Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More jet travel imbroglio

The periodic eruption of outrage, that people who consider climate change a crisis either cause some emissions themselves, or sometimes do so wastefully, is happening again. Comments over at Stoat might be interesting, even maybe my surly ones.

I'd be very interested in anyone's experiences with virtual meetings, like using Second Life to set up meetings. I'm thinking of trying to do that here, but don't know much about it. The trick would be to combine virtual meetings with real life meetings happening at the same time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My blog posts

As I mentioned a while back, I've started blogging at the site. My main blog posts are here, and also diary posts are here. I don't really blog there about climate change, though, if that's what you're looking for.

I'll put in a link to these posts at top left on Backseat Driving website (very exciting, I know).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A climate solution: "Biotic landfill cover treatments for mitigating methane emissions"

I'm reading abstracts on global climate change for a project I'm working on, and came across this one:
Landfill methane (CH4) emissions have been cited as one of the anthropogenic gas releases that can and should be controlled to reduce global climate change. This article reviews recent research that identifies ways to enhance microbial consumption of the gas in the aerobic portion of a landfill cover. Use of these methods can augment CH4 emission reductions achieved by gas collection or provide a sole means to consume CH4 at small landfills that do not have active gas collection systems. Field studies indicate that high levels of CH4 removal can be achieved by optimizing natural soil microbial processes.

Further, during biotic conversion, not all of the CH4 carbon is converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) gas and released to the atmosphere; some of it will be sequestered in microbial biomass. Because biotic covers can employ residuals from other municipal processes, financial benefits can also accrue from avoided costs for residuals disposal.

(ISI ref. no 000181688700007, Hilger & Humer 2003).

This is new to me and seems very doable. Obviously not a silver bullet, but every little bit helps, and people are already working on it.

Nice to find some good news.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reviews: The Uplift Universe Trilogies, and "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution"

David Brin's Uplift Universe trilogies are some of the better "hard science fiction" that I've read, defined as sci-fi that cares about the "sci" part. And unlike most hard sci-fi, the writing's good and the plots move quickly. The two trilogies deal with a universe populated by warring, status-seeking alien species all uplifted to sapience by previous alien species, except for self-uplifted humans who have just genetically enhanced chimps and dolphins. The Earth species navigate through this minefield to survive in a dangerous galaxy cluster.

The ideas are fun, with a decent if speculative grounding in biology, and the first-person perspective for non-human species works well. The chimps in particular are the most engaging characters, with their wisecracking, playful, sporadic heroism. The books would make a great movie, I think.

Downsides are the somewhat repetitive, victory-is-only-achieved-at-a-cost format, and that the best book is The Uplift War, at the end of the first trilogy. I recommend reading the first series, and then if you really liked it, read the second set.

The Uplift Universe's focus on obligations between species influenced how I read the collection of science essays, "Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution," edited by Frans de Waal. The essays are well worth reading, some more than others but you can skip the less interesting ones. I'll write more about it some other time, but I'm very interested in the discussion of chimpanzee culture (p. 248) and how different chimp groups have developed different tools. Chimps in west Africa learned to use stones to open nuts. Nothing stops other chimps from accessing the same food, except geographic barriers stop the spread of knowledge. Similarly, I also saw recently that other chimp groups use tools to extract ground tubers (via Afarensis).

I've argued recently against Denialism Blog that we have a special moral obligation not to harm intelligent species like chimps. Do we have any other obligations? Eli Rabett suggested that we might follow the Uplift Universe path and choose to genetically increase chimp intelligence, in the near future. My spin on all this is that we should, right now, teach wild chimps any tool using technologies currently used by other chimps in separate geographic areas. One could justify this as slightly balancing out all the harm we've done to them by enabling more of them to survive in the decreased habitat available. I don't think that's necessary though - it's justifiable on the basis that it makes their lives better.

What we can do beyond this, I don't know. I don't know if wild chimps could feasibly use or benefit from human-created techniques for improving their lives. Maybe chimps aren't even smart enough so that one group can master all the techniques used by all chimp groups. But then again, maybe they are, or at least can choose the best techniques.

