Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wall Street execs shocked to learn that life isn't fair

I haven't weighed in on the small-potatoes scandal of the AIG bonuses, but I think there is a useful connection to the bigger issue of bank nationalization.

Apparently a few of the AIG millionaire execs who might be taxed out of their bonuses have little to do with the problem (a tangent - interesting legal issues with taxing bonuses, and I don't think anyone knows the answer about legality). It's impossible to sort between the undeserving and the deserving though, so the fair approach according to the execs is to give all of them the money.

The problem is that the money comes from taxpayers who rescued the company from bankruptcy that would've voided the obligation to pay the bonuses. It's hardly fair to taxpayers to punish them twice for something they have even less relation to than these AIG execs, even the less-sinful ones. As between unfairness to the AIG execs or unfairness to the taxpayers, I think it's time for some rain to fall on the heads of the execs.

The same issue arises for toxic assets - if the market is undervaluing them due to a lack of liquidity, it would be unfair for the government to take them from banks at a near-market value. On the other hand, if they are truly toxic assets, then taxpayers are screwed if the government buys at inflated value. Finally, if we buy the assets at near-market prices, the banks would go under and their creditors would suffer potential disastrous losses.

My guess is that the best thing is to make the creditors suffer as disastrous losses as they can bear before overloading the international financial system. Nationalization, government takeover of toxic assets, and partial payments to bank creditors should be the alternative to massive subsidies or to bankruptcy. Obama's taking it to easy on them.

For an alternative view that's far better informed than me, try Brad DeLong.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dyson isn't a right wing hack, but he'd rather be contrary than right

Revkin at NY Times writes about skeptic Freeman Dyson, recipient of a long profile:

Personally, I see Mr. Dyson (he never pursued a Ph.D) in a different camp, as one of a handful of scientists for whom ideological predispositions have no bearing on how they approach a technical question.

Maybe it's not a political predisposition - I'll get back to that - but the profile has Dyson saying three things: models projecting dangerous climate change are wrong, what change will occur is a net benefit, and technology can easily handle anything potentially dangerous.

Where I'd disagree with Revkin is that each assertion is an independent technical question, but they all, conveniently, are concluded by Dyson in a way that supports a position that we shouldn't reduce fossil fuel consumption. Many right-wing hacks also find the same conclusions, all against the scientific consensus. Dyson isn't a right-winger, but he is a contrarian, and I think he likes reaching a conclusion that opposes the consensus. Within his own field of expertise, he's occasionally done that correctly, but he's also been wrong. This isn't his field, other than some minor work Revkin points to from 30 years ago. (Mooney has more on this.) In other words, Dyson is biased.

And there's a political ideology driving Dyson as well. He clearly thinks coal should play a major role in Third World development. Even if he doesn't follow typical denialist politics, his political preference is driving his analysis.

Finally, since any accusation of bias could be turned around against the accuser, let's examine it. The models seem to have held up pretty well over the past 10-20 years, and the theory of destructive climate change is a century old and doesn't rely on modelling. The evidence strongly suggests changes will be net negative, as can be seen in significant part by the fact that we are adapted to the current climate. (If we could choose in advance, maybe we'd prefer a Jurassic climate, but switching to a warmer one from the present imposes huge costs.) Finally, technology might save us, but blindly counting on it is a huge mistake. Maybe I'm as blinded as Dyson by my ideology, but I doubt it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mark Campbell gives 33% chance that IPCC is right, and no betting will happen

(UPDATE: some overlooked email correspondence going on now, I will repost later after it's resolved.)

I'm not sure how important it was to see if Naval Academy chemistry professor Mark Campbell would bet over his position. He only wrote one letter to the editor denying the mainstream consensus that I'm aware of, but it was a fairly aggressive one that was trumpeted by Marc Morano:

....If we are going to stoop to name-calling, an appropriate name for
people with the view The Baltimore Sun endorses could be "Chicken Littles." But
instead of claiming that the sky is falling, they claim the sky is burning....
To many of us, there is no convincing evidence that carbon dioxide produced by
humans has any influence on the Earth's climate. Arguing that our country should
decrease its use of fossil fuels is a laudable goal, but the reason to do so
should be to reduce our reliance on energy from foreign sources, not to reduce
the danger from some imaginary boogeyman.

In any event, Campbell is one of the few non-retired science professors who's willing to say this stuff, so I thought it worthwhile to contact him. He exceeded 95% of the denialists out there by responding to my email and actually exploring a bet, but unlike David Evans or Bill Gray, he never lost the aggressive tone. I wonder if that hostility has anything to do with being so catastrophically wrong.

