Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Forbes' James Taylor: 'Initiation' means 'completion'

Maybe it's beneath my new digs here to go after as easy a target as a Forbes opinion page (and Heartland Institute) writer, but it's not beneath me. I saw the headline in Morano's page "Schneider claimed W. Antarctic ice sheet could melt before year 2000", ignored it for a while and finally clicked through to Forbes "Polar Ice Rapture Misses Its Deadline". Taylor announces:

[Schneider] claimed the west Antarctic ice sheet could melt before the year 2000 and inundate American coastlines with up to 25 feet of sea level rise. Obviously, the west Antarctic ice sheet was not raptured away last century, and New Yorkers can still drive rather than swim to work.

Clicking the provided link, which most denialists probably can't be bothered with, gets one to one Steven Goddard and a recopied old 1979 newspaper article about Steve Schneider predicting warming and ice melt in the next century.

The next hurdle involves actually reading the article. It says that Schneider said regarding the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that "its initiation cannot be ruled out as a possibility before the end of this century". To be fair to Taylor, though, the word "initiation" wasn't highlighted at Goddard's link. And of course the WAIS hasn't done so well since the end of that century. A 4+ meter rise by 2100 seems pretty unlikely now, but I doubt it was unreasonable for Schneider in 1979 to think it possible.

I can't give Mr. Taylor a very good grade on his effort - the best denialist nonsense takes far more effort to debunk than it does to construct, but I think it was the reverse in this case. He'll have to step up his game to attract a better class of debunker than myself.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The US:Arab Spring as Britain:The US Civil War

(Crossposted from Rabett)

The analogy for American and British actions 150 years apart is that in both cases, the great power refrained from doing evil actions that would significantly harm the good side in each cause, and that in both cases the great power got little credit for its restraint.

While Republican leaders are now claiming to support the Arab Spring, it wasn't so clear a few months back, and Obama had other pressures to back Mubarak that he ignored. The tepid level of approval or even interest in the Arab world to the US response suggests the Arab people are unimpressed, however.

Wiki has a good article on Britain and the US Civil War - Obama actually comes off a little better than my analogy suggests, because Britain did do some negative things (but could've done much worse), while the US has done some positive things in Egypt and Libya while doing darn little in Bahrain.

I'm guessing the lack of credit in both cases is because "do no evil" is assumed in most people's moral analysis. Given how international relations are traditionally conducted, it may deserve more applause than it gets.

The other obvious problem for the US in the Arab world is our support for Israel, especially in relation to the West Bank/Gaza/Jerusalem issue. I think foreigners fail to understand how little room for maneuver exists in US national politics on this issue. Obama is getting blowback in Democratic circles for being slightly more explicit on 1967 borders as an initial basis for negotiations. Netanyahu is playing a double game of indefinite postponement/opposition to a Palestinian state, or using Israeli occupation as the intial basis and make the Palestinians trade away West Bank land and East Jerusalem in return for getting back some of their land. In American politics from the far right Republicans to many Democrats, that's just fine. Unfortunately, Obama is pushing about as hard as he can.

UPDATE: forgot to add it's a lucky thing we don't have the Commies with us anymore, or the US reaction to Arab Spring could've been a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's not just your plagiarism, it's your reaction to your plagiarism

(Crossposted from Rabett.)

(Hello folks! I'm Brian Schmidt, newest blogger in the Eli Rabett bunny mill. My old blog's atBackseat Driving and I'll be hanging out here from now on. I can't touch the science as per Eli and John, but as a lawyer I have a nodding acquaintance with plagiarism, and will blog on non-climate stuff as well.)

At WattsUp, a "Professor Bob Ryan" commented on May 19th on one of the Wegman plagiarism posts:

Many students, no matter their origin, paste sections of text into their work files picked up from on-line sources. They then, because they are relatively inexperienced, get these copied tracts mixed up with their own commentaries and two years later when they start drafting their thesis inadvertently plagiarize. Unwittingly, when drafting a paper from one of the chapters for publication, some of this copied text is again inadvertently introduced. I and a co-supervisor working up the paper making corrections as we revise their work may spot the problems but then we may not.

That turned out to be similar to Wegman's defense, if you call it that, as reported by John Mashey and summarized by Andrew Gelman.

Professor Bob continues:

So to any who find Wegman guilty as charged remember this: one day when you are a senior academic and when the fire of self-righteous indignation does not burn quite so bright, it might just happen to you.

Or maybe we might feel differently, and I can speak as someone who came close to standing where Wegman stands some years ago. A large, student-authored project I was involved in stumbled partway into the problem of Professors Bob and Wegman, where shoddily-cited work transformed into un-cited work that was interspersed with all the properly-done work.

