Sunday, March 18, 2012

My closest approach to an "anti-environment" vote, for what it's worth

On Tuesday, the Water District considered what position it should take on H.R. 1837, a piece of ridiculous, environment-destroying legislation that would ruin the Sacramento River Delta ecosystem in favor of Central Valley farmers.  It contradicts the "co-equal goals" that have driven attempts to manage the main water supply for California, that environmental restoration and stable water supply are to be on the same footing.  Our District is fairly uniquely situated because we have a strong environmental commitment and we get a lot of water from the Delta.

The thing is, it's not going anywhere - the legislation was written without any Democratic input and has been sent to die in the Senate.  We could take an oppose position, but that would hurt our ability to work on other legislation with Republicans that is currently in the House.

The staff recommendation was to take a "watch" stance instead of "oppose".  So here's our discussion ("aqua", btw, is the ACWA Association of California Water Agencies and a heavyweight in political discussions of water issues):

(If as often happens the video doesn't work, go here, click on March 27 video, then click on the Item 3.7 on the far left.)

Essence of my position in favor of watch instead of oppose, said a little over 20 minutes in, "My best understanding is that it's symbolic, it's political theater, and I don't want to take a hit on substantive legislation just in order to make a point."

I added a few things to make us ready to oppose it if it turns out to be more than political theater.  My position won 5-2, with the two wanting to take an oppose position.  The chair and I are the known enviros and we both supported the watch position.  The three "old guard" directors split, with one of them taking our side.  An interesting split.

I just was told today that ACWA's advisory committee retained a "watch" position, so we didn't blow it there, so far.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

First try doesn't quite imitate a 13 year old's science experiment

Previous post refers to a kid's video about proving "global warming in a jar".  I'm not sure I'm proving anything given the comments, but I thought I'd try it out anyway.  Today was a dry run, so no video of my misadventures.

I wanted to do it cheaper, first of all, so no heat lamps or seltzer sources.  My thought was carbonated water versus regular water, and my heat source is the sauna at the gym.  I followed the NASA recipe where I hit my first snag, with trouble finding thermometers that I could stick through bottle caps.  No luck at the hardware store, and then thought I had the genius solution of using perfect-sized digital thermometers from the drug store.  Failing to read the fine print, I missed that these medical thermometers only register temps between 90 and 110F.

I thought it might still work though by placing them on the floor of the sauna.  Filled the bottom quarter of two bottles with water in one, cabonated water in the other, both waters starting at the same temp (kept the source bottles together in the backpack before pouring into receiver bottles), stuck them on the sauna floor and sweatily waited five minutes.  First reading was 107 for carbonated, 108 for regular.  Both increased temperature while I watched - within seconds, carbonated was warmer than regular, then within a minute it hit 110 and became useless.  The other took about three minutes to do the same.

I remove the bottles and me from the sauna.  The water at the bottom of both still seemed cool to touch, all the warmth was at the top of the bottles.  I was chagrined to realize I had put just slightly more water in the control than soda water in the experimental bottle, so even my very limited data has a problem.

So obviously the next step is get the right thermometers.  I'd also like to try it outside on dark pavement on a sunny day, but the sunny days lately have been pretty windy.  I think if I could leave the bottles in the sauna long enough, I might also be able to get enough water vapor to have an effect/feedback.  Maybe one bottle with baking soda and vinegar, one with water, one with carbonated water, and a control.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Endangered Species Act also at risk along with Obamacare tomorrow

Obamacare undergoes Supreme Court scrutiny tomorrow, and we'll hear in a few weeks/months as to what the Court does.  The challenge is whether Congressional ability to regulate interstate commerce allows the government to require people to buy health insurance, paying a penalty if they refuse to do so.

Wading through the mumbo jumbo, I think we ultimately have two choices.  One is that except in the most strained and patchworked circumstances, Constitution places almost no restraint on the ability of the federal government to act like a state government in terms of economic regulation.  Politics, not courts, restrain the scope of federal government.  This is the choice that courts have made since the 1930s.

