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Trump’s attempt to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement: a personal reaction from Solaraid  

Untitled I was barely listening as he delivered his speech. I had heard most of his mantras already. I also knew that he would be unable to complete a US pullout, legally, until his second term. And he surely can’t aspire to one of those now, with all the skeletons that are rattling in his closet. I was thinking instead about what people can do in the face of madness such as this. One of the options is to focus on projects that demonstrate, in a way that is impossible to ignore, that he is wrong. And more, that the belief system he is a symptom of is wrong: rottenly, suicidally, wrong. I stared at the little solar light on my desk as the President pursed his lips and blustered his distortions and lies. Nothing that I know of shows how wrong Trump is on energy more than that light. It captures the perversity of his world view in perfect miniature. There are four main reasons why. First, it is a solar device that beats by a flying mile the fossil fuels that Trump and so many of his financial backers favour, simply on economics. In the developing world, where more than a billion people have no grid electricity, you can stand a solar light with its built-in photovoltaic cell in sunlight by day, creating electricity to store in the tiny battery inside, and in so doing cancel the need to burn oil in a kerosene lamp at night. In the process you save $70 on average each year. That’s a lot of money if you are on less than a dollar a day. It captures in microcosm the trillions of dollars that the world would save in the years ahead if we moved from oil and other fossil fuels to solar, batteries and other clean energy technologies. But Trump loves oil. He has populated the White House with oil executives and lobbyists. He mocks solar. He does his level best to hold back the global energy transition. Second, using this solar light has enormous health benefits over fossil fuels. With it, you breathe clean air in your home. Burn oil, or coal, and you add to the body count of the single biggest killer in the world, air pollution. But Trump digs coal. He intends to stop the Environmental Protection Agency even monitoring the harm that burning it does. Third, these lights create more jobs than equivalent fossil-fuel use ever could. Distributing them provides a lot of people with livelihoods. Yet Trump wants to create new coal jobs, rather than figure out ways to help the mere 50,000 left in the US coal mining industry join the 370,000 already working in the US solar industry. Fourth, using this light helps people in poor countries to make, and save money. It gets them on the energy ladder, on the road to economic development. It helps them help themselves. To escape risking those death boats foundering in the Mediterranean. Think of it. If you are one of those billion-plus people who have no grid electricity, you have two options if you want to see at night. One is to spend tens of dollar a year on kerosene, candles, or battery torches. The other is to buy a solar light for $5 with a one-off payment, and save those tens of dollars. After paying back the $5, which you can do in a matter of weeks on kerosene costs avoided, you have free light for the three-plus years of a quality-verified product’s lifetime. You have a licence to scrape dollar bills off the ground by the handful every year. But Trump seems utterly uninterested by such opportunities. He wants to keep the poorest of the poor poor. He proposes nothing to help them, meanwhile building walls to keep them out of his homeland. He wants America to turn in on itself, even to a new kind of despotism, if he can bully enough people into not opposing him as he brings it about. I am lucky. I have a chance to show Trump how wrong he and his kind are. SolarAid, the charity I set up and part-fund with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits, has catalysed the first two solar light markets in Africa. We have sold nearly 2 million solar lights so far. But here’s the thing that currently burns me up. The entire solar lighting industry, even in a world with more than a billion people devoid of access to grid electricity, has only sold at most 30 million quality-assured solar lights! Most of the billion people only have the kerosene option, because whereas the oil companies are good at getting kerosene distributed, the rest of the world has so far done a pretty dismal job of making solar lights available. How terribly sad is that. And there is more. For the last year, global sales of solar lights have been falling. Falling steeply. What are we doing wrong, collectively? How can it be that we have allowed the no-brainer social win that these solar lights represent largely to pass the poor by? How can the large-scale global solar market, which has grown every year for many decades, be rising so fast today, while the solar lighting market falls? There are compound reasons, but they amount to a simple single overall narrative: collectively, we are not trying hard enough. And that is where my personal opportunity to make the Trumpistas see the light kicks in. I’m going to redouble my efforts to reverse the trend in solar light sales, both SolarAid’s and the global solar lighting industry’s. That’s one thing I can do, personally, to resist the Trumpist assault on reason. I invite anyone who wants to help me, in any way, to do so. Individual soldiers contribute to the winning of wars by fierce involvement in individual engagements. There have to be many of them, if the war is to be won. I commend this particular engagement, to all busy people who side with the resistance.
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FT and BBC articles agreed on something very important yesterday

Screenshot 2017-05-22 13.12.07 Coverage in the FT and BBC yesterday recounted how the SM100 solar light - developed by my team at SolarAid with Chinese solar giant Yingli, and designed by cool UK design company Inventid - is a big new opportunity to fight poverty in Africa and elsewhere. With this light, SolarAid can turn £4 into £145 cash for local spending on food and essentials in east Africa ....in a time of famine. There cannot be many social-benefit paybacks as good as this, anywhere, today. On our website you can read how we calculate our costs for delivering solar lights to Africans, not-for-profit, so they can resell them, for profit. In this way, we create both jobs and big savings on oil no longer needed for burning in kerosene lamps. Our costs of delivery are £4 per solar light, based on four years of audited accounts. We know from our industry-leading follow-up research that the savings on each light sold are £145. We further know what that gets spent on ….and food and seeds are high on the list. This is a great way to help people help themselves while famine stalks the continent. We also save a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions per kerosene lamp replaced. To get solar lights out to the frontier areas where we work, SolarAid is currently overdependent on increasingly impossible-to-predict and precarious donations from large organisations. Managing the cash-flow on this basis alone, as we try to get as many lights into the field as we can, is really stressful for my team (OK, I admit it, me too). So I am endeavouring to boost the charity's ability to help by soliciting as much of a regular and predictable donation stream as I can from individuals and communities (including those within big organisations!). With that predictability, we could actually get many more products into the field. Accordingly, I’m writing to everyone I know (and lots besides) to ask if they can help. So please, could you consider signing up for £4 each month - the price of a drink - to get one light to Africa each month, a dozen a year? (Or more drinks if you like of course!). It is easy to do so here. A few clicks of a mouse on our website, a single e-mail for friends / contacts, just forwarding this …or perhaps some good idea I haven’t thought of! - anything you can do to help will be hugely appreciated. Come on. Its a war. Lets us good guys win it. To do that we have to win many battles. And this one, given the economics of cheap solar versus expensive oil, is so eminently winnable.
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An opinion on the problem of Mexico’s oil and Trump’s wall

