The Unexpected Perspective
The Implications of Darwin and the Big Bang for Christians ... and Everyone Else


A proposal to increase the chances we'll achieve required greenhouse gas emission reductions in time to avoid catastrophe

            Given that news is made worldwide 24 hours per day, seven days a week, it's little wonder that even the most well informed person misses an awful lot of stories that are important, sometimes profoundly.

            One such story was the agreement reached last week by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).  That's the agency within the United Nations responsible for safety and security in shipping, as well as the prevention of marine pollution by ships.  Historically, it's been focused on controlling discharges by ships into the oceans.  Like many around the world, now it's trying to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

            When it comes to greenhouse gases, we all tend to think of the obvious sources such as power plants and automobiles.  But there are all kinds of other sources, and shipping is a comparatively small, yet still important, contributor.

            It's estimated that ships around the world on an annual basis emit the equivalent greenhouse emissions of 185 coal fired power plants.  The various participants/members in the IMO have agreed to eliminate 50% of those emissions by 2050.  It's a great idea, and an historic agreement, but don't uncork the champagne just yet.  That's because there are two key problems with this: 1) it's comparatively easy for participants to agree to reduce emissions, but there really isn't a very good enforcement mechanism, so it's fairly easy to have what are called "free riders"; and 2) even if everyone complies, there's concern that it won't happen quickly enough to achieve the "2 degrees Celsius" limit on temperature increase.

            In a certain sense, it's the very same problem that the Paris Climate Accord has.  How do you prevent countries from falling short, even reneging, on their pledges? Moreover, how do you get the needed reductions done in a sufficiently timely manner?  And failure to comply isn't necessarily a case of malfeasance or dishonesty.  After all, there's no doubt that members of the European Union REALLY want to eliminate greenhouse gases, but they're having a very difficult time doing so.

            I think there is a solution to the problem, and one applicable to both agreements.  Let me explain it, then show you why it's a superior approach. 

            The goal is to eliminate 50% of shipping related emissions by 2050, approximately the output of 93 coal fired power plants.  Gertrude Stein famously said, "a rose is a rose is a rose".  Similarly, while there are some variations, greenhouse gas is greenhouse gas.  If the shipping industry could find a way to eliminate the equivalent of  at least 93, and as many as 185, coal fired plants worth of greenhouse gas, they could claim "mission accomplished".  In fact, it would be double what they've promised.

            So my proposal is to reframe the problem.  We now know that renewables plants can be economically viable investments, so here's my idea: assign each party to the agreement a specific greenhouse gas reduction goal (with the sum of the individual commitments equal to the 185 coal plant total), but then leave it up to them to figure out the best way for them to accomplish the goal, either by focusing on reducing emissions in their own operations or by investing in another business; and encourage them to find the most economically profitable way to accomplish the goal.  They could then choose either to make the investment to reduce emissions in their own facilities, or they could commit the same amount of money to invest in building a renewables plant to replace an existing coal fired plant.

            The key idea here is to provide companies and countries a choice in how they eliminate greenhouse gases.  Besides that, it provides them an economic incentive to do so.  It also changes the calculus for making investment decisions.  It becomes one of the following: a) for a given amount of money, how can we create the greatest financial return while at the same time eliminating greenhouse gases; or b) to eliminate a given amount of carbon from the air, what's the least amount we're required to invest?  Pretty quickly everyone will focus investments on the following: a) Investments that provide the greatest financial return per ton of greenhouse gas removed; b) Investments that require the least amount of investment per ton of greenhouse gas removed.

            The real question for each party to ask itself is: can I/we more profitably/effectively eliminate our assigned target by investing in our own business, or should I/we instead commit the funds to eliminate our target number in another industry?

            The shipping industry – or any other industry trying to address this problem – could pool its resources and offer to build a bunch of renewables plants to replace current older plants.  Once the plants are built, the old plants would be decommissioned.   Alternatively, companies could work individually, making investments into existing entities that build and operate renewables plants. 

            Lots of people complain that old, inefficient coal fired power plants continue to operate in the USA, spewing tons of greenhouse gases.  Why aren't they replaced?  Because the owners don't want to abandon un-depreciated investments.  So here's an idea: the shipping industry could make a deal to provide the required capital to build new plants to replace the inefficient plants.  It could get as many as 185 renewables plants built and get up to 185 coal fired plants decommissioned.  Greenhouse gas reduction goal achieved.

            How could it pay for this?  Instead of spending money to reduce greenhouse gases in the shipping industry, the money could be invested in the renewables plants that would replace the coal fired plants.  Both industries could benefit. 

            The other important thing is for each group to have its members report on the investments they've made.  Within any given industry, each participant could be required to report on the financial performance of their greenhouse gas reduction investments.

            The reframing reduces or eliminates the "free rider" problem.  That's the problem of people agreeing to do something (e.g., do their part to eliminate greenhouse gases) but then doing nothing, figuring that they can get away with doing nothing.

            Here's why this is a better solution: a) if the investor can choose investment options from outside, it increases the chances that a better investment will be made; b) the investments can be made comparatively quickly.  In fact, the 185 plants could be eliminated within just a few years, far more quickly than if the investments are made to retrofit ships.  This will greatly increase the probability of achieving the "2 degree Celsius" goal.

            Realistically, this approach doesn't completely eliminate the "free rider" problem.  A given party may still decide not to follow through on its commitments.  After all, at the end of the day, human nature hasn't changed … and it isn't going to change.  But the "free rider" problem should be significantly reduced because the problem has been reframed more as an economic opportunity and less as a burden.  

            So isn't this just another form of trading carbon credits?  No, because in the case of carbon credits, the only way a company can meet its goals is by focusing its attention on reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.  In this approach, a company can choose to reduce emissions in any business or industry.  Thus, if a particular company needs to eliminate X tons of emissions per year, it can choose to do it either in its own operation or any other operation.  It could conclude it's more economical or efficient to invest in reducing emissions elsewhere.  Thus, the shipping company might decide it's better to invest in a renewables plant that will eliminate a coal fired electricity plant rather than cutting emissions in its own business.

            Some may criticize this approach because it may not result in any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by shippers.  Maybe not, but if properly implemented, it will result in overall emissions reduction.  Remember, greenhouse gas is greenhouse gas!  If the shipping industry does nothing to reduce ship emissions, but it takes steps to eliminate 185 coal fired power plants worldwide, consider it "mission accomplished".   But it probably won't happen quite that way.  That's because some parties will conclude that they can invest a certain amount of money to reduce emissions from their operations, and the investment will produce a greater economic return to them than making equivalent investments in other industries to reduce emissions.  But that's business!

            No doubt, everyone should commend the International Maritime Organization for what it is setting out to do.   The various parties may succeed by focusing on sources of carbon emissions just within the industry.  However, I strongly believe the probability of success will increase significantly if the shipping industry – or any industry – adopts the approach I've laid out here.  That's because, quite simply, greenhouse gases are more likely to be eliminated if everyone focuses on greenhouse gas elimination as a profit making opportunity, not an economic burden.

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In my last blog post I described my inspiration for writing the book, beginning with my observation that the 150 year failure of Christians to come up with a generally agreed upon understanding of how Darwin and other modern scientific ideas square with the Bible has led to many problems.  Many Christians, particularly the young, have left the church because of this.  Further, Christians are increasingly viewed as anti-science and out of touch.  Worst of all, Christians are also increasingly perceived as stupid.  I believe Christians need to do something about this.  I'm not at all suggesting we change our views in order to win a popularity contest, but I think we need to come up with better answers than we have, otherwise another 100 years could quickly pass and our Christian descendants would face even more scorn and less respect.

            Pretty much everyone has their heels dug in on the issue, locked into their respective views.  Likely, the only way to get some type of change on this is for someone to propose a new way of thinking.  Something like that happened about 500 years ago – it was called the Reformation – and it turned into far more than just a battle of ideas.  I think there's a solution to this that falls far short of what Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other great Reformers had to do, and shouldn't create the bloody consequences of the 16th century.  In short, my idea is to adopt some "entrepreneurial thinking."

            When I say "entrepreneurial thinking", I'm referring to the process that many entrepreneurs go through to create new business opportunities.  While I'm not thinking of this issue as a "business opportunity", I seriously think we could apply some of the concepts in order to come up with a good solution.

            The first thing to note is something already pretty well known: most great business ideas come from outsiders, meaning from people who aren't already insiders in a particular business or industry.  For example, the great personal computer revolution of the past 30 years was started by people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Gates and Jobs were both outsiders.  The benefit was that they weren't wedded to the views of the big companies in information technology at the time, companies such as IBM and Digital Equipment.  Ken Olson, the head of Digital Equipment at the time, famously asked the question, "why would anyone want to have a computer on his desk?"  Unless you live near Route 128 in Boston, or are more than 60 years old, you've likely never heard of  Ken Olson and his company, Digital Equipment, once a titan in the mini-computer industry.

            The same is true about music.  The recorded music industry has been completely upended in recent years by the Ipod, ITunes, and similar technology.    Similarly, while the idea for digital photography first emerged at photography titan Kodak, the leadership of the company was too invested in the status quo to see the need to rethink things.

            What has that to do with Charles Darwin, the Big Bang Theory, and Christianity?   Simply this: I think many prominent scientists and theologians are too "invested" in their respective current "views" about Darwin and Christianity.  They're too wedded to familiar assumptions, so any really new thinking on the subject will likely have to come from outside. 

