Sunday, November 28, 2010

Someone finally mentions the attack on the EPA will come through budget resolutions

I've babbled for months now that the Congressional Republican attack on environmental protection will be through the budget process, not through Clean Air Act revisionist legislation that would be subject to a Senate filibuster and an Obama veto.

Someone finally acknowledges that, in an Environmental Defense podcast (starting around minute 35). There they call it a potential "rider" or an add-on to an appropriations bill that would be very difficult for the Senate to kill or for Obama to veto. That's very close to what I'm concerned about, but an even more insidious and hard-to-kill action would be to zero out the budget for anything EPA could do to enforce application of the Clean Air Act to climate change issues. So I'm glad it's finally noticed, and the question is how to respond.

Complicating this is the Republican threat to de-fund health care reform. I could easily seeing the Republican controlled House passing a budget that both de-funds health care and prohibits spending money to enforce the Clean Air Act. They will then attempt horse-trading, and I fear the concession that they'll ask for.

I think it's to the Democrats' advantage to say these are established laws that aren't to be part of any games that Republicans will use instead of trying for revocation, and make sure the Republicans are set to take the blame if the Republicans cause a government shutdown over the budget.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lomborg misunderstands city subsidence and sea level rise

Maybe I should ignore this Bjorn Lomborg Op-Ed like everyone else has, but one part got a rise out of me. He compares subsidence that's happened in certain cities due to groundwater depletion to the long-term, multi-century sea level rise of 15 feet (actually it could be more than that), and says that we've handled "large relative sea-level rises without much difficulty." In other words, adaptation is no big deal.

I don't know the cities he's talking about, but I do know about subsidence in San Jose along San Francisco Bay. Contrary to Lomborg's statement, it's a big deal and a serious problem, especially when combined with other potential flooding problems that usually exist because cities are normally located near rivers.

The other point Lomborg misses is that city subsidence is geographically limited. The only area that needs to be protected from relative sea level rise is a small stretch of shoreline. And cities are the most economically valuable land on the planet, so the cost of protecting them relative to their value constitutes the best possible scenario.

Sea level rise, even minor sea level rise, is a much bigger deal. Here in Santa Clara County, we're going to have to deal with it, and it's already costing taxpayers money. Flood projects for near-sea-level creeks are right now being designed to handle sea level rise, which is the only intelligent way to construct these long-term structures. Adaptation is already here, it's a significant problem, and the question is who should pay for the costs. Seems like greenhouse gas emissions would be a good place to look for a tax to pay for greenhouse gas costs.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christy lays down an (unclear, skewed) marker

From a good and unsettling news article on accelerated glacier flow and melting in Greenland:

John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who is often critical of mainstream climate science, said he suspected that the changes in Greenland were linked to this natural variability, and added that he doubted that the pace would accelerate as much as his colleagues feared.

For high predictions of sea-level rise to be correct, “some big chunks of the Greenland ice sheet are going to have to melt, and they’re just not melting that way right now,” Dr. Christy said.

It's not clear exactly what Christy is saying is wrong - no numbers are attached. However, Christy generally thinks the IPCC overstates climate change. If the currently-observed rates cited in the article continue (no need for the pace to accelerate) then the IPCC has understated an impact from climate change. So Christy's bet should be that the current melting will decrease. Wonder if he'd put money on that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Teaching appropriate technology to wild chimpanzees

I wrote several years ago about the idea that we could facilitate cultural transmission between chimpanzee groups. Another reason for doing that came to light earlier this fall - some chimps in Guinea have learned how to destroy wildlife snares set by poachers. These wire-loop snares set under tension can accidentally catch chimps by the hands and feet, leading to partial amputations, and some male chimps have learned to break the branch that's used to create the tension.

So the idea would be to teach other chimps hundreds of miles away the same technique. Exactly how to teach them is a little tricky. Maybe the handful of groups that are used to people can be shown a model snare and how to break it, or possibly even shown a video similar to the one at the link, showing other chimps breaking snares. The other trick is getting juvenile female chimps to learn the technique, because males stay with the group they grow up with, while females disperse to new areas and can take their knowledge with them.