Untitled Op-ed by Jeremy Leggett for Energiahoy, slightly edited from the Spanish: What do you do if you are running out of oil, and your neighbour’s President, who has plenty of oil, seems to hate you? The answer is that you develop a renewable-powered economy as fast as you can. That Mexico’s proved oil reserves have declined by more than a third since 2013 is very bad news for the Mexican economy. The country will run dry in less than nine years if there are no new discoveries. Better news is that going renewable fast, including in transport where most oil is used, is eminently feasible in the current world. A great global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is under way, much faster than most people think. As a consequence, those choosing to stay addicted to fossil fuels, even if they have a lot of them, are heading for trouble. This is because they are entering a time where much oil, gas and coal will end up un-needed, whether they like it or not.

Mexico is already running the fastest of any Latin American country on wind and solar. But there is much room for acceleration. An economy going renewable fast like the one I advocate for Mexico can show a fossil-mired economy like the one President Trump hopes for where the future lies. Mexico can match Trump’s ignorance with inspiration.

An example. Mexico could build its own wall, made of solar panels. Such a wall, 6 metres high along the full length of the border, would generate well over 2 gigawatts of electricity. It would be a glittering money-maker, making a mockery of Trump’s uneconomic coal mines and the fading debt factories that are his shale gas and shale oil regions.

In a sense, Mexico would be building its own wall, and making America pay for it. Trump fears Mexican migrants, though they contribute so much to his economy. If he and his tribe stay in power and get their carbonaceous way, Mexico would be welcoming skilled American migrants, attracted to its clean-energy industries as America’s shrivel.

A Mexico going renewable fast would be far from alone. Middle East oil producers are intent on the same. Dubai wants all roofs solar by 2030. Abu Dhabi intends to be exporting no more oil within fifty years. City governments worldwide see what is coming. More than a thousand target 100% renewable power, some like Canberra as soon as 2020. So do more than 80 of the biggest global corporations, in Google’s case as soon as 2017. New global renewable power generation capacity exceeded new fossil fuel capacity for the second year running in 2016. This is because solar and wind are cheaper than any other form of generation in many markets already, sometimes by a wide margin. Plunging battery and electric vehicle costs ensure this megatrend will spread, displacing fossil fuels not just in the electricity sector but in transport. Investors increasingly understand what is coming, and are beginning to move their money accordingly. Some big energy companies are seeing the writing on the wall. Much of the utility industry has already embarked on 180 degree U-turns in business model, switching from fossil-fuel supply to decentralised renewables. The oil and gas industry, clocking up trillions in debt in dogged pursuit of their status quo, cannot be far behind. Even at $50 oil, the oil majors can’t cover their costs. Some say American shale will help save them. But of the three main oil-producing shale belts, production has already peaked in two against industry expectations. Meanwhile, the clean energy technologies race ahead, surprising even their most ardent supporters - like me - with the speed of their cost reductions. Some Silicon Valley gurus now expect that by 2030 all new energy will be solar and wind, and all new vehicles will be electric. What we are witnessing is a total system change. It has happened before, in not much more than a decade, when the horseless carriage replaced the horse-drawn carriage. And this system change is capable in principle of changing the face of civilisation: much for the better. Renewables have so many social advantages over fossil fuels, from the bottom of the energy ladder to the top. Mexico can be a pace-setting leader in this global transition. In fact, it has no choice.
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Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 3, 21st March – 20th April 2017