Anyway, his first bet offer was fine - it was to take 1980-2000 warming and project the same amount for 2000-2020. If 2000-2020 meets or exceeds the 1980-2000 warming rate then I win, and if it's half or less of the 1980-2000 warming rate then he wins. The idea was fine but the data he used was wrong (he got it by eyeballing a graph), and when I supplied correct data he began backing away. Ultimately the only bet he would offer against the IPCC position had to favor him by 10:1 odds over a twenty-year period.

Seeing as I give 20:1 odds or better that the IPCC is right, 10:1 odds might sound fair, but the odds that the IPCC is right overall doesn't translate directly into the odds of the outcome for any particular period matching what the IPCC says. Also, I don't have the money to make my betting partner put out a significant bet if I have to bet ten times as much.

Here was my email to Campbell:


I'm sorry you don't consider your own previous bet offers as fair ones.
The idea is that both sides perceive different odds of an event and can reach a
bet point where each side thinks it's likely to win.I believe there's been some
utility in this discussion in that you acknowledged to me at least a 33% chance
of the IPCC position being right
(see update below). I think in any policy claims you make against controlling emissions, you might want to acknowledge that too, given the downside of what will happen if the IPCC is indeed right and we continue our path of doing very little to control emissions....The 4:1 bet offer you've made,
by the way, doesn't contradict the IPCC range because I can only win at a rate
significantly higher than the IPCC predicts for the next few decades. And
the Wrigley-Raper paper has been criticized as inappropriate melding of
different scenarios (as I recall, it was a long time ago).


I had also said I would only summarize but not quote him without permission. I just now discovered that he's misrepresented our negotiations, so I've reproduced the relevant correspondence, here.

I really expect better from someone lucky enough to teach at the Naval Academy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Banned from blogging and wiki editing for a week

My self-imposed ban. We're moving (all of three blocks, but it's still a move), and have too much work. Will resurface in a while.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Santino planned for his own future state of mind

Ed Yong caught the crucial issue regarding the zoo chimp that calmly collected and made stone missiles to throw at visitors that would come to the zoo later:
Santino is an advanced tool-maker, learning to create concrete missiles through its own initiative. And what's more, he showed the ability to plan for the future based on a predicted state of mind, rather than the one he was currently experiencing.

I haven't seen other reports about Santino discuss this issue - he didn't just plan for the future but did so with a self-awareness of what his future state of mind would be. If he thought in words it would have meant him thinking, "Humans will show up today, I will be antagonized, I will want to throw something at them, nothing to throw at them is presently available, so I will make things and store them for when I am angry." The fact that Santino doesn't have mental language capability makes it even more impressive that he could understand these concepts without words to guide him.

More evidence that intelligent animals like the great apes shouldn't just be used as our playthings or medical subjects except under circumstances we'd apply to human child subjects.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Iago quits Othello, and other climate news

  • Via a Rabett and a Gold-Digger, the voluminous Marc Morano appears to be leaving the employ of Senator James Inhofe (apologies to Othello for comparing Inhofe to him, btw). Circumstances of the departure aren't clear, but we can always hope that crime doesn't pay. Morano is leaving for some two-bit denialist website I hadn't heard of before. Time will tell whether this all is good news - Morano won't quit denying but will likely be much less important, and we'll find out how important this all is to Inhofe when he gets a new shill.

  • The mayor of Palo Alto, Peter Drekmeier (a friend of mine), announced his support for a city-level carbon tax on electric power. People either pay the tax or use renewable power. While Palo Alto has more flexibility because it runs its own utility, this is still a great start. Carbon taxes are compatible with cap-and-trade, and this proposal will reduce Palo Alto's need to buy allowances. Palo Alto's a city of 60,000 people - not huge but not tiny either. If the other 5% most-progressive cities took the same action, we'd be making progress.

  • My small local environmental non-profit received several postcard invitations to this year's Denialist Conference. Nice, full-color cardstock, so the bad guys still have some money to waste. The Sierra Club, just down the hall from us, got stiffed (hah!). My impression is that it's less prominent this year, but who knows.

  • More if unnecessary proof of ocean acidification from carbon dioxide. There are some interesting legal hooks to acidification and sea level rise because they're not like a hurricane where one can question whether climate change played a role. Bad guys should be worried, and good guys should be looking for class action

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NY Times also flubs non-climate science

Below is a letter I wrote to the NY Times about their resurrection of the Noble Savage myth in a recent Science Times article, one that claimed that prehistoric humans were minimally violent:
To the Editor:

The Science Times article, "In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue," posits a false choice between two possible human evolutionary drivers: cooperative baby-rearing for in-group success, or social cohesion to overpower out-group rivals. Both forces could drive human evolution, and there may be little difference between them.

The article portrays Dr. Hrdy as supporting some version of the peaceful Noble Savage myth, and denying violence as a driving force. Scholarship such as that in the book "War Before Civilization" demonstrate otherwise, that violence between hunter-gatherer groups is and was much higher on a per capita basis than in large, organized societies.

