Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Little More on Climate and the Food Supply

A recent post discussed the effect of climate change on the food supply. I now have a little more information.

I start with the table from Lobell et. al. 2011 which I showed in my previous post:

The issue was the effect on food supply, so it matters how much of each crop is used for food.
Of the 440 million metric tons (MMT) of polished rice produced in the world in 2010 ( Table 1), 85% went into direct human food supply ( 5 ) . By contrast, 70% of wheat and only 15% of maize production was directly consumed by humans. (Major Cereal Grains Production and Use Around the World)
 Googling around, it looks as though about 6% of soybean production is used directly as human food, 75% as animal feed, some of the rest as soy oil consumed by humans.  I can't find a figure for the total fraction used to feed humans, so am guessing 10%. We then have:

Production and yield are from Table 1 above. The bottom right cell shows a net increase in the amount of the four crops used as human food of about a million metric tons. For a more precise calculation I should have converted tons of each crop into calories. I am assuming that the ratio is not very different for the different crops, but readers are welcome to check that.

In the course of the same conversation, one of the participants insisted that all studies of the future effect of climate change on the food supply showed it to be negative. I don't generally like getting into the game of dueling citations, for reasons I will probably discuss in another post. But I was referred to the latest IPCC report so looked at it, and found a table, Figure 7.5 in Chapter 7, that showed the distribution of predictions of the effect of climate change on mean crop yield over the 21st century. For both temperate and tropical regions, the median prediction was for a negative effect but more than 25% of the studies predicted a positive effect. Looking at the estimates that included the effect of adaptation, farmers changing what they did in response to changing circumstances, the median prediction was for a reduction in yield of less than half a percent per decade.

I think that supports my view of the effect of climate change both on the food supply and more generally–that there are both positive and negative effects, both are quite uncertain, and the sum might turn out to be negative or positive, might make us worse off or better off.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Future Climate and the Food Supply

I recently had an experience both rare and pleasant, a civil and informative argument about climate on FaceBook. It was started by
One of the commenters, although not prepared to defend the hysterical tone of the posted piece, was willing to argue that climate change was making the global food situation worse and threatened to make it much worse in the future. In defense of that claim, he cited "one recent study showing four major global crops declining (relative to no climate change)." The article, "Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980"  (Lobell et. al. 2011), was an attempt to separate out the effects on four major crops of different environmental changes–temperature, precipitation, and CO2 concentration–occurring from 1980 to 2008.

Reading it, I noticed that what the authors defined as the effect of climate change included temperature and precipitation but not CO2; its (positive) effect was listed separately. Including it changed the conclusion from four crops down to two down, two up. The commenter who offered the article as evidence had apparently missed that fact.

I also noticed that while they found a significant warming trend over the period, the trend in precipitation was statistically insignificant – consistent with random change. Redoing the calculation using only the two effects we knew were associated with AGW, warming and increased CO2 concentration, made the percentage increase in rice equal to the decrease in maize, the increase in soybeans larger than the decrease in wheat. The figures are shown in Table 1 from the article.

The table showed no effect of increased CO2 on the yield of Maize. Maize, as the gentleman I was arguing with pointed out, is a C4 crop, the other crops C3, the difference being in the details of the mechanism for photosynthesis. The effect of CO2 fertilization on C4 crops is substantially less than on C3 crops but not zero. Looking at another article that had been linked in the discussion, this one from the EPA, I found:
The yields for some crops, like wheat and soybeans, could increase by 30% or more under a doubling of CO2 concentrations. The yields for other crops, such as corn, exhibit a much smaller response (less than 10% increase).
That suggests that the effect is less than a third as large as the effect on the C3 crops but still substantial. Including it on Table 1 makes the negative net effect on maize smaller than the positive effect on rice.

Looking at the EPA article I noticed that the increase in  yield due to CO2 fertilization was presented as a fact, various things that might decrease yields as possibilities.
"if temperature exceeds a crop's optimal level or if sufficient water and nutrients are not available, yield increases may be reduced or reversed." 
"Extreme events, especially floods and droughts, can harm crops and reduce yields."
 No evidence was offered that any of those things would happen or how large the effects would be if they did. It looked as though the authors wanted to give the impression that climate change would reduce agricultural yields but prudently stopped short of saying so.