Screenshot 2017-04-22 21.38.05  1. Climate action: Trump endeavours to dig a little coal  President Trump moved to dismantle President Obama's climate legacy with an executive order that seeks to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. Within a week, 17 US states filed a legal challenge. China immediately pledged to uphold its Paris climate commitments, including considerable efforts not to use coal, accusing the US of “selfish” behaviour. The EU joined the pushback. Miguel Árias Cañete, the EU’s climate action commissioner, said: “The continued leadership of the EU, China and many other major economies is now more important than ever. When it comes to climate and the global clean energy transition, there cannot be vacuums, there can only be drivers, and we are committed to driving this agenda forward.” Fine sentiments. But whereas China can point to policies consistent with its rhetoric, unfortunately the same cannot be said of much EU national policymaking, as things stand. Among EU states, only Sweden, Germany and France are pursuing goals consistent with the Paris target of 40% cuts in carbon emissions by 2030, according to a study by Carbon Market Watch. As ever, much will depend on industry, and one encouraging development this month was a pledge by Eurelectric, a trade body which represents 3,500 utilities with a combined value of over €200 billion, vowing no new investments in coal plants after 2020. Among the 28 EU countries, only Polish and Greek companies did not join the initiative. 2. Energy transition: Fast, but not fast enough Record new renewable power capacity was added in 2016, UNEP figures showed: 138 gigawatts of it, up 9% despite investment falling by a worrying 23%. Renewables now provide 11.3% of global electricity. New global solar capacity outpaced wind, IRENA reported, by 71 to 51 gigawatts. Solar in California exceeded 50% of supply, for the first time ever, causing a net market oversupply resulting in a short interval of negative wholesale prices. Costs of renewables keep falling. GTM Research predicts that solar will drop below two cents per kilowatt hour in 2017. Offshore wind is the latest renewable to defy predictions. EnBW and Dong won offshore wind tenders in the North Sea with the first subsidy-free bids. Moody’s reported that wind is now cheaper to install new than coal is to operate in 58 power plants across 15 Midwestern states, at $20 a megawatt versus $30. Trump told a rally in Kentucky that “the miners are coming back”. But they aren’t. Not even top US coal boss Robert Murray expects that, in the face of real contemporary economics. As for US renewables companies, they were professing this month that their industries will thrive even without the Clean Power Plan. Their confidence is rooted in record solar installation and above average wind installation in 2016, plus federally agreed tax credits that would be difficult for the Trump administration to dismantle. The news was also broadly good for EVs this month, with Tesla meeting production targets and its shares soaring to an all time high, for a while making it the most valuable car company in America. Meanwhile Big Oil, facing predictions of significant demand destruction by EVs within just years, is struggling to break even. Most of the oil majors didn’t even cover their costs in 2016, a Wall Street Journal analysis showed, despite a rising oil price. Some oil companies say American shale will help save them. But of the three main oil-producing shale belts, production has already peaked in two. The oil industry loves to taunt its critics with the mantra that “peak oil is dead”. For some players, it is clearly not the case. Mexico’s proved oil reserves have declined by more than a third since 2013. This month its National Hydrocarbons Commission country warned that the country will run out of oil in less than nine years if there are no new discoveries. What an incentive fast oil depletion like that must be to build a clean-energy economy fast, never mind climate change. (More on this in my keynote to the MIREC renewables congress in Mexico City on 10th May). And there are many other stand-out non-climate incentives around our troubled world, from air pollution to risk of stranded assets. But new figures showed that clean energy investment dropped 17% in the first quarter of 2017. 3. Tech for Good: Evidence of effort Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics outpace even those in clean energy, and continue to be used in many ways for the betterment of society. But evidence that they have profound downsides was everywhere this month. YouTube and Google’s use of algorithms to automatically match ads with content is the basis for widespread criticism that they fed the spread of fake news in the crucial months running up to both the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, much of it orchestrated by a well organised nationalist-right dark-propaganda network. The two companies ran into further, related, trouble, with big name advertisers boycotting them for posting ads next to racist and other offensive content. The boycotters included such diverse actors as AT&T, the BBC, the British government, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Verizon, and WalMart. Google responded quickly, saying it was in a race to ramp up its AI capability to deal with the problem. But that is no easy task. Nobody has pulled off such a feat of megadata sifting before. As part of their effort, they have begun to use outside firms to verify ad standards. They might want to hurry. The inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, argues that concentration of power over information, such as Goggle and Facebook now possess, is dangerous for society. He is plotting, with others in the Decentralized Information Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL), means to decentralise control of data in his creation. The threat AI and robotics pose to jobs becomes ever clearer. More than 10 million UK workers are at risk of being replaced within 15 years, PwC calculated, some 30% of the workforce. The IPPR estimates a similar figure: robots replacing 1 in 3 UK jobs over the next 20 years. A report by the US National Bureau of Economic Research goes further, suggesting that large numbers of jobs have already been lost to robotics in America, and are unlikely to come back. Wages have been depressed in the process, they contend. The question arises, then, as to how much this has been fuelling populist rage, on both sides of the Atlantic, making it easier for nationalist demagogues to push their argument that "the other" - immigrants and anyone else who is not in what psychologists call their in-group - is entirely to blame. Whatever the answer to that question about the past, the additional stress just around the corner will clearly pose a dire threat to social cohesion if nothing is done. The imperative for government and business to act is obvious. 4. Truth: Liars under growing scrutiny As investigations into the conduct of the Trump election and the Brexit vote continue, it becomes ever clearer that the nationalist right is capable of extraordinary feats of voter manipulation. A group of UK academics warned this month that dark money is a threat to the integrity of British elections. The Electoral Commission is investigating whether work by Cambridge Analytica, one data firm at the heart of the controversy, constitutes an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor. Cambridge Analytica is majority owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major bankroller of Donald Trump. Steve Bannon, Trump’s head of strategy, has been a major player in the development of the company and its capabilities. Filings of White House staffers’ interests this month show he has made millions shaping right-wing thought, via Cambridge Analytica and other organs. The pushback unfolding against this fast-emerging Orwellian narrative is often extraordinary to behold. The Los Angeles Times published a series of  essays by its editorial board this month. “Our Dishonest President”, the first was entitled. “Why Trump lies”, the second. They read like a science fiction novel of a dystopian future society. But they are about real-life America, today. New arenas of corporate responsibility are being stimulated, unsurprisingly. Google announced it will begin to display fact-checking labels to show if news it purveys is true or false. Facebook gave a green light to its employees to protest against Trump on May 1st. Dramas build slowly in the courts as truth and lies compete. A judge rejected Trump's defense against a claim he incited violence at one of his rallies. 5. Equality: Talk of cutting aid as famine rages Meanwhile, though you would hardly know it from mainstream media coverage, we are in the midst of the gravest humanitarian crisis since 1945 – since the creation of the United Nations. 20 million people face starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, the UN warns. Drought has descended on Kenya, triggering violence as displaced peoples migrate. Amid all this, populist nationalists continue to contend that aid budgets should be cut. The UK government, to its credit, is resisting this so far. As for the considerable potential role of clean energy in building equality and alleviating poverty, an international gathering of the Sustainable Energy for All organisation in New York this month called for more urgent action on progress towards global energy goals. In SolarAid, my colleagues and I could not agree more. Our work is based on the fact that if you burn oil in a kerosene lamp in Africa and it will cost you almost $80 a year, yet a solar lamp retailing at around $5 will give clean light for free, for 4 years. So if you were one of the poorest people in Africa, which would you rather do? Save $70 a year to spend on food and other essentials, in a time of famine, or burn a fistful of ten dollar bills each year, and risk your health breathing the fumes? This should be an obvious starting point for a massive programme to free up local money for the necessities of poverty alleviation, SolarAid contends. But sales of the most affordable of these lights are actually falling in Africa, and in fact the rest of the world too. In Malawi, for example, we are one of only a few organisations working to help. More on that subject, a microcosm of global challenges and opportunities in energy, in an e-mail in a week or so. 6. Reform of capitalism: Graphic evidence of the need The Bank of England has admitted to fearing, in the current febrile financial climate, that it may not be able to spot the next global crisis coming. Few who studied the forensics of the last one, and the response - or mostly lack thereof - can be surprised. There are obvious candidates for a trigger in the inflated stock market, and mountainous debt in car loans, credit cards, and mortgages. The Brexit gamble is also potentially on the list. The IMF professes that its unpredictable outcome poses a risk to global stability. Given the fact that regulators regard another crisis as inevitable, and see an unreadable multiplicity of potential paths to it, who can realistically contend that the unbridled 21st century version of capitalism is anything close to a satisfactory way to run a global economy today? Root-to-branch reform might take some mapping, but starting points are not too difficult to find. One involves the jailing of executives guilty of gross corruption. Until this starts happening, how there can be hope for wider reform, or the necessary adjustments of cultures? Shell offered up a perfect example this month. The company is under investigation for one of the most corrupt deals in the history of the oil industry.  E-mails show that top executives handed a billion dollars to the Nigerian government, knowing it would be passed to a convicted money-launderer,  in return for a giant oilfield. The CEO of the day, Peter Voser, knew of the deal. The current CEO, Ben van Buerden, described the evidence in e-mails as "really unhelpful", but "just pub talk." One might hope that if the forces of the law cannot sort out behaviour of this kind, then investors might be queuing to punish a company as wide of the ethical mark as this using their money and governance power. Not on recent evidence from Wall Street. The social media company Snap, owner of a popular photo exchange website, went public in February with investors queuing to pour cash into it. This despite the twenty-something co-founders specifying that investors would have zero voting rights. Far from failing, in the exodus of financial custodians that this dangerous first-of-a-kind should have been faced with, Snap raised $3.4 billion and achieved a valuation of $19.7 billion. What a gloomy precedent this now sets for the future. It raises the prospect, in principle, of a small cadre of almost unregulated and unconstrained tech billionaires calling the shots on how the AI and robotics innovations of the next few years are deployed. We had better all hope, if this is the way investors and regulators allow events to unfold, that said billionaires, and investors in them, are not friends of the the populist nationalist right. Yet the way financiers were lining up to engage with Marine Le Pen as the French Presidential election neared suggests we can far from rely on this. 7. Common security: If you elect nationalist demagogues, you will be more likely to experience World War 3 Let me be brief on this final point. In the Trump administration's handling of Syria and North Korea, where is there any evidence at all of basic statesmanship? Of rudimentary strategy even? Of any thought that there might be lessons to be learned in decades of diplomacy? Ahead of the election, Trump seemed to grasp the inadvisability of poking a hornets nest with a stick, let alone many millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles. "Again, to our very foolish leader", he tweeted at Obama (all in capital letters), "do not attack Syria - if you do many very bad things will happen." Suffice it to say that one particularly bad knee-jerk reaction from Trump and/or those he turns into his adversaries, and all bets are off on the balance of play I endeavour to summarise above. A message for my senior grandson, if he made it this far in this blog. Sorry fella, I have been trying for a quarter century. But I and all the people like me have pretty much failed, to date. Hopefully there is some comfort in the thought that we are still trying.
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Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 2, 20th February – 20th March 2017: Tech-for-good and truth take a pounding

