Saturday, May 28, 2016

Summer Weather in Spring

Whether you measure land or ocean, Earth is hotter than it has ever been in the thermometer era. Does this extra heat make a difference? Here are five indications that it does.

  • All this month an enormous forest fire has been burning in northwestern Canada. It started in Alberta and in the past week has spread into Saskatchewan, where it is a mere 45 kilometers from the next town. The fire forced 100,000 people to evacuate and oil production to shut down. A week of cool, damp weather has allowed an international team of firefighters to turn the corner on the fire, but only in a relative sense. The fire is still considered completely out of control and despite the cool weather has grown another 20 percent to 574,000 hectares. Canada has seen fires like this before but only in the summer months. It is unprecedented to see a fire like this start at the beginning of May. Unless weather turns decidedly wet, the fire could go all summer, burning out completely only when snow arrives in the fall.
  • Farther north, earlier in the spring, a tractor-trailer fell through the ice on one of the ice roads that traverse lakes in winter to reach far northern mining outposts. The driver escaped and the truck was rescued, but the incident forced the ice road to close early.
  • In both Asia and North America, the spring snow cover melted away weeks earlier than normal. The early snow melt set the stage for the fire I just mentioned and may also be related to early sea ice melt.
  • Arctic sea ice is 11 days ahead in its melting. I don’t mean 11 days ahead of average, though that would be troubling enough. The record low year for Arctic ice, 2012, was 7 days ahead of average at this point in the calendar. But currently the melt is 11 days ahead of the previous record low. This is something that has almost never happened before — only in summer when heading toward a new all-time low. Arctic sea ice started May at a record low for the day and has proceeded to melt at a June-like pace. It hit a new low for May on May 19 and has set a new record low for the month every day since.
  • There is a tropical storm warning for the entire South Carolina coastline. Tropical Storm Bonnie is expected to reach the coast late tonight and stay in the neighborhood through Monday. The tropical season “officially” begins June 1, so this storm is a week ahead of schedule — though tropical systems in June are a rarity to begin with, so you could say Bonnie is months ahead of schedule. And why are we using the letter B for the first storm of the season? The letter A was already taken by a freak January hurricane that contributed to high winds in the far northern Atlantic. In that sense, this summer’s tropical season begins with a head start.

The common element in these unlikely weather-related events is summer-like conditions arriving before the climate calendar says it is time. Summer weather in spring — that sounds like the kind of change you would look for with unusually high temperatures. If we continue to see anomalies like this, we’ll be able to say that the warming climate is changing the world around us in specific ways that force us to change our plans.

Friday, May 27, 2016

This Week in Bank Failures

Closing: Swiss bank BSI is ordered to close its Singapore operations after authorities in both countries found signs of international money laundering. Criminal inquiries are underway in both countries. The bank was involved with 1MDB and one bank officer is jailed in Singapore and faces 9 criminal charges in that connection. The 1MDB money laundering probe goes well beyond the scale of any previous inquiry in the history of banking in Singapore. At least $1 billion in 1MDB funds remain missing and unexplained.

A “breakthrough” in EU talks will allow the Greek bailout to continue. Austerity measures were approved with minor adjustments and European authorities have agreed in principle on debt relief with specific measures to be decided two years out.

New Jersey approved an emergency line of credit for Atlantic City.

A central bank survey of ATMs in India found that one third are broken.

Settled: Citigroup will pay $425 million to settle a U.S. case of manipulation of interest rates other than Libor.

Security experts warn of active malware targeting international bank transfers and online banking customers.