The other choice is that except in strained and patchworked ways, the Constitution doesn't allow the federal government to operate like a modern integrated nation-state in terms of economic regulation.  The government could figure out weird work-arounds involving tax incentives in some cases, but otherwise we'll just have to hope that government is the problem and not the solution, because we're not going to let it operate as a solution.

These are the ultimate choices, and a decision to partially overturn Obamacare doesn't send us all the way to the second choice.  It does start us down the road though, with consequences to follow.

Next in line could be the Endangered Species Act, which has been challenged often and unsuccessfully for involving non-economic, intrastate activity.  It's the nature of species dwindling enough to be eligible for listing as endangered that also makes them less important economically, and they rarely locate their last habitats on the border between states instead of inside a single state.  Lower courts haven't worried about this though, based on Supreme Court precedent since the 1930s.

The Supreme Court never reviewed this particular challenge though, and Chief Justice Roberts, back when he was a wee appellate judge, signaled his own concern with the ESA.  If the Supreme Court changes how we understand the Commerce Clause, things can change for environmental regulation.

A lot is dependent on what the Court decides over Obamacare, and on who gets to make the replacement appointments between now and January 2017.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nuclear energy versus flood control - choose one

I spent most of this last week on my second trip to Washington DC on behalf of our local water district, trying to see if we can funding for flood control projects primarily, and secondarily for environmental restoration and dam safety.  I'm getting to the point now where I'm starting to understand what it is that I don't know, so maybe that's progress.

Comments I wrote about the previous trip still stand, especially regarding budgets.  Here's something new to me:  the implication of the fact that the Corps of Engineers flood control budget competes with the Department of Energy's nuclear power development program budget in a budgetary appropriations subcommittee.  DOE also supports nuclear weapons programs, but I'm not clear as to exactly where that money comes from.  As political actors starting from Obama and moving to his right support subsidies for nuclear power, that limits the amount of money we can get to support our flood control projects (which incidentally have a lot of good environmental aspects to them).  So far, it's not looking good for flood control.

In a rational world it's not clear why these two budget items would face off any more than any other two federal budget items, but that's not the hand we've been dealt.  More question in my mind then whether nuclear power deserves the vast level of subsidy it's been given.

In other news, more speculation about Santorum 2016, this time from an apparent Santorum skeptic who sez "I wouldn't put him among the top three contenders".  I suggested in the comments that we make it interesting with a nominal $50 bet over whether he fails to place third.  The apparent skeptic questioned whether he had made a prediction, so I guess I stand corrected.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

George Mason creates copyright risks for outside publishing of work by its academics

John Mashey has a thorough and sad rendition of the whitewashing done by George Mason University to protect a tenured, climate denialist professor from the consequences of plagiarism.  After receiving complaints, GMU found plagiarism existed in one case where an outside journal had already reached that conclusion and forced retraction of an article.  In another case where no outsider had made a decision, GMU not only found no plagiarism but found "no misconduct," even though less of the same copied material was in the second case, the infamous "Wegman Report" to Congress that criticized climatologists.

Deep Climate has an update that the plagiarized material, also found in other material by GMU academics affiliated with Wegman, has been cleaned up with little explanation and no admission of error.  DC doesn't speculate much on the motive for doing it but I will - it's the copyright, stupid.

Copyright and plagiarism violations are not the same but overlap greatly.  Copyright is a legal property right, enforceable in court, to one's way of expressing ideas.  Plagiarism is an ethical concept, usually not enforceable in court, that authors' ideas must be attributed to them when others use those ideas.  Plagiarism is about the ideas, copyright is only about the way the ideas are expressed.