            Why not from an accountant?  Sounds preposterous, but is it any more preposterous than a couple of college dropouts without much, if any, formal education in computer science upending the computer industry, or that Kodak could have been toppled as a photography titan?  While I'm a committed Christian, I'm neither a scientist nor a theologian, so I'm not "invested" in 150 years of thinking about Darwin.  Instead, I can come along and do what entrepreneurs tend to do well: ask unconventional questions.  Just as entrepreneurs can come in from outside an existing industry and develop new solutions to old problems by asking unconventional questions, so I believe that I, or someone like me, can come in and ask some unconventional questions about Darwin, the Big Bang, and Christianity. 

            I said I'm an accountant.  By profession I am a CPA, though I haven't practiced as a CPA for many years.  Instead, I'm an entrepreneur, as well as an inventor.  As the people who work with me regularly know, I love to ask unconventional questions.  Asking unconventional questions has been the basis for starting and building businesses, as well as inventing things.  It was also the starting point for my investigation into this whole question.  The end product, of course, was the book I've written.   

            While the book addresses a whole series of unconventional questions, it really begins with two.  It's been noted than non-Christian scientists are absolutely astounded that even given all of the evidence that what Darwin postulated is true, only about half of the general American public believes it.  But it's also been said that the only people who really should be surprised about that are the scientists themselves; and the reason is the argument that in the minds of those Darwin skeptics, even given all of the science, they've never been given a good reason they should want to believe Darwin.  Thus, the first unconventional question is, "what would have to happen for Christians to want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang Theory?"    The second unconventional question follows from that.  It is, "might there be reasons Christians would want to believe in Darwin and the Big Bang Theory and, if so, what would be those reasons?"

            So far as I know, no one has been asking those questions.  In my mind, they're the starting point for taking an "entrepreneurial look" at this entire issue, the place to launch a rethink of the matter.  Ken Olson of Digital Equipment couldn't conceive that anyone would want a computer on his desk, much less in his shirt pocket or on his wrist, and the failure to at least pose the question limited his thinking … and cost his shareholders a very fine company.  Have the people involved with the "Darwin versus Christianity" debate been thinking too much like Ken Olson?  I'm afraid they have.




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An interesting new twist on what killed off the dinosaurs

            No doubt about it, the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth millions of years ago were big, powerful, and likely very fierce.  But like the stereotypical "jocks" in your high school, who at the time seemed equally big, powerful, and fierce, maybe those dinosaurs weren't very smart. 

            At least they weren't smart enough to realize that the food they were eating was slowly killing them. 

            It's what has been termed "the biotic revenge hypothesis".  In recent years we've pretty much all concluded that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant meteor that struck the Earth 66 million years ago.  A recently published study by Michael Frederick of the University of Baltimore and Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany proposes that the dinosaurs began declining BEFORE the Chicxlub meteor impact.  It isn't that the meteor was unimportant, just that it can't explain everything that happened.  Let's take a look at the argument.

            Needless to say, be very happy that you weren't around when the meteor hit the Yucatan Peninsula.  Scientists who've studied the resultant crater estimate that the meteor itself was about 6 to 9 miles in diameter.  They've hypothesized that when it hit the Yucatan, it released energy equivalent to a billion times what was released in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined!

            We humans have had some experience with the result of massive volcanic explosions.  Anyone more than a few years old in May, 1980 probably recalls the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State.  Of far greater consequence, however, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.  The Tambora eruption was so big that it had huge climactic impacts for years thereafter. 

            But even Tambora was a trivial event compared to the Yucatan meteor explosion.  The dust cloud created by the Yucatan meteor likely lasted for ten years, doubtless causing widespread destruction, as well as extinctions of many plants and animals.

            While large animals died, a number of smaller creatures survived the disaster, likely because the latter were able to get by living off detritus.  I like to joke that this phenomenon will ensure that cockroaches - which apparently have been with us for 320 million years - will be the last creature standing when the world ends!

            No doubt, the meteor killed a lot of dinosaurs!  But did it cause them to go extinct?  The evidence suggests that dinosaurs actually went extinct over a seven million year period.  While the meteor explosion caused an awful lot of premature deaths, its effects probably didn't stretch out over seven million years.  That suggests there had to have been something else.

            One theory of the "something else" is what's called the Deccan Traps, located in what is now India.  Geologists believe that the traps began forming 66.25 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period.  The timing coincides perfectly with the demise of the dinosaurs.

            Those studying the Deccan Traps believe there were a series of large volcanic eruptions over a 30,000 year period.  Imagine, not one Tambora sized eruption but nearly continuous ones over 30,000 years!  The eruptions released a very large amount of sulphur dioxide, leading to an average temperature drop of two degrees Celsius.  You probably know that scientists today fear the effects of an increase of global temperatures of two degrees Celsius on Earth's climate.  The Deccan Traps may have caused a climatic disaster in reverse.

            But the Deccan Trap theory suffers the same problem as the meteor one: it can't really explain why it took about seven million years for the dinosaurs to disappear.  You know those stereotypically drawn out operatic death scenes in operas such as "Carmen" or "Don Giovanni"?  Trivial, if the meteor strike and Deccan Traps took seven million years to kill off the dinosaurs.

            Enter the new theory of Professors Frederick and Gallup.  Their thesis is that the dinosaurs started going extinct before either the meteor strike or the Deccan Traps.  The cause, they believe, was toxic plants eaten by dinosaurs that were herbivores.

            Evolution has caused some plants to develop shells as a defense against predators.  Likewise, others have developed toxins to discourage others from eating them.  Conversely, many animals have developed the ability to avoid toxic plants.  It's called "learned, or conditioned taste aversion".  Rats apparently are especially good at this.  They lack the ability to regurgitate bad things, so they have to be especially careful what they eat.  Rats have exquisitely learned how to avoid eating bad things.

            Not the dinosaurs.  Thus, the "dumb jock" hypothesis: the dinosaurs died because they were too dumb to realize what they were eating was killing them!  Professors Frederick and Gallup are more charitable to the hapless dinosaurs, calling their theory "the Biotic Revenge Hypothesis".

            That could explain why herbivorous dinosaurs went extinct, but what about the carnivores?  They weren't eating these toxic plants.  But they were eating the dinosaurs who were eating them.  Thus, if toxic plants were killing off the herbivorous dinosaurs, the food supply for the carnivores would have slowly disappeared … to be followed by the carnivorous dinosaurs themselves.

            The idea of plant toxins killing dinosaurs actually isn't new.  In fact, Tony Swain, a biologist working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, advanced the idea about forty years ago, before anyone had discovered the Yucatan meteor site.  But Swain's theory didn't gain much traction because the available evidence suggested that herbivorous dinosaurs were thriving right up to the time of the meteor impact.

            So what evidence do Professors Frederick and Gallup provide in their new paper?  They focused on crocodilians, including modern day crocodiles, alligators and caimans, each a descendant from precursors to dinosaurs.  They then constructed an experiment that showed caimans do not develop specific learned taste aversions. 

            The fact that the caimans didn't develop specific learned taste aversions, then in contrast to animals such as rats, they wouldn't avoid food that turned toxic.  So with respect to food, they're today's "dumb jocks", incapable of realizing something they're eating is killing them!

            But what about birds?  After all, there is evidence that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs.  If dinosaurs were killed off because they were indiscriminate eaters, why haven't robins gone the way of T-Rex?  The authors cite the work done in the 1970's showing that birds can form food aversions.  They do it, however, not by taste but by sight.  So if a bird has a bad experience with a particular type of food, they develop a visual association and avoid it in the future. 

            The experimenters provided some jays an opportunity to eat monarch butterflies for the first time.  The butterflies have a milkweed toxin that makes life miserable for any jay that eats it.  The jays survived the, to them, bad experience that results from eating monarch butterflies, but the jays developed a visual cue and avoided the misery in the future.

            So are Frederick and Gallup suggesting that the dinosaurs died off because of indiscriminate eating?  No, they haven't gone that far.  Instead, they see the "biotic revenge hypothesis" as merely one contributing factor.  So a lot of indiscriminate eating on the part of dinosaurs probably helped weaken them.  Inhaling an excess of sulphur dioxide from the Deccan Traps made it even worse.  All to be followed by the mother of meteor explosions. 

            Death and destruction on a scale never before seen … and all witnessed by those pesky cockroaches, who survived!  I guess size does matter, but in the case of dinosaurs and cockroaches, not the outcome you might have expected.

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Recent studies have shed new light on how our genetics have been influenced by the Neanderthals and Denisovans

            Don't like the way you look, or the way you feel?  Been blaming your parents and grandparents?   Well, maybe you've been blaming the wrong folks.

            Every day, more and more people discover their true genetic ancestry, thanks to ever lower cost DNA test from companies such as 23andme.  Oftentimes, there are unexpected surprises.  My wife, who was born in Italy - and whose entire family appears to have lived in Italy for generations – discovered that her father's ancestors were Vikings!

            All these genetic tests provide us new sources of blame for things we don't like about ourselves – someone other than our immediate family.  Besides checking the DNA of curious people like my wife and others, scientists are doing the same with for those long deceased.  It's been reported that the genomes of several Neanderthals and one Denisovan have been sequenced.  The evidence shows that these various groups interbred at various points in history.  The implications of that inter-breeding are now becoming apparent.    