Android Case a Victory for Compatible Software

A court ruled in favor of Google and its Android operating system in a copyright case. Android uses Java APIs in order to have compatibility with Java. A jury found that Google used the Java APIs just for the purposes of compatibility so that the copied APIs were fair use. Compatibility is explicitly permitted and encouraged by U.S. copyright law. The case is a victory for software developers who want to create compatible software. However, Oracle, the plaintiff in the case, has indicated that it will appeal.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sports Authority Begins Liquidation

A total liquidation seemed the most likely outcome when Sports Authority first filed for bankruptcy, and now the liquidation sale is underway. Some price cuts may have taken place yesterday, but today the liquidation should be found in every store, with all stores preparing to close by the end of the summer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Face-Saving Deal for HPE

Well, that didn’t take long. There was a rumor this afternoon, and by tonight Hewlett Packard Enterprise confirmed it is throwing in the towel. To be more specific, HPE is practically giving its corporate IT business to Computer Sciences Corp. This is not really the spinoff that the press release suggests, but a spinoff in the sense of Nokia spinning off its handset business. The corporate services business was the “Enterprise” in Hewlett Packard Enterprise and was expected to be the heart of the company when it split from Hewlett-Packard Inc. and the printer business on November 1. Corporate IT is stumbling in general, with industry leader IBM showing revenue declines year after year, and HPE was not the company to pick up the pieces.

This is a face-saving deal for a company that has fumbled its way from one experiment to the next since the dot-com bubble of 1999. What is left of Hewlett Packard Enterprise will focus on its cloud business, with network components to sell so the company won’t be purely an experiment in unproven technology. Cloud services should keep the lights on at HPE for the next few years until the cloud fad loses its sparkle. The long-term trend, though, is for HPE to get smaller and smaller, and there is nothing in the latest news to suggest that could change.

Conspiracy in Brazil

The corruption crisis in Brazil is proving to be every bit as messy as it looked. We now have a pretty good indication that the interim president and cabinet are all conspiring to shut down one of the national corruption investigations and sabotage the supreme court. In a situation where the interim president himself faces impeachment within months, it doesn’t seem likely that they have the political clout to do that. Indeed, there are already demonstrations against the interim president’s history of corruption and the latest revelations may serve to hasten his impeachment. The sequence of events suggests that senior politicians don’t appreciate the gravity of the web of commercial crime that has taken over most of the government and the political establishment in Brazil.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Guided by Illusions

In key decisions we are guided by shadows and illusions. What feels at the time like a personal choice based on solid evidence can later lose all its meaning when, taking a second look, the evidence is rumor and the real choice was made by commercial interests. When you’re ready to see them, examples of this can be found at every turn. Here are three examples having to do with consumer products in this weekend’s headlines.

  • As I mentioned yesterday, a one-line change in Nutrition Facts labeling can take the illusion of good nutrition away from a whole processed food category. Years ago it was granola bars, previously seen as a healthy food choice, but more accurately understood as a form of candy when their nutritional impact was clearly disclosed. That will soon happen with other food categories as the Nutrition Facts panel shows added sugar. Perhaps it will be 20th-century white bread that falls away when people see it has as much added sugar as a marshmallow. Advertising can create a web of illusions around a processed food category, but the illusions depend on keeping the truth hidden.
  • A story in the Washington Post shows how consumers see sliced apples as more approachable than whole apples. In fact, whole apples are nutritionally better than sliced apples, but of course that is a moot point if the apple goes uneaten. I call this an illusion because anyone with an ordinary table knife can cut a whole apple in half in a couple of seconds, yet this is a potential the average consumer won’t see when looking at a whole apple. In a similar way, sales of whole pineapples went up a few years ago when 20 words of slicing instructions were added to the other side of the bar code tag.
  • The Guardian’s devastating summary of what was likely the last big U.K. court case for cigarettes shows how branding is part of the pattern of cigarette addiction. Evidence reviewed by the court showed that new smokers (average age, 14) aren’t functionally addicted to cigarettes until they’ve chosen a tobacco logo to identify with. This was discovered and documented by the industry itself around 1970. It was the 1960s that saw physicians and professors give up smoking, and big tobacco redesigned its logos as a way to fight back and pull in more adolescent customers. Processed tobacco is all essentially the same regardless of factory, so the logos create the illusion of a distinction that isn’t present in the product. The power of that illusion becomes obvious as soon as you take the logos away, and as that happens in the EU and around the world, it becomes all but impossible for marketing campaigns to snare new cigarette addicts.