I think this type of uplift is justified.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'll take back half of the bad things I've said or thought about Todd Zywicki if this is true

Todd Zywicki is normally one of the worse authors I've criticized at the Volokhs, but if it's true that he helped the ongoing Department of Justice efforts to break monopoly power by full-service real estate agent syndicates, then he's done something significant to help the environment.

The full-service real estate agents, many of them organized into Realtors Associations, use their monopoly power to bump up commission money (by prohibiting discount brokers from making use of listings of for-sale properties), and then funnel some of that money into anti-environment, land use politics meant to increase sprawl, development, and real estate deals. I've encountered that problem in the course of my own professional work.

Of course many full service agents are just fine people, but their organizations are terrible for the environment, and are fleecing customers at the same time. A competitive market would have a lot less slush money floating around for political shenanigans.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The real middle on climate science, and why no one is or should be there

Unfortunately, Andy Revkin got it wrong in trying to find a non-existent middle ground on climate issues (see here, here, and here for why it's wrong). It's much like the problem that Andrew Dressler found for a previous Revkin article:
The problem I have with the article is that it confuses two separate debates, one scientific (is climate change real?) and one value-based (what should we do about it?). By putting these two issues into the blender, the article confuses rather than clarifies.
So what's the real middle in climate science, in terms of actual science? My amateur outsider's perspective is that there are two respectable scientific camps. In one camp we have people like Kevin Vranes and James Annan, and maybe we can broaden it somewhat to include William Connolley. These people think the mid-range IPCC climate projections are credible (or maybe for some the low range is credible), and the high range or above projections aren't credible. Separate from the science, they think the clear policy direction from this scientific understanding requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. (Let's see how many comments I get on how badly I've bungled their positions). (UPDATE: per comments, I removed Pielke Jr. from this group.) (UPDATE 2: See Connolley's comments re himself and Annan - my argument may be falling apart, but I'm not convinced yet.)

The other camp has people like Stephen Schneider, James Hansen, Eli Rabett, and non-scientists like Nicholas Stern, Al Gore, and inconsequential backseat-driving bloggers. This camp believes that the high-end climate projections are possible, or they think that because the unaccounted-for effect of each of the "known unknowns" ranges from neutral to bad, then high end or worse projections are credible. Separate from the science, these people think that the risks from the worse climate scenarios should also influence current policy direction on how to reduce emissions.

I suppose one could argue there's a middle ground for people who give a very low but real possibility for the high end projections to happen. I don't think that's the case though when it comes time to apply the science to policy - even a small chance of these very bad scenarios occurring should significantly affect policy.

Figuring out whether the high-end scenarios are possible should drive the discussion of the status of the middle ground and which side seems likely to be right, not some muddled middle of techno-optimists and near-denialists. I don't think they're relevant to the scientific debate, nor is James Lovelock or anyone off the deep end on the alarmist side, as well.

UPDATE: I agree with the blogosphere that Michael Tobis' comment on the problem being multidimensional rather than Revkin's linear setup is an excellent way to understand it. Maybe better than my approach. Someone with good graphics capability could even set up a website with rotating dimensions to show this multi-dimensional question.

Different point: I may have been trying what Eli describes as Overton framing, "a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas." Whether I got it right is debatable, I suppose. See Eli for his approach.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Death penalty as a deterrent?

This NY Times article discussing a fair amount of evidence that the death penalty does actually function as a deterrent for murders is unsettling for a luke-warm death penalty opponent like myself. The summary is that there's a fair body of evidence that it prevents murders, maybe 3 to 18 murders per execution, but experts disagree over whether it's conclusive.

The implication if it is a deterrent is in the article: “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.” The quote is from Cass Sunstein, one of the leading liberal law professors.

But there's always another on-the-other-hand: "A single capital litigation can cost more than $1 million. It is at least possible that devoting that money to crime prevention would prevent more murders than whatever number, if any, an execution would deter." That's a testable proposition, I would think.