            You've probably heard jokes about the Neanderthals – and Neanderthal behavior – for years and years.  Evidence now suggests that anyone of European ancestry has anywhere from 1% to 4% of their DNA from the Neanderthals – the result of all that interbreeding.

            Likewise, if you can trace your ancestry to Oceania – meaning one of the South Pacific Islands – or to various parts of Asia, there's a good chance you have DNA traceable to a group called the Denisovans.  For example, Aborginal Australians can trace about 3% to 5% of their DNA to the Denisovans.  The same is true for people from Melanesia and parts of China and Tibet.

            Conversely, if you're from Africa and have neither European nor Asian ancestry, you'll likely have neither Neanderthal nor Denisovan DNA.

            Neanderthals were a species very similar to Homo sapiens, our species.  Some make the argument that the Neanderthals were just close cousins to Homo sapiens.  Both species have a common ancestor who lived about 500,000 years ago.  While Homo sapiens differed somewhat from Neanderthals, we were sufficiently similar that the two species could mate and have children, thus explaining why so many of us have some Neanderthal DNA.

            Neanderthals apparently moved out of Africa first.  Then about 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens also moved out of Africa.  Homo sapiens and Neanderthals apparently only began to interbreed after the two groups moved out of Africa, thus explaining why the typical African doesn't have Neanderthal DNA.

            We know a lot less about the Denisovans than about the Neanderthals.  That's largely due to the fact that only a few fragments of deceased Denisovans have ever been found – nothing more than a finger bone, a toe bone, and several teeth – from a cave in remote Siberia.

        When two populations, such as the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals, begin to interbreed, it's called "adaptive introgression".  So what are these DNA studies revealing about adaptive introgression?  A number of interesting things.

              First, it may explain the real reason why you look as you do.  One study identified some twenty different physical traits in modern humans that are traceable to the Neanderthals.  If you happen to have rosy cheeks, little or no protruding chin, or a broad projecting nose, don't blame Aunt Martha or your father, thank one of your Neanderthal ancestors instead.

     But of potentially greater interest are several recent DNA studies suggesting that Neanderthals not only provided some of us with rosy cheeks, they also gave many of us allergies, as well as an increased risk for depression.  Another recent study looked at the health records of Americans and concluded that Neanderthal admixed DNA may affect the risk of depression; explain skin lesions resulting from sun exposure; explain hypercoagulation of blood; and even explain something about tobacco use.

            Having trouble quitting smoking?  I guess you can blame it on that nameless ne'er do well Neanderthal ancestor of yours!

            But the Neanderthals didn't just give some of us a genetic variation of the "lump of coal" for Christmas.  In fact, two other new studies identified three archaic genes from the Neanderthals that boost immune response, a benefit.

            Other studies show the same positive benefit resulting from interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Denisovans.  One positive benefit of that is evidence that the Denisovans provided certain groups in Tibet the ability to survive and thrive at high altitudes.  Anyone who has ever travelled to Pikes Peak in Colorado (elevation 14,110 feet above sea level) or the base camp in Nepal from which teams begin the ascent of Mt. Everest (elevation 18,500 feet above sea level) knows how hard it is for humans to breathe at such altitudes.  However, the Denisovans provided at least some modern day Tibetans the right genes for this.

            Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection posits that "bad genes" will eventually disappear.  If that's the case, then why would bad genes that lead to depression and allergies, for example, persist?  There are two likely answers.

            One reason "bad genes" might persist for such a long time is because they were likely beneficial in prehistoric times.  We obviously live in a very different world than did our Neanderthal, Denisovan, or Homo sapiens forebears.  The conditions that made those "bad genes" beneficial have disappeared.  The genes may be bad in a modern environment, but not bad enough that they would prevent the person with the bad genes from having offspring.  After all, you may have nasty allergies, and life may be a bitch in allergy season, but how many people with allergies do you know who died before they could pass on their genes?

            The other reason may be related to modern day lifestyles and environments.  Take the case of allergies.  There's some evidence that allergies are problematic for modern humans because of the conditions in which we live.  Another is that children are raised in overly sanitary environments, so they do not develop immunity from a range of minor bugs while they're young and their immune response somehow remains immature. 

          At the same time, while the Neanderthals provided us some bad things, another new study

suggests that evolution by natural selection did in fact work: large numbers of Neanderthal gene variants that would be deleterious to humans were purged.  But researchers made another interesting discovery: that "purging" wasn't a foregone conclusion.  Instead, the purging of many of these Neanderthal genes occurred only because the Homo sapiens population was so much larger than the Neanderthal population.  If, instead, the Homo sapiens and Neanderthal populations had been more evenly balanced, not only would more us have rosy cheeks, we'd also have more Neanderthal genes, including ones that are mildly deleterious to modern day humans.  According to Ivan Juric of the University of California Davis, "Selection is more efficient at removing deleterious variants in large populations."  The study further noted, "Weakly deleterious variants that could persist in Neanderthals could not persist in (early modern) humans.  We think that this simple explanation can account for the pattern of Neanderthal ancestry that we see today along the genome of modern humans."

            What that implies is a potentially very different outcome if the populations of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had been more evenly balanced.  We likely would have a lot more Neanderthal DNA than we do.  Alternatively, we might have a lot less Homo sapiens DNA than we do.  Taking that a step further, maybe we might actually be mainly Neanderthal, not Homo sapiens?

            Of course, passing good and bad genes isn't a "one way street".  I've noted the evidence that Neanderthals have bequeathed upon many of us some not so nice DNA.  According to another recent study, Homo sapiens returned the favor by passing along to Neanderthals the bacterium that causes such truly pleasant things as stomach ulcers, tapeworms, and tuberculosis.  The Neaderthals apparently hadn't developed resistance to such bugs, so exposure was catastrophic, much as the introduction of various bugs by the Spanish explorers to the Americas in the late 15th and early16th centuries was catastrophic to native populations. 

            Our individual genomes carry surprises of both the good and the bad variety.  Not only that, they shed light on the rich journey of Homo sapiens and related species from the time of the emergence of Homo in Africa.  So be ready to be surprised even more.












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The International Energy Agency released its first ever report on CO2 emissions. It offered some interesting surprises.

            US President Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to take credit, even when he may not deserve it.

            Until this week.  Amazingly, some pretty positive news was reported – and news that Trump could legitimately "crow" about, BUT it looks like he's completely ignored it! 

            What?  Why? 

            The answer?  Because it has to do with climate change.

            The news came in the form of a report by the International Energy Agency.  That's the organization created in the early 1970's to monitor worldwide energy usage.  The USA and 29 other countries are members.  This past week (20 March 2018) the IEA published its first ever Global Energy and CO2 Status Report.

            Of course, not all CO2 emissions are related to energy – think, for example, of agricultural and forestry - but based upon data from the Global Carbon Projectthe IEA data cover about 88% of total carbon emissions worldwide.

            As you might expect, it was a case of "good news/bad news".  The overall "bad news" was that the level of carbon emissions related to energy usage went up worldwide last year about 1.4%, after several years of being pretty much flat.

            So what was the good news?  Four economically advanced countries – the USA, Great Britain, Japan, and Mexico – all had emissions reductions.  The USA last year again led the world in total carbon emission reductions.

            That's in spite of the fact that the USA withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, and the evidence that the Trump Administration is trying to put "climate science deniers" in key positions in the Administration.

            I rather doubt the International Energy Agency is putting out "fake news".   But if it is, the people who should be shouting "fake news" are the people in most of the countries that have been complaining about Trump's environmental policies.  That's because this report doesn't make them look very good.   

            So let's consider seven interesting conclusions one can draw from the IEA report.

#1: The USA continues to lead the world in reducing greenhouse gases, in spite of Trump's moves


            That was an unmistakable conclusion of the report.  For the third year in a row, the USA reduced total carbon emissions.  Certainly good news!

            So in spite of all of the moves by the Trump Administration to quash efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, it happened anyway.

            So maybe we've been asking the wrong questions, or drawing the wrong conclusions.  Maybe the real answer is, cleaning up greenhouse gases has more to do with economics and less to do with policymaking at the Federal government and international treaty level.

            The fact that wind and solar are so much more cost competitive than in the past is leading to a huge transition across the USA.  Market forces are very much in play.

            A less well understood fact is how corporations are changing their thinking about greenhouse gases.  An interesting example is Duke Energy, a major electric utility in the southeast USA.  Duke for years has resisted the move towards clean energy.  In fact, the company has been perceived almost as a climate change denier.  Yet the company has recently released a climate change report to its shareholders and the public.  

            The company reports that it is now factoring in an implied cost of carbon in its long range planning.  The fact that a company like Duke is now doing that clearly says, the world has changed!  In the report, the company says, "Sustained financial support for research, development and scaling of low-carbon technologies, including smart grid, energy efficiency, solar, wind, storage, nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration, will be needed to meet these challenges."

            A public relations ploy?  Maybe, but notwithstanding Trump Administration efforts to deny climate change, something has clearly changed in the USA, and major corporations now realize it's in their economic self interest to deal with greenhouse gases.  Less and less do they need outsiders lecturing to them about climate change.  More and more, they can see the economics favor much less carbon.

