Piketty about Inequality

Superyacht resembling one owned by a Russian oligarch

As world leaders prepared for COP27 in Egypt, the acclaimed French economist, Thomas Piketty, warned in Le Monde, “It is impossible to seriously fight climate change without profound redistribution of wealth.” He echoed an earlier UN report.

There’s a vicious cycle in which people who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately affected by climate change as they suffer from more inequality. The political headwinds have been going against the socio-ecological left that advocates wealth redistribution. Nationalist governments rise and even Lula’s agenda will be strained by gusts from Brazilian agribusiness interests.

I guess the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of humanity is greater today than ever. Piketty blames the Great Recession of 2008 and Covid for widening the gulf. To give it perspective, imagine if a nation the size of Switzerland (8 million and only 0.1% of total humanity) owned 20% of the world’s wealth (equivalent to a year of global GDP). Narrower differences in prosperity have sometimes sparked violent revolutions in history, so we hope for a peaceful transition to greater social justice.

Climate change impacts everyone, but the wealthiest enjoy outsized shares of the world’s goods and are least affected. They can escape disasters in their superyachts and private airplanes to other penthouse suites or chateaux adorned with rare artworks and rest secure with investments spread wide and hidden. The poor are stuck in situ and migration is getting harder for them.

The top benefits for the poor and middle classes from redistributing wealth are education, health, and housing. Investing in human capital will enable them to benefit from clean energy and climate mitigation and reduce their risks from pollution and dangerous occupations. And as child mortality falls in the poorest countries, the incentive to have large families will wane faster.

Unfortunately, Professor Piketty isn’t attending COP27 although he has probably made these points in his chapter of Greta Thunberg’s new climate book.

Jamestown is drowning

Jamestown Island
Erosion control on Jamestown Island, VA

Historic Jamestown celebrated Archeology Day today with various events and demonstrations to make history seem more authentic. Artifacts discovered on the island in the past 30 years give glimpses of how the first English colonists lived before they moved to higher ground in 1699 to make Middle Plantation their new capital (Williamsburg). Today’s program discussed the people (Native Americans, Whites, Blacks) and their occupations but nothing about the hydrology that dominates and determines who can live there.

I was reminded of the island’s fragility this summer when drawn to the James riverbank by a loud noise. Workmen were loading blocks of granite from a barge to build higher defenses from inundation.

The English colonists arrived at the worst possible time in 1607. A serious drought lasted from around 1606 to 1612, the driest years in eight centuries. The James River was much lower than today without refreshing rain in the watershed. The water at Jamestown was more saline, around 16 ppt compared to a tidal range of 3 to 10 units today (and 35 at the river entrance).  The drought offered a slight compensation by encouraging the spread of oysters further upstream for human harvesting.

Measuring the conductivity of ponds across the island, I found the water remarkably salty everywhere. The low-lying island is probably washed over by occasional hurricanes. That helps to explain why there are fewer amphibians than expected (few species tolerate salt). The environment is getting more hostile from sea-level rise.

If Archeology Day is still held at the end of this century it will be sad. Island visiting will be virtual because the excavated and reconstructed sites, including the original fort, will be underwater by then. Children who came today should keep their photos for their grandchildren to see and sigh.

Appreciation of James Lovelock (1919-2022)

Ozone hole shrinking in the southern hemisphere (NASA, 2021)

Did you ever regret you hadn’t met someone after hearing it was too late? I did today. James Lovelock was one of my scientific heroes. He died on Tuesday at age 103.

I knew people who worked with him at the Medical Research Council in London in the late 1950s. His research on cryopreservation laid foundations for freezing tissues, sperm and human embryos for in vitro fertilization technology. I wrote about this contribution in the biography LET THERE BE LIFE (2019). With hindsight, I am sorry I didn’t reach out for his personal recollections when I interviewed other pioneers for the book. Perhaps I felt too timid to approach a saint.

He didn’t receive universal acclaim for his theories and projections for the global climate. But I admired his courage to be an outsider and able to admit a mistake. Taken as a whole, his works have had immense impacts for science and society.

After prestigious institutions in Britain and the USA, he set up a private laboratory for independent research in a barn close to the county line between Cornwall and Devon. It was a fitting place for a man who began life in a humble home and as a Quaker when careers in British science were hard to pursue without a privileged background for attending university.

He was as much an inventor as a scientist. After pioneering cell freezing in London, he turned to atmospheric research and, then, to environmental science. His electron capture detector became the go-to technology for monitoring atmospheric pollutants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (from refrigerants). CFCs were ‘eating’ the atmospheric ozone layer that shields life from ultra-violet light. Detection of the ozone hole earned Nobel Prizes for two chemists. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 that banned CFCs is a model for global environmental policy.

Lovelock became widely known for the Gaia hypothesis (named after the Greek god for Mother Earth). He regarded the Earth’s atmosphere as a self-regulating whole that maintains homeostasis by feedback between the atmosphere, oceans and life forms, by analogy with physiology. Critics asked how such a state could have evolved through natural selection of countless species (the major forces being phytoplankton, grasses and trees). Nevertheless, the idea is influential and embraced by environmental activists.

Although he declared himself a ‘Green’, he was too much his own man to mind standing outside the mainstream. He ridiculed renewable energy sources now heavily invested by governments and advocated nuclear energy instead. Time will tell which is the better policy, if not already too late for a tipping point in global warming. He persuaded me that the time for sustainable development (i.e., ‘growth’) is past and human society needs to concentrate on resilience and preserving biodiversity.

James Lovelock deserves a seat in the pantheon of environmental guardians.

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