Two differences between our student project and Wegman's, tho. First, we caught our own problem before it was published instead of having someone else do it. We actually checked our own cites, and a praised-be student editor turned in the problem to me. Second, we reacted to the problem immediately. I lost a week of my summer tracking down errant paragraphs, digging them out of their rabbit holes, deleting them and replacing them with properly-cited summaries.

By contrast, Wegman knew of his problem since March 2010 (Mashey at 9), and did nothing about it even though it had by then been published in a supposedly-peer reviewed journal. When someone else finally tracks it down, Wegman then offers a minimal errata with citations, not even a removal and redo of the plagiarized material.

So no, I think this story's not over, and as someone who lost a week of California summer reacting differently to a similar situation, I think it doesn't deserve to be over.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Republicans are encouraging command-and-control environmental regulation

The short answer is that Republicans encourage command-and-control environmental regulation because they're stopping environmental innovation that's often market-based, and old-style regulation is what's left. Proof:

  • 1. National level. The big thing is climate change. The Republicans, with the help of some environmentalists on the left, killed cap-and-trade legislation. The carbon tax favored by the left environmentalists never got anywhere at all, and that's it for market approaches. What's left is command-and-control regulation through the Clean Air Act and the EPA. Another example is ocean fisheries, where Republicans have killed environmental attempts to establish "catch shares" that individually reward fishers when fish populations grow. So instead, we go with the old-style telling fishers how much of what to catch, when, and how they can do it.

  • 2. State level. Here in California, the geniuses behind Proposition 26 have made it much harder to charge a fee on polluters for the damage they cause to the environment. (Incidentally, I attended a conference last week where a room full of lawyers could not figure out the effect Proposition 26 will have on government regulation, so fun times are ahead.) But all it affects is fees, not direct regulation and prohibitions, so one effect is to push direct control instead of recovery of externalities.

  • 3. Local level. We've been trying with some success in the Bay Area to reduce the use of single-use takeout bags. The plastic bag industry, even before Prop 26, fought attempts to put a small fee on takeout plastic bags by litigation that argued this promoted paper bags with mixed environmental consequences. The result has been a semi-complete ban on plastic bags, ban on paper bags with no recycled content, and a fee on allowed paper bags. The industry efforts converted the fee into an outright command to ban plastic bags.

Conservatives often like to cite the law of unintended consequences when discussing environmental regulation. Not only does this overlook the unintended consequences of environmentally harmful actions, it misses the unintended consequences of promoting old-school environmental regulation instead.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Science bundling for the 2012 election

Bundling is the practice of organizing multiple contributions from multiple donors to a single campaign. It's a method for people who've contributed the maximum allowed amount to a candidate to solicit more contributions, sometimes for less-than altruistic reasons. Bundling could also have a different use though, as a joint demonstration of why the donors are giving money.

I am exploring the concept of organizing a science-motivated bundling of campaign donations for the 2012 presidential campaign. The science motivations are:

1. Acceptance of human-caused climate change, combined with a willingness to take significant steps to combat the problem.

2. Support for increased science funding by the federal government.

3. Depoliticizing science in government (keeping political actors from altering scientific judgments and from muzzling scientists).

I think this could be a potentially-valuable step to highlight the importance of science. It's abundantly clear at this point that no major Republican candidate for president meets the criteria (Huntsman comes closest, but rejects taking action). So this is about Obama, but really about trying to help/push Obama and the Democrats to realize that they get support to the extent that they support science.

So this is just an initial post - I'll have to think about and research the subject more. I won't need to run myself in 2012 though, and this could be a way for science-motivated people to have an effect and be recognized.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tipping points for local land use policies

(Reposting this from the Green Foothills blog.)

In a housing deficient area like here in the San Francisco Bay region, it's wrong to simply say any new house anywhere is a good thing. This is true economically as well as environmentally - a potential house 10 miles due east of San Jose might sound like a quick jaunt away from Silicon Valley, but that would actually put it in a place with no roads, no services, no groundwater in reach, and no geologically-safe spot to build on. It wouldn't sell economically, as well as being bad environmentally.

Alternatively, a potential high-density housing location near a train station might appeal to environmentalists but seem too risky economically. There are different tipping points for different issues, and there's increased opportunities for cooperation where they overlap.