            These are likely the reasons the USA is at the leading edge of greenhouse gas reductions.

#2: The European Union is "talking the talk", but not exactly "walking the walk", when it comes to greenhouse gas reductions


            Perhaps the most interesting "take away" from the report, however, is the poor performance of the European Union.  Buried in the middle of the report are two important data points.  First, the European Union overall increased greenhouse gas emissions last year by 1.5%.  But besides the USA, one of the other major countries that reduced greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 was the United Kingdom – by a whopping 3.8%.

The UK is in the process of leaving the European Union, but is still part of it for reporting purposes.  It represents 16% of the GDP of the EU, at least until the Brexit process is complete, presumably in March, 2019. 

            That means the European Union, excluding Great Britain, actually did worse than a worse 1.5% increase in emissions.  Simple math tells us that if Britain represents 16% of the EU and had a 3.8% emissions decline, and the EU as a whole had a 1.5% increase, then the part of the EU excluding Britain actually had a 2017 emissions increase of at least 1.8%!  

            But that's not all.  In another dimension, the European Union did very poorly.  That's on the dimension of what's called "energy intensity", which is discussed more below.  According to the IEA, worldwide, energy intensity improved by 1.7%.  The report bemoaned that 1.7% reduction because it was actually 2.0% in 2016, the year before.

            So why the worse performance in 2017?  Well, also buried in the report was that the European Union only improved energy intensity by 0.5%, not even a third as good as the worldwide average.  The European Union represents slightly less than 25% of the world economy – an even bigger percentage than the USA.  Simple math tells us that that poor performance by the EU provides the reason worldwide performance went from 2.0% to 1.7% in 2017.

            So if the Paris Climate Accord, as well as other governmental policies, are really the key to solving the greenhouse gas problem – a problem that definitely needs to be solved – then how do you explain the fact that the country with the "climate denying leadership" is way outperforming the very countries so invested in fixing the CO2 emissions problem?

            Bottom line: maybe the European Union should spend less time criticizing USA performance on greenhouse gas emissions, figure out how the USA is getting the job done, and spend a lot more time fixing its own house!

#3: China's results are definitely going in the right direction

         In the IEA report, China was also part of the "good news/bad news".  The bad news was that China's overall emissions increased by 1.7% in 2017.  Part of the good news, though, was that China reported overall economic growth of 7%, so its CO2 emissions increased at a far slower rate than did the economy.

            The other good news out of China is that the government seems to want to do something about cleaning up the air – to give the Chinese blue skies again.  There's now a major initiative to change heating in northern China away from coal and towards more environmentally friendly technology.  Not only that, China is now leading the world in installations of alternative energy such as wind and solar.  Certainly good news! 

#4: Renewables are making great headway

            The truly good news continues to be on the renewables front.  According to the IEA report, "Renewables saw the highest rate of growth of any energy source in 2017 and met around a quarter of global energy demand growth last year. The power sector played the most important role in the growth of low-carbon energy, with renewables-based electricity generation increasing by 6.3% (380 TWh) in 2017. Renewables now account for 25% of global electricity generation. China and the United States together accounted for half of the increase in renewables-based electricity generation, followed by the European Union (8%), Japan and India (with 6% of growth each). The growth of wind power and solar PV in 2017 was unprecedented; wind power accounted for the largest share of overall renewables growth, at 36%, followed by solar PV (27%), hydropower (22%) and bioenergy (12%). China accounted for 40% of the combined growth in wind and solar PV, with new record capacity additions and a reduction in the rate of curtailment. Nearly 40% of the increase in hydropower was in the United States, while climatic conditions in the European Union reduced hydro output by nearly one-tenth. The European Union, China and Japan accounted for 82% of global bioenergy growth in power."

#5: The focus needs to be on Asia, especially countries besides China


         So there's positive news coming from China, but the news elsewhere in Asia doesn't seem so good.  That's particularly problematic because energy usage, and greenhouse gases, are growing most rapidly in Asia.  India, in particular, is both expanding its economy rapidly, but is also emitting more greenhouse gases.  Countries such as Indonesia and South Korea are also contributing to the problem.

         If we're going to avoid hitting the "two degrees Celsius" increase in average global temperatures, the battle will likely be won or lost in places like Asia.  More attention needs to be placed on controlling emissions in these areas.

#6: Energy intensity continues to improve, it just needs to happen more quickly


            "Energy intensity" refers to the amount of energy required to produce a unit of economic output – GDP.  Again, a "good news/bad news" situation.  On a positive note, worldwide economic output has increased by about 80% since 2000.  However, energy usage has only increased by about 40% - so we're getting more efficient.  We improved again last year – 1.7%

            But if we're going to achieve the "2 degrees Celsius" goal, we've got to increase energy intensity even more, otherwise we've got to find use more renewables.

            Which means the European Union has got to "pick up its game" and improve energy intensity more than 0.5% a year.  Other major economic powers – the USA and China – need to keep pushing to improve, too.

#7: Like other countries, the USA needs to intensify its efforts, just maybe in different ways than everyone's been saying         


            The USA results for 2017 are good, but they could still be better. Moreover, if we're going to achieve the "two degree Celsius" goal, we're going to have to step up our game in the USA, too.

            The USA reduced greenhouse gases again in 2017 for two key reasons: 1) growth in renewable energy; and 2) reduction in electricity demand.  To continue to reduce greenhouse gases, focus should likely remain on these two areas.

            The economics of renewables in the USA continue to get better.  In many cases, renewables are more cost competitive than oil, gas and coal.  The proportion of renewables in place will likely continue to grow.  On the other hand, reducing electric demand may be much more challenging.  That's likely because the size of the electric vehicle fleet is going to continue to grow.  Not only that, but electric generation to support server farms for cloud data storage will likely continue to grow rapidly.  Perhaps the best way to reduce electricity demand is to increase the usage of LED's.


            So, what then can we take away from this IEA report on CO2 emissions? 

Well, we can pretty safely say President Trump isn't going to take credit for the comparatively positive USA results on climate change for 2017. 

            What we don't know is the response of the leaders of countries who do believe in the danger of CO2, yet whose results were pretty lousy.  My recommendation is, stop and ask:

  • What are the USA, Great Britain, Japan and Mexico doing that's having a  positive impact? 
  • What does the European Union need to do differently that will produce better results this year, next year, and the year after that? 
  • What do countries like India need to do in order to get results more like those in China? 

There are other questions to ask, too, but these are some good starters.

            The clock continues to tick on greenhouse gas emissions.  Time for fewer platitudes and more practical action.













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Paleontologists from the Smithsonian have published results from their latest excavations in Kenya. There are some interesting surprises!

         Three papers published in Science on March 15th may cause scientists to re-write at least part of the story of the emergence of Homo sapiens - our species.  These new studies suggest five important surprises – two of which could represent very unexpected things about climate change.

         The research was conducted by paleontologists and other scientists in the Olorgesaillie region of Kenya, much of it sponsored by the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program.  Lots of previous research has been done there, probably most famously by paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey.

            Let's consider each surprise.

Surprise #1: Evidence of sophisticated tools and trade


         Earlier research at Olorgesaillie suggests evidence of human-like species as far back as 1.2 million years ago.  These weren't Homo sapiens – our species – but were pre-cursor species such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Australopithecus.  One of the most famous paleontological finds was Lucy, a member of the Australopithecus species.  Lucy was a female of that species who lived about 3.2 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia.

            The scientists at Olorgesailie discovered a range of fairly sophisticated tools, many made out of obsidian.  Scientific dating indicates the tools were created roughly 320,000 years ago.  Previously, scientists had observed the creation of very large, crude tools.  Up to now, any such more sophisticated tools scientists had found had dates less than 280,000 years old.

            That was surprising enough, but perhaps the bigger surprise was the fact that many were made of obsidian.  At one Olorgesailie site, 46 percent of more than 3,400 stone artifiacts were obsidian.  Some of the finds indicate signs of having been attached to handles, likely spearpoints, according to the researchers.

            So why was the presence of obsidian so significant?  It's because there is no obsidian in the area where the tools were excavated.  However, analysis of the chemical composition of the obsidian suggests that it could have come from an area 25 to 50 kilometers away.  That means the toolmakers would have had to transport the obsidian over a fair distance.  Not what we moderns consider a great distance, but certainly a great distance for 300,000+ years ago.  That meant that they traveled over relatively long distances, most likely in search of food.  In the course of foraging, they encountered other hominids and undertook trade with them.

Surprise #2: These early groups were using dyes


         The researchers also discovered a total of 88 pigment lumps, including two pieces with grinding marks, that came from an indeterminate distance outside Olorgesailie.  The reason this is significant is that pigment might have been applied to one's body or belongings, and that may have provided evidence of group identity or social status, according to the researchers. 

            Rick Potts, from the Smithsonian Human Origins Project, and one of the lead researchers on the project, observed,  "We don't know what the coloring was used on, but coloring is often taken by archeologists as the root of complex symbolic communication."  He went on to say, "Just as color is used today in clothing or flags to express identity, these pigments may have helped people communicate membership in alliances and maintain ties with distant groups."

Surprise #3: Evidence of the emergence of human society earlier than expected


            When did human society first emerge?  Up until now, the evidence has suggested the first signs of what we call society appeared about 100,000 years ago.  That conclusion was based upon evidence such as cave paintings found in Ethiopia.  So while Homo sapiens may well have emerged 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, scientists have felt that societies didn't emerge until 100,000 years ago. 

