Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chuck Grassley and stratospheric cooling

David Roberts is frustrated with these statements from Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley about climate change:

GRASSLEY: Well, I’d be foolish if I didn’t give—I’d be foolish if I didn’t give it some consideration because there’s a massive amount of scientists that feel that it does. But there’s also an increasing number of scientists that have doubt about it.

And so, not being a scientist, I don’t know exactly where to say only those things that are really quantifiable, and temperature has risen. But the scientific aspect that I still reserving judgment on is the extent to which it’s manmade or natural.


Now, a lot of members of Congress and most environmentalists are—are absolutely convinced manmade is the—is the factor—chief factor here. But I—I want to, before I vote on it, be more conclusive in my judgment, and I haven’t reached that conclusion at this point.

Roberts is justified in feeling frustrated, and the arguments do read like multiple excuses for not doing the right thing. OTOH, Grassley's not using the "global warming is a hoax" language that Inhofe does. I think that it would at least be worth a shot to try and convince Grassley that there's no reasonable doubt about human-caused change.

One of the most persuasive arguments for why climate change is human-caused, I think, is stratospheric cooling. The reason why greenhouse gases cause stratospheric cooling is complicated (one explanation here, I'd welcome better references) and I don't think I've got a good grasp on it yet, but the key aspect is that solar influences can't explain why the stratosphere is cooling.

If you look at the first two images in this RealClimate post, one shows warming from greenhouse gases, and the other from solar radiation. At the top of each image, only greenhouse gases also show stratospheric cooling. If Grassley wants evidence, there it is.

What do the denialists have to explain the cooling? Nothing, that I can tell. There's a hilarious attempt by Steve Milloy to actually deny cooling through cherry-picked start and end dates that a fifth grader could spot (and even then I'm not sure his trend line fits the data). Not sure if anyone else has tried.

Milloy has no interest in the truth that I can tell, but there are some skeptics out there that actually believe what they say. I should ask them what they think.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bay Area local: get thee to the Computer History Museum before 2010

John Mashey was nice enough to show Inel and me around the Computer History Museum where John is a trustee and docent. Main highlight was one of two working Babbage engines in the world, and this one is only there on loan until the end of the year, so you might want to visit while it's there and they're giving demonstrations.

I also thought the Hollerith 1890 census tabulating machine was pretty amazing, which counted tabulation results by creating electrical connections through liquid mercury. And seeing John's work there was cool too.

Glad I finally got to go, and I'll have to come back and linger some time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chimps like magic

Buzzfeed shows a highly entertaining snippet from Japanese television of a young chimp being given its own magic show. You could easily see the chimp's shocked reaction as some of the tricks blew its mind.

All very entertaining, but also a demonstration of the chimp's intelligence. It's easy to get a surprise reaction in animals by startling them, but I don't think a dog or horse has enough of a mental framework of the universe to notice that something had just gone very wrong in each of the tricks. Also worth noting how young the chimp is - I'd guess about three years old or so, and probably as far away from adult mental development for chimps as a six year old human would be from adult intelligence.

Entertaining and maybe enlightening. I guess I should also wonder though about what happens to the chimps when they're not so small and cute.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

$30-$60 million campaign to get climate legislation passed

I forget who directed me to the Environmental Defense Insider podcast, but it's been very interesting on the very rare occasions they've put up a podcast.

In the latest one, they say the major enviro groups have gotten together and are hoping to raise $30-$60 million in a public campaign to get climate legislation passed. That's what a presidential campaign used to cost, not long ago. And while it sounds like a lot, they're also saying "In the first two quarters of 2009, Big Oil and other polluters have spent nearly $120 million trying to defeat clean energy legislation and will stop at nothing to do so."

Supposedly the groups are doing joint fundraising with money specifically dedicated for this campaign, but I can't see where they're doing it, or I'd kick in something. Anyone who knows more, please comment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Random (non-climate-related) miniposts

Some rightwingers want state nullification of health care reform. I think I might be okay with that. Taxes on the rich don't go up in those states, and they don't get the extra money for health care. Since Blue states are generally wealthier than Red states, this keeps more money in the states that actually want health care. My proviso would be the decision to stay out of health care reform has to be done by referendum, and the voters or state legislature must have a subsequent chance to change their mind.

