Sunday, September 30, 2007

On a levee, running with the tides

Yesterday I went on one of my usual runs along the levees on this side of San Francisco Bay. It coincidentally happened to be during one of the highest tides of the year.

So as I ran south along the levee, I could see over five miles of water to my left separated by a ten-foot drop on my right by a twenty-foot wide, old dirt levee. For much of my run, the top of the levee was only three feet above the tide. Ahead and to the right was Google's headquarters, built right alongside the Bay. I couldn't see it but I know that Intuit was next door, along with many other driving companies of the Internet, and tens of thousands of residents.

The great sage, Bjorn Lomborg, says climate change isn't that costly and not worth spending too much money fighting. I don't know if he's including the rebuilding of the entire San Francisco Bay levee system when he makes his calculations. He thinks the sea level rise will only be eight inches in a century, so I doubt it. I know, though, that Silicon Valley and its residents aren't going to roll the dice on that prediction.

I should acknowledge there are second and sometimes third levees in most places, but not everywhere, and they're just as old and often no higher. And the levee system would have to be rebuilt regardless, but not as soon, not as high, and not as strong. Climate change is imposing this cost.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Little Rock and Rangoon

Amid the 50-year anniversary of desegregation in Little Rock (great article here about it), we have the real-time drama in Burma as Buddhist monks face off against the military dictatorship.

I spent two winters in the early 90's volunteering with the ethnic minority Karen opposition groups in eastern Burma, and several years afterwards assisting in efforts to stop financial support for the dictatorship. The media is accurately conveying how bad things are there, and the slim but real chance for improvement.

The best "what you can do with 30 seconds' time" action is to sign this online petition to the Chinese government. Petitioning Burma's dictators is useless, but the Chinese have to weigh how much their colonial enterprise in Burma is costing them as the 2008 Olympics come ever closer.

European Union citizens and others can also petition the EU President to support stronger actions, rather than get shown up by George Bush of all people on a genuine human rights issue.

The military is starting to take action now against the monks, so any outside pressure at all is sorely needed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Climate legislation in Congress

Inel suggests I take a look at this post on climate change legislation currently in Congress. My wise words on all this are - I dunno. I'd guess that anything comprehensive that didn't get vetoed by Bush would be so weak that it would actually be a mistake - the footdraggers would then use the previously-passed legislation as an excuse to do nothing for the next few years when we'll likely have a Democratic president and bigger Democratic majority in Congress.

But I also don't think they're really trying to get anything passed before 2009, so this is all just prep-work, of a type. Dingell's prep-work bill is a poison pill, IMHO - making the perfect the enemy of the good so that nothing will happen on fuel economy standards, all in order to keep the car industry dinosaurs from being forced to do anything to save themselves or the climate. Opinions vary on this, I guess - Gristmill's been covering it.

I've got a much better opinion of Lieberman-Warner. However awful Lieberman is on Iraq and civil liberties, he's been very good on environmental issues. And yes, a carbon tax or a sale of all carbon permits, instead of just 24% of them, would be better, but the question is just how far you can push the utility industries and all their other polluter allies. Starting with 24% doesn't seem all that bad to me.

Bill details here. Some interesting parts:

Each year 4% [of carbon allocations] will be allocated to state governments, half based on population, half on historical state emissions.

Finally some partial recognition that allocations based on past emissions is unjust.
24% in 2012 will go to auction under the aegis of the Climate Change Credit Corporation; rising to 52% by 2035.
So the percentage gets better.

CCS regulations and a legal framework for the Federal assumption of liability for geological storage will be proposed by a study group within two years of enactment.



“The bill will set forth detailed, rigorous requirements for offsets, with the purpose of ensuring that they will represent real, additional, verifiable, and permanent emissions reductions.”

That's all solved then.

Foreign Tariffs

The President will be authorized to require that importers of GHG-intensive products submit emissions allowances of a value equivalent to that of the allowances that the US system effectively requires of domestic manufacturers, if it is determined that nation has not taken commensurate action to reduce GHG emissions.

I still think a trade agreement is the way to go with binding international climate action, dammit.

UPDATE: Saw this article on the same issue, with basically the same viewpoint. It's also probably worth mentioning that legislation providing for improved science, and for energy efficiency aid to developing countries could become law soon, and have a modest value.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Press Release: Backseat University Scientists Determine Method to Remove All Exaggerations in University Press Releases



Today, a B.D. University political scientist announced that he has determined a new method to remove all exaggerations in scientific press releases. Brian Schmidt said, "It's been clear for decades that press releases sent out by universities announcing new discoveries published in the academic journals will often make claims that go far beyond what was accepted by the peer-reviewed journals. The problem is not that the discoveries have no value, but rather that the press releases grossly exaggerate the value, often by eliminating any qualifiers forced into the article by editors and reviewers."