These are consumer products but similar illusions can be seen anywhere you look. Many of the “most powerful” corporations in the world own hardly anything in a material sense. The whole world knows the logo, but the inventory is borrowed, the furniture rented, and the biggest asset is “goodwill.” Some of your own most “prized” possessions are ones where your enthusiasm is secondhand, based on the opinions or experiences of your friends, parents, or parents’ friends and never quite corroborated by your own experience. The world is going through a period of disillusionment, in which some of these collective hallucinations are set aside, so it’s not surprising if you start to notice things in your own life that don’t look so solid as they did last year.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New Nutrition Facts Labels

There are some head-scratchers in the new FDA Nutrition Facts labels. In some ways the new rules are a step backward. Particularly useless is the requirement for labeling of vitamin D content. Vitamin D does not occur naturally in significant quantities in food and consumers are better off obtaining it from chemical supplements than from food. The fact that some food already contains chemical vitamin D in small amounts is not particularly useful, nor is it useful information. But we will be stuck ignoring the vitamin D line in the Nutrition Facts label for the next generation or so until the rules change again.

The most useful adjustments to the Nutrition Facts label this time around have to do with serving sizes and package sizes. Serving sizes will be more accurate, and key information will be provided for the food package as a whole. Since the 1990s diet experts have been advising consumers to compute food energy for an entire package as the most important nutrition fact about a processed food purchase. If you buy a box of cookies and calculate that its total food energy is 2,700 calories, then after you’ve eaten the whole box, you know how much food energy you’ve eaten (in this example, more than enough to add a pound of body fat). With the new labels you won’t have to do that computation because you can read it from the label.

We know from history that the Nutrition Facts label changes consumer behavior. The granola bar category was decimated when calories from fat was added to the label years ago. Adding trans fats to the label led much of the processed-food sector to phase out trans fats, a change that might very well be the biggest public health event since the majority of adults gave up cigarettes. The new requirement that food labels show grams of added sugar will surely result in food that is not so ridiculously sweet. That in turn will give food manufacturers an incentive to create cleaner food, since they can no longer cover the flavor of contaminants with added sugar without directly disclosing the added sugar.

Friday, May 20, 2016

This Week in Bank Failures

Republicans in Washington are blocking any action at all on the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, taking their cues from lobbyists for bond investors. Now political analysts think that this strategy of stonewalling could cost the Republicans their competitive position in Florida and perhaps other East Coast states where Puerto Ricans are moving to escape the high unemployment in Puerto Rico. It doesn’t take much to tilt the political balance of a state like Florida, and as many as half a million Puerto Ricans could end up moving to the U.S. mainland before the financial crisis in the island territory is resolved.

The bank bailout fund in Italy may not look like a big success from the outside, but some political leaders in Portugal are looking to copy the Italy plan to relieve pressure on Portuguese banks.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fire Destroys Oil Sands Location

In today’s update, the Fort McMurray fire had grown to 355,000 hectares. Evacuations have expanded in the areas where the fire is moving. The fire destroyed one oil sands work camp that was evacuated yesterday. Losing a work camp might not have the emotional impact of a town burning down, but a work camp is almost like a small town and the economic consequences are in proportion to the scale. Work is interrupted and families have been left homeless. In one more dubious milestone, the growing fire probably crossed the border into Saskatchewan this afternoon.