"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" From George Orwell in 1946, a generation before Jonah Goldberg's birth.

Same Facts has posted about the rightwing fascination with bringing guns to presidential events. Eddie Murphy anticipated the issue years ago (starts near 1:45, note the NSFW language).

UPDATE: I think Glen has a decent point in the comments, that two or three gun-toters doesn't equate to the entire conservative movement. OTOH, I think the widespread conservative defense of bringing guns to presidential appearances is pretty wacko.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More on the Mackey/Whole Foods boycott

I'll start by noting that in contrast to my usual blogging subjects here, I actually have a fair amount of direct personal experience with boycott campaigns. I played a somewhat central role in the successful boycotts that got Columbia Sportswear and Pepsi out of Burma,* was heavily involved in the mostly-unsuccessful boycott of Unocal for its travesties in Burma, and I studied the successful tuna-dolphin boycotts before starting my own activism.

Some thoughts:

1. If Mackey owned Whole Foods instead of working for it, I'd have no problem with a boycott and might have to join it myself.

2. Part of a successful boycott strategy is a coherent goal - so what's the goal here, when the boycott target, Whole Foods, has done nothing wrong? Get it to fire Mackey for his political opinions expressed on his own time? Is that ethical?

3. The ever-nuanced Jonathan Zasloff says what he wants from Mackey is intelligent disagreement, and not to shut him up. Fine, but the demand isn't being made of Mackey, it's being made of Whole Foods.

4. Matt Yglesias says shutting down CEOs from prominence in the public media isn't that bad/unethical anyway as they get undeserved attention to spout off on issues unrelated to their business. So do other people though, like Hollywood liberals. That's life. Anyway, it's Whole Foods that's being punished for something Whole Foods didn't do.

5. Somewhere in the Yglesias comment thread, someone says this isn't about ethics, it's about political maneuvering, and objectors like myself should get off our high horses. Interesting point, but Your "Ends Justifies the Means" Mileage May Vary (maybe I can invent a new Internet acronym, YEJMMMV).

6. Boycotts need both favorable sentiment and an organizer. A "Boycott Whole Foods" group has sprung up, but what they want is unclear. They call for a boycott, but don't say what they want Whole Foods to do. I think a successful boycott requires that the target company know exactly what it needs to do in order to make the problem go away.

7. Boycotts succeed not by turning customers away, but by affecting brand image and taking the time of important people. That's the sole advantage I see here for a boycott, in that Whole Foods relies heavily on its image.

8. The boycott may not be about Whole Foods or Mackey at all, but rather about health reform. That might make it more logical, but I'm not sure if it makes it the right thing to do.

9. Given his past, Mackey seems dumb enough to pull stunts like this again in the future. I remember hearing somewhere that company board members never want to see the company name in the newspaper, unless it's to report on record profits. Either he's really good at what his actual work entails, or the guy will eventually have to go.

*I should qualify these as "tactically" successful. We got the companies to withdraw, but have obviously failed on the broader strategic goal of forcing Burma's dictators to change.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wrong politician takes my advice

In early 2008 I suggested that Al Gore join the Dancing With the Stars contest. I even mentioned it to someone I knew at Gore's nonprofit.

Turns out that Tom Delay, the corrupt, retired House GOP leader, will be doing it instead. Oh well. Could be interesting to see if Delay gets the positive exposure I thought Gore might get.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Geoengineering jiu-jitsu and India

RealClimate has an interesting post on how the Copenhagen Cherrypicked Consensus ignores science that has inconvenient economic effects on their infatuation with geoengineering.

Leaving the cherrypickers behind us, I think discussing geoengineering might be a useful wakeup call to policy-makers in India, because the resulting drought effects from spewing sulfates into the atmosphere seems especially likely to hit India hard. If India doesn't want to do anything to stop emissions, then they can think about the consequences. Either with warming-induced loss of a snowpack or with sulfate induced droughts, India isn't getting water. Maybe they ought to consider emission reductions as an alternative, however unfair it might be with Republicans here in the US demanding that Indians produce one-tenth the emissions that they do per person.

