Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 2, 20th February – 20th March 2017

Action around the world on climate and air pollution continued to offer cautious grounds for hope this month. The IEA reported that carbon dioxide emissions have not increased for a third year in row, despite the global economy growing. Fighting climate change requires that they begin to fall soon of course, but growth of renewables has much to do with the current freezing of emissions, and that trend will surely continue globally. The imperative of facing up to air pollution should ensure this, never mind climate considerations. In early March China vowed a new round of steel and coal capacity cuts as part of its national drive to eradicate its “airpocalyse”. In the UK, where carbon emissions have fallen to late-19th century levels, London’s air nonetheless remains illegally toxic. Businesses are now pressuring a strangely pollution-tolerant government by acting alone.
Increasingly climate- and air-pollution battles are being fought, and won, in court. The latest setbacks for governments have come in South Africa and Austria. One climate lawsuit, brought by a group of American schoolchildren against their own government, is a first of its kind. If successful, it could force even a denialist Trump government to act. Chevron became the first oil major to warn its investors that it faces risks that its business may be curtailed by climate change lawsuits. Nobody should be surprised. BlackRock, the biggest asset manager in the world with $5 trillion under management, announced that it intends to put businesses under pressure to explain how they will manage climate risks. And the divestment from fossil fuels implied, should satisfactory risk mitigation explanations not be forthcoming, continues anyway. In the UK, a government pension scheme became the latest notable investor to begin ditching oil and gas investments. The IEA and IRENA joined forces in a report to warn how far this could go, should companies fail to adapt their portfolios to climate risk: $1.3 trillion of oil and gas assets left stranded by 2050
But Earth’s temperatures are continuing to rise, and with them the sorry catalogue of impacts. The worst-ever episode of coral bleaching continues into its fourth year. Massive permafrost thaw newly documented in Canada foreshadows huge carbon release, scientists say. Every month now the drip of horrible news like this continues to depress everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Every reason, then, for the global energy transition to accelerate. Here too progress this month offers encouragement. Industry figures showed that solar power leapt by 50% worldwide last year, from 50 gigawatts to 76. Both China and the US almost doubled their capacity. There are now more than 300 gigawatts installed around the world, up from almost nothing in 2000. And this month an immense milestone was chronicled in an excellent report by Trusted Sources: solar has outstripped oil in terms of energy paid back for energy invested in production. The gap is widening all the time. It is only time before this inescapable fact begins to play in the marketplace.
Wind is doing quite as well. Offshore wind is now joining onshore wind on a plunging cost trajectory. Costs fell fully 22% last year. An offshore windfarm now averages $126 for each megawatt-hour of capacity, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance: cheaper than new nuclear at $155 a megawatt-hour, and closing fast on the $88 average price tag of new coal plants.
It becomes easier by the week to see why the Saudis, in this new world order, would be kicking off a $50 billion renewable energy plan to cut oil use. Indeed, their move to join the global energy transition is widely seen as widening the appeal of Saudi Aramco’s upcoming initial public offering, which will be the largest ever. The solar component will open share sales up to a wider pool of investors, analysts say.
Shell felt the need to move this month too. CEO ben van Buerden confessed that the oil and gas industry risks losing public support if they lag behind in the transition. He announced plans for a boost in renewables spending in his company. Shell also sold off the majority of their tar sands assets – the most carbon-intensive of their reserves – this month. Environmentalists were unconvinced about this new greenery, pointing out that Shell’s clean energy budget would still be only $1bn out of $25bn total expenditure by the end of the decade, and that staying in the tar sands makes no business sense any more anyway, because it risks wasting capital and stranding assets.
Big energy, it seems, is increasingly fearing that peak oil demand is looming, so fast has been the growth of renewable competitors to oil and gas, and electric vehicles. Shell suggests the peak could arrive by the late 2020s. Statoil professes between the mid 2020s and the late 2030s. Carbon Tracker, let us remember, argues that even this is too conservative: that worldwide demand for oil and coal could peak by 2020.
Norway leads the way. 37% of the country’s new cars are now electric, and the transportation minister expects it to be 100% in just 8 years. In the USA, dozens of cities announced a plan to buy $10 billion worth of electric cars and trucks to demonstrate demand while making a statement about President Trump’s intended retreat from air pollution standards. Driverless cars will accelerate the switch to electric transport greatly, and California is on the verge of allowing fully autonomous vehicles on its roads, having proposed new regulations that free the way for vehicles with no steering wheels and no human backup, potentially to enter force this year. 27 companies await the green light, and analysts expect a revolution not just in transportation, but in the very way society organises.
Batteries are increasingly not just about EVs but utilities and buildings. Last year the US installed enough batteries to power a city the size of San Diego for an hour. Most of them came in response to the vast Aliso Canyon gas leak in California. But the surge in demand is global. “The Age of the Giant Battery Is Almost Upon Us”, Bloomberg enthused. Those who worry about grid balancing are having an increasingly hard time finding a sympathetic ear. For example, National Grid and Google are now considering using of the latter’s DeepMind AI to balance supply and demand on the UK grid.
Rarely are the modern political struggles far from the drama. Trump says he wants to put coal miners back to work, but he faces the small problem that more than 3 million Americans now work in clean energy, compared to the mere 53,000 now employed in US coal. California, the world’s fifth biggest economy, loses few opportunities to oppose Trumpist fossil-fuel advocacy. Governor Gerry Brown said this month that the state’s record boom, in which clean energy has been heavily involved, is sure to outlast Trump’s “noise”.