So here are some ideas:

Transportation: adding housing in an area that has little future prospect to use public transit is unlikely to help the transit situation. Transportation goes through a tipping point at a certain level of density that can use transit effectively. Any increase in that density makes transit even more cost effective. Proximity to good transit also creates a tipping point, where any increase in density is beneficial. Inner suburbs might be the tipping point density level.

Walkability: making a low density residential area slightly less low-density isn't going to make the area more walkable, it just puts more cars on the roads. On the other hand, adding more housing to an area that is already walkable means more people will be using the local stores, making them more financially viable. The tipping point is when an area is already walkable, or likely to become walkable. Urban townhouses and brownstones are the tipping point.

Natural open space: at first glance, there doesn't seem to be a tipping point: any increase in density decreases open space and habitat potential. Even a tiny yard might offer potential habitat that an apartment block wouldn't. However, dense housing removes pressure to construct less dense housing somewhere else. And habitat values for common wildlife decrease rapidly once roads and structures take up more land than natural habitat. Low-density suburbia probably constitutes a tipping point for natural open space.

Farming: farming may be even more sensitive to density than natural open space. Rural residential levels of density, one house per acre or even less, probably constitute a tipping point.

Financial: up to a certain point, more is better. Two homes on 50 acre lots are worth more than one on 100 acres. A tall apartment building might be more risky and appeal to a smaller market segment than a small condo building, however.

So what's the upshot of all this? From the environmental perspective, somewhere around low density suburbs, maybe two houses per acre, is the point where almost all environmental incentives are to avoid increases in density. Somewhere around the level found in inner suburbs, maybe 10 houses per acre, the environmental incentives are to support increases in density.

And from the inner suburbs up to city areas where multi-story apartments are possible, the environmental and financial interests are closely aligned.

This is all a simplification, of course. Dense housing in the wrong place is just a mistake. Natural open space in an urban area near a stream can also be very beneficial given the importance of stream environments. But it does point to areas of overlap.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Open-air carbon capture economically unfeasible for decades

See the report from the American Physical Society. They spotted the not-hard-to-spot issue that it's a lot easier to capture CO2 at concentrated power sources than in dilute amounts in the atmosphere, and that transport doesn't overcome that issue (UPDATE: on second look, doesn't seem to deal with transport - the one advantage of open air capture is that you can position it where your sequestration sites are instead of where your power plants are. Good luck with having that overcome sequestration as a cost savings, though).

Hansen's idea of carbon sequestration from biomass power isn't affected by this, since he still relied on point source capture and can still achieve carbon negative results. Roger Pielke Jr. doesn't do so well however in his dream of an unnamed technological solution that will make all the problems go away for a low low cost. The report's dated April 28th, and we'll see when he gets around to discussing it.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Climate change knocks wheat and corn production down 4-5%, US not hit so far

Interesting paper saying global production of wheat is down 5.5% from what it would've been without climate change (i.e., increased at a slower rate), and corn down 4%. Rice and soya unaffected.

Staple food tends to have inelastic demand, so a 5% drop added onto a shortage for stochastic reasons could have significant impacts on prices, with resulting social disruptions. Like Michael Tobis, I'm not sure why some people find this climate/food price issue to be such a strained argument.

I should note that the study gave an overall figure and not a specific for extreme conditions. Maybe climate change moderates the extreme conditions - or maybe not, and it makes extreme conditions worse so that the 4-5% figure is an underestimate in bad times. I'd guess the latter is more likely than the former, but we'll have to find out some other time.

The same study says North American hasn't been hit, yet. We'll have our turn at some point though.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Lessons from the decimation of birther denialism

(Tangential suggestion: normally I don't approve of messing around with author's books in bookstores, but Swift Boat Liar Jerome Corsi is shilling his book, "Where's the Birth Certificate?" Bookstores selling that book deserve to have people leave copies of Obama's certificate in and near the books.)

There's been a mini-boomlet in coverage of how the Birthers' support for their Obama-is-Kenyan-born got cut in half in recent days. And contrary to some incorrect statements, the poll was done before bin Laden's death was announced, so the numbers aren't due to unrelated good news.

The interesting thing is that it's hard to see this is a result of people simply reacting to evidence and logic, or else they wouldn't be Birthers to begin with. I see two overlapping possibilities. The first is Allahpundit's view (at the first link above), that the soft-core Birthers just went with the flow of their companions and information fragments that they disinterestedly absorb. The long-form birth certificate got through their defensive shields and they defected on the basis of actually paying attention for once, leaving only the hardcores behind.

My alternative is that the change comes from the loss of soft-core advocates of Birtherism, not the soft-core believers. The single-issue advocates didn't shut up, but the politicians and wanna-be presidents who dallied at it, all went silent when Obama released his certificate. If one side pushes a victory and the other side loses its major voices, then you'll see results.