Tangentially related is something else that might be useful for India and the black carbon problem beloved by bunnies, and that is home-cooking pyrolysis stoves that get rid of black carbon and leave soil-improving biochar as the result. This is no silver bullet - people have invented countless ways to improve upon traditional cooking fires that haven't been accepted. Biochar is basically charcoal, too, so you have to get people to bury it instead of cooking with it as well. Still, this is worth a shot (and even if they burn it, that's carbon neutral, while burying biochar is carbon-negative).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Defending Whole Foods from John Mackey and a boycott

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote a shallow and unaware Wall Street Journal Op-Ed (are there any other kinds?) attacking real health care reform and proposing nonsolutions like shopping at Whole Foods. The outraged liberal customer base of Whole Foods is now proposing a boycott.

I don't agree with a boycott. Mackey may be like the evil denialist Lee Raymond who funded anti-global warming astroturf groups when he ran Exxon, but the difference here is that Whole Foods isn't being used by Mackey to fight health care. I don't object to a corporation having a prominent officer espousing stupid beliefs on his own time.

Mackey did go slightly further, putting the unedited version of his op-ed on his part of the Whole Foods blog, but he says he did it to distinguish between his words and the edits by the Journal that made it expressly critical of Obama. IMO he shouldn't have posted it, but simply said that his views are only his own, and at most given a link to some personal blog he could set up independently of Whole Foods and rant to his heart's content.

That's a relatively minor sin, though, and I don't think it should be a requirement that corporations I use have every officer share my views.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Grass-fed beef and greenhouse gas - now with data! (Some data, anyway.)

My business plan, by the way, is to overtake the Huffington Post in traffic counts by focusing on greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. Should take about a month, I figure.

In that Grist article I talked about earlier, someone named CL Weber showed up with data:

J Environ Qual 35:231-239 (2006) compared different types of suckler beef production, while Casey, J. W. and N. M. Holden. 2006. Quantification of GHG Emissions from Sucker-beef Production in Ireland. Agricultural Systems 90: 79-98 .... The JEQ article does indeed show (slightly) lower GHG emissions from organic production, at 11.2 kg CO2eq/kg-yr vs. 12.2-13 kg CO2eq/kg-yr for the conventional production schemes, which is still higher than the 10.8 kg CO2/kg-yr mean value calclulated in the Agricultural Systems piece....

However, again, my point is not that grass-fed is substantially worse than grain-fed but that they're pretty much in the same ball-park GHG-wise, and that the difference between them is in the noise when compared to the difference between beef and chicken (1.4 kg CO2e/kg in the US, according to Pelletier, N. 2008. Environmental performance in the US broiler poultry sector: Life cycle energy use and greenhouse gas, ozone depleting, acidifying and eutrophying emissions. Agricultural Systems 98(2): 67-73.)

Obviously pastured beef can have much better impacts on many other things, like water and air quality, than CAFO beef, but a substantial GHG advantage can't be had without assuming large amounts of C sequestration and no land use impacts despite the large amounts of land needed.

Not looking good for grass-fed beef. Story's not completely over, though. The commenter acknowledges earlier that indirect land use changes aren't accounted for. He or she thinks that could make cattle effects worse, but not necessarily. The main alternative use I'd expect of ranchlands in the San Francisco Bay Area in lieu of cattle would be sprawl. Also it doesn't include soil carbon, which would be a significant benefit I'd expect (maybe) from switching from tilled agriculture to pasturage.

Without those effects, beef is nearly ten times worse than chicken, which in turn is probably three times worse than vegetarian (my somewhat-eductated guess). It will take a heck of a lot to make up the difference between beef and vegetarian calories. Some interesting high-tech suggestions on page 120 of this UN FAO publication could be a start, if consumers will tolerate changing cattle's internal biota. Could be a split between the hippie and techno sides of the environmental movement.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nature moment: spider web as a dinner plate

My wife and I were hiking at Castle Rock State Park on Sunday and saw something new to me: a tiny bird (later identified as the chestnut-backed chickadee) eating insects caught in spider webs.