Plagiarism is generally a much broader concept because you can change the way of expressing the ideas and no longer violate copyright but still plagiarize if the new expression is done without attribution.  In a Venn diagram, plagiarism is a big circle, copyright is a small circle, and all of the small circle sits within the big circle except for a tiny little bit sticking out.*

The legal relevance of this is that a strong culture at a university against plagiarism also protects against copyright violations, and outside publishers will know that submissions by academics are less likely to have stolen text that will blow up at some later point in a lawsuit against the publisher.  After reviewing the color-coded material that John provides in the pdf at the bottom of the first link, I think the copyright violation is obvious (and because it's unattributed, it's obviously plagiarism) but GMU considers it to be no misconduct, i.e. an acceptable way to do scholarship.

The best that outside journals and publishing houses can hope for is that GMU is just demonstrating rank hypocrisy for one especially-favored professor and his PhD students, and that won't happen again for him, his students, or anyone else at GMU.  But can they count on that?  GMU has very publicly found that this level of copyright violation isn't misconduct in this case, so it will be much harder for it to make the contrary claim about violations by other academics and students.  Wegman and the others involved in this will find it almost impossible to enforce against plagiarism themselves - I can't imagine the level of wikipedia copying that will go in papers in his classes.

The ramification of the committee’s finding of no misconduct therefore includes the risk that GMU will not have a culture that reduces copyright violations in submissions by GMU scholars to outside journals and publishing houses.  Those outside publishers will have to weigh the increased legal risk of publishing a GMU scholar, knowing that competing authors submitting from other universities come from academic cultures that have undertaken steps to minimize copyright violations.  Not only would publishers become more vulnerable to lawsuits, they might be unable protect their publication of GMU academic work from copyright theft (because the author never owned the material while claiming otherwise).  The publishers might even mistakenly bring a copyright claim against another outside author, only to find that author, and not the publisher, owns the publisher’s material that the publisher claimed was stolen.

John speculates on page 28 of his pdf as to why GMU did this.  Here I'm speculating on legal consequences - DeepClimate has shown that others have already started to clean up material, which I think was done to limit copyright violations (it doesn't eliminate the legal harm already done, however).**  Things could turn out worse for those publishers, and the implication to publishers in general is that they assign increased legal risk to material from GMU academics.

*The theoretical exception, where you can commit copyright violation without plagiarism, is by copying extensive material from the original author while clearly attributing the copied material to the original.  As a practical matter, outside of overt piracy this is unimportant because the potential copyright violation sticks out like a sore thumb and alerts reviewers to the problem.

 **Much of the material was also copied from Wikipedia, which maintains no copyright to its work (UPDATE:  maintains limited copyright only, see comments).  This distinction makes no difference as to plagiarism however.  You can still do a thought experiment:  1. if wiki had copyrighted the material, 2. if sufficient amount was copied verbatim, and 3. if inadequate attribution, then you've established plagiarism.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Who are these people that John Christy is refuting?

Maybe Christy is just being polite by failing to name the people he describes below:

"The dramatic claims about snow disappearing in the Sierra just are not verified," said Christy, a climate change skeptic and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. "It looks like you're going to have snow for the foreseeable future."

I'm somewhat surprised that people were saying that a massive mountain range with much of the elevation exceeding 10,000 feet was not going to have snow in the foreseeable future.  As kind and fair as Christy is, I think he should gently criticize by name the people who've said that, as well as the experts who've said that we currently see a decline in the Sierra snowpack.  Of course the article has a contrary expert:

Mike Dettinger, a climatologist and research hydrologist at the Scripps Institute of the U.S. Geological Survey, said Christy is picking and choosing data while misleading people about what climate change scientists are actually saying.
Recent studies by Scripps scientists have found that over the last 50 years the southern Sierra snowpack has gotten larger while the northern Sierra pack has shrunk. Although they have predicted the overall state snowpack would decrease over time as a result of climate change, nobody has claimed that it has happened yet, Dettinger said. 
What's significant in terms of global warming, he said, is the fact that the snowpack has declined over three quarters of the western United States, an area that includes Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico. Scripps researchers, in coordination with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists, have concluded that 60 percent of that downward trend is due to greenhouse gases. 
"There is a popular conception that the snowpack has declined everywhere, but that is not what the science says," Dettinger said. "What we're saying broadly is that across western North America there have been declines in spring snowpack."
Might have been helpful to include this info near the beginning of the article instead of at the end.  Christy can always counter the criticism by naming names.  Go to it!