            When you consider the new evidence from Olorgesailie, that probably needs to be reconsidered.  The evidence from these latest studies includes more sophisticated tools, trade, and dyes, and suggests some form of human society 200,000 years earlier than previously thought! 

            In short, what the Olorgesailie researchers found was definitely a surprise.  According to a press statement issued by the researchers, "The obsidian transport and the collection and processing of pigments imply an early development of social networks connecting members of our species across longer distances… This practice is characteristic of our species, but in contrast to our closest primate relatives, and is not implied by the material record of the preceding early Stone Age levels at Olorgesailie," said George Washington University paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks, a senior member of the Olorgasailie team, in an interview with Discover.

         After all, chimpanzees and other non-human primates don't travel into one another's territory.  If they do, they'll like end up in a fight to the death.  So the Homo species that occupied Olorgasailie 300,000 years ago must have developed a higher level of sophistication.

            Rick Potts, the Smithsonian researcher, argues that "greater mobility of these groups encouraged inventive thinking about how to acquire resources."  

Surprise #4: Climate change may have helped Homo sapiens


            But why the shift away from clunky, durable hand axes used by these early hoinids?   Can the emergence of more sophisticated tools be explained?  The researchers offer a possible explanation.  "One of the things we see is that around 500,000 years ago in the rift valley of southern Kenya, all hell breaks loose. There's faulting that occurs, and earthquake activity was moving the landscape up and down. The climate record shows there is a stronger degree of oscillation between wet and dry. That would have disrupted the predictability of food and water, for those early people," Potts says. "It's exactly under those conditions that almost any organism—but especially a hunter-gatherer human, even an early one—would begin to expand geography of obtaining food or obtaining resources. It's under those conditions that you begin to run into other groups of hominins and you become aware of resources beyond your usual boundaries.

            The evidence suggests there was dramatic change in wet and dry conditions in the area of Olorgesailie around 320,000 years ago.  Moreover, these changes appear to have occurred over decades, not thousands or hundreds of thousands of years.             

         The Olorgesailie researchers don't know whether the tools and dyes they found were from a Homo sapien population, as there were no remains located.  However, other evidence suggests this is when Homo sapiens first emerged as a species.  So we can't tell if it was Homo sapiens or one of the earlier Hominid species.  But according to the Olorgesailie researchers, rapid climate change could well have been the reason the population started foraging over larger areas with ever smaller, more sophisticated tools.  This would have brought them into contact with other groups.  At some point they started trading with these other groups, the reason they probably first acquired obsidian.

         These interactions probably came through necessity. Like today, natural disasters posed challenges beyond the scope of the individual. Earthquakes and changing seasons and climates likely offered proof to early humanity that it was better to work together.  "This change to a very sophisticated set of behaviors that involved greater mental abilities and more complex social lives may have been the leading edge that distinguished our lineage from other early humans," says Rick Potts, in a press statement.

         Would they have started foraging over wider areas if the climate had been stable?  Why work harder than you need to, especially if by crossing territory you end up encountering other groups?  No doubt, such widespread foraging would have been dangerous – just as its dangerous for a non-human primate to cross into another's territory.  Why do something dangerous … unless you need food? 

            Likely, that's why these populations started moving, and encountering other groups.

Homo sapiens was more sophisticated than the other hominids and eventually became the only hominid species.

            So in a peculiar sense, perhaps we humans can thank climate change for our triumph over the other hominids?   Well, that's the conclusion of Rick Potts, the researcher from the Smithsonian.

Surprise #5: We might actually look forward to dramatic climate change


            In a funny sense, climate change has been good to our species.  After all, perhaps the biggest climate change event of all time – the asteroid collision 66 million years ago – led to the demise of the dinosaurs and the triumph of mammals.  Had that not occurred, the dominant species today might still be dinosaurs.  After all, the event occurred a mere 66 million years ago.

            As previously noted, the evidence from Olorgesailie suggests rapid climate change may have been the spur to the hominid population to forage over wider areas, as well as develop more sophisticated tools.  While we don't have proof, there's a very good chance the Olorgesailie population were Homo sapiens.  However, even if they weren't, the observed behavior is consistent with what we know about our species.  Given a difficult situation, Homo sapiens becomes more creative and inventive, as well as more mobile.

            We're facing another time of potentially very rapid climate change.  The evidence seems pretty clear that if we don't take quick action, our climate will rapidly change.

            Which leads to an unexpected possibility: based upon our past experience, rapid climate change might be awful for other species, but it could be great for us!   That's because when Homo sapiens encounters big problems, we tend to become quite resourceful and inventive.  Facing rapid climate change, we might see an outpouring of creativity.

            You can make the argument that we've already seen that.  After all, we've only very recently realized there was a serious climate change risk, yet in short order, our species has developed entirely new technologies for solar, wind, and batteries, for example.  Absent the threat of climate change, would change have occurred so rapidly?  It's hard to say, but there does seem to be plenty of evidence that humans become more creative when they're put under stress.

            Please understand, I'm not suggesting we encourage more destructive climate change.  It's a real problem that should be solved – quickly.  But even if disaster strikes, and traumatic climate change occurs, in a most peculiar, and unexpected, way it actually might benefit humans.

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We've got the technology to prevent climate catastrophe, but can we implement it in time?

            It's a "good news/bad news" situation. 

            The good news: there's enough technology available now to solve the climate change problem.  That's because solar and wind power are now highly competitive technologies.  Add to that is the fact that the technology for all electric and hybrid vehicles is now sufficiently good that the world could move fairly quickly to a vehicle fleet composed largely of alternative power.  Plus, technology keeps improving in a broad range of ways, so alternative energy solutions keep getting better.

            And we don't have to eliminate all carbon emissions, just enough to restore the natural equilibrium that existed until just a few years ago.

            Now the bad news: we're in a race against the clock to implement these technologies on a large enough scale to prevent TOO MUCH climate change.  Some people think it's already too late, but I prefer to be optimistic.

            So what might be done to speed up the transition and "beat the clock"? 

            Some people think that this is the perfect time for a good dictator: just implement changes by governmental fiat.  Presto … boom … problem solved!  China's approach comes to mind.  The good news is that the Chinese government seems now to understand the risks to the planet, and large scale alternative energy investments are now underway.

            But anyone who's ever lived under a dictator will quickly tell you it's no panacea … climate change or not.  Besides, most of the world doesn't live that way … and the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan certainly don't. 

            So if you don't happen to live in the Peoples Republic of China, just how do you speed up the transition to a world of much lower carbon emissions?  Here are five ways OTHER THAN WIND, SOLAR, AND ELECTRIC VEHICLES this could be done; and it could be done even if the Trump Administration maintains its negative attitude about climate change risks.

#1: Increase research in negative emissions technologies

            It all starts with basic research and technology.  After all, a key reason wind, solar, and electric vehicles are commercially viable today is because of R&D.  A promising strategy is to encourage more research into "negative emissions technologies", of which there are four types:

  1. Bioenergy in combination with carbon capture and storage (BCCS)
  2. Afforestation
  3. Enhanced weathering
  4. Direct capture of CO2.

Afforestation is the idea of planting lots more trees around the world to soak up all of the excess CO2.  It's a great natural solution, with a big problem: it takes up huge amounts of land and is water intensive.

            More likely, the other three strategies have the most potential.  Let's look at some of the most promising research.  Professor Daniel Nocera at Harvard University is developing what's called an artificial leaf.  The idea is to mimic the natural process of chlorophyll in plants: combine water and CO2 in the air, along with sunlight, to produce glucose and oxygen.    He and his team are trying to convert the sugar produced by this into a useful fuel source.  The other approach they're taking is to add bacteria to the sugar byproduct to produce a nitrogen based fertilizer.

            As reported by Forbes, "Nocera has an even bigger vision for the basic technology. Beyond producing hydrogen and carbon-rich fuels in a sustainable way, he has demonstrated that equipping the system with a different metabolically altered bacterium can produce nitrogen-based fertilizer right in the soil, an approach that would increase crops yields in areas where conventional fertilizers are not readily available. The bacterium uses the hydrogen and CO2 to form a biological plastic that serves as a fuel supply. Once the microbe contains enough plastic, it no longer needs sunshine, so it can be buried in the soil. After drawing nitrogen from the air, it exploits the energy and hydrogen in the plastic to make the fertilizer. Radishes grown in soil containing the microbes ended up weighing 150 percent more than control radishes.  Nocera admits that he initially ran the fertilizer test just to see if the idea would work. He envisions a time, however, when bacteria will "breathe in hydrogen" produced by water splitting and ultimately use the hydrogen to produce desired products ranging from fuels to fertilizers, plastics and drugs, depending on the specific metabolic alterations designed for the bugs."

            At the same time, Professor Jonas Peters at CalTech is conducting experiments to convert CO2 in the atmosphere into multiple carbon products.  The preferred strategy is to create by-products with carbon/carbon bonds.  The reason for this is that such products tend to be in liquid form.  A liquid makes it easier to store energy.

            The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is doing similar research, as well as Professor Dunwei Wang at Boston College.