"Clearly, none of this exaggeration is due to the scientists themselves making statements in the press releases that failed to pass peer review, so there is no need to address that 'problem.' Instead, 100 percent of the exaggeration problem can be laid at the feet of overzealous university press offices and public relations officials."

"My solution is simple - the major universities must jointly create an independent nonprofit organization through which the universities release announcements about new scientific advances. The universities keep their PR departments for everything else, and they can even issue their own releases on any scientific subject, but meanwhile the objective organization has also issued a press release without the bias of the universities' PR people."

"With time, this organization's releases will gain credibility in the media because its PR people are objective. It could even ultimately become an academically-oriented news service."

"This method, I'm sure, will entirely solve the issue of someone going beyond a merely useful announcement of a means to partially reduce a problem, and instead claiming a comprehensive solution."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thomas Ricks degrades his reputation on Fresh Air

Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks has tried to make up for his mediocre-if-better-than-the-Times reporting in the runup to the Iraq War with his book Fiasco, criticizing US policy in Iraq after the invasion. He never apologizes for his past failures in his current book, however.

Now he's on to new failures. On the NPR show Fresh Air, Ricks says of the "General Betray Us?" ad that he was "appalled," that the ad was "unfair and not accurate," and that his long personal knowledge of Petraeus as a "good soldier" meant the ad was wrong. He said the criticisms consisted of personal attacks, which is where he goes wrong.

The Move-On ad's headline was juvenile and counterproductive, but morally justifiable based on the ad's actual content. Ricks never once responds to the iron-clad proof that Petraeus has in the past sugar-coated his description of Iraq prospects for purposes of political advantage. Doing that yet again in the life-and-death context of Iraq can appropriately be described as betrayal.

Ricks is engaged in what I'd call a reverse ad-hominem - saying Petraeus is a good guy, therefore the criticisms about his previous statements are inaccurate. Going deeper, I think Ricks thinks Petraeus' policies might have worked if applied from the beginning, and that his policies still have a slight chance of working, and so criticisms shouldn't be allowed. That's bad journalism, and the bad journalism of Ricks and people like him is why we're in the fiasco that we face today.

UPDATE: For a contrary view of the Move On ad, see this baloney analysis in the Washington Post. Personally I don't think an advocacy ad consisting of about 100 words is obligated to discuss opposing views and opposing evidence so long as it doesn't imply no such views exist. But what do I know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The exception versus the rule on meat eating and other stuff

An email conversation I had with correspondent Kathy S. somewhat parallels the enviro blogosphere discussion of PETA's assertion "you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist".*

Kathy noted how little emphasis the enviro groups place on eating less meat, while I mentioned that sometimes meat can be more environmental. Here in the SF Bay Area, eating locally-raised grass-fed beef, especially if the cattle isn't finished on grain, is more environmental than eating imported tofu.

Still, my response reminded me of a criticism someone posted on the John Edwards blog to my idea that monster mansions should lose the home mortgage tax deduction. The counter-argument ran that some large houses could be more environmentally-sound than smaller ones. Personally, I'm unimpressed with the claim that a generally-good rule should be stopped because in rare exceptions it will be counterproductive. Same holds true about meat.

On the other hand, there's a difference between a general rule and a universal rule. Generally, vegetarianism is better than meat-eating. Transforming that into a universal claim like PETA did is illogical. A better argument is to avoid factory-farmed meat, and choose either veggies or locally-raised animals.**

*I expect the PETA statement will be followed by the nuclear industry's assertion that you can't be an environmentalist and oppose nuclear power).

**Unlike cattle and buffalo, chicken and pigs can't be raised on grass. However, it just takes 2 pounds of feed to make one pound of chicken (including the inedible parts), so the loss ratio isn't all that bad, and free-range chickens live partially off the land.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Belated August 2007 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily Coalition fatality rate during the last month: 2.84 (the vast majority are Americans, but not including Iraqis)

Previous averages
July 2007: 2.87
June 2007: 3.6
Last year, August 2006: 2.13.

Overall daily average to date is 2.49. Total US dead as of today: 3781.

Iraqi monthly military and police fatalities: 76.

Previous military/police fatality rates
July 2007: 232
June 2007: 196
Last year, August 2006: 233.
Total Iraqi military dead: 7448.

Note that I've seen media reports suggesting the Iraqi military casualty figures are significant undercounts.


Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 1598

July 2007: 1458
June 2007: 1146
Last year, August 2006: 2733.
To-date civilian partial total (stats begin only in March 2005): 37441.

Note that the civilian numbers are far less accurate than others (most likely to be greatly underestimated, or even ridiculously underestimated), but could still be useful in determining trends, especially in the short term.

Comments: Now twelve months in a row with American casualties above average; no prior bad stretch lasted longer than three months. The overall average for American/non-Iraqi foreign fatality rate continues to move up, from a low of 2.29 deaths daily.