Screenshot 2017-03-25 17.18.18 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.
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Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 2, 20th February – 20th March 2017: Climate action holds ground and energy transition accelerates

Screenshot 2017-03-24 13.22.41 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: the subjects of the next blog covering this eventful second month.
Posted in Blogs

How can renewables help to create a better civilization? Statement by Dr Jeremy Leggett, Executive Chair of SolarAid, to the Start Up Energy Transition Tech Festival, Berlin, 20th March 2017

Screenshot 2017-03-20 09.32.31

I speak today about the wider context of all the wonderful innovation and creative disruption we are hearing about from around the world at this inspiring event. My message is about how to maximise its impact, in the singular times in which we live. The first is to inspire allcomers with what that civilization - let us a call it a solar civilization - looks and feels like. The second is to fight as hard for that vision as fossil-fuel diehards fight to keep alive their ruinous status quo.

We bring alive the solar civilization with every kind of renewable and/or efficient carbon-reducing installation we develop, finance, and construct. Each one - whether as small as a watt-scale solar lantern or as large as a gigawatt-scale renewable-energy park - increases climate resilience, air quality, prosperity, health, community, and common security, among other things. We need to instal more and more of them, faster and faster.

We must fight for a solar civilization by recognising the malign forces that are gaining ground in modern liberal democracies and confronting them with our vision. These forces - of nationalist, populist demagoguery, often led by aspiring despots - tend to back fossil fuels, and are often financed by diehard fossil-fuel interests. They tend to make no secret of the fact that they see us as their enemies, and we in return should not seek to appease them.

The business case for refusing to normalise these forces, never mind the social case, is absolutely clear today. The populists ask us to back fossil-fuel technologies that either are, or soon will be, more expensive than most of ours. These technologies will not help the poor in the long term, they will only enrich an elite few in the short term, and then only temporarily.

The duty to shareholders is increasingly clear. The populists ask them to take impossible risks of wasting capital and stranding assets. 

The duty to wider stakeholders is axiomatic. When the vast majority of scientists warn the populists that their actions risk the very liveability of the planet, they exercise perverse denial, reject and mock expertise, and deploy what they call alternative facts and we call lies.

SolarAid will be seeking to collaborate with any and all who agree with these sentiments in the battle ahead. We would love to hear from you if you think like us.

info@solar-aid.org

www.solar-aid.org


Posted in Blogs

The business case is clear: renewables companies must openly resist the new despotism

google-protest

Picture: Google employees protest against Trump immigration policies.

Blog: A slightly extended version of my latest column for Recharge:

By building on the explosive growth of clean energy in recent years, and triumphs of multilateralism led by the Paris Agreement, a renaissance of civilisation can realistically be envisioned in the decades ahead. So I have argued in my writing since 2013. But how quickly our world can shift on its axis. While my analysis remains feasible, a potential disruptor of it is on the rise in society. A new class of aspiring despot is seizing political ground in America and Europe. This is happening just as it becomes clear that misuse of fast-emerging new technology, notably artificial intelligence and robotics, holds the potential to create the perfect infrastructure for police states.

