Welcome back to Sunday reading. The most interesting article I’ve read this week explores the consequences of climate change and sea level rise for coastal property markets. Ian Urbina reports in the NY Times:
MIAMI — Real estate agents looking to sell coastal properties usually focus on one thing: how close the home is to the water’s edge. But buyers are increasingly asking instead how far back it is from the waterline. How many feet above sea level? Is it fortified against storm surges? Does it have emergency power and sump pumps?
Rising sea levels are changing the way people think about waterfront real estate. Though demand remains strong and developers continue to build near the water in many coastal cities, homeowners across the nation are slowly growing wary of buying property in areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change….
But many economists say that this reckoning needs to happen much faster and that home buyers urgently need to be better informed. Some analysts say the economic impact of a collapse in the waterfront property market could surpass that of the bursting dot-com and real estate bubbles of 2000 and 2008.
I hope the people who have been denying climate change most vehemently are putting their money where their mouths are.
Recent political news has been bad for the prospects of preventing the worst of climate change, but there are still glimmers of hope. Chris Mooney (Washington Post) reports “stunningly good news for the planet: carbon emissions were flat for the third straight year“.
Big news came from this group late last year, when it turned out that emissions in 2014 and 2015 represented a seeming end to a strong growth trend that had appeared unstoppable for some time. And moreover, this flattening had occurred despite steady global economic growth above 3 percent, which has typically been coupled with higher emissions.
And now, the group reports, 2016 appears to be similar to 2014 and 2015, based on early projections. It will be about a 0.2 percent increase above the emissions levels of 2015, the group calculates, or barely a rise at all.
The results were released in the form of a massive study in the journal Earth System Science Data, written by no less than 67 researchers from an army of institutions. That’s what it takes, it seems, to chart the annual flow of carbon throughout the Earth’s systems.
“2016 we estimate to be flat again,” said Glen Peters, one of the contributors to the research and a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo in Norway. “It’s definitely three years, it’s fairly flat, which is quite a contrast to a decade ago, when it was growing at about 3 percent. It’s really leveled out the last few years.”
[…] From a climate policy perspective, the key question is whether these three flat years suggest that the world is beginning to peak its emissions and bring them down again, which will be necessary if there is any hope of limiting warming to widely embraced international targets such as 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But Peters said that it’s too soon to know for sure, and that he would want to watch trends in China, in particular, for a bit longer.
Speaking of sea level rise, here’s an astonishing image of uplift following the recent Kaikoura earthquake:
— I. H. Laking (@IHLaking) November 23, 2016
The images from the Kaikoura earthquake have been astonishing: Roads abruptly lifted two metres, hillsides drastically relocated, etc. I’ve always known that New Zealand has been profoundly shaped by tectonic action. In theory, every ridge and bump in our landscape is the product of continental plates sliding against each other, or heated rock welling up from underneath. But it’s another thing entirely to watch it happen in real time.
— Alison Ballance (@AlisonBallance) November 17, 2016
Now let’s take a look at a couple of policy-driven transformational changes. First, Charlie Sorrel (FastCoexist) reports that “Copenhagen now has more bike use than car use“:
Copenhagen doesn’t just have a lot of bikes, or a lot of bike-friendly infrastructure. It also has a lot of accurate records on their use, coming partly from a network of 20 permanent sensors which track the comings and goings of bicycle traffic into the city center. As you can see from theses maps and charts, put together by Mikhail Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, bike traffic has finally beaten car traffic, partly because of an increase in cycling, and partly in the decline in car use.
According to Colville-Andersen, Copenhagen has counted traffic twice-yearly since 1970, and it has done so in a consistent manner, counting both the traffic crossing the municipal border, and the traffic entering the city center. While these simple counts are limited, they offer an unbroken picture of traffic patterns stretching back almost 50 years. And in September, for the first time ever, more people entered the city by bike than by car.
By comparison, here’s data for the Wellington and Auckland city centres. Most people travel in by public transport and active modes, not by car:
— Darren Davis (@DarrenDavis10) October 29, 2016
Second, Norman Garrick and Christopher McCahill (CityLab) discuss “lessons from Zurich’s parking revolution“:
Parking is always a contentious issue and most cities have taken the path of least resistance – facilitating a relentless increase in parking. Ironically, complaints that there is never enough parking seems to grow in direct proportion to the amount of parking supplied. Since the late 1980s, Zurich has developed an alternative that’s worth studying because it breaks all the rules of conventional transportation planning, and yet has been vitally important to the success of that city. In contrast, the conventional approach has devastated most American cities, and many in Europe as well.
The essence of Zurich’s historic compromise of 1996 was that parking in the core of the city would be capped at the 1990 level, and that any new parking to be built would, on a one-to-one basis, replace the surface parking that blighted most squares in the city at the time. Today, almost all these squares are free of parking and have been converted to tranquil or convivial places for people to enjoy.
Interesting model. The results for urban development have been pretty favourable:
The Prime Tower complex at Zurich’s Hardbruecke Train Station, which includes the tallest building in Switzerland, at 36 stories, and three other smaller buildings, illustrates the real life impact of this policy. This complex opened in 2011 with a total of just 250 parking spots. With over 700,000 sq. feet of rentable space, the parking is supplied at a ratio of just 0.35 spaces/1000 sq. feet.