Oil Sands Evacuation

The weather couldn’t stay calm and cool forever, and oil sands facilities in northern Alberta, north of Fort McMurray, were evacuated late yesterday as the fire expanded in their direction at almost a walking pace. The fire threat helped support oil prices, though other factors are pushing prices lower at this hour. One of the open questions is whether it is possible for oil sands to burn in a wildfire. Physicists tell me they could in theory but probably not in practice. Oil sands don’t support the kind of plant growth that would sustain a hot fire, and the sand itself suppresses air flow.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Corruption Cleanup Reaches Argentina

One of the curiosities of the corruption crisis in Brazil is the question of why people have turned against corruption in that country but not in its much more obviously corrupt neighbor, Argentina. That’s a question we may not have to ask much longer. Argentina’s previous president Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner has been indicted on charges generally related to misdirecting $5 billion in central bank funds, awarding foreign currency contracts to hand-picked parties at favorable terms. Throughout her time in office, Kirchner openly redirected funds for off-budget purposes and took money from the central bank, resulting in inflation rates around 25 percent. Given her record, the suggestion that some of her actions went beyond what the law allowed does not seem much of a stretch, though of course, the courts will have to take a careful look at all the details. Seventeen other former officials were named in the same indictment, and Kirchner is also under investigation for money laundering. An indictment of eighteen former officeholders won’t, by itself, clean up the corruption in Argentina, but it is nevertheless a surprising step and one that could lead to further action.

Fort McMurray Fire Still Growing

The Fort McMurray fire looked a lot more scary a week ago, with predictions then that it could double in size to 200,000 hectares over the weekend. With cool weather arriving, that didn’t come to pass. The fire advanced more slowly and firefighters were able to put out the fires in the city one by one, a process that after seven days is still not entirely complete. To look at Fort McMurray itself you would think the fire threat was dying down, but that isn’t really true. The fire has continued to grow and is now larger than the size officials worried about a week ago. It covered 241,000 hectares in yesterday’s official estimate. The fire has not yet reached Saskatchewan, but there is no stopping that either as soon as there is a day of hot weather — and of course, the entire summer season is still ahead. To make matters worse, more fires have popped up in other locations in the north. Fort McMurray is far from livable at this point with broken electrical wires and no water to drink, but the situation has calmed down enough that officials can start to address the infrastructure damage in a systematic way. With a more thorough look at the damage, there is little doubt that the fire is the largest insurance event in Canada’s history. The latest estimate pegs covered losses at $6 billion.

Friday, May 13, 2016

This Week in Bank Failures

Bogus orders continue to make their way into the Swift transaction network, but banks are alert for them now and it doesn’t appear that any more money has been stolen.

Puerto Rico bond investors shouldn’t look to Congress for help, with relatively little support for a bailout in either party.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Impeachment to Proceed in Brazil

As expected, the Brazilian Senate voted to proceed with impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. She will be suspended for up to six months while the Senate considers the charges of impeachment. There are plenty of uncertainties ahead, with half of the senators not knowing if they too could be removed from office for their own offenses before the impeachment vote finally happens. The correct course of action in the situation, though, is for everyone to proceed with their work as the terms of the job require, and that strategy doesn’t change just because some of them haven’t lived up to their obligations in the past.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Arctic Oil Leases Left to Expire

Undersea Arctic oil turned out to be a bust. Oil exploration companies that paid $2 billion for oil and natural gas leases under the Chukchi Sea when world oil prices were higher now are letting those leases expire. The biggest loser is Shell, which spent another $2 billion drilling one well only to find it nearly empty. Besides not striking oil, Shell had a series of dangerous and embarrassing equipment failures that led it to call for rescue on more than one occasion. Shell is keeping the lease on the one tract where it drilled, but in a few years that lease too expires. One other oil exploration company is renewing its leases. The rest of the oil industry has turned its back on the Arctic for now. Low oil prices, the extraordinary costs of operating around sea ice, and then the chance of not striking oil make it hard to justify the trip into the Arctic Ocean. With so little industry interest, the Department of the Interior will surely not attempt another Arctic oil leasing auction for years.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Staples-Office Depot Merger Is Off

The merger of Staples and Office Depot, which would have created an effective monopoly on retail distribution of office supplies, has been called off after a court granted an injunction against the deal. Staples announced it was abandoning the deal shortly after the court ruling.