 To ensure such an authoritarian assault does not sweep away liberal democracies, it will be essential for the business world to engage in resistance more than it has been so far.  More business leaders must come to the view that fighting for a civilization appropriate for doing good business in is now a matter of responsibility to shareholders, never mind citizens. For their part, shareholders and citizens must pressure companies more, via their investment and purchasing power, to confront the new despotism and otherwise act in favour of appropriate civilization. Increasingly the business case is clear. Ratings agency Fitch has argued that the Trump presidency poses a threat to the global economy, for example.

 Nowhere is this imperative for engagement clearer than in the renewables industries. If renewables companies elect to keep a low profile, and in doing so become complicit in a creeping normalisation of Trumpism, the task of aspiring despots everywhere becomes easier. For their part, rightist populists can be sure that the fossil-fuel diehards that tend to support them will be neither quiet nor inactive. We already see this in the cast of White House appointees, and their early actions in power.

 Early indicators of resistance are encouraging. A hundred tech companies joined US states taking Trump to court over his Muslim travel ban. Among them were Tesla and major renewables users Apple, Google and Microsoft. Thousands of their employees rallied against the ban in Silicon Valley. Individual companies have spoken out. Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the US, and  has invested more than €30bn there over the past 10 years. But still its CEO felt compelled to criticise Trump’s unpresidential “noise”,  attacks on the press, and proposed Mexican wall, making the obvious point that “America has become great because of immigrants”. Individual investors have also spoken out. Trump bludgeoned through the North Dakota Access oil pipeline with an executive order. But major investor Nordea simply banned its fund managers from investing in it.

 Others must speak out and use their money like this. There is safety in numbers, and great danger for all in taking the easy option of silence. Down that road lies diminished talent pools, shrivelled business prospects, wasted investment capital, and much worse.

 Some readers may think I am overstating a bit of demagoguery in modern politics. But people in the heart of the Establishment share my view. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Editor at the Financial Times, is among those warning how easily Trump the demagogue can morph into Trump the despot. George Soros calls Trump a “would-be dictator”.

 Consider the worrying people the President has appointed around him. Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, is a far right thinker with an apocalyptic vision of the future who now finds himself and his nationalist, anti-Islamic, views on the National Security Council. He is backed by a “weaponised AI propaganda machine”, as journalists at Scout call it, demonstrably able to manipulate beliefs  on an industrial scale. One of the figures Bannon is prepared to cite, as he did in a speech skyped into to a fringe Vatican conference in 2014, is a long dead  Italian philosopher named Julius Evola, a man revered as a godfather by many Italian fascists. Evola broke with Mussolini and his supporters because he considered them too tame.  His vision involved a bourgeoisie-smashing new order of white supremacists that he called - wait for it - the Solar Civilization.

 These days, so much of real life is stranger than the inventions of fiction. And how strange it is indeed to read the tenets of the fascist philosophy of a man known to and cited by the chief strategist of the President of the United States. This is how fast we are all having to relearn the narratives relevant to anchoring our world views in 2017.

 The Solar Civilization indeed! That is a most wholly unsuitable label for a hate-filled fantasy of racial purity.

 I call upon all citizens in the renewables industries - leaders, employees, and investors alike - to articulate a clear vision of what a true Solar Civilization would look like. And then to fight for it hard in the year ahead.


Posted in Blogs

Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism: State of Play on 20th February 2017, one month into the Trump presidency