Also worth noting that he's combining different measurement systems over time to reach a conclusion, the exact thing that denialists criticize about temperature and sea level records used by climatologists.  So now we know it can be done, apparently.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Romney opposed both major legal challenges to ObamaCare

Romney used to support the individual mandate to buy health insurance.  This Democratic National Committee ad lays out some video clips about it, some of which are cherry-picked, but the overall discussion and the part about Wyden-Bennett are spot-on:

Glenn Kessler has a disingenuous dismissal of the ad.  In particular he claims that when Romney was referring to "we" Republicans as supporting Wyden-Bennett, Romney didn't include himself in that "we" and that Romney was not endorsing the mandate.  Read the full language at Kessler's post, but it seems to me that "we" is easily understood by non-Kesslers.  More tellingly, Kessler daintily omits the context and fails to quote the language in the USA Today Op-Ed by Romney supporting a tax penalty for those who don't buy insurance, which is the functional equivalent of a mandate.

Kessler actually uncovered a nugget that was real news, though, even if he failed to recognize it.  Romney said this:
I would not mandate at the federal level that every state do what we do, but what I would say at the federal level is we’ll keep giving you these special payments we make if you adopt plans that get everybody insured. 
While this language doesn't support the DNC's argument about a mandate, it's the same type of argument that conservatives are litigating against in Obamacare.  They say the withholding of Medicaid payments unless states expand the program is illegal control of the state governments by the federal government, and that's exactly what Romney wanted to do with the mandate program - require states to impose mandates or lose their funding.  While this argument isn't expected to do very well, the Supreme Court decided to consider it.

Romney's piled up a record that he'll have to run against if he becomes the Republican nominee.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Time to call it climate change and acidification

I think ocean acidification should stop being considered just one of the effects of GHGs and give it top-line billing.  That the oceans are acidifying faster than anytime in the last 300 million years received moderate press (I think Wired had the best pop-science coverage, would love links to other good pieces).  People had to read fairly deeply into coverage to read that we only stop at 300 million years because there's no decent geological record before then.  Those denialists who point out that temperatures were warmer than present way back when the earth was a growing ball of lava might not have an irrelevant precedent to point to in this case.

Not only are the oceans acidifying faster, they're doing at a much faster pace, with pleasant information like this at the link:
The boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic included a large increase in atmospheric CO2 (adding as much as 1,300 to 2,400 ppm) over a relatively short period of time, perhaps just 20,000 years. The authors write, “A calcification crisis amongst hypercalcifying taxa is inferred for this period, with reefs and scleractinian corals experiencing a near-total collapse.” Again, though, it’s unclear how much of the catastrophe can be blamed on acidification rather than warming.
While our CO2 level won't go as high, it's moving much faster, and the rate of change is what drives acidification and the loss of carbonates needed by calcifying species.

Additional niceties, our current ocean chemistry is even more vulnerable to change:
The ratio of magnesium to calcium in ocean water changes over time due to differences in volcanic activity along the mid-ocean ridges, among other things. When magnesium is high (as it is today), a form of calcium carbonate called aragonite becomes dominant. Aragonite is more soluble than calcite, so “aragonite seas” are more susceptible to the effects of acidification. Even though the PETM did not feature aragonite seas, it was a tumultuous time for many marine species.
I haven't seen much discussion about how ocean acidification will affect climate, possibly because we have no idea.  Maybe it'll be wonderful!  I imagine tho that drastically changing the ocean biosphere is likely to have an effect, and because we're adjusted to the biosphere that we have, that effect is unlikely to be wonderful.

I'm sure that effect will be studied further.  Wiki links to a paywalled article about potential albedo decreases due loss of oceanic clouds, presumably from reduced nucleation particles from calcifying organisms getting into the atmosphere.  Wiki also speculates that acidification will help the ocean draw out more CO2 from the atmosphere.