Office supplies are a rapidly shrinking retail segment, and the result of the scrapped deal will not mean more office supply stores. However, it will lead to more Staples store closings and fewer Office Depot stores closing over the next year.

Staples, in fact, has already started to close stores. It previously announced plans to close 50 locations in North America. The first few of those store closings have already taken place. With same-store sales down 5 percent from last year, Staples will need to close more stores. Office Depot, on the other hand, may have already closed enough stores for now as it adjusted to the recent acquisition of OfficeMax.

Mall for Sale

With so many mall stores closing — the latest such list issued by Aeropostale in bankruptcy — there must be malls that are falling on hard times. One current example is the 37-store Greendale Mall in Worcester, Massachusetts. The mall will be sold at a foreclosure auction this month — assuming, of course, a buyer can be found. The mall is estimated to be worth one fifth of its selling price two decades ago.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Management by Disaster

CBC News this morning has a story about policy, written by Don Pittis, that describes how changes in approach often follow disasters such as the Fort McMurray fire. It recounts the recent history of management by failure on a grand scale — management by disaster, if you will. The key point: “It's harder to convince people to prepare for a disaster that hasn't happened.”

To put this conversation in perspective, consider this view from the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, where a fire of this kind is, if anything, more likely than in Canada, and the challenge of persuading anyone to be ready:

Friday, May 6, 2016

This Week in Bank Failures

Malaysia is following the recommendation of a parliamentary inquiry and taking steps toward winding down troubled investment fund 1MDB. The advisory board is being dissolved, and the ministry of finance is taking ownership of key assets including real estate and subsidiaries. Billions of dollars are missing, and the fund has stopped making payments on its debts. There are worries about whether the fund’s debts could effectively put the government in bankruptcy.

Italy is looking for a new strategy for its banks after a failed stock offering by Banca Popolare di Vicenza. Investors bought €120 million of the bank’s €1.5 billion stock offering. The bank rescue fund ended up owning 92 percent of the bank, and the bank’s stock was delisted. The rescue fund, dubbed Atlante, was too small to begin with and already is depleted of 1/4 of its capital. After the failed stock offering it is not clear if any other bank in Italy would be able to issue new stock, and the news saw bank stocks fall by 6 percent. The Bank of Italy is asking the EU for transition rules that would allow it to rescue the country’s large banks to the extent that their problems are caused by pre-existing loans.

A prosecutor is asking whether Deutsche Bank engaged in illegal market manipulation when, in 2011, it advised its customers to buy Italian government debt while simultaneously selling 90 percent of its position.

The IMF must eventually exit its involvement in the bailout of Greece, and a leaked letter says it is ready to do so now if Greek debt is not restructured to make it sustainable.

Atlantic City met a $1.8 million bond payment, avoiding a default.

Prosecutors and courts have taken action against more top officials in Brazil suspected of involvement in corrupt activities at the state-owned oil company.

A forest fire in Alberta which has all but destroyed the city of Fort McMurray could become the largest insured event in Canada’s history, with a Bank of Montreal analyst estimating damages of C$9.4 billion. That’s much larger the C$3.2 billion in insured losses in the 2013 floods.

The IRS and White House are working on new rules to limit investors’ ability to use shell companies to hide ownership of assets, a technique commonly used to launder money and dodge tax obligations. Among other measures, new rules spell out the degree of care banks must employ when they verify beneficial ownership of shell companies. That has been an unfortunate gray area in anti-money laundering rules in the past.

Tonight Pennsylvania state regulators closed First CornerStone Bank, which had six locations in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. The FDIC has transferred the deposits and assets to North Carolina-based First-Citizens Bank & Trust Company, which has bought a number of small failed banks in the eastern half of the country in recent years. The failed bank had $101 million in deposits. It was the first bank to fail in Pennsylvania in two years.

