance, a departure from the science articles I'm familiar with. But going beyond that, I'm also reading pieces written by Black people, feminists, indigenous people, socialists, and others who are somehow outside the "mainstream". It's not always comfortable reading, but I think it's essential. For one, I'm discovering - okay, I'm a geek, but DUH - that "mainstream" America is white. It tends to live in large cities, tends to be pretty well off, or anyway well enough. And it is blind to the experience of everyone who is outside its own relatively small demographic.

I've been thinking about that saying attributed to the Cheyenne: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins". That makes sense: "don't judge". But what about writing? After all, we each write from our own perspective, and that perspective is shaped by who we are. Merely interviewing someone will not make you truly understand what they're saying, because there is a rich, deep, and quite invisible set of layers underneath, of personal, family, and social history and meaning, and the words they are saying are built on all that richness. Some things you wouldn't even think of writing about, simply because they are outside your sphere of experience.

So I'm exploring more. While certain news outlets can be relied on to produced solid reliable pieces, and I support more than one with my subscription dollars, I am also looking to follow particular authors, people I find I can learn from in every article. These days, I read Hiroko Tabuchi, John Sutter, Pilita Clark, Noah Smith, Simon Kuper. But also Kate Aronoff, David Graeber, Angie Schmitt, Emily Atkin, David Roberts, Umair Haque, Thea Verkade, Rebecca Solnit. And Caitlin Johnstone, who got me thinking about all this with her article on how mainstream media follows the establishment agenda. I am enlightened by their writing, delighted, angered, surprised – and humbled; certainly I am enriched.

This is a choice that is ours to make. Here is another example: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms like to present you a timeline that is determined by their algorithms to be "most interesting" to you. But I have found that the algorithms invariably give me a narrower and narrower view of the people I follow, and that I end up walking the same deeply grooved paths over and over. Not to mention vulnerable to manipulation. But when I over-ride the algorithm and make my timeline show everyone I follow, the timeline is much more lively, and interesting. Because hey, those people were chosen by me, not by an algorithm written by a team of geeks who are certainly not me.

Try both: let your timeline reflect your true interests. And let your mind be widened by thinkers and writers who are not in the mainstream. It may take you out of your comfort zone. And that is where growth happens.

 

 

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June 9, 2018

Three Ways to Lower Your Car Payment

In the fight about affordable housing, which seems to rage everywhere, it is often forgotten that it's not only the price of the house that needs to be considered, but also everything else that comes with home ownership, like the real estate tax rate, and the heating costs. One large expense post that tends to get overlooked is whether or not you need a car to get to and from your house.

This spring, the average price of a car in the United States reached $34,000, up from about $30,000 only six years ago. And because interest rates are up, the average monthly car payment is now $535. That's before the insurance and the fuel. Who can afford that? Not, in turns out, the typical family.

Those who live where the public transport is good, don't need a car. But if you must have a car (like, to get to the job that pays for the loan of the car that you need to get to the job), there are a few tricks to make it hurt less.

1. Get the smallest car you fit in for everyday use
Be honest with yourself about what you really need: if you're a couple with a toddler, you don't need the minivan or the SUV. For the occasional grandparents' visit, rent a minivan: unless they visit every week, that will be less expensive than owning one (and even cheaper if the grandparents rent one!).

2. Get the smallest engine you can buy for your chosen car
Dealers like to tout the "benefits" of a large engine. Take their sales pitch as just that: a sales pitch. The real benefits are to their bottom line. You don't need 220HP to get yourself around town; that sort of horsepower only feeds into racing car fantasies. A smaller engine costs less at purchase, and less to feed.

3. Good things come to those who wait.
In this case, cheap things. US car dealers like to sell you from the stock they have on their lot. They have already paid for this stock and they want to move it as quickly as possible. This means that you buy whatever they think "most people" will buy. But if you have time to wait, you can really make out.

Here's what you do: You order your car from scratch: the bare car. Then you add only the features you like or need, and no more. Buying a car this way is cheaper because it doesn't come pre-loaded with features like most dealer-lot cars. All those features may be "standard" - but they are not free! You may have to persuade your dealer that they will do this for you. And you do have to wait a few months (depending on how far away your car is manufactured) but then you get the car to your exact specifications: If you want leather seats but not air conditioning, you can have that. This is how most cars are still ordered in Europe.

My current car was delivered with larger wheels. I didn't want larger wheels, which lower the fuel efficiency. I negotiated that they would replace them with regular wheels. They look like donuts. That's fine by me: they're saving me gas money and emissions at every mile. The dealer cut me a check for $1200, the difference in price of the wheels.

Oh, and keep an eye on those electric cars: manufacturers are rolling out new models, and they're getting more affordable.

 

 

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