In comparison, in a complex of this size built in most American cities, zoning would demand the supply of at least 2,000 parking spaces – eight times more that in Zurich. The social, economic and environmental costs of this difference is, to say the least, staggering. Construction costs alone for all that additional parking can run as much as $100 million. This would have been a substantial escalation to the cost of this $400 million project.
Speaking of urban transformation, here’s what the Auckland Art Gallery looked like a century ago:
On a completely different subject, Peter Vandor and Nikolaus Franke ask (in the Harvard Business Review): “Why are immigrants more entrepreneurial?” This is an important question for urban policy, as cities – not rural areas – tend to be the places where most migrants move to.
In the U.S., immigrants are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born U.S. citizens. Immigrants represent 27.5% of the countries’ entrepreneurs but only around 13% of the population. Similarly, about one-fourth of all technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant cofounder. And this pattern extends beyond the U.S. — data from the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor showed that the vast majority of the 69 countries surveyed reported higher entrepreneurial activity among immigrants than among natives, especially in growth-oriented ventures.
Research has suggested that selection and discrimination effects may be driving this phenomenon. It appears plausible that entrepreneurial individuals are more likely to migrate and that immigration policies in many countries favor highly motivated and capable individuals. Additionally, discrimination against immigrants in labor markets may exert pressure on them to seek self-employment.
In a recent study, we investigated a different explanation: Cross-cultural experiences may increase individuals’ capabilities to identify promising business ideas. By living in different cultures, they encounter new products, services, customer preferences, and communication strategies, and this exposure may allow the transfer of knowledge about customer problems or solutions from one country to another. By applying this kind of arbitrage, a temporary or permanent migrant can decide to replicate a profitable product or business model available in one country but not in another. Successful companies such as Starbucks (inspired by coffeehouses in Italy) and the German online retailer Zalando (inspired by Zappos) exemplify the potential of this strategy.
Interesting theory. Vandor and Franke put it to experimental test and find that people who are ‘primed’ to think about cross-cultural experiences are better at innovating. It certainly puts a different spin on the “Immigrants are stealing our jobs!” cri de coeur.
But doesn’t ethnic diversity inevitably worsen governance and long-run economic performance by fragmenting society into exclusive groups that don’t (or can’t) talk to each other? New research published in Social Science Research sheds some light on that question. In short, the answer is no. Diverse democratic societies tend to have good institutions and successful economies:
Using several measures of diversity, we find that higher levels of ethno-linguistic and cultural fractionalization are conditioned positively on higher economic growth by an index of economic freedom, which is often heralded as a good measure of sound economic management. High diversity in turn is associated with higher levels of economic freedom. We do not find any evidence to suggest that high diversity hampers change towards greater economic freedom and institutions supporting liberal policies. The effect of diversity, moreover, is conditioned positively by higher democracy. Our results raise serious doubt about the centrality of social diversity for explaining economic failure, nor is there evidence to suggest that autocratic measures are required under conditions of social diversity to implement growth-promoting policies.
I would argue that ideological self-sorting is likely to have a far more deleterious impact on democracy and growth than ethnic diversity. When people with different views don’t talk to each other, they will gradually forget that they share common interests.
Unfortunately, the internet seems to have exacerbated ideological self-sorting by encouraging people to build echo chambers. In a pair of incisive and troubling articles for the NY Times, Zeynep Tufekci discusses “The real bias built in at Facebook“:
The social network’s powerful newsfeed is programmed to be viral, clicky, upbeat or quarrelsome. That’s how its algorithm works, and how it determines what more than a billion people see every day.
[…] This setup, rather than the hidden personal beliefs of programmers, is where the thorny biases creep into algorithms, and that’s why it’s perfectly plausible for Facebook’s work force to be liberal, and yet for the site to be a powerful conduit for conservative ideas as well as conspiracy theories and hoaxes — along with upbeat stories and weighty debates. Indeed, on Facebook, Donald J. Trump fares better than any other candidate, and anti-vaccination theories like those peddled by Mr. Beck easily go viral.
The newsfeed algorithm also values comments and sharing. All this suits content designed to generate either a sense of oversize delight or righteous outrage and go viral, hoaxes and conspiracies as well as baby pictures, happy announcements (that can be liked) and important news and discussions. Facebook’s own research shows that the choices its algorithm makes can influence people’s mood and even affect elections by shaping turnout.
Furthermore, the algorithm encourages echo chamber behaviour by prioritising views that people find comforting:
The problem with Facebook’s influence on political discourse is not limited to the dissemination of fake news. It’s also about echo chambers. The company’s algorithm chooses which updates appear higher up in users’ newsfeeds and which are buried. Humans already tend to cluster among like-minded people and seek news that confirms their biases. Facebook’s research shows that the company’s algorithm encourages this by somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting.
On that note, get off the internet and go do something outside with other people. Oh, wait…
"Kids these days and their precious iPads. Why don't they go outside?"
Yeah I wonder why? pic.twitter.com/FFjk6zweOj
— Edmond Chui (@EdmondChuiHW) October 25, 2016