I don't know, maybe it's not feasible. But just the fact that we can consider teaching chimps appropriate technology in a manner resembling the way we think human societies can be taught appropriate technology suggests that highly intelligent animals should be considered as having some kind of intrinsic moral value.

UPDATE (slightly related): a psychologist finds that human males are much less aggressive if shown pictures of meat. Chimps are somewhat similar - Jane Goodall wrote that the dominance structure breaks down in the aftermath of a successful kill by chimps that were hunting monkeys, and an otherwise-dominant male will beg for meat from a subordinate but won't attempt to take it away.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Iron Law versus BOSO

Thought I'd just spell out the timeline I reference in the previous post.
  • 2006 (a gubernatorial election year): Democrats in the California Assembly pass AB 32, mandating greenhouse gas reductions. The Democratic candidate for governor immediately supports the bill. After some equivocating, Republican incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the legislation instead of vetoing it.
  • 2006-2010: Cap-and-trade consistently discussed as an important part of implementing AB 32.
  • November 2, 2010: Voters reject Proposition 23, which would have suspended AB 32, on a 60-40 vote.
  • November 5, 2010: Roger Pielke Jr. announces on National Public Radio that "the iron law of climate policy simply says that while people are willing to bear some cost for environmental objectives, that willingness has its limits. And cap and trade ran up against those limits time and again, and it's not surprising that it failed."

I think RPJ's Iron Law has some hindcasting problems. He could say it's just a reference to national politics, but his Iron Law doesn't seem phrased that way.

In lieu of the RPJ Iron Law, I'd like to propose BOSO, or Brian's Obvious Statement of the Obvious, which is that getting 60 votes in the Senate is hard. While BOSO may not sound quite as profound, I think it has better explanatory power and does better with hindcasting.

UPDATE: A nice write-up on California's proposed cap-and-trade by Michael Wara is here.

UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias had a near-identical point here that I just stumbled upon. I like the term BOSO more than YOSO, though.

UPDATE 3: I was happy to find a RPJ post I agreed with on the value of testing carbon sequestration for a coal plant operation. Maybe it's not too surprising as a post, in that it gives him a chance to go hippie-punching against the Sierra Club, but in this case I think he's right and Sierra Club is wrong.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

How to be a climate hawk and a polite elected official

One of an important number of problems I saw with the elected leadership where I ran for office was insufficient politeness to members of the public, to the staff, and to each other. So now I'm an elected official wondering how to deal with things here on my personal blog, where I don't feel very politely inclined toward some people on climate issues.

I'll try to handle it mainly by the fact that this isn't where I intend to discuss Water District issues primarily, something I'll do at my campaign blog. There, I'll be Mr. Polite. No climate denialists being labelled there, just misguided skeptics. And it's helpful to remember that the position is with a special district without even the police power of local government.

As for here, I'll continue to point out problems, like the ones with (non-denialist) Roger Pielke Jr.'s alleged Iron Law that economic policies will always outweigh climate policies. Roger claims that his book is much more subtle and one shouldn't criticize his Iron Law without first reading (buying) his book. I'm going to have to pass on that suggestion - buying the book is probably creating a bad incentive given his past work on these issues.

The point I tried to make is that I'm certain that had Prop. 23 won in California, then Roger would've claimed it as vindication of his Iron Law. Instead it got roundly thumped and California moves ahead on its cap-and-trade provisions, right before Roger explains on national radio that moving ahead on cap-and-trade will be stopped at the ballot box. Roger could try to make the argument made against me, that it was unfair to focus on ancillary benefits from fighting climate change, and that defenseless Texas oil companies and coal billionaires had no ability to respond, but the question is whether you can get climate change policies passed. We can, and Roger's Iron Law seems pretty squishy.

But he is polite though, so I'll give him credit for that. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010