I also noticed:
"Overall, climate change could make it more difficult to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and same places as we have done in the past."
As conditions change, people change what they do in response. If temperatures rise, farmers will shift to crop varieties suited to a warmer environment. If rainfall increases or decreases, they will adjust crop varieties, irrigation, other details accordingly. What would happen if farmers ignored environmental changes in deciding how to farm tells us very little about what will happen in the real world. Whether or not we have global warming, it is quite unlikely that, a century from now, people will grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and the same places as they do now.

The same issue is relevant to the other article. The authors estimated the effect of increased temperature on yield by looking at how yields had varied with temperature, year by year, in the past. Those estimates were  used to calculate the effect of the overall increase in temperature over the period and suggest possible effects of future increases.

To see the problem with that approach, consider a farmer at planting time. He does not know how hot the year will be, how much rainfall there will be. Decisions such as when to plant and what varieties to plant can only be based on the expected value of those variables.

A farmer in 2100 knows what changes in climate have occurred over the previous century so  can take account of those changes in how he farms. It follows that models based on observations of year to year variation will show a more negative effect of climate change than can be expected from gradual change over a long period of time. The authors of the article noted that problem along with other limitations to their analysis.

Most of the time, all I learn from arguing climate with people on FaceBook is how unreasonable most people engaged in the argument, on both sides, are. This was a pleasant change. 

I will have to wait to see whether my opponent has become less confident that climate change threatens the global food supply now that he knows that the article that he thought supported that claim is, if anything, mild evidence against it.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Two Maps I Would Like to See

Suppose you are planning to move–across town or across the country. One consideration in deciding exactly where to move to is the price of housing. With a little effort, you can probably find average house prices in different cities you are thinking of moving to, but that isn't quite the information you want. Low house prices might mean inexpensive houses, but they might also mean small houses in poor condition. What you want is an apples to apples comparison, relative prices for the sort of house you would want to buy.

The data to produce that information almost certainly exist online, since there are extensive databases of webbed real estate listings. Run some regressions on that data and you can use the results to estimate how much the same house costs in different places. The results will also tell you how the price of a house depends on its area, lot size, age, etc. Do it right and the potential buyer can input a description of the house he wants and get estimates of how much it would cost in any of the places he is considering moving to. He can input different house descriptions, compare prices, and use the information to help him decide just how much house he wants to buy and where. The same approach could be used for rental prices. And it could be done not city by city–prices within a single city can vary a lot–but neighborhood by neighborhood. 

What I am imagining is a webbed map. Put in the relevant information about the house or apartment you want, click anywhere on the map, and get a price.

Housing prices are not the only thing you want to know. Another consideration is the crime rate–relevant not only in deciding where to live but where and when to take a walk. The map for that information lets you set a category of crime (burglary, mugging, assault), a time of day, and see a map of the relevant area with crime rates shown by color, running from bright red for the highest to dark blue for the lowest.

I don't know how much of this exists already, but perhaps some of my readers do.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Most People are Nice: A True Story

We are currently visiting with my wife’s mother in Cleveland. Yesterday my daughter went for a walk and got mugged near Case Western Reserve University. She was not hurt but lost her purse and contents, iPhone and iPad.
She reported the incident to the police, came home and used Apple’s online service to locate the iPhone and iPad. Getting help from the police was complicated by the fact that the location was near the intersection of Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights, each apparently with its own police department, but eventually two East Cleveland police met us a block from where the missing items showed on the online map. They went to look, reported back that that side of the street was an empty field, and (reasonably enough) that their searching the whole field was impractical. We asked about our doing some searching, were advised that it was not a safe area for white people (black, rundown neighborhood—one police officer was white, one black, the mugger had been black).

Despite their advice, we did some unsuccessful searching, hoping to find the iPhone by calling it, the iPad by making it beep. A woman in a house across the street was curious about what we were doing, made friendly comments.  An elderly black man with a cane came by, sympathized with our problem. We spoke with a group of elderly blacks on a porch at the other end of the block, also sympathetic. One of the women said she had found a coin purse about where we had been searching, was in the habit of picking things up so had done so. She fetched it. It was the coin purse (empty) from my daughter’s purse, she gave it back to my daughter, told us where she had found it, was clearly very happy that her habit of picking things up had produced a benefit. We searched some more without success.

After we returned to my mother in law’s apartment it occurred to me that we could have located the items more precisely by combining the information from the Apple page with other geographical information. Eventually I used the satellite view on the Google Maps app on my cell phone to determine that the items were probably in one of the dumpsters behind an apartment building at the end of the block. So the next day (today) we returned, posted some reward posters around the dumpsters. My daughter called the phone. I eventually heard it ringing from one of the dumpsters, climbed in, found the purse with the iPhone and iPad. The only thing missing that mattered, other than money, was my daughter’s passport. I removed the posters. The man we had spoken with the previous day passed again, I told him we had found it, he was obviously happy for us.