The oil industry is at present celebrating a rebound in shale drilling, given higher oil prices. That is true, they are feasting on yet more debt to frack yet more barrels. But jobs are not rebounding they way production is. Between a third and a half of the 160,000-plus workers who lost their jobs since 2014 are not returning, analysts say. As one redundant worker put it, “pretty soon every rig will have one worker and a robot.” One wonders who will monitor the thousands of spills of liquids reported this month at fracked oil-and-gas drill sites. Perhaps it will be the robots, for it certainly won’t be the US Environmental Protection Agency, under this eyes-tight-shut new US government and its reckless determination to ignore any downsides of fossil fuels.
Which is where I turn to tech used for good or ill, and truth.This month evidence of the potential use of AI and robotics for social benefit continued to lag portentous developments. On the one hand, the prospects for improving healthcare systems continue to grow. Google plans a health record tracking system loosely based on the bitcoin concept and using its DeepMind AI, for example. It aims for real-time tracking of data by hospitals, health organisations and patients alike. Beneficiaries will have better treatment prospects. Lives will be saved. On the other hand, a Microsoft researcher warned openly this month that AI, even in its current state, is ripe for abuse by aspiring despots: perfectly suited to the centralizing of power, tracking of populations down to the last individual, the demonizing of outsiders, all while radiating authority via a faux neutrality. “This is a fascist’s dream,” said Microsoft’s Kate Crawford, pulling no punches. “Power without accountability.”
All this before quantum computers have arrived on the scene, which they will within five years, Google is now saying. These machines will be significantly faster and more powerful than current computers. Ordinary mortals outside the campuses of Google, IBM and the like cannot imagine what will be possible with the algorithms that they will be using. “Artificial intelligence runs wild while humans dither”, read a headline in the Financial Times this month. It was a major understatement.
With the integration of AI and robotics, the threats to social coherence compound. Google-owned robotics firm Boston Dynamics unveiled a hybrid robot easily capable of inducing nightmares. Though it is designed currently only for manual tasks, it resembles a Terminator riding on a hoverboard. This in a world where robots can be programmed, today, literally to read the minds of humans they interactive with, provided the latter wear electrodes on their heads. Thus connected, the robot can correct simple mistakes in manipulating objects by translating electrical patterns from the human brain into code.
Warnings are proliferating of intelligent virtual helpers that would take away human jobs by default, in the near term, especially in customer-facing roles in banks and call centres. Large-scale deployment of such machines would quickly deepen the inequality gap, fuelling the very social divisiveness on which the new despotism feeds.
It is not as though practitioners of AI and robotics are blind to the dangers. This month, 40 experts convened at Arizona State University for a workshop to plot Doomsday scenarios, and how to counter them. Tesla’s Elon Musk and Skype’s Jaan Tallinn funded the exercise. Bloomberg’s account of the meeting suggested that the experts were rather better at dreaming up the Doomsday scenarios than they were the countermeasures. Other initiatives include the creation of AI Now, an online research community researching social impacts of AI, and the idea of a tax on robots, to help finance social adjustments, supported among others by Bill Gates.
Speaking of the Microsoft founder, clearly much will depend in this unfolding drama on the character and actions of the tech billionaires whose companies and technologies are located in the heart of the emerging drama. They will be increasingly unaccountable, on recent evidence. This month Snap Inc, the parent of Snapchat, went public in one of the most successful IPOs ever. It’s shares soared, valuing the company at $28bn. And incredibly, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel successfully persuaded a critical mass of shareholders to invest without their being given any voting rights at all. This lack of governance and accountability – and investors’ willingness to tolerate it – sets a dangerous precendent in capitalism. If Snap rides on its IPO cash proceeds to rival Facebook, Google, and the others in scale, the world had better hope 26 year old Spiegel is a man with a heart and conscience.
That question mark will also apply to the founders of new companies that will inevitably try to emulate Snap. Worryingly, experts on a recent conference panel on tech leadership professed that psychopaths are rife in Silicon Valley. Studies suggest that whereas the proportion of psychopaths in the general population is around 1%, it is 4-8% in the corporate environment.
To see how this can play out in the tech world, consider the recent chronicle of alleged malfeasance and definite gross unpleasantness at Uber. It makes ominous reading for those of us who hope that tech and tech and tech companies can be a transformative force for social progression. And the whole saga is a manifestation of the leader’s character and values.
Which brings us to the theme of truth. In a world where your tech is drifting almost unopposed towards being perfect infrastructure for despots, wherein a new elite of breathtakingly wealthy leaders might be in danger of enhanced levels of psychopathy, the approach of the populist right to use of propaganda assumes critical importance. And here too the news is bad. New research from Columbia University, analysing 1.3 million articles in the run up to the US election, has shown that the internet itself did not favour the creation and spread of fake news. Rather, it was deliberate use of the technology for this purpose by a Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem that created havoc with reporting of true facts. More evidence of how this lie machine works comes out by the week. The Guardian dug deep into the origins of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial company that claims to use personal data to swing elections, and which may indeed have delivered on this claim in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. More emerged on how it is funded, with big-data billionaire Robert Mercer, backer of Donald Trump, prominent in the story. The whole narrative raises profound questions about the state, and future, of our democracies.
Again, tech does not appear to be helping the defenders of democracy, but abetting the aspiring new despots. Accusations that Google has been spreading fake news have intensified. It has been found to be repeatedly sharing falsehoods and conspiracy theories through its “featured snippets and search” functionality. There have also been major problems with its advertising this month, with organisations including the Guardian newspaper cancelling accounts because their ads had been placed next to extremist material.
Amid all this chaos, the founder of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, called this month for tighter regulation of online political advertising. This, among many other responses by society, is clearly going to be needed. Perhaps the British government can lead the way, for the current US government certainly will not. This is not as impossible a prospect as it may sound. The UK government was one of the organisations to pull its ads from Google because of proximity to inappropriate extremist content.