David Archer sez calcifying plankton scatter light on their own, so their reduction can reduce albedo (Long Thaw, p. 118). OTOH I vaguely recall somewhere in his book he said that our killing off coral through acidification would leave more carbonate in solution, assisting the ocean's absorption of CO2.  I interpret that as part of the road to victory in the battle against Mother Earth, but others may differ.

I almost titled this post, "Time to panic over acidification" but tried to go with something slightly more constructive.  Time to get worried, at least.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Mormons should put more effort into optional conversions for dead people, and less into stopping living people from getting married

That is all.

Warmongers always accuse enemies of insanity

What Paul Pillar says.  We can live with a nuclear Iran, because their leaders are evil, not insane:

The simple argument is that Iranian leaders supposedly don’t think like the rest of us: they are religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally, and therefore cannot be deterred. On the campaign trail Rick Santorum has been among the most vocal in propounding this notion, asserting that Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qaeda,” that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity,” that it believes “the afterlife is better than this life,” and that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom. Newt Gingrich speaks in a similar vein about how Iranian leaders are suicidal jihadists, and says “it’s impossible to deter them.” 
The trouble with this image of Iran is that it does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one. They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife. Iranian rulers may have a history of valorizing martyrdom—as they did when sending young militiamen to their deaths in near-hopeless attacks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s—but they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves. 

I think Khomenei would've been most likely to be an insane-from-our-perspective fanatic, and he negotiated an end to the Iran-Iraq war because it was in the interest of his regime's continued power.

Of course this doesn't mean evil leaders won't be aggressive or take risks.  Hitler attacked the Soviet Union when he hadn't finished digesting Western and Central Europe.  OTOH, there's no way he would've attacked the USSR if the Soviets already had nukes.  It is possible to reason through how an evil leader thinks.  If Iran gets nukes, and I don't even know how determined they are to get nukes as opposed to nuclear capability, it would be insane to give them to terrorists.

I think warmongers accuse enemies of irrationality to keep the rest of us from using reason ourselves.  If our enemies are insane, our only choice is to overcome them.  We heard the same stuff about Saddam, with no evidence afterwards that he was insane.  I suppose it's not impossible to encounter an insane enemy, but overuse of that argument, and Iranian history, suggests it's unlikely here.

A gem from James - HADCRUT4 also says 2010 was the Best In Show for bad temperature news

Two months old, but hasn't had much play that I've seen.  The HADCRUT global surface temperature dataset, often preferred by climate denialists who play at such things, got an upgrade with more Arctic coverage.  Like other datasets, that Arctic climate amplification is enough to put HADCRUT4 2010 over the top of previous record holders 1998 and 2005.  I guess the denialists won't play with it as much now.

I have no idea if the difference for 2010 is statistically significant, but that's not an adverb that denialists care about.

Firing the right guy for the wrong reason

California's Fish and Game Commission Chair Dan Richards should quit or be fired, but it's just a shame that if he goes it's for the wrong reason.  The guy has ignored his responsibility for environmental protection and fought the establishment of marine reserves, which is what he should be fired for.  He also hunted a mountain lion in Idaho, where it's legal, although it's illegal in California based on a voter initiative.

I'm the former chair of the Santa Clara County Fish and Game Commission, where we worked hard and mostly successfully to bring environmentalists and hunters together.  It's a shame that doesn't happen on a state level.  I'm not a hunter and I don't see an ecological need to hunt apex predators, but I don't seen an ecological problem with it either if managed properly.  If it were up to me, lion hunting would be legal here in California.

via wiki, click photo for source

Hunters like Richards who don't care about the environment are a big problem.  Environmentalists tried to get the burrowing owl, pictured above, listed as endangered under California law several years ago and were denied, and they've been on a severe decline in our area ever since.  I'd give even odds they'll be gone in 10 years in the Bay Area, although they're doing okay elsewhere.

Richards and other roadblocks should be fired, but they should be replaced by hunters who care about the environment, not just trophy maximization.