One lesson was the usefulness of modern technology–if we had not had the ability to track the electronic devices we would never have found them and the purse. The other was support for a conclusion I reached decades ago, after leaving something valuable, possibly my wallet or passport, at a merchant’s stall in Teheran and having it returned to me. You cannot count on everyone being nice, as illustrated by the mugger. But if you select people at random to interact with, the odds are that they will treat you as a fellow human being not an enemy or a victim.

Even in places that the cops warn you are unsafe for people of your race.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Story Idea

Someone comes up with a drug, or a technology, that gives the user perfect recall, the ability to rerun, in full detail, any part of his life. How would it get used?

One possibility is for self-education. Observing selected past experiences with a fifty year old mind and seventeen year old eyes might teach me a good deal about mistakes I had made, some of which I might still be making.  It might provide information about what it was like to be seventeen useful in dealing with current teenagers, including my own children. In life as it now is, we get to see each episode only once. As any video game player could tell you, being able to play the same events over and over makes it possible to greatly improve your skill. In my hypothetical, unlike a video game, you don't get to  try different tactics and see what happens. But you do get to see repeated replays of what you did the first time and the results.

Another possibility is entertainment. You can rerun, over and over again, your happiest, most exciting moments. Replace internet porn with memories of your first, or best, sex. Watch a reality show that was real, with yourself as star.

There is, however, a potential down side. After things go wrong, a marital breakup, a business failure, an election loss, it is tempting to go over it again and again, agonizing over what you did wrong and what you should have done. Now you can do it in living color. Forever.

The version of this scenario I have just described is probably impossible, since there is no reason to believe that a full record of my past is actually stored anywhere in my brain. But a different version, enabled by a different technology, might well come into existence in the not too distant future.

Consider a world with greatly improved surveillance, a much advanced version of video cameras on poles combined with face recognition software and database technology. In that world, David Brin's Transparent Society, everything that happens in a public place is recorded and findable. And once we have video cameras with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of mosquitoes, practically every place is public.

If the system is open access we are back with perfect recall. I am no longer watching my past life through the eyes of my past self, but I still get to watch it. 

I was born too early. But it might be reality for my future grandchildren.

Donald Trump and The Boy Who Cried Wolf

In 1964, Fact magazine published an article whose headline was "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President." It included a variety of detailed and unflattering diagnoses of the Republican candidate for president by psychiatrists none of whom had actually examined him or, so far as one could tell, met him.

In 2010, Christine O'Donnell, a Republican candidate for the Senate, was widely mocked as the "masturbation hating candidate." So far as I could discover, the basis for that was a comment she had made in an MTV program on masturbation some fourteen years earlier:
"The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So you can't masturbate without lust."
Both, I think, correct statements. 

That same year, another Republican senate candidate was reported as saying that he opposed the principle of separation of church and state. What he actually said was "The idea that church and state should be separated is fine with me. The idea that there should be no interrelationship between the two is not fine with me."

Those are particular incidents that struck me when they occurred–the two links above are to blog posts I made at the time. But the pattern is a general one. Center left writers and media routinely accuse candidates on the right of being ignorant, stupid, racist, and/or crazy. Most of the time it isn't true.

Donald Trump is, in my view, less  qualified to be president than any major party candidate in my lifetime. But after being told more or less the same thing about every candidate seen as right of center for the last fifty years, why should voters, especially voters right of center, believe it?

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Observations on London

I recently spent a few days in London and was struck by several features of current London culture:

1. Several times, younger passengers on the Tube (subway) offered me their seats. I have grey hair but do not appear (and am not) particularly feeble. I would be mildly surprised to have the same thing happen in the U.S.

2. Most hotels I have stayed in recently, in the U.S. and abroad, have a safe in the room with a combination that the guest sets. The hotel I stayed at in the U.K. didn't. That might mean that U.K. guests are less worried about pilfering by hotel employees than hotel guests elsewhere. Of course, my sample size is very small.

3. Walking through Notting Hill (no Napoleons visible) I observed the scene shown below, jam offered for sale with a request to put the payment through the house's mail slot.  I cannot remember having ever seen a similar scene here, although I don't suppose it's impossible.