Pretty good trick, I thought. As long as you don't mind eating dead bugs covered with spider webs.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Grass-Fed Beef and Methane, Part Deux: Still More Armwaving

I've written several times about grass-fed beef not being the climate nightmare that grain-fed beef is, and possibly a better alternative than eating plants. In the comments to one post, Michael Tobis and I engaged in much speculating about whether the methane emissions from cattle were worse than the carbon emissions involved in agricultural production of the same amount of calories. (And I never answered his final point that on already-cleared (regularly plowed) land, farming should be carbon neutral - the response is that it still takes energy inputs to farm, transport, and process the production, and soil carbon is not neutral relative to the possibility of converting the land to pasturage.)

Anyway, it was a data-free discussion, which is fine for what it's worth. Now comes a cattle rancher to make the same argument at Grist. To his credit he raises the methane issue, but after asking questions as to ways that, maybe, somewhat reduce methane emissions, concludes as to whether the methane is a problem, "The fact is clear. It is not the livestock; it is the way they are raised."

I may have been guilty of armwaving in my discussion with Michael, but at least I didn't jump from that to a conclusion. I left a comment saying as much, and a later commenter said it better:

It is conceivable to me that a steer that eats only grass from naturally fertilized pasture could have a negative carbon footprint. Root structures of grasses can be quite large, and soil can become a carbon sink, so the pasture could possibly sequester enough carbon to make up for the methane emitted by a steer during digestion. I'm also open to the idea that manure decomposes differently on pasture than at the feedlot. But someone needs to demonstrate it with some actual measurements and some real science.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

California gridlock to reach national politics

Just a thought - massive stupidity by the California Republican Party has relegated it to permanent second-class status. They alienated Hispanic voters, retreated to a conservative white base mostly in Central Valley, and advocated that base politics exclusively to further alienate moderate whites and ethnic voters. However, California requires two-thirds votes to approve budgets and raise taxes, so the Republicans can do nothing constructive but can stop things from happening.

National politics might be going the same way. Republicans retreat to conservative white base voters in the South, advocate those types of policies exclusively, and can never win the legislature (but might win the executive branch with an exceptional candidate). Senate supermajority rules let the Republicans retain enormous power to block action though.

It could go this way, or the Democrats could ram some decisions down the Republicans' throats, or a few Republicans could do the right thing. And eventually I expect the Republicans will follow the British Tories that they used to admire, but I think they'll have to lose at least two more presidential elections in a row before they become a responsible opposition party.

Other random California thoughts:
  • New Jersey corruption shows the problems of a one-party state. This will happen to California too if the Republicans fail to reform themselves. I have trouble imagining ever voting for a Republican for national office, but I have voted for Republicans at the local and state level. If I were from New Jersey, I'd be thinking about doing the same there.
  • Finally, the Aptera will soon be available, but only in California. This is the first vehicle I ever really wanted just for its looks, in addition to being electric. Not sure when or if that will happen though.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Using Dispute Finder on Bob Carter

This is kind of fun. Intel and (apparently) UC Berkeley have created a Firefox extension called Dispute Finder that identifies and allows users to identify disputed claims on websites. It's relatively new with only 8,000 downloads of the latest pre-release version.

So I downloaded it, signed on, and pulled up Bob Carter's useless "warming stopped in 1998" claim at the Telegraph. Users of the extension now see the claim is disputed, which somehow makes me feel better. I then tried the search function to mark dozens of sites parroting the claim, but that didn't work. Oh well.

I suspect the feature might be more useful for non-obvious disputes, but it still feels good to get it out there.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Mars Opportunity Rover on its way to clay-bearing rocks

This announcement got very little attention: the Mars Observer satellite found clays in the rim of the Endeavour Crater, which is the distant destination of the Opportunity Rover. While the rover has already analyzed water-deposited rock, the rock was from highly acidic water that is less hospitable to life than the earlier, phyllosillicate-clay rock found elsewhere. A major reason for the delayed Mars Science Lander mission is to examine clay rocks, and this discovery could give a preview.

The sequence of events as I understand it is that scientists believe that clay rock layers were deposited first. Then a large impact created the Endeavour crater, with crater rims sticking up above the surrounding rock. Then acidic waters left acidic rock deposits that covered the entire area except the crater rim. If Opportunity can get to it - it's still a long way away - it can find a type of surface more life-friendly than anything we've seen before.

I've wondered if the $20m annual cost of extending the rover missions has been worth it, but this would make it worthwhile if the rover successfully gets there.