Saturday, December 24, 2005

Trade agreements, not treaties, should regulate greenhouse gas emissions

Below are two ideas that I think may be politically feasible, and can still handle the ultimate problem of very large reductions or mitigations of greenhouse gas emissions.

Number one: Magic! This is also known as the technology solution to climate change. I'm being somewhat facetious here, because technology has solved many of our problems, just as it has also created many of our problems (including this climate change). But expecting technological improvements to come up with a perfect, cheap, and easily-implemented solution to processes that emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is something that amounts to playing the technological lottery.

As an example, see the post by Roger Pielke Jr. on open-air capture of carbon dioxide. The assumptions involved in making that concept work are truly heroic. Carbon sequestration from point sources is going to be hard enough, while this concept of open-air capture adds an additional, poorly defined step that must then be combined with the point source sequestration (when the open-air-captured carbon dioxide has to be released from the capturing material, and sequestered using point-source methods).

A historical note: reliance on not-yet-developed technology was the thing that kept Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party going towards the end of World War II, when it was clear that they were losing. Things did not work out so well for them.

Bottom line is that technology will of course be important, and I wouldn't even rule out some "magical" technology that makes everything easy, but in the meantime we have to look at some solutions that will require actual effort.

Number two: greenhouse gas controls regulated and adjusted through international trading mechanisms. This is very different from the current treaty-based approach that involves unanimous consent by each nation, and treaty ratification in the United States Senate (if it's to be made applicable in the US). Instead, a critical mass of the world economy, which may or may not include the United States, first determines the total level of allowable greenhouse gas emissions for the entire world, then uses whatever method they choose to allocate those omissions to each country, and finally enforces against noncompliance by any country, whether the country likes it or not, through trade duties on exports from the country that exceeds its allocations. Those trade duties could then be used to pay for greenhouse gas mitigations that would balance out the noncompliance by the offending country.

There are two advantages to this approach over a treaty-based approach. First, if enough of the rest of the world is willing to stand up to the United States, and any other country that refuses to participate, they can do so. I think this is crucial because even a Democratic president may not be willing or able to get the United States to agree to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade or two, especially in light of the two thirds vote of approval necessary for treaty in the United States Senate. Furthermore, just the fact that this possibility exists could make the United States and especially the American business interests more willing to compromise than would otherwise be the case.

The second big advantage in a trade-based approach is that it does not need the two thirds vote requirement in the United States Senate required for a treaty. Trade agreements only need to be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress, something that is much more feasible. Alternatively, the US doesn't sign at all, but that doesn't even matter if the majority of the world's trading economy does sign and enforce the trade agreement. I'm referring to the United States primarily, but other problem countries like Australia and China could also be regulated this way.

I'm not pretending that this approach is easy, as it would have to significantly modify the current World Trade Organization approach to trade, and it would require Europe and Japan to be willing to go to the wall with the United States over trade. I just point out that it's a way to get things done without the entire world being held hostage by one-third of the US Senate. Not easy this way, but the other way is much harder.

I would like the flesh this out at some point, rather just having some barely-described idea, but that will have to wait for a later time.

Enjoy the holidays everybody. I'm off backpacking in Death Valley, and won't be blogging for a week or so.

UPDATE: see the comments - commentators whose opinions I respect suggest that the trade agreements idea is not a feasible method for getting around the legal requirement for a two thirds majority in the Senate. This isn't my field of law, but I still think it would work. See this web site (or click here if you don't have Powerpoint) for more information that trade agreements do not need two thirds majority vote.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

On working with, not against, the Peak Oil people

Below is an email I received from David Room of the Post Carbon Institute, a non-profit advocating for adaptation to a Peak Oil world. Speaking even as someone who's somewhat skeptical about the Peak Oil worst-case scenarios, I'm still disappointed in responses he's received from some climate change advocates, and their unwillingness to work with Peak Oil people:

I have been trying to work with the Greenhouse Network (through the Executive Director) for 18 months, but am consistently told that they do not have room for me (no pun intended). I hope that we will be able to work with them in the future.

Lately I am meeting more people that I think of as "Climate Change Bigots". This subset of climate change activists believes that peak oil will be a non-problem due to technology and the market, and is therefore at best a distraction. ([It is] not my intent to imply that Greenhouse Network is a climate change bigot.) I have been scolded by one of these folks for talking about energy issues - "you're talking about the right solutions for the wrong reasons". While I agree that climate change is the most disastrous problem facing humanity, the peaking of global oil production will likely have severe ramifications that may drive mainstream behavior much sooner than climate change. I think climate and energy activists need to work together. In fact, I see oil depletion and climate destruction as two sides of the same coin - the responses are the same. I am interested in ideas for bridging the gap between climate and energy activists.