#2: Encourage "impact investment" in carbon capture/negative emissions

         What these scientists are doing is highly speculative basic research.  Even if such research produces useful products, much of it probably won't be commercialized.  That's a key reason why so much basic research is funded by the government.  Unfortunately, in the current climate in the USA, it's hard to get lots of basic research funded, particularly by a Federal Government headed by climate change deniers.

            But while the Federal government is a logical participant, there are other entities that might be just as suitable.  State governments are a possibility, though their budgets are very constrained.  Perhaps the best alternative source is "impact investors".

            So just what is impact investing? It refers to investments "made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return."  Instead of just giving money with no expectation of a return, the impact investor seeks a return of all funds invested, as well as some type of financial return on the investment.  This is all in addition to doing good.  With respect to the problem of greenhouse gases, it makes tremendous sense.

            Impact investing funds could do the following for carbon capture and storage:

  1. Make direct investments in companies in the alternate energy space
  2. Make direct investments in carbon capture companies
  3. Make investments in organizations such as the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.

How might an impact investor get a return from an investment in basic research?  One way might be to get patent rights assigned to the impact investor for any intellectual property arising from the research.  Such research requires patient capital.  Impact investors typically aren't looking for quarterly returns.  Impact investing capital can be patient, and it might be an important key in financing carbon capture R&D.

#3: Increase investments in carbon capture businesses

         Part of the good news is that carbon capture has moved beyond the laboratory.  Not a lot of people realize is that there are a number of commercial businesses already doing this.  Here's a quick, partial list of new, smaller firms:

            Global Thermostat

            CO2 Solutions

            Carbon Engineering


But carbon capture isn't the exclusive province of start up companies.  Among big companies – including some "Big Bad Oil Companies" involved in this are:

            Shell Oil


            NRG Energy

Bottom line: more investment is needed in these companies.  Impact investors could be a good source of capital.

#4: Create a bigger market for the products of carbon capture companies

            The carbon capture companies listed above have technology that works, but always remember, you can have the greatest imaginable technology, but not enough customers and you're out of business.  So for this to be a success, the market for carbon capture products needs to grow. 

            So another strategy is to find ways to increase business with those companies.  For example, Climeworks, mentioned earlier, is a Zurich, Switzerland based company that builds modular plants that remove CO2 from the air and concentrates it.  Being modular, the plants can be of widely different sizes and can be placed most anywhere.  Their footprints are pretty small, too.

            One way would be for state and local governments to require companies emitting greenhouse gases to install plants to capture some of the gases emitted.  In the case of electric utilities, regulation is at the state level so it doesn't matter that the Trump Administration opposes this.  A given state public utility commission could tell a utility, you can continue to operate your coal fired plant but you must make an investment in a Climeworks style plant to remove a part of the pollution you create.

            That, however, is a regulatory solution.  How do we get it so consumers and businesses WANT to invest in carbon capture products and technology?

            The fifth strategy may well provide the answer.

#5: Adopt a carbon transfer payment in the USA

            Implementing a carbon tax is an old idea that's been implemented in various countries around the world, but certainly hasn't been in the USA.  It's an elegant solution to the problem … that's dead on arrival in the USA.  The US Congress hasn't raised the gasoline tax in a generation, and that money goes to fund repair and construction, providing an obvious, tangible benefit.  If that's the case, it's hard to believe it would implement a carbon tax.

            But there actually might be a way to do this, and it comes from the most unexpected place – a conservative Republican named Ted Halstead.  Halstead gave a very interesting TED Talk in 2017 on this subject.

            Here's the funny thing about Halstead's idea – it isn't really a tax at all.  It's a transfer payment that goes disproportionately to the less well off.  What it does is place a "tax" on any product that emits carbon.  That would include, for example, oil and gas, as well as coal.  It would mean that prices of gasoline, electricity, and chemical products that are based upon petrochemicals would increase.  The increases would, of course, be a function how much carbon they include.  So in that sense, it would be a tax – a "no no" for Republicans.

            But this is where it gets interesting.  All of the money would be collected, then the money collected would be equally divided amongst all USA citizens and distributed.  That's what's called a "transfer payment".  Billionaires and paupers would each receive the exact same amount.  The idea is that it would cover the cost of the higher prices associated with use of carbon products. 

            The funny thing about this is that Trumpian America should love this.  This would provide regular payments to the down and out – and it would do it without increasing the deficit a penny.  No additional bureaucracy, unless you somehow think the US Postal Service will have to hire more people to deliver all of the checks.

            This would likely make carbon based products more expensive and would help spur a transition to alternative energy.  As traditional carbon based products get more expensive, wind, solar, and carbon capture all become more attractive.  In the meantime, the extra cost that US consumers would pay for products would be offset by the transfer payments.

            Yes, definitely a good news/bad news scenario.  Will we make the transition in time to prevent catastrophic climate change due to a global temperature increases?  Only God knows the answer to that.   In the meantime, we have ways to deal with it.  The real question is, do we have the will to make it happen before the clock runs out?











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The discovery of 1.5 million Adelie penguins in Antarctica was an unexpected surprise, but the bigger story may be in some of the unexpected details

            Unless you've seen more than enough Presidential tweets and are observing a self-imposed news blackout, there's a good chance you've heard the absolutely amazing news that scientists have discovered a colony – make that a supercolony – of 1.5 million Adelie penguins on an island off the Antarctic Peninsula. 

            Until this amazing discovery, the story line for the Adelie penguins, as well as other penguins such as the Emperors, has been pretty grim.

            This discovery, first reported in Nature, suggests that the population of Adelie penguins, previously believed to be declining for the past 40 years, may be in better shape than anyone thought.  It's the kind of feel good story you sometimes hear at the end of the news broadcast – a little bit of sunshine amidst storm clouds.

            The news was completely unexpected.  But somewhat lost in the headlines – and the story itself - are six very interesting, and unexpected, details.  And these unexpected things may actually be the real story.

Unexpected detail #1: there are still unexplored places

         Upon hearing about the discovery of 1.5 million Adelie penguins, your reaction, as well as that of lots of people was, how come nobody ever visited Danger Island and checked on the penguins, especially if their numbers are declining?  The island has been known for a long time so why didn't anyone visit?

            It's a good question, but one pretty easily answered when you consider what the area around the Antarctic Peninsula is like.  Pretty treacherous!  Raging storms and tumultuous seas, even in the comparatively calm Southern Hemisphere summertime.  That's true for every part of the Antarctic Peninsula, but some places are particularly challenging.  Danger Island really deserves its name.  Taking a ship apparently is particularly difficult.

            Then there is the question of getting funding to go and study the penguins.  Research dollars are limited … and apparently until now, studying the Danger Island penguins simply hasn't been a high enough priority.

Unexpected detail #2: East Antarctic ice growing

            As previously mentioned, all of the available evidence gathered on Adelie Penguins for some 40 years showed the population declining.  One of the key reasons cited for the decline – as well as the declines in other species - was the shrinkage of the West Antarctic ice sheet.  The increase in temperatures, a byproduct of global climate change, has been cited as the culprit.  What has largely been overlooked as that while the West Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk a good deal over that time, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has grown commensurately. 

            So how is it that if global warming is causing ice to melt in West Antarctica, the ice is expanding on the other side of the continent?  Scientists aren't completely sure why the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is growing … but it has been.

            Some people have argued that the growth in the East Antarctic ice sheet must mean that greenhouse gases aren't really causing global warming.  But other research suggests that the East Antarctic ice sheet has a history of instability and that we should still be concerned - very concerned.   Irrespective of that, Danger Island is in the West Antarctic, so it's smack in the middle of the area where the ice is presently receding … and creating problems for the Adelie penguins.

Unexpected detail #3: Drones and neural networks

         So just how did scientists determine there are 751,527 pairs of Adelie Penguins on Danger Island?  They didn't say, they're roughly 1.5 million penguins, they provided a precise number.   Did someone walk around with a clip board and count them? 

            Not exactly.  How they did it was unexpected … but very interesting.  They did it using drones equipped with cameras. 

            Drones equipped with cameras can generate a huge number of images – literally every square inch of the island, so every Adelie penguin was captured on film by those drones.

            Which leaves the unimaginable task of counting every one of those penguins captured on film. 

            But the expedition scientists utilized an unexpected tool to accomplish the task – neural networks.  Thus, by combining drones and neural networks, it was possible to get a comprehensive count of the the Adelie Penguins on Danger Island

Unexpected detail #4: 1960's data

            So the scientists were able to get a pretty accurate idea of the number of penguins on Danger Island today.  One and a half million Adelie Penguins is a large number … but is it increasing, decreasing or stable over time?  If there were 3.0 million Adelies on the island 50 years ago, scientists would be very concerned, as that would suggest that Adelies are declining there, just as they are in every other previously known habitat for Adelies. 

            Or maybe there were only about one million Adelie penguins on Danger Island in the past, meaning that the population has grown significantly.  The scientists would really have to rethink the situation in that case.

            In fact, the evidence suggests that the Adelie population in the Danger Islands is pretty stable.  The reason scientists know this is because they went back and looked at early satellite imagery from some 50 years ago.  Apparently they found the population density looked comparable to the recently generated images. 

            Satellites have collected huge amounts of data over the past 50 years.  Using some of these new analytical techniques, it may be possible to re-examine old photographic evidence to gain a better understanding of how things are changing.  That concept could be applied all over the world.