Convoys Through the Fire Zone

When the fire at Fort McMurray forced the evacuation of the city, the fire itself was smaller than the city. In another day the fire was much larger and covered an area the size of Chicago in one meteorologist’s estimate. There were few evacuation options, and at least one fourth of the people who evacuated went north on a highway that connects to the outside world only by going back through the city. The fire is now hot enough that it can be put out only by heavy rain. With no rain in the ten-day forecast, it wouldn’t be safe to leave so many people nearby with no road out. The only option is for them to drive back through the fire zone, picking a time when winds are lighter and the trip is relatively safe. Authorities did not like the wind gusts yesterday afternoon. This morning shortly after sunrise the first cars started back toward the fire.

The police plan to escort 1,500 cars out today. That would be a convoy 20 kilometers long, so they will be moving 50 cars at a time. It sounds like it could easily take all day.

The evacuation will have air support which may be able to dampen the embers at key points or can warn a convoy to pause or turn back if a hot spot forms ahead. Nevertheless, drivers will see active flames as they pass through the fire zone. It sounds scary but is ultimately safer than staying put.

The fire will continue to expand, forecasters say, but as it extends to the east it is headed toward an almost unoccupied area near the provincial border with Saskatchewan. Firefighters have so far managed to protect the highway, cell towers, airport, and downtown and can continue to focus on priorities within the city itself.

You might hope that such a large fire event with such a large human impact would be a big story in itself, but the Fort McMurray fire broke through only after the impact on the outside world could be highlighted. Evacuees arrived in Edmonton and Calgary, two of the nearest major cities. World oil prices went up 1 percent after oil production was curtailed, then suspended, in areas near the fire. Another fire farther west closed the Alaska Highway, the long highway connecting Alberta and British Columbia to Yukon and Alaska. All these angles helped make the ongoing fire more than a local story.

Update:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Brazil Court Removes Cunha, Impeachment to Proceed

One of the stumbling blocks in the impeachment of the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was that the impeachment process could ultimately lead to seating a far more corrupt politican, Speaker Eduardo Cunha, as a replacement president. Cunha was leading the impeachment charge in hopes of killing an investigation into some of his own corrupt activities, so it would be a disaster if the impeachment process might possibly make him president. That scenario becomes unlikely now that the country’s top court has removed Cunha from office. With Cunha out of the way, the impeachment of the president and vice president is likely to go a little faster.

Turning Point in E-Cigarettes

Most people know that e-cigarettes are technically illegal to own or sell and dangerous to use. That hasn’t stopped the deadly drug devices from becoming America’s black-market drug of choice. Today the U.S. government adopted rules allowing e-cigarettes to be sold legally for the first time. It remains to be seen, however, whether e-cigarettes will make the leap of faith required to become a legal product. There are reasons to think that can’t happen.

E-cigarettes were in trouble already. Most e-cigarette drugs were manufactured in unlicensed chemical plants in China, but in a crackdown two months ago, authorities seized inventory and jailed executives. If any e-cigarette factories remain in operation in China, it is only because no one knows where they are. In a similar way, no one quite knows what chemicals go into e-cigarettes. The formulas have been a closely guarded secret, but there is no reason to imagine that they are anything more than the cheapest chemicals a criminal enterprise can buy. Under new U.S. regulations, manufacturers have to disclose ingredients and prove that the final product is safe. It is a foregone conclusion that there won’t be any applications filed for the current black-market products. Many of the products will continue to be made and sold, but they will start to disappear from the public eye.