Dr. Hrdy may be referring to evidence of a genetic bottleneck in human prehistory in order to claim small populations didn't need to fight, but that one bottleneck doesn't mean populations were always below the carrying capacity of the habitat they used. Basic biological law known since Darwin states that species will quickly expand populations until they overfill their habitats, and then something decides which groups will survive. It was almost certainly violent choices in the past, but hopefully our big brains and modern tools give us a different options for the present and future.

To be fair to Hrdy, she's apparently referring to ancient hominids who might have been genetically/culturally different from modern hunter-gatherers, but I still doubt she's right. And when she claims "the average population size during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution that preceded the Neolithic Age may have been around 2,000 breeding adults," I find it hard to believe a population that small could last that long and not wink out. Wiki thinks "as long as" 100,000 years, still an unlikely long time but short compared to hominid evolution. Even if it's true, that small population has to be kept small by something other than competition for habitat or intra-species violence, in order to resurrect the Noble Savage.

Anyway, I've been meaning to blog about the War Before Civilization book. It's excellent, if somewhat depressing about our past. Peace is possible without civilization, but it's not easy to keep. Afarensis did a great post about the book a while back for more info.

(And yes, this post falls into the "I read a book and now think I know more than an expert in the field" category. Oh well.)

UPDATE, Jan 2010: more evidence in support of Hrdy's position and against mine, this time that hominids had incredibly small populations dating back 1.2 million years. They also claim that chimps and gorillas had similarly-small populations despite the radically different habitat that they use. Weird. I'm not convinced, yet.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Climate change is changing rain/snow mix in winter floods

Thought I'd try a local reference as part of the whole Roger Pielke Jr. kerfluffle, wherein Roger expresses outrage at the idea that present climate disasters are partially traced to climate change. He apparently doesn't dispute that climate change will make future disasters worse, so I fail to detect the bigness of the deal.

Something I put up at my work blog is relevant to climate disasters and flooding. Our local area winter storms and resulting flooding are a mix of rain at low elevations and snow at high elevations. California has definitely warmed, so this has likely increased the rain:snow ratio and made flooding worse, and will do so even more in the future.

And it's probably not just us that have this problem - plenty of other temperate areas could face fall and spring storms that would have been partially or completely snow instead of rain under natural conditions but will get rain-caused flooding instead because of warming. Not the most important climate impact by far, but directly relevant to Roger's field.

I expect his response would be to say you can't point to existing data on economic damages and separate out a climate signal from the noise of every other factor. So what? That doesn't mean the damage hasn't happened. It's a logical implication, and what's lacking is only the detailed information that lets us tease out the various factors.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

NY Times getting its share of climate flubs in too

The New York Times doesn't want the leave the field of bad climate change info exclusively to the Washington Post. The Times doesn't understand the difference between "grass-finished" versus "grass-raised" cattle. That might sound trivial but it's not when they're making the claim that "grass-fed" cattle are bad for climate change.

Here it is:
A report from Science News(via Food Times) argues that beef produces 19 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram served; that grass-fed beef is worse — yes, worse — for global warming than feed-lot beef; and that for every percentage reduction we make in meat consumption we’ll see a corresponding reduction in its contribution to global warming.

(Also repeated at the Times' Dot Earth.)

If you click the link, as we all should, you get the problem: “We do see significant differences in the GHG intensities [of grass vs grain finishing]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.”

So what's the difference between grass-raised versus grass-finished? I see it here in Santa Clara County in my work attempting to protect open space. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of hillside ranchlands primarily used for cattle raising, based on grass. Finishing is what happens last, when cattle are taken to feedlots to fatten up before slaughter.

Back to the Science News article:
When an audience member questioned whether he had heard that right, that grass-fed cattle have a higher carbon footprint, Pelletier reiterated, “higher. Yes.” The reason: “It’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide [GHG] emissions.” He added that most pastures were highly managed, and subject to “periodic renovations and also fertilization.”

The use of "grass-fed" is from the article, not Pelletier, and I think it's a mistake. So is everything else in that quote at least as it applies here. Almost none of the ranchlands in my county are fertilized or irrigated, and I expect the same is true for most of California for non-dairy cattle.

The only realistic food use of relatively dry hillsides here, and I suspect in much of the world, is grazing animal production. The alternative is intensive agriculture somewhere else, and I think that's been missed in the climate analysis.

I don't think this issue is completely resolved - finishing cattle, much of which may be unnecessary, can cause problems, and there's the methane production issue that I don't completely understand, but I'm sure the simple conclusion the Times reached hasn't been proven.

(Disclosure: I sometimes eat beef or buffalo, and try to get grass-fed.)