Screenshot 2017-02-26 15.31.07 Suddenly believers in the possibility of a better civilization, one rooted in increasing human co-operation and harmony, find ourselves in a world where demagogues can now realistically plot the polar opposite: a new despotism rooted in rising isolationist nationalism and human conflict. The more we dig into how the demagogues and their supporters have organised their recent successes, in particular in using technology to manipulate voter beliefs on an industrial scale, the more terrified many of us find ourselves. Yet at the same time, tantalisingly, our visions of a better civilization, one appropriate for common security and prosperity among nations in the 21st century, seem more feasible today than they have ever been, at least in some of their component parts. In this struggle between two vastly different world views, a kind of global civil war seems to have broken out in the last 9 months or so. I am changing this blog to reflect these changed times. For years now I have been chronicling only two relevant themes: climate and energy. Starting with this blog, I will be covering seven. After the evidence of Donald Trump’s opening month as US President, I no longer think it is valid to consider climate and energy separately from the bigger global picture. I invite the reader to consider my seven chosen themes as dials, each of which will need to be turned up near to full positive in the next decade. They are labelled climate action, energy transition, tech for good, truth, equality, reform of capitalism, and common security. This list is not comprehensive in capturing the struggle between appropriate civilization and new despotism. But I contend that if most of these particular dials are turned down anywhere near full negative, demagogues will have found their road to new despotism, and we can expect a future based on unbreakable police states. Let me summarise my sense of the global setting of each of the seven dials in turn, as things stand. First, climate action. Turning this dial up requires being on course for the Paris Agreement target of under 2 degrees of global warming. Without this, an increasingly runaway global thermostat is likely to wash away all civilizations - appropriate, despotic or otherwise – as it slowly renders the planet unliveable. Recognising this imperative, or some version of it, all nations renewed their pledges to the Paris goal at the Marrakech climate summit in December 2016. They called their collective action “irreversible”.  Key states, cities, companies, financial institutions, faiths and communities lined up in support. For example, California has targets stronger than many nations. More than a thousand cities are committed to 100% renewable power. So are more than 80 of the world’s biggest companies, in Google’s case as soon as this year. More than 600 financial institutions worth more than $5 trillion are pulling their capital out of fossil fuels. Other investors are pressuring fossil fuel companies to invest more in clean energy, and their numbers are set to grow. The G20 Financial Stability Board’s Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosure involves companies with market capitalisation of $1.5 trillion and financial institutions responsible for assets of $20 trillion. It aims to build a market in transition to a sub-two-degree world. There is a long list of serious efforts like this, across multiple relevant sectors, in most countries. The action list doesn’t yet amount to a collective outcome under 2 degrees. But it represents a clear and robust direction of travel. It has caused PWC, among others, to conclude that President Trump’s impact on global greenhouse emissions - despite stacking the White House with an unprecedented crew of fossil-fuel defending billionaires and their supporters - will be “pretty small”.  I set the global score on the climate dial as slightly positive. It would be more positive, had the scientific news from the climate itself not been so bad in 2016. Second, energy. Turning this dial up requires being on course for a clean energy future both in order to address climate change and to escape the multiple ways that fossil fuels err humankind towards societal problems, including mass killers like air pollution, terrorism, and war. The good news here is that a global energy transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is unfolding before our eyes, and fast, and not just because of serious intent in climate action. Solar and wind power will be the cheapest option in most countries within just a few years, and in some sectors and countries already are. Cheap batteries will soon be storing their electricity on a massive scale. Electric vehicles are on course to knock an entire category of oil use, diesel, out of the markets within ten years. They all bring a catalogue of social benefits with them, including in health, freedom from expensive imports, and consequent reduction in international tensions. Meanwhile, as fast as the prospects for clean energy rise, those for fossil fuels fall. China has just cancelled more than 100 coal power plants, dozens of them already under construction. India says it needs no more coal in the next five years. The oil industry is struggling under a multi-trillion dollar collective debt mountain, with analysts increasingly giving up hope of long term profitability, even if oil prices rise. Investors unconcerned by climate change are abandoning them, and oil-rich Gulf states are drawing up plans for an an end to oil within five decades. Trump may want to dig coal, but how can he do so when it is uneconomic compared to solar and wind? One in 50 new US jobs is now in the solar industry, and the growth rate is accelerating: up a record 25% in 2016. Is he going to axe those jobs somehow? When 73% of his own voters support more solar and wind, according to a recent poll? Accordingly, I set the dial on energy as distinctly positive. I summarise many more reasons for doing so in my blogs spanning 2016 and my book The Winning of The Carbon War. Third, tech for good. Turning this dial up will require artificial intelligence and robotics to be applied with appreciable net benefits for society as a whole. The development of AI and robotics is evolving even faster than clean energy. On one hand, profound social benefits are in prospect. Medical diagnosis is a good example. Computers machine-learning while using global databases are providing life-saving diagnoses that elude human medical experts. They are making it less difficult to hold criminals to account. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office used a crime-solving robot to plough quickly through the libraries of information necessary to prove systemic corruption in Rolls Royce. Control of electricity demand by AI in data centres is achieving remarkable emissions cuts in what is a large global point source of carbon dioxide. Such examples are plentiful. But on the other hand tech leaders are openly worrying about the effect of exponential AI and robotics on jobs. In Japan, the government is looking to robotics to boost the national economy, and robots already outnumber humans in the kitchen of one restaurant. In the UK, banks are preparing to roll out robot tellers aiming to improve customer service via machine-learned empathic responses. In the US, the world’s largest hedge fund is working to replace managers with AI, including in HR and strategy roles. Wired, the magazine of choice for many in the digital world, concludes as follows: “The AI threat isn’t skynet. It’s the end of the middle class.” Concern over job losses is fuelling a significant component of the anger expressed by the populist right. Meanwhile, the potential downsides of AI and robotics when it comes to authoritarian regimes do not need much imagining. In the wrong hands, uncontrolled, they can quickly amount to the perfect infrastructure for police states. Thankfully, these dangers are being recognised by both scholars and practitioners. In 2016, Prof Steven Hawking and other luminaries published a letter pledging to ensure that AI research benefits humankind. In January 2017, hundreds of AI and robotics researchers developed 21 principles – the Asilomar Principles – for use of the new technologies. Principle 23 involves Common Good, and reads: “Superintelligence should only be developed in the service of widely shared ethical ideals, and for the benefit of all humanity rather than one state or organization.” To ensure that, a global convention on the use of AI would seem like a good idea. It would offer an opportunity to build on the renewed confidence in multilateralism engendered by the Paris Agreement. The Asilomar Principles would be a good starting point for a draft. The fact is that we are wiring the world way faster than any consideration of public policy, legal, ethical, and human rights implications, and doing so just at the time demagogues are on the rise. All this being the case, the net global score for the tech dial should probably be set slightly negative. This assessment excludes the role AI plays in the next theme. Including that would drive the score much higher.  Fourth, truth. Turning this dial up will require tech to be used for improving the processes of liberal democracy, including quality and verifiability of information, and the transparency thereof. The rise of demagogues has been much assisted by the explosion in 2016 and 2017 of so-called fake news, otherwise fairly describable as systemic lying in mass media. Famous examples of the falsehoods pushed on populations include Pope Francis supporting Donald Trump, and the UK Brexiteers’ insistence, contradicted by the UK Statistics Authority among others, that Britons “send the EU £350 million a week” that could be spent instead on the NHS. Analysis of both the UK Brexit vote and the US Presidential election shows how pervasive the problem has become. As Wired put it, in 2016 “the Mainstream Media melted down as fake news festered.” By August fake news about the US election was increasingly outperforming the top stories at the 19 major US news outlets. One of the best forensic analyses of how this happens comes from journalists at Scout, who describe how AI has been “weaponised as a propaganda machine” by organisations owned by conservative and alt-right interests, such as Cambridge Analytica, and leaders of the far right such as President Trump’s chief strategy advisor, Stephen Bannon. They are able manipulate beliefs  on an industrial scale, using four methods. The first involves the marriage of big data surveillance and computational psychology. Cambridge Analytica has created a model on this basis that compiles individual predictive personality profiles on a massive scale. Predicting a subject’s behaviour better than their partner could requires analysis of just 300 Facebook likes, so one expert professes. This before considering many other easily available analyses of online behaviour, and numerous sources of megadata that can be bought. The second involves automated engagement scripts that prey on human emotions. The practitioners call this “behavioural micro-targeting” and it allows them to change behaviour on an industrial scale. In the US election, personally targeted ads were used extensively in key swing areas. These included Facebook “dark posts”, visible only to those targeted. Cambridge Analytica were able to monitor peoples’ responses, such as sharing on Facebook, and assess which messages were resonating, tuning advertising accordingly. The third involves creation of propaganda networks that rapidly accelerate ideas. The purveyors of fake news have spent years building websites, and these now operate on a scale that allows gaming of search engine optimisation, including crucially at Google. The fourth involves use of an army of bots - computer programmes that talk like humans on fake social media accounts - to echo fake news and police public debate, including by intimidating and suppressing the voice of the opposition. The problem is going international, fast. Brexit-backer and Trump ally Arron Banks plans to launch a “news” site in the UK that aims to repeat the successes of US lie machines like Breitbart, the news agency founded by Stephen Bannon. It will be pro-Brexit, pro-Farage, pro-Trump, anti-establishment, anti-open borders, and anti-corporatism. In the US, where rightist billionaires outnumber those openly supportive of liberal causes, figures like fossil-fuel tycoon David Koch are funding campaigns to smear prominent potential champions of counter views like Elon Musk. This is all happening today. Tomorrow? Silicon Valley guru Peter Diamandis warns that within four years - by the time of the next US election - AI will be ten times more powerful, and will be being applied to 50 billion devices and a trillion sensors. Digital avatars will be photorealistic and fully programmable, able to have instant conversations with citizens. Picture standing in a taxi queue having a conversation with an avatar of a candidate on a screen. The operators of the sensors in the screen, having auto-identified you from facial recognition databases, will know from your profile if you are susceptible to any of their candidate’s arguments. They will know more about you than you do yourself. The candidate’s avatar will ask you a leading question, targeting your emotions. You respond. The candidate responds back in real time, with libraries worth of machine learning picking the answer used. All this manipulation will be unfolding in a world becoming inexorably more permissive of mass surveillance.  