FWIW, I'll give an example of where cooperation broke down on our local level.  Our county is considering a Habitat Conservation Plan for protecting endangered species.  I tried to unite our county F&G Commission behind a letter calling on the use of hunting as a management tool for controlling non-native species, particularly pigs and turkeys, that harm habitats.  I was blocked by a right winger who's no hunter now, but just hated governmental protection of endangered species so much that he wanted nothing to do with it.  That's the type of thing we need to overcome.

UPDATE:  based on this report, I'd disagree with the assertion made at my first link that it was a canned hunt.  There may have been a canned hunt of pheasants, but the lion was wild and presumably free to go anywhere he wanted..

Hey Anonymous Donor - fund this kid instead of Heartland

(UPDATE:  sadly, there may be problems with the first video - see the comments and this article.  The article mostly deals with convection from open containers, but argues that closed containers have problems too.  No problems identified yet with the second video.)

I doubt Heartland's anonymous donor would ever do anything sensible, at all, but this kid could provide sensible, accurate information and how-to guidance instead of the lies that Heartland wants to put in children's education.

My vision is to see him tooling around the country on a biodiesel bus with his entourage, all of them dressed up in Ray-Bans and Bill Nye Science Guy bowties, laying on the science and helping kids run their own experiments.  Too bad it won't happen.

NASA, btw, agrees with his experimental proof.  I thought he stole it from NASA but his video is four years old, so maybe the theft went the other way.  The NASA link also describes how to do it cheaper, without seltzer siphons and heat lamps, so I might try that and put up my own video.

Also relevant, "Visual proof that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation," with this BBC video:

Cuccinelli goes down, but likely escapes the ethics investigation he deserves

(A representative of The Future has an opinion about Cuccinelli's activities.)

Eli refers below to the Virginia Supreme Court shooting down the fishing expedition that the denialist VA Attorney General attempted against Mike Mann's entire history (background here, court opinion here).  The Court ruled on a narrow technical issue of whether Cucc could even go after the University of Virginia, ignoring the broader issue that the lower court found no basis was given for issuing the CID/subpoenas.  A Supreme Court dissenter disagreed on the technical issue and therefore went on to the substantive issue, and mostly agreed with the lower court.

It's that broader issue - no basis for issuing the CIDs to begin with - that constitutes Cuccinelli's ethical violation of using his state office to threaten supporters of opposing political viewpoints.  Without a definitive resolution of that issue, it becomes harder to make the claim to the state bar association that they need to discipline him.  They should anyway.

I argued earlier that they should at least try to make Cucc pay their attorney fees because his argument was frivolous. Also somewhat harder given the narrow ruling, but not impossible.

UPDATE:  per dbostrom's patient suggestion, one might consider donating to the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.  This stuff is going to be happening a lot, and we'd rather have scientists worry about the science instead of fighting frivolous lawsuits.

Also going to recopy something I wrote in the comments:
The general American legal rule, for those who don't follow this stuff, is that the party who wins a lawsuit still has to pay its own attorney fees. It's easier for the winning party to get court costs of filing lawsuits covered by losers, but those are trivial compared to attorney fees. 
Various exceptions to rules apply, one is that if one party files a frivolous claim or does something unethical, then the other party may be able to recover attorney fees expended in response to the action.

A pox on hat-tipping

Saw this blog post via another blog that I'm not linking to:
When I write a post on a study from the Journal of Minutae and Obscurity, though, and later in the day you happen to post on it? I’m suspicious. We need those links. They’re how we build readership and grow.
Spare me.  Say Apu writes a blog post, and Bart writes about Apu's post, and finally Cartman sees Bart's post and decides to write about Apu's original post.  The intellectual contribution from Bart is so small that I see no reason to link to Bart with the unnecessary hat tip. If Cartman's post is also inspired in some substantive way by Bart's riff, that might be different.

I've done hat tips and vias out of sheeplenish in the past, but I plan to stop.  No one needs to do them for me either (just speaking for myself tho, not my cobloggers).