The article also leaves undiscussed the possibility that the death penalty reinforces the high level of violence in American culture, something that could explain why death-penalty-using America is more violent than Europe, and why the American South is more violent than elsewhere. The problem with this argument is that it's very squishy and not easily testable. I suppose that doesn't make it impossible though.

The trickiest question, assuming that spending money on policing won't work, is what to do with the current, less than perfectly settled state of knowledge. I'd think that applying the precautionary principle suggests that the most cautious approach from a saving lives perspective is to support the death penalty. Not something I'm quite ready to do, though.

And one more wrinkle: I usually think it obvious that policies proven to work should be expanded. If the death penalty works, are we making a mistake in the reduced number of executions over the last few years?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Instructors must love students like me

I'm taking beginning French in an adult education class. Teacher going over an exercise asks me to choose one of two possible grammatical constructions for a sentence. No idea. I choose one. It's wrong. She continues around the room asking folks and finally reaches me again. "We will give you lots of time for this one." I take lots of time - still no idea. I choose one. It's wrong.

Later she tells us the other class is proceeding more slowly than we are. Those people must be really stupid.

Gristmill writes a bad analysis so I don't have to

Here are some thoughts I had while reading this Gristmill guest post criticizing carbon sequestration because of the danger that CO2 would leak:

"Crud - someone's gone and written the post that I was going to write. I've seen very little discussion of leakage issues."

"Well, the author's language really seems overblown."

"Did NRDC really say that? Did Joyce Foundation really fund that?" (Clicks links, reads.) "No they didn't!"

(Reads another link.) "What the hell - IPCC says geological sequestration has a leakage rate of less than 1% per century, maybe less than 1% per 1000 years? This 'issue' just collapses."

So I left a nasty note in the comments. The argument against sequestration claims to be based on the precautionary principle, but you need some actual evidence of risk IMHO before the precautionary principle makes any sense. It doesn't work here, at least for geological sequestration that's properly managed.

I haven't seen much about mid-ocean and deep-ocean sequestration though - leakage and other environmental impacts might be an issue, if anyone's still taking about those ideas.

UPDATE: some good discussion in the comments. I suppose if I were really diligent I could pull out the IPCC cites and read those for flaws, but I'm not that diligent. If the Gristmill author had disclosed the IPCC view and then written an argument for why the leakage rate is wrong, he might have had a better case, but he doesn't really try.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A bubble on top of a bubble - finally understanding the mortgage mess

These two NY Times paragraphs finally made me understand why the financial markets are going to hell now when foreclosures are only at a modest level:

Among the fashionable new [mortgage loan] products were so-called affordability loans, like adjustable-rate mortgages (or A.R.M.’s), interest-only loans and reduced documentation mortgages. In addition to helping Countrywide win market share, those loans generated enormous profits, both in the commissions that borrowers paid and the premiums investors paid when they bought them as pools placed in securitization trusts.

Investors were willing to pay significantly more than a loan’s face value for A.R.M.’s that carried prepayment penalties, for instance, because the products locked borrowers into high-interest-rate loans with apparently predictable income streams.

Interest-only loans and reduced documentation mortgages only make sense if the mortgage company expects the housing bubble to last for many years, with no potential fall in value.
That bubble-inflated value was then bundled and resold for a still higher value (a second bubble) based on the idea that the landowners will be forced to pay higher-than-market interest rates. Now the base value of home prices is bursting, and the expectation that people will be locked into high rates goes away for those who default on their significantly-devalued mortgage. In addition, government legislation may void the prepayment penalties for the rest in order to reduce the number of people kicked out of their homes.

We may get a perfect storm if the dollar devaluation forces interest rates up - still more adjustable rate mortgages become unaffordable, refinancing isn't an option, and the underlying value of these bundled mortgage loans disappears into the air.

Climate spoofing and climate betting

The climate blogs are all interested in a spoof paper claiming global warming's a hoax that was uncritically cited by Rush Limbaugh and other denialists. The anonymous author was interviewed on the Nature blog, and he (Gender Genie says it's a he) gave this reason for doing it:

Its purpose was to expose the credulity and scientific illiteracy of many of the people who call themselves climate sceptics. While dismissive of the work of the great majority of climate scientists, they will believe almost anything if it lends support to their position. Their approach to climate science is the opposite of scepticism.