In the last two months I have interviewed Ted Glick of the Climate Crisis Coalition and Joseph Romm, author of the hype about hydrogen, for Global Public Media. The Romm interview will be posted shortly [at]

I'd just add that even if one believes that technology and markets will solve the Peak Oil "distraction," they could do so in ways that are very bad for climate, like increased coal use. Climate change advocates need to be informed and help influence the policy decisions to push adaptation in the right direction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Gorilla menopause, toys, and whales

Gorillas experience menopause, says a new study. Pretty dramatic, in that I believe humans were thought unique in undergoing menopause:

Many biologists believe menopause evolved because it gave human grandmothers more time to help care for their grandchildren, said Steve Austad, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio who was not involved in the study.

The new findings argue against the so-called ''grandmother hypothesis,'' because female gorillas in the wild migrate away from their family groups and don't hang around to care for the grandkids.

In other primate gender news, male and female vervet monkeys show the same preference for "gendered" toys as human boys and girls. One more data point in balancing nature and nurture.

And in other "smart animal" news, a humpback whale freed from entangling ropes by divers went around and nuzzled each diver before swimming off. Assuming the divers aren't exaggerating, it's hard to deny that the whale understood what the divers were doing, despite having no similar experience in the past, and at least showed affection. Concluding that it was attempting to communicate gratitude might be more than the evidence shows, although the evidence also leaves that possibility open.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Volokh Non-Correction #2

Orin Kerr of the conservative Volokh Conspiracy weighs in on the legality of the Presidential wiretapping. The result: probably doesn't violate the Constitution, but probably does violate statutory protections.

I'll just add he's being generous to Bush on the constitutional issue. One defense relies on a border search of "international email." My question is, what's an international email? Either all email is if you follow the electrons as they get scattered around the internet (doubtful legal argument), or you have to know that the sender or the recipient was out of the country when it was sent or read, which seems hard to establish.

More news on the subject at Talkingpointsmemo.

UPDATE: Because the path here leads to straight to the top, don't expect any Dept. of Justice investigation, let alone a Special Prosecutor. The way Dems should handle this is to demand a Special Prosecutor, or they'll bring impeachment proceedings.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Short posts: stem cell scandal, and Tom Bethell echoing lies

1. From Pharyngula, on the Korean stem cell scandal: "Big buckets of money and a government that wanted certain highly desirable results is a recipe for exploitation, and they seem to have found the man to take advantage of it all."

Sounds like a warning for California, with the billions planned for stem cell research here. We better do it right.

2. Came across this tidbit in The Conservative Book Club review of Tom Bethell's "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science": it includes an "open admission by a Sierra Club official that they want to keep the DDT ban in place because it reduces African populations." (NOTE: Next sentence is wrong; see the bottom of this post.) Presumably that's a reference to Charles Wurster of Environmental Defense (not Sierra Club), and it's a lie that gets told repeatedly in right-wing circles. Anyone (as in Bethell) doing basic research would find that out.

I hope to track down Bethell to challenge him over global warming, which he also denies.

UPDATE: Tim Lambert found a different right-winger attributing an alleged quote to a Sierra Club official, here. As Tim says, no original source is given. The quote is often combined with the fraudulent Wurster quote (see also here and here), so I'm suspicious. A Google search generally leads back to the unsourced, Frontpage magazine Tim mentioned. This could use some additional reseach...

UPDATE 2: Went to a bookstore and found the pages in Bethell's book so I wouldn't have to buy it (pages 83-84). It is a reference to Michael McCloskey, a Sierra Club official, and the source is J. Gordon Edwards' malaria article here. Still researching....

Friday, December 16, 2005

Some bad news for carbon sequestration

Another really good post at The Oil Drum, except that they buried the lede - when you attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by pumping CO2 into oil fields and get the "benefit" of capturing oil that would otherwise have stayed underground, "the additional oil puts out more CO2 than is buried."

Damn. So much for that technique.

You could of course bury CO2 someplace besides an active oil field, but that then changes the economics to all costs and no benefits.

This stuff is going to take some work. As I recall, the IPCC counted on sequestration to handle 30% of the needed reductions in CO2 emissions to get a stable atmospheric concentration. I hope their economic analysis was conservative in considering whether sequestration is feasible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Body downgrades and technology upgrades

So I haven't blogged very much in the last week or so because of pain in my left arm that's made it difficult to type. This happened once before in 1996 in both arms and lasted for four years, so hopefully this time will be a little bit better.