In November, the UK legalised - barely noticed - the most extreme surveillance powers in the history of western democracy. As Edward Snowden commented at the time, the Investigatory Powers Act goes further than many autocracies. It was passed despite the fact that only a few weeks earlier the Investigatory Powers Tribunal had ruled that UK security agencies have been illegally collecting data for 17 years, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. So much of this drama focusses on the creations of Silicon Valley, where company founders and employees have tended to favour the Democrats over the Republicans. What is the response there? The pushback has begun, but it hardly amounts to a resistance consistent with the scale of the problem yet. Over 100 Silicon Valley firms have filed a legal brief opposing President Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. These include Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Tesla. Employees of tech firms rallied in their thousands against the ban. Customers projected an intense displeasure in the marketplace: tweets protesting Uber’s links to Trump pushed competitor Lyft ahead in downloads for the first time. Uber’s CEO felt the pressure so strongly that he resigned from Trump’s economic advisory council. Individual companies have spoken out. Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the US, and  has invested more than €30bn there over the past 10 years. But still its CEO felt compelled to criticise Trump’s unpresidential “noise”,  attacks on the press, and proposed Mexican wall, making the obvious point that “America has become great because of immigrants”. Individual investors have also spoken out. Trump bludgeoned through the North Dakota Access oil pipeline with an executive order. But major investor Nordea simply banned its fund managers from investing in it. But none of this has addressed the processes by which Silicon Valley’s innovation with megadata is being hijacked by the far right yet. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is aware of the problem. In a 5,700 word Facebook post, he has endeavoured to chart a responsive course for his creation. It was met with scepticism. “Mark Zuckerberg’s Answer to a World Divided by Facebook Is More Facebook”, Wired concluded. Guardian tech correspondent Alex Hern, wrote a withering paragraph-by-paragraph dissection of it. Nikki Usher, Professor of new media and technology at George Washington University, concluded: “He might be in denial, because a lot of the rest of us are.” Some readers may think I am overstating a bit of demagoguery in modern politics. But people in the heart of the Establishment share my view. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Editor at the Financial Times, is among those warning how easily Trump the demagogue can morph into Trump the despot. George Soros calls Trump a “would-be dictator”. Consider the worrying people the President has appointed around him. Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, is a far right thinker with an apocalyptic vision of the future who now finds himself and his nationalist, anti-Islamic, views on the National Security Council. One of the figures Bannon is prepared to cite, as he did in a speech skyped into to a fringe Vatican conference in 2014, is a long dead  Italian philosopher named Julius Evola, a man revered as a godfather by many Italian fascists. Evola broke with Mussolini and his supporters because he considered them too tame.  His vision involved a bourgeoisie-smashing new order of white supremacists that he called - wait for it - the Solar Civilization. These days, so much of real life is stranger than the inventions of fiction. And how strange it is indeed to read the tenets of the fascist philosophy of a man known to and cited by the chief strategist of the President of the United States. This is how fast we are all having to relearn the narratives relevant to anchoring our world views in 2017. All this considered, the global score for the truth dial, as things stand, must surely be set at net severe negative. Already. Far worse is eminently conceivable, in relatively short order, unless resistance can be marshalled effectively. Fifth, equality. Turning this dial up will require significant narrowing of the income gap, both within the developed and developing worlds. Many analyses of the rise of the new demagogues show that rage over a widening income gap strongly influences those prepared to vote for them. The figures are shocking in America. Between 1970 and 2014, average income grew 77%, but almost all of these gains went to the top 1% of earners. Elsewhere, elites have also allowed disproportionate self enrichment to run rife. Globally, the 8 richest people own the same wealth as the poorest 50% and the richest 1% own more than the other 99%. Every year at the World Economic Forum, attendees openly worry about the unsustainability of these figures, and the social divisiveness they create. Yet each year they do precious little about it. Efforts to reduce inequality have seen some limited success at the bottom of the wealth league table. The percentage of people in extreme poverty - those earning under $1.90 a day - is falling in all regions of the world. But it must fall far faster if the World Bank is to hit its target of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. The global score for the inequality dial as things stand, must be set at a clear net negative.  Sixth, reform of capitalism. Turning this dial up will require much more attention to market failures.  The need for significant reform of capitalism has been widely acknowledged since the financial crisis of 2008. The absence of it has been the subject of rage even in the conservative press. One Daily Mail headline in June 2012 exhorted “Put Bankers In The Dock”. The virtual absence of legal redress for financial malfeasance, even in the case of companies and executives with hands caught jammed in the till, has undoubtedly contributed to the rise of the populist right and the demagogues they support. In the US, the Dodd-Frank Act went some way to introducing checks and balances on Wall Street. Having railed against the excesses of bankers in his campaigning, Trump in office wants to roll back even that. With the advent of the VW “dieselgate” scandal, and the prospect of multiple executive jailings for the systemic fraud involved, it may be possible that the tide could beginning to turn. But many of the proposals put forward for re-engineering of modern capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis, even by pillars of the capital markets, have gone by the wayside. Bonuses in the UK today are even bigger, in real terms, than they were before the financial crisis. World debt has been allowed to balloon to more than $150 trillion, a record. Out of control bonuses and mountainous unsecured debt were two of the main triggers of the 2008 global financial crisis. The global score for the reform dial, as things stand, must accordingly be set at clear net negative. Seventh, common security.  We live in a world where superpowers are fighting wars by proxy. Russia & Syria stand accused of deliberately “weaponising the refugee crisis” - as one NATO official has put it - in an effort to destabilise Europe. Meanwhile the superpowers are probing each others’ cybersecurity with increasingly sophisticated malware. Pointers to the pervasiveness of this new form of conflict bubble to the fore from time to time. In January 2016, hackers shut down the Ukrainian power grid. Kiev accused Russian special forces. The malware involved had previously infected power suppliers in the US and Europe, without shutting down supply. It is widely suspected that malware sits waiting to be triggered throughout infrastructure in the superpowers. Given the fragility of US electricity grid infrastructure this should be a particular concern. The three US grids are aged, with large power transformers on average 40 years old. The US suffers more blackouts than any other developed nation.  Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin has said of the grids’ susceptibility to attack: “it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.” The CIA, NSA and FBI have all concluded that Russia tried to influence the US presidential election in an effort to get Trump elected. We can only imagine what they know of Russian hacking of trojan horses into the US power grid. For their part the Russians have to fear American capabilities too. An attack on Russian bank Sberbank in late 2014, for example, hints at the vulnerability of their capital markets. It spooked depositors into withdrawing $20bn in one week. Other states would appear to be playing the same kinds of games. Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for serious cyber attacks on its aviation authority and on four other unnamed bodies. Dangerously destabilising as these proxy conflicts are, the potential for cyberattack on the world’s nuclear weapons, and their aged software support, hardly bears thinking about. The reduction in global warhead inventory from around 70,000 in the mid 1980s to some 15,000 today has been a somewhat positive feature of the years since the cold war. Yet both Putin and Trump have recently said they want to “strengthen” their nuclear weapons stockpiles. The global score for the conflict dial, as things stand, must be set at a manifest net negative. This completes my survey of the state of play on 20th February 2017. I will continue to review the evolving drama periodically from here on. In a subsequent blog, I will examine options for an integrated global plan aiming to tip all the seven dials into net positive territory, en route to an appropriate civilization, and away from the new despotism. I need hardly add that the challenges involved in so doing will be without precedent. But there is nothing in the sum of human affairs that is more important.   This blog was edited on 26th February in the light of crowdsourced wisdom, for which the author is very grateful.
Posted in Blogs