Unexpected detail #5: Ray Dalio

            Not only is the research to enumerate the Adelie population important, it's expensive … very expensive! 

            Which brings up the fifth unexpected aspect of the story: it was paid for with a grant from Dalio Philanthropies.   The benefactor of Dalio Philanthropies is Ray Dalio, founder and head of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world's foremost hedge funds.  Dalio is a member of the billionaire's club, but he has had the vision to underwrite a great deal of research, particularly of the world's oceans.

Unexpected detail #6: An expansion of marine protection areas

            Another unexpected aspect of this story is that it may help spur expansion of marine protection areas in the Southern Ocean.  Ever since first European explorers found Antarctica, there's been a major push to develop it economically.  The 19th and early 20th centuries saw significant whaling and fishing in the area.  It's also been determined that Antarctica has tremendous reserves of oil and gas, as well as other minerals. 

            But unlike other places, Antarctica's mineral and other reserves have largely gone undeveloped because of the risks to the environment.  That's good, but it still doesn't ensure that wildlife will be preserved. 

            The incredible and unusual beauty of the Antarctic has not gone unnoticed.   Every year, more and more people are visiting, putting increasing pressure on the environment.  Those pressures are one of the reasons given for declining penguin populations in other parts of the Antarctic Peninsula.

            There are already lots of rules and regulations in place to help protect the Antarctic environment.  For example, ships with more than 500 aboard cannot permit passengers to dis-embark and explore the area.  If you want to get up close with the wildlife, you must travel on small ships.

            However, even these extensive, existing marine protections, in short, may be insufficient.  So one of the unexpected benefits of the Danger Island penguin discovery may be to strengthen efforts to create more marine protection areas in the Antarctic.  It may make it more difficult to visit Antarctica, but that may be necessary to protect the environment.

Back to the Expected

            So the discovery of the Danger Island Adelie penguins is both great … and unexpected.  But the unexpected, positive news may still be only temporary, and entirely predictable.  After all, back in 2014 it was predicted that "global populations will actually rise, at least initially, especially in the colonies found on the southernmost Ross Sea. Currently, colonies off the western coast are on the rise thanks to the break-up of large glaciers in the area. But the population increase is only going to be temporary, according to researcher Stephanie Jenouvrier, and colonies will start seeing a decline in numbers starting in 2040. By 2080, the researchers say all 45 colonies will see a decrease and, by 2100, approximately two-third of the 45 colonies currently present will be reduced by 50 percent."  

            Good news today, but the long term message is the same: either climate change is tamed, and temperatures stabilize, or penguins … including Adelie penguins … even the 1.5 previously unknown ones in the Danger Islands … will become casualties.







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Wind power may have a lot more potential than we realize

            "The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind/The answer is blowin' in the wind".  So sang balladeer Bob Dylan, more than 50 years ago, when he first released his milestone record "Blowin' in the Wind". 

            Now the wind that Dylan wrote about could provide a different sort of answer – an important, but seemingly unexpected, role in both reducing greenhouse gases, as well as moving the country towards greater energy independence.

            When it comes to renewable energy, most of the attention seems to go to solar power.  That may be because just about anyone can install a solar panel on his or her rooftop – and more and more people and businesses are doing just that.  On the other hand, it's not just a little harder … IT'S A LOT HARDER … to install a wind turbine on your property.  But based upon the Wind Vision report, wind power could provide up to 35% of total USA electric power by 2050, a mere 32 years from now. 

            But if that's true, it could mean the USA in 2050 would have only about 10 – 15% of its power coming from fossil fuel sources!  Sounds unbelievable, so let me show you how I figured that:

                        #1: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has estimated that 80% of USA  power could be generated by renewables by 2050.

                        #2: But 50% of that 80% would come from solar and wind combined

                        #3: So if the Wind Vision report's estimate of 35% from wind power alone, the NREL estimate of 50% from wind and solar combined is probably underestimated.   In fact, the combined wind and solar should possibly be as much as 60 to 70%.

                       #4: Then if you add in nuclear power – currently about 9% of the total – as well as other sources such as biomass, the non-fossil fuel portion could definitely get up to 85% to 90+%!

            Admittedly, these are projections, subject to lots of variables.  But at the beginning of the 21st century, no one would have predicted the current installed base of wind and solar, as well as the reduction in coal. 

            Solar technology has greatly improved in the past 20 years.  What lots of people don't realize is how much wind has improved, too.  In fact, the cost of wind power generation has decreased by 90% since the 1980's.  It could decrease further, given the newer technology of larger blades, for example.  The newest wind power technology is replacing wind installations done a generation ago.   

            But skeptics will properly note that wind power is presently only about 5% of total electric generation.  How could it possibly grow to 35% in just 32 years – a 700% increase at least?  And at present, it's really economically viable in only 39 states. 

            Let me offer five reasons why:

#1: It's attractive even to climate change skeptics

            Unfortunately, lots of Americans are skeptical about climate change.  I'm still not sure why, but they are.  They simply don't respond to dire warnings about what's already happening to the world's climate, much less what could happen. 

            But the funny thing is, when it comes to solar and wind power, you don't have to believe in climate change to believe that it's a great thing.  To see why that's true for wind power, all you have to do is visit a place like Sweetwater, Texas, smack in the middle of wind power country. 

            Sweetwater is the seat of Nolan County, a rural area that's seen its share of hard times.  Almost three quarters of voters went for Donald Trump in 2016.  Predictably, you won't see lots of people crusading to reduce greenhouse gases – in fact, there's a fair amount of skepticism that the problem even exists.  But even though climate change skepticism pervades the air, you will see lots of state of the art wind farms, and lots of support for wind power.  Huh?

            You see, wind power has had a hugely positive impact on the local economy.  The tax assessor reports that the local tax base a few years ago was only about $ 500 million.  Now it's closer to $ 2.8 billion.  Quintupling the local tax base means a LOT MORE MONEY for governmental services, even if you have a good sized reduction in local tax rates.  The associated rise in local tax receipts has very positively affected local people.

            As you might expect, there's a LOT of support for wind power in Sweetwater and the rest of Nolan County, Texas.  Just don't talk about climate change to the average person, as they may very well be skeptical.  The point is, they may be skeptical of climate change, but they aren't the least bit skeptical about wind power, and the positive impact it's having on the economy.

            A possible lesson?  Liberal and Progressive America, stop preaching the doom and gloom of climate change, but do everything you can to promote the policies that both improve the economy and also reduce greenhouse gases.  Wind power is one of the great ways to do that ... and the place to do it is locally, in places like Sweetwater.

            Which leads to the second lesson.

#2: It offers economic development for rural America

            As I said, people in Sweetwater don't generally give a rip about climate change.  But they love wind power because of the positive impact it's had on the economy.  The same can be said for other rural areas in the country.  Among the benefits?

            Jobs.  Lots of jobs.   To help fill demand for trained wind power technicians, the local community college in Sweetwater, TX has created one and two year programs.  Graduates get good paying jobs, certainly better than what else is available.  The Department of Energy estimates that by 2050, there could be as many as 600,000 jobs in wind power in America.  The second fastest growing job category today in the USA is wind power technician.

            Donald Trump promised that there would be a big increase in coal mining employment in the USA.  So far, coal employment has barely budged.  But even if it did, it probably wouldn't be meaningful because when Trump took office, only a little over 50,000 people in the entire country worked in coal mines. 

            But people in places like Sweetwater like wind power for more than jobs.  For land owners, there are royalties.  A land owner can collect as much as $ 1,000/month for renting space for just one wind mill.  If you own land, lease out enough space for wind turbines and you and your family could have a major change in economic fortune.  Your toughest job might be depositing your monthly royalty check in the bank!

            Not only that, switching to wind power reduces demand for water.  In very dry places like West Texas, reducing demand for water is certainly good. 

            And there could be a lot more Sweetwater's around the USA.  What lot's of people don't realize is that 97% of the USA landmass is in rural counties like Nolan County, Texas. Sixty million people live in these counties.  Many people don't like to look at wind mills, but there are an awful lot of places in rural America that can "hide" wind mills, and as much as 19% of the population could gain benefits the way Sweetwater has.

#3: It can provide lower electric prices

            But there are even more benefits, one of which is lower electric utility prices.  The Wind Vision authors estimate that if wind power is built out as projected by 2050, consumers will save $ 280 billion on their electric utility bills.  Even the most diehard skeptic of climate change isn't going to turn down those savings!  South Dakota reportedly already generates more than 30% of its power from wind.  The switch to wind has dramatically reduced electric bills – more than a billion dollar reduction.

#4: The Chinese don't dominate the industry

         One of the things that concerns people about solar is Chinese dominance in the industry.  The Chinese are involved in wind power, but they do not dominate the industry.  In fact, of the top ten wind power suppliers, only three are Chinese.  Three are German.  The world leader – a company called Vestas – is Danish.  The USA is represented in the top 10 by General Electric.

#5: It can reduce greenhouse gases in a quiet way

         So there's a lot to like about wind power, AND there's still that other benefit – it reduces greenhouse gas.  Getting wind turbines to generate 35% of USA electric power by 2050 will have a hugely positive benefit on greenhouse gas emissions.  For those of us who believe greenhouse gas emissions are a huge problem, that's a fantastic future headline.  For climate skeptics, there's still the benefit of jobs, cheaper power, reduction in water use, economic growth, and royalty checks.