I am now using voice recognition software, the latest Dragon Naturally Speaking version. I tried to install it on my home computer as well as my work computer but found that my home computer, five years old, can't handle the software. So I pulled up the older version of the same software from three years ago and try to use that one there. I had trained that document for hours as opposed to about 20 minutes for the current software. The current software is much better. It is still annoying as hell though, so I hope I get my chance to type again soon.

Apparently someone somewhere said that if you have a toothache you don't care about what happens in Cambodia. It's pretty much the case for me, looking at the previous post I have here in the blog. I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger would do a little better than he has.

There is a new death penalty case making the rounds of the blogosphere, about an African-American man who who shot a white policeman that had broken into his home. More information is here, and it looks like a pretty valid argument to be a person who should not be executed. Once again, we will see what will happen.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Clemency, Arnie, Tookie, and me

Your friendly environmental lawyer has been asked to weigh in on criminal law clemency in general and Tookie Williams in particular. Let's go!

Q: Why, after millions spent on trials and appeals, with judges and juries who have very appropriately played their roles, should one man in the executive branch of government then get to decide the life or death question?

A: As my law prof once sang in class to Fiddler on the Roof, it's "Tradition!"

The sovereign's power of clemency and pardon goes back to when we had kings, when the king could also be the judge. While many other parts of the legal process have well-defined standards, I think having a safeguard providing clemency for a broad variety of reasons is useful. Example: Virginia's governor stopped the execution of a man because the state had accidentally destroyed forensic evidence that could have cleared (or reinforced) the defendant's guilt. That kind of flexibility is useful.

Q: Since the jury originally decided on death, shouldn't they get the choice to decide whether the rehabilitiation is worth a stay of execution?

A: The jury's been disbanded for years at this point. You could theoretically assemble a new jury and ask them to reassess the original judgment given all the time that's passed, but you'd need to change the law to do that. I wouldn't have a problem with that as yet another safeguard against "improper" executions, but I'd still keep the executive pardon power, just in case.

Q: In your judgment as an environmental lawyer, does Tookie Williams represent a good case for clemency?

A: He appears to be a model of rehabilitation, except that he denies responsibility for the murders that are the basis of his capital punishment. That leaves two options:

1. He's guilty, and is lying about the worst thing he's ever done to the great harm of the victims' survivors. Hardly the model case, no matter what else he's done to fight gang violence.

2. He's innocent, and the most deserving recipient of clemency on all of Death Row.

My superficial impression is that the evidence against him is strong, but not perfect. I casually allocate odds at 95% guilty, 5% innocent. No way would I allow such an execution to go forward on those odds.

Q: So what will Arnie do?

A: Schwarzenegger will occasionally reach out to the left, so long as it doesn't involve raising taxes or otherwise irritating big business. Commuting the sentence will get him in trouble with police unions, and might reduce financial contributions from knuckle-draggers. But he's in trouble and needs to take chances. I say, 55% chance he'll commute to life in prision. I assume that morality plays no role in his decision, just political calculus and personal whimsy.

So far, my success rate in political predictions in this blog has stayed at the exact same level. We'll see what happens.

Monday, December 05, 2005

95-10: good, oversold, and can be improved

Via Jonathan Zaslof and The Carpetbagger, there's a plan to reduce abortions 95% through better contraception and adoption incentives, but also including a ban on late-term abortions.

It's a good idea. I see no way it'll reduce abortions 95%, but I do see a way to sell it politically: the politicians supporting it can say this idea will reduce the abortion rate (not by 95% though), that's a measurable trend, and if it doesn't in 4-6 years, they promise they won't run for re-election. I challenge my opponent to make a similar pledge about his position.

There should be a number of empirically-testable positions where Democrats differ from Republicans, and can make promises like this that Republicans will have to run away from.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

November 2005 Iraq casualties

On to the monthly casualty report for November:

Avg. daily military fatality rate(nearly all of them Americans): 2.87. October was 3.19, September was 1.73, and November 2004 was 4.7. Overall average to date is 2.35, up 0.02. Total US dead as of today: 2,129.

Iraqi monthly military/police fatalities: 176. October was 215, September was 233, and no stats published for November 2004 (January 2005 is when the stats started: 109). Total dead: 3701.

Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 581. October was 465, September was 640, stats begin in March 2005: 240. Note that the civilian numbers may be less accurate than others, but could still be useful in determining trends.

Comments: second month in a row where American fatalities exceed the overall average while Iraqi military fatalities have decreased.

"As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."


key: Iraq, monthly report

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Understanding v. racism

Some bloggers are trying to organize today as the "Blog Against Racism Day".

I'm not sure how much this white boy has to add on the subject, but I do know a place to go to get more information: The Yforum. It's set up as a place for people of differing ethnicities to ask each other questions and to understand or explode stereotypes. Embarassing questions are very much allowed. Not a bad place to check out.