My hope is that this is the beginning of the end for e-cigarettes. The world hasn’t been made better by the introduction of a deadly new commercial recreational drug. It is a morally weak position to look at the inevitable drug deaths from e-cigarettes and say, “Well, that is the cost of an addictive drug.” Morally, the stronger position is if the deadly recreational drug is not turned into a commercial product at all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Forest Fire in a City: Fort McMurray

We’ve all heard about the dangers of forest fires, but it’s not so common to see a forest fire threaten an entire city. That was the story late yesterday when authorities ordered the evacuation of Fort McMurray. The time lapse video from an office window serves better than a description to convey the magnitude of the event:

About 40,000 people got out of the city yesterday — a substantial accomplishment in itself — and a few more are leaving this morning. An evacuation center in the city had to be evacuated as the fire intensified. With a record-breaking heat wave, there are similar fires burning across northern Alberta and neighboring British Columbia, but most are in sparsely populated areas. The fire that swept across a city is the one that will be remembered. The fire at Fort McMurray is likely to be at its strongest today with hotter weather and wind gusts fanning the flames. The fire chief has said the day’s priority will be to protect the main highway and its river bridge. The one part of the city that appears to be safe from the fire is the airport. An airport runway, by design, cannot be surrounded by trees.

The weather pattern that brought record heat to northwestern Canada is thought to be influenced by the early breakup of ice in the Beaufort Sea, the nearest corner of the Arctic Ocean. The warmer conditions there tend to pull the jet stream in that direction. An unusually warm winter in the Arctic region may also be contributing to the slow movement of the jet stream, allowing dry weather to persist for longer than a week. The latest weather forecast indicates only a slight chance of rain over the next ten days.

Fort McMurray is more isolated than you would imagine for a city its size. There is just one highway to the outside world, and the next city is hours away. The nearest point of comparison in the United States would be Fairbanks, Alaska. The long distances involved in the evacuation present a logistical problem. The entire route was quickly depleted of motor fuel except for what the highway patrol is bringing in for stranded motorists.

The story of the Fort McMurray fire is being closely watched by economists studying climate change because it is expected that similar city fires could become frequent occurrences after about 3 kelvins of global warming, though mainly across tropical and subtropical regions rather than the subpolar location of Fort McMurray. The world just hit 1.5 kelvins of global warming for the first time in February, so the predicted city fires might be about a century away. The story is also being followed closely in Russia, where residents are all too familiar with the threat of summer wildfires.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Mystery of the Suicide Trend

One of the urgent mysteries of this century is the increase in suicide. The trend was not noticed quickly but in retrospect can be traced back to about 1997. Careful and serious studies of the increasing suicide rates focus on national statistics, but it is in fact a global trend. There are headlines in the United States about the increase in deaths from suicide among women and adolescent girls, but the rate of suicide among males was already higher and it is increasing too. Attempts to explain the suicide trend have failed in general, but they especially have failed to explain the global reach of the current suicide trend.

I usually like to speculate about trends but nothing I can suggest about the suicide trend rings true.

  • Overpopulation could be a factor, but the suicide trend is, if anything, stronger in places where food is sufficient and the population is not increasing.
  • Methods of death say that suicide attempts are mainly the result of impulsive thinking, but the problem is not that people are becoming more impulsive. Suicidal thoughts are increasing at similar rates among those who have never attempted suicide.
  • Suicide correlates with community rates of alcohol addiction, but globally, alcohol consumption appears to be falling.
  • Suicide historically correlates with recession, unemployment, and austerity budgets, but has continued to increase even as the simple measures of economic pressure suggest that conditions are improving.
  • The suicide crisis is most obvious in the far north, but as an NPR reporter found while looking into suicide in Greenland, the country with the world’s highest suicide rate, “It's Not The Dark That Kills You” — and it’s not the cold either.
  • Suicide seems to have increased faster in places with more obvious climate change, but suicide attempts don’t seem to be connected to weather events.
  • Rapid modernization or future shock can be a precipitating event in suicide, but if that were the primary cause we would worry about those who had recently moved to southern California. Instead, suicide in California is in line with trends elsewhere.

I started looking at the suicide trend because of the story of Attawapiskat, a town on James Bay in Ontario, where suicide attempts have become so frequent since last fall that local authorities had to declare a state of emergency. As globally, the trend in Attawapiskat remains unexplained. The suicide trend is a disturbing development that calls for an explanation and a solution.