As before, civilian casualties remain terrible. The rate seems to hover around a level that is nearly twice as bad as early 2006, and three times worse than in 2005. Neither we nor the Iraqis realized how good we had it back in 2005.

Seven months have passed since the troop escalation began, with no indication in these statistics that it has accomplished anything, except possibly as a contributor to higher US military casualties. These civilian statistics do not corroborate US military claims for a decrease in violence in areas covered by the surge - either these stats are completely useless, the US stats are completely useless, or the violence moved away from Baghdad and into other areas.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On a vindication kick - this time, Greenspan

Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007 - "Greenspan says didn't see subprime storm brewing":

"While I was aware a lot of these practices were going on, I had no notion of how significant they had become until very late," Greenspan said. "I really didn't get it until very late in 2005 and 2006."

An old post of mine:

Friday, June 17, 2005

Alan Greenspan should work at a coffeehouse

Greenspan, June 2005:

"The apparent froth in housing markets may have spilled over into mortgage markets," Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, said while testifying to Congress last week. "The dramatic increase in the prevalence of interest-only loans, as well as the introduction of other relatively exotic forms of adjustable-rate mortgages, are developments of particular concern."

Greenspan, February 2004 (via Brad DeLong):

"American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage. To the degree that households are driven by fears of payment shocks but are willing to manage their own interest rate risks, the traditional fixed-rate mortgage may be an expensive method of financing a home."

Ask not from whom the froth bubbles, it bubbles from thee.

A lot of us saw the problem earlier than June 2005, buddy. Your genius certificate needed to be revoked a long time ago. Regardless, even in June 2005 the Fed could've taken steps to stop another 6-12 months of people being sold horrible mortgage packages, and we'd be better off now, but Greenspan's Ayn Rand philosophy told him to do nothing. Thanks.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Some SETI vindication

A while back, I wrote about an "interview" I had with E.T. the Extraterrestrial, disputing the idea that alien intelligence is unlikely:

ET: Well look, [P.Z Myer's] guilty of the same anthropocentrism he accuses Sagan of having when he says technological capability has only evolved once on earth. So what? It always evolves only once per planet, from the perspective of the first species to get it on that planet. That doesn't make it unique.

And this is in a recent interview with Frank Drake of the SETI Institute, who knows what he's talking about:

[Astrobiology Magazine]: Although we have no evidence for intelligent life in our own solar system other than Earth.

[Frank Drake]: But that’s meaningless. Probably every planet can produce more than one intelligent species eventually. But they do it at different rates. So on every suitable planet in very many planetary systems, there may be many intelligent species about to appear, but one is always first. And the first one looks around and says, “We’re the only smart ones!” It is the only way it can be, and this is greatly misunderstood. This inevitable situation does not say that a planet can produce only one intelligent species. This fact says nothing about the probability of intelligent life or the possible eventual number of intelligent civilizations.

Nice to see that agreement.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A legal perspective on Lomborg's nonsense

John Tieney gives lots of New York Times space to Lomborg's idea that we should do nothing about climate change and spend money on other stuff instead. From a legal perspective, the analogy would be developed countries committing a tort against undeveloped ones by imposing climate change harms on them. Lomborg would have the developed countries choose how to provide some kind of benefit to undeveloped countries too, and presumably feel quite good about themselves in the process.

However, the standard legal process doesn't give the guilty party the option of choosing a benefit for the victim - it compensates the victim and lets the victim figure out what to do with the compensation. In that sense I wouldn't have a problem with a carbon tax that transferred money directly to developing countries, except that it is not going to happen, politically.

The other problem is that climate change doesn't have just one impact. It won't just raise sea levels, it will likely increase tropical storm damage and other flooding damage, it will change precipitation patterns, it acidifies the oceans, and reduces biological diversity, and it has these effects for centuries.* Looking at one tiny part of the environmental harm in isolation might give the "so what" reaction that Lomborg has, but because environmental harm has so many impacts, the legal system tends to favor injunctions requiring reversal of the harm instead of monetary compensation.

*Stoat has a nice example I hadn't thought about - on the claim that it's more expensive to reduce emissions than to move development away from coasts, he says "given how valuable beachfront property is, perhaps reducing CO2 might be cheaper." Just another example.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On a personal note...

I got married on Sunday. Everything seemed to go very well, and it was fantastic to see everyone.

In addition to registering for the usual selfish presents, we also registered for Kiva loans, a system that supports microfinance institutions by allowing donors to give no-interest loans to micro-entrepeneurs in developing countries. A number of people made loans, and I'll be very interested to see how it turns out.

And we registered for TerraPass for carbon offsets, something I need to do more of.

Final note: I often think the whole "personal is political" concept involves an overblown sense of self-importance, but the idea that my wife and I can participate in something so wonderful while a gay or lesbian couple cannot is simply beyond ridiculous. I know good-hearted people who disagree, and I just don't think they're reflecting on it hard enough.

And now - off travelling for a few days!