I think another purpose could be similar to a reason for challenging denialists to bets - it will reduce the number of ridiculous claims because the denialists will have to hesitate before backing whatever piece of nonsense comes their way. That's the idea, at least, but as with the non-betting denialists who won't put up and won't shut up either, it may not always work.

I also feel it's unfortunate that the somewhat deceptive technique of a spoof is necessary, but Rush and friends have just proven that's the case.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Proposal for contract between Pat Robertson and Backseat Driving

Dear Reverend Robertson:

I was very interested in these quotes from your show in January 2007 telling what God told you about what would happen this year:

The other thing He said was that this is the final year of the great demonstration of His grace to the world.... Well, that is going to come, I think, to an end, at least that great anointing. Well, the other thing I felt was that evil men, evil people, are going to try to do evil things to us and to others during the last part of this year. I don’t know whether it’ll be in the fall or September or later on, but it’ll be the second half, somehow, of 2007. There will be some very serious terrorist attacks. The evil people will come after this country....

It’s going to happen. And I’m not saying necessarily nuclear. The Lord didn’t say “nuclear,” but I do believe it’ll be something like that that’ll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people, major cities injured. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope people will pray and that won’t happen. But nevertheless, that seems to be what’s coming up....

I didn’t get a whole lot of word about natural disasters. Last year, the Lord said the coasts would be lashed by storms. Not necessarily hurricanes, but lashed. Up in New England, lashed. Denver—well not (the) coast, but the Pacific Northwest. And then, of course, over in the Philippines, two typhoons, one right after the other. Coasts around have been lashed by storms. I don’t know that we’re going to have a great many natural disasters, at least I don’t have any message in terms of that.

(In case the link above goes away for some reason, it's also summarized here.)

You said that late in 2007, there will be evil terrorist attacks on us that leave major cities injured, something "like" a nuclear attack, a mass killing of "possibly millions." Well, it's late 2007, but the year's not over.

I think you're wrong about your prediction, but I want to propose a deal: I give you $1,000 now to help you get your message out. If the year ends and there's no such attack, you give me my $1,000 back and another $1,000 of your own to help me get my message out that you're wrong about these predictions you've been making.

We just need to define terms, which I'll try to do as generously as possible. Since you only said the mass killing would "possibly" be millions of people, let's define it as any killing larger than the Virginia Tech massacre this year which killed 32 people. I also assume, along with all the mass media accounts of your prediction, that the attack will occur within the continental United States. If that's not the case, and all you were predicting is that terrorism would occur somewhere in the world during late 2007, then I'd suggest that God isn't passing on any real secrets to you.

Please let me know if you're interested.

Brian Schmidt, of Backseat Driving

P.S. You claimed vindication in your January speech for your 2006 prediction that coasts would be lashed by storms. You had actually said "the coasts," plural, "of America" would be lashed (it was a relatively calm storm year for the US) and you predicted for 2006 that "There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest." Or maybe not, as it turns out. Please contact me if you think your predictions this time around are any better - my proposed contract should be a great bargain.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Fire offsets of forestry offsets

Via Inel, there's an interesting article about the amount of carbon released by fire relative to other sources in the US - it can be very substantial, about 4-6% of anthropogenic emissions.

The article acknowledges the conceptual problem that in the long-term, natural fire cycles are carbon neutral, with a constant cycle of burning and regrowth. I suppose the same is true about any natural carbon process, but the time scale for forests is just the right, multi-decadal length to complicate our plans to address greenhouse gases. Also, we don't have natural fire cycles any more, and the change can alter the amount of time carbon spends in the air instead of in a plant or in the ground.