So I think that's what we need to have happen on climate change. Conspiracy-centered environment haters like Morano, Michaels, Lindzen etc won't be convinced about anything, but if their political overseers stop talking a big game, then we could then see a change in acceptance of reality.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Playing the credit game fairly

Somewhere I saw an editorial cartoon showing a bullet's trajectory towards Osama bin Laden. It had 95% of the trajectory labelled as "Bush" and 5% as "Obama".

Equally or even less generously, climate denier/coal magnate David Koch said Obama "didn't contribute much at all."

Moving beyond these in-depth analyses, is there any fair way to analyze it? We could try by assigning credit and blame before you know the outcome, as in what I wrote on January 22:

The Obama responsibility period began this week

With exactly two years since Obama's inauguration having passed, I'm somewhat arbitrarily picking this as the time where his administration bears greater responsibility for anything done well or poorly by the executive branch than any previous administration. Credit and blame can be adjusted on a case by case basis - for example, Bush bears more responsibility for 9/11 than Clinton because he downgraded counter-terrorism efforts - but as a general matter this makes some sense to me.
Of course, the president with the next most responsibility is Bush, without adjusting on a case by case basis.

So on with the adjustments! For Bush, we have screwing up Tora Bora by not committing enough troops and trusting allies he shouldn't have, and generally pulling CIA assets out of Afghanistan and into Iraq, and the small matter of his share of blame for letting 9/11 happen at all. To Bush's credit, there's eventually relying on the patient intelligence gathering game that Obama continued through another 2-plus years.

Obama gets credit for warning in the campaign that he would go after Osama in Pakistan, despite criticism from McCain and Hilary. Obama also gets credit for a manned ops instead of bombs. Bombs may have killed Osama just as well, but there'd be no body, no intel from captured material, much more collateral damage, and massive outrage from Pakistan unleavened with the current mix of outrage plus embarrassment. And Obama reconstituted the CIA bin Laden unit that Bush had demobilized.

Finally, we've got torture. Bushies like to point out that the people they had tortured gave the initial intel that eventually led to Osama. Far fewer of them realize that the captives held out during the torture sessions and only gave up the info months later during standard interrogations. I don't think this particular set of info is entirely clear, but I'd tend to score it against Bush and the pro-torture wing of the Republican Party.

I won't attempt to make a definitive adjustment for the credit game, but qualitatively I'd start off with my initial preponderant share of credit to Obama, adjust upward for his decisions, and mostly adjust downward for Bush's choices.

David Koch, in the end, can add one more facet to his denialism.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

My first negative publicity!

Well that's exciting in theory, although reading it might be less gripping. It's about the fact that I both work on environmental advocacy at my day job and serve on the local water district board:

In March, members of the water district board were discussing at a public meeting whether to shift money for environmental restoration of streams to flood control work. Schmidt openly asked if he might have a conflict.

He asked water district counsel Stan Yamamoto for a ruling. He met afterward with Yamamoto's staff. The lawyers issued a memo spelling out when Schmidt should recuse himself from voting.

"Before I even started the campaign last year, I said I wanted to avoid any conflicts between my job as an environmental advocate and the work the water district does," Schmidt said Monday.

Yamamoto declined to be interviewed.

Asked to make the memo public, Schmidt said he could not, because he isn't the client in the attorney-client relationship, the water district is. Instead, he said, he has asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission for a ruling. He declined to comment on whether he supports making the memo public.

Apparently that wasn't exciting enough/informative enough though (choose your preferred description), so it was buried away from the lede paragraphs.

Overall, the article could be worse and more innuendo-ey, so I can't complain too much. I can complain some though! My main complaint is that I gave the reporter a reason why I shouldn't publicly declare whether the memo should be public, which wasn't included in the article: because the memo's about me, I shouldn't be involved in the process of deciding whether it should be released, and that includes publicly lobbying the Water District to release it (or not).

Second complaint is that no one ever releases attorney-client communication (for the reason that it would impair frank communication), and the article declined to mention that. I told the reporter that I considered that an essential part of the information that the public doesn't know, but he didn't.

Kind of ironic that we were in disagreement over what the newspaper is withholding from the public.

*Regarding the header to this post, I guess I've previously received criticism from denialists and Roger Pielke Jr., if one considers such a response to be "negative". (UPDATE: responding to the comment from RPJr below: yes, his criticism wasn't of my politics, it was instead his deceptive response when I pointed out that he was being deceptive.)