            For people who love coal, unfortunately, it's likely "still a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking".

Moving Forward

            Is wind power a panacea?  Absolutely not!  And there's no assurance we'll achieve the target of generating 35% of power from wind by 2050.  But the technology is now available.  And the case has been made that a high percentage of power can come from wind.  In fact, as previously mentioned, South Dakota already generates some 30% of its power from wind, and the lights aren't flickering.  The other 49 states should take notice.

            More importantly, the economics point to a bright future.

            But possibly the most important thing to consider is that there is a large group of people who, at least accordingly to the conventional wisdom, shouldn't believe in wind power.  Except that they don't just accept it, THEY LOVE IT! 

            Which again makes the point that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours or mine.  They may be climate change skeptics … and we may NEVER change their minds on that … but they can be persuaded to do things you'd never expect they would, if only we present a case that they perceive is compelling – for their reasons, not ours.  The lesson?  Show climate change skeptics how they personally can benefit from things like wind and solar power and SHUT UP ABOUT HOW THE WEATHER IS CHANGING!

            So Bob Dylan was right, if for a different reason: "The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind/The answer is blowin' in the wind."










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Big Oil companies face an uncertain future, including a possible slow motion train wreck. They should pay attention to Intel.


            You've probably heard the old fable about the frog.  If you throw the frog into boiling water, he'll immediately jump out.  Conversely, according to the fable, if you put the frog in water at a temperature the frog likes, then slowly … very slowly … raise the temperature, the frog won't jump out.  In fact, the frog will die, because the slowly rising water temperature will make the frog lethargic, eventually so lethargic that he won't have the energy to jump out.

            Some biologists say it's truly just a legend, as all frogs would jump out before it's too late, but let's assume the frog really will stay until it's too late.

            The frog fable provides a great metaphor for change in business.  Obviously, the energy industry is changing.  And thanks to global warming, the water is definitely getting warmer.  The question is, can the leading players (frogs) in today's carbon-centric energy industry adapt to the emerging new world of warming/boiling water?

            Maybe … maybe not.

How One Company Jumped Out of the Water in Time

            History tells us that big corporations can sometimes make the change.  Probably the most famous example of this is Intel, the computer chip company.  There's a very good chance the device you're using to read this post is powered by a chip made by Intel.

            But Intel prospers today by selling a very different product than when it was founded.  In 1968, Gordon Moore … the same guy who formulated Moore's Law … and Robert Noyce left Fairchild Semiconductor to found Intel.  The company's original product was memory chips.  They were joined by a fellow named Andy Grove, also a veteran of Fairchild.

            Intel rode the computer boom of the 70's and early 80's, becoming the leading purveyor of memory chips.  Everything was going great until the company was suddenly undercut by cheap Japanese imports.  You probably haven't thought about "cheap Japanese imports" for a very long time, but it was a big deal in the early 1980's.

            Intel went from making lots of money to hemorrhaging.  Being a highly innovative company, the conventional wisdom said the company could out-innovate the Japanese and regain its profitable lead.  Maybe.

            Which was the prelude to a famous conversation between Gordon Moore, Intel CEO, and Andy Grove, his trusted deputy.  Grove reportedly posed the following question to Moore: "If we get kicked out and the board of directors brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do."  Moore reportedly responded, "he would get us out of making memory chips."  Grove's famous question in reply was, "why shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?"

            In fact, that's what they did.  I don't know if Moore and Grove literally walked out of the office and then back in, but Intel got out of the money-losing memory chip business and re-focused entirely on the emerging business of processors.  You know, the "Intel Inside" devices in your computer.  Intel is the world's leader in that business today.  Memory chips are just that … a memory.

            The story of Intel's transition is famous, probably because it is a rare success.  Most of the time, big incumbents don't do transitions very well.

            Microsoft blew the opportunity of producing a mobile phone. 

`           Big retailers have missed the opportunity to be Amazon before Amazon did it.

Can Big Oil Repeat the Story?

            You can make the argument that today's major oil companies are in a somewhat similar situation.  They dominate their current businesses, but planners in those companies can see a world of "Peak Oil" (meaning peak demand for oil) and renewables rapidly approaching. 

            Now the situations are a little different.  Intel was losing money, and Big Oil definitely isn't losing money.  Perhaps it would be better if they were losing money.  The force of inertia may be compelling.  Yes, renewables may be coming, but they're still a long way off, so to speak, and Big Oil continues to make lots of money.

            So Big Oil is hedging its bets by making some investments in renewables.  Royal Dutch Shell is now investing about $ 1 billion a year in renewables, a very big number … until you consider that the company spends $ 25 billion/year in total capital spending.  Shell has purchased a company that recharges electric vehicles.  Like much of Big Oil, Shell has a huge retail distribution network, so adding electric charging is a natural.  Plus, they've got convenience store outlets on site.  Do your grocery shopping while you recharge your car.


            Total, the French oil major, has probably invested the most.  For example, they've purchased two thirds of solar solutions provider Sun Power, as well as a battery company called Saft. 

            Other oil majors have also made investments, but so far, no one has "bet the farm" the way Intel did.  The water just isn't hot enough yet.

Why Automakers Should Be Able to Jump Out in Time

            There's another industry that could face the same problem, but they'll likely be more successful … automobile manufacturers.

            The world's top auto manufacturers already can see the emergence of electric vehicles.  They even have new competitors, principally Tesla.  But the auto manufacturers will probably make the transition successfully because gas powered engines are only a part of each automobile.  While the engines are changing, the rest of the typical vehicle isn't.  Not only that, the process of distributing and financing vehicles isn't likely to change.

            The big automakers are already adapting to an electric world, and probably should do well.

Creating a Better Strategy for Big Oil

            So imagine you're a member of the board of directors of a major oil company.   You can see that the world is moving towards renewables and away from the carbon-emitting products your company products.  Not only that, you can see that the long term economics will likely favor renewables.  Which means you can foresee a slow motion train wreck.  Your situation is a little different from the one faced by Gordon Moore and Andy Grove at Intel.  What should you do?

            I think you should do three things.

            #1: Assume the train wreck is going to happen

            Start off by assuming that renewables are going to displace oil and gas as the primary fuel source in the future.  Not next week … not next year … but in the not too distant future.  If you assume that's going to happen, you'll redirect an ever larger portion of the capital budget to alternative investments.

            Now it's unclear which new technology, and which companies, will prevail.  Given that, Big Oil should then take a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook. 

            #2: Take a portfolio approach to investing in future technology

         Venture capitalists, and angel investors like me, would like to think we know what tomorrow's top companies will be.  But if we think we do, we're fooling ourselves.  We don't know.  Because we don't, we take a "portfolio approach" to investing.  The idea is to create a portfolio of emerging companies.  Experts say the portfolio should include anywhere from 20 to 30 ventures.  The rule of thumb is that for every 10 ventures in which you invest, expect 5 to be complete failures, a couple to return your investment capital and possible a small return, and one or two to be big winners.

            The one or two big winners will provide a fantastic overall return to the portfolio.

            So the typical Big Oil company should probably create a portfolio of alternative energy investments.  Half will probably be complete washouts.  But if the investment strategy is sound, at least one of the investments will be the Facebook or Amazon on alternative energy.

            #3: Operate the new businesses totally apart from the core business

         Big Oil can easily make these investments out of existing cash flow.  They can certainly provide a good rationale to their investors.  I have a feeling the investors will applaud the decision.

            But there's one other thing they need to do, and it's the one thing that may be the very hardest of all: operate these businesses completely independently of the Big Oil veterans.

            Don't let anyone associated with the Big Oil part of the business anywhere near the venture portfolio.  The reason isn't because the Big Oil people aren't good managers.  They most certainly are.  The problem is that they are very good managers in the business they know – Big Oil - so they will almost invariably bring a Big Oil mindset to these new businesses.  Those mindsets could kill the investments.

            The Board of Directors should put the venture portfolio completely apart.  In fact, they might even hire one of the top Silicon Valley firms to run the portfolio for them.  The venture firm would then report directly to the Board of Directors.  No connection with the CEO of the Big Oil firm.  So two people would report to the Big Oil Company Board of Directors: the Big Oil CEO and the head of the new venture portfolio.

Taking a Page Out of the CIA Playbook

            The strategy is not without precedent.  The Central Intelligence Agency has its own venture capital operation, called InQTel.  IQT's portfolio includes more than 200 venture investments. Needless to say, the venture companies aren't being run by the spooks in Langley, at least not directly.  At the same time, if any of those 200+ companies produces a major breakthrough, someone in Langley will likely be paying attention.

            Admittedly, a very unusual strategy.  But Big Oil faces a very unusual situation.  It can see a slow motion train wreck getting ready to happen.  It knows the story of Intel.  It also knows what tends to happen to innovation strategies that are managed by company veterans who come from the traditional side of the business.  

            Big Oil has a challenging future, but it still could be a great one, even in the future world dominated by renewable energy.  So, fable or not, the water is literally getting warmer.  Will the frog absorb the lesson and jump in time?



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Carl Treleaven is an entrepreneur, author, strong supporter of various non-profits, and committed Christian. He is CEO of Westlake Ventures, Inc., a company with diversified investments in printing and software.


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