Two heart-warming competitions aiming to accelerate the revolution

screenshot-2017-01-08-11-20-14 In an era of populist leaders prepared to ignore both the clean energy revolution and the imperatives for it, favouring wilful denial and incumbents that are uneconomic or soon to be, companies and governments with eyes open face much greater leadership responsibilities than they would have in a world unified by respect for the rational. One of their options in this role is the staging of competitions to reward front-running revolutionary innovators. Let me describe two such competitions, under way at the moment, that I am exciting by and involved in. DSM is a global science-based health, nutrition and materials conglomerate which began life as a miner of coal, among other things - DSM originally stood for Dutch State Mining - and is now one of the world’s front-running transnational corporations not just on climate change but sustainability across the full spectrum. That journey in itself is an inspiring story, but if you want to be truly inspired (and based on my own experience, shaken up emotionally) watch this short film of what DSM believes science can do for the state of the modern world. I am proud to be a consultant to this company, and that two solar organisations I founded, Solarcentury and SolarAid, are partnered with them and others in the Bright Minds Challenge. This is a competition that seeks to reward entrepreneurs with renewable energy solutions that are ready to scale, with a specific focus on solar and energy storage solutions. Applications close on 1st February and the winner is announced in June. The prize is in kind: a basket of expert help aiming to turbocharge the winner. Here is what innovators at Solarcentury have to say about it all. The Start Up Energy Transition Award is an initiative of the Germany government. This competition seeks to create a platform with a clear focus on scaling up innovation to make global energy transition a success while speeding up efforts against climate change. It aims to identify the most promising start-ups worldwide working on energy transition, and offers a different prize model: 5-digit prize money in each of the 5 categories. Applications close at the end of January, and the winners will be awarded at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue in March 2017. This is a key event in the climate calendar for the coming year, especially given Germany’s chairmanship of the G20. It is organized by the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the Federal Foreign Office (AA). I am proud to be an ambassador for it, and for SolarAid to be a partner. So if you are a clean energy innovator reading this, or if you know of someone who is, you have three weeks to get applications in, if you haven’t already. And of course, the great thing about these competitions is that positive outcomes can transpire even if you don’t win. The key thing about revolutions is to act. If you do that, you create the space for good things to happen. We are all going to need a lot of good things to happen, to countervail the bad that we seem locked into, in the year ahead. As such, both these competitions are microcosms for hope.
Posted in Blogs
Appropriate civilization includes environmental balance, sustainable capitalism, empathic societies, racial and religious harmony, poverty alleviation at home and abroad, common security, and use of tech for social good.

New despotism includes environmental sabotage, reckless capitalism, isolationist nationalism, incitement to racial and religious hatred, retreat from aid, war mongering, and the use of tech for social harm.

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