Another wrinkle is with forestry offsets. You can't just measure the difference in carbon storage between a forest logged on a fast rotation cycle and a forest allowed to mature to old-growth stage, and say that's the offset amount. You can lose that offset in the next fire and have to wait for it to come back. It's not an insolvable issue, though. You just discount ("offset") the amount of carbon you calculate to have stored by the percentage of time you expect it will spend in the air over the long term due to fires. Here in California, with our quick-growing, 500-years-between-fires redwood forests, that discount won't have to be all that big.

I will concede this is another complication to using forestry offsets, despite my previous defense of the concept. Too bad, though - it's not like climate models are simple and error-free, and being complicated doesn't equal being useless. I say, "Viva conservatively-calculated forestry offsets!" Put that on a bumper sticker next to a picture of that idiot Che Guevara.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My superpowers

Not boasting, just being informative:

*I don't get ice-cream headaches. Ever.

*Songs don't get stuck in my head, something that I understand to happen commonly among the little people of the world.

Got anything better, you mortals?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hillary gets her climate cap on

Clinton is catching up to Edwards and Obama with a comprehensive plan on climate change. Link goes to what appears to be a white paper by Clinton reproduced at Grist, although I can't find the same document anywhere on Clinton's website. It's a non-trivial issue, because this document is the only place committing to short term carbon caps - "A fundamental cornerstone of Hillary's plan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020" - which I think may be more important than the commitment politicians would have of our grandchildren in the year 2050.

General opinion seems to be that her plan's not substantially better or worse than Edwards' or Obama's. I dunno - Obama's campaign says he "will start reducing emissions immediately in his administration by establishing strong annual reduction targets" to meet the same 2020 goal as Clinton. Immediate reductions sounds comparable to Edward's cap on emissions in 2010, but Clinton doesn't mention an immediate goal. I hope she doesn't expect the emissions reductions to start in 2017, after she leaves office.

UPDATE: Here's her plan on her website, with the 2020 quote.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Volokh Correction #22: Ignoring "self-defense" as a derived principle

A UN report says (at point 20) that rather than being an independent, self-evident principle, self-defense should be derived from the right to life.

David Kopel at the Volokhs says of the report that it "quite explicitly says that personal self-defense is not a human right."

I'd expect better from Volokh bloggers who aren't Zywicki or Bernstein.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Some improvements in the presidential race on climate change

NY Times has a chart on the candidates, and I've added it to my main post on this subject.

Obama has come out with a strong plan after flirting with the coal vote for a while. Edwards has tightened up his cap-and-trade from saying some permits should be auctioned to saying that all permits should be sold following a transition period.

Obama's call to match 1990 levels by 2020 is comparable to Edward's cap at 2010 and 15% reduction from the cap by 2020 (Obama's might be a little better, but Edwards has made this a priority). I don't see an equivalent short-term goal at Clinton's website, though.

On the Republican side, Thompson has allegedly started equivocating on his denialism (I'll resist the urge to take any credit for this). I'd prefer some actual quotes from Thompson though. My guess is that he's equivalent to Bush 2005-2006, saying different things according to what the audience expects. Giuliani is only a smidge better, saying there's a human contribution to warming but not how much. Romney is equivalent to Bush today, acknowledging the problem but not wanting to do anything about it. McCain is a significant improvement, although not as good as any of the Democrats.

UPDATE: He's not a major candidate, but according to the Times chart, Ron Paul is a disaster on climate change.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Really easy view of Comet 17P Holmes in binoculars

Comet 17P Holmes brightened from an extremely dim 17th magnitude object to an easily viewed, naked-eye "star" even visible in light-polluted cities, due to some poorly-understood explosion in the last two weeks. In binoculars, it's clearly not a star but a white sphere. From what I've read elsewhere, these brightening events have occurred before, but never so dramatically as this one.

It's also ridiculously easy to spot. Find the Cassiopeia constellation in the northeast sky around 9 p.m., look a short distance down and to the right to find another star, Alcheb, about as bright as the Cassiopeia stars. Alcheb appears to form the apex of a small, narrow triangle, and Holmes is the star at the bottom left.

Holmes is moving though, so in a week or so these directions will be less clear, and the exploding debris might dissipate and go away. If you're going to look, do it now.