Monday, July 23, 2012

Good climate news, bad climate news

On the good news front, an excellent post from David Roberts on the amount of emissions the US has cut in recent years.  Go read.  Joe Romm has argued that we may have reached peak emissions in the US in 2007, this provides additional support.  New to me was that wind power is following the same downward price trend as solar, and may reach price parity with gas in this decade.

So enough with the good news.  Bad news is with global emissions generally, and China particularly:
Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the main cause of global warming -- increased by 3% last year, reaching an all-time high of 34 billion tonnes in 2011. In China, the world's most populous country, average emissions of CO2 increased by 9% to 7.2 tonnes per capita. China is now within the range of 6 to 19 tonnes per capita emissions of the major industrialised countries. In the European Union, CO2 emissions dropped by 3% to 7.5 tonnes per capita. The United States remains one of the largest emitters of CO2, with 17.3 tones per capita, despite a decline due to the recession in 2008-2009, high oil prices and an increased share of natural gas.
I still wouldn't assign China the same level of blame as Europe - it's the total emissions per capita that matter, not the annual emissions.  China has also promised not to hit the US level of per capita emissions.  While China and India don't deserve the same level of blame as the developed democracies, they are on a very dangerous course for the entire world.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Syria speculations

1.  Me from Aug. 31, responding to William's request for my prescience on Syria:
I'm clearly not too prescient about civil insurrections, but I think the bad guys will win in Syria, at least for the short term. The military hasn't seemed divided there, which is the only way for the unarmed good guys to win.
So, wrong again, somewhat.  Maybe penalties assessed against me could be reduced by my "short term" qualifier.  The Libyan and Syrian civil uprisings started about the same time but the former started peeling off military units immediately while the latter only had random low-level deserters until recent months.

My guess based on other countries has been that people power uprisings have to win quickly, within weeks, or not at all.  I should modify that to say that successful people power uprisings win quickly or not at all, unless they become civil wars which follow a different kind of trajectory.  I still think Syria is unusual though in the length of time it lasted as civil demonstrations before either fading away or transitioning to what it's now become.

2.  Pretty obvious it's a civil war now, and despite the only-recent change in terminology by the Red Cross, it's been a civil war for months now.  Also obvious that Assad's finished, although I still disagree that it was obvious a year ago.  The US government seems to agree he's finished.

3.  As rebels are starting to take territory, although not necessarily hold it, the situation is becoming more like Libya, including a downside that rebels become more vulnerable to air power.  I stand by the argument I made in February that we should provide more direct military assistance to rebels, particularly in creating safe havens.  The tens of thousands of people that have fled to Turkey in just the last few days could still be in a Free Syria, starting to organize the transition.

4.  My argument in February relied on negotiations first, with military assistance as a backstop.  That's changed - unless there's a coup/assassination, negotiations are useless now.

5.  The key issue now is planning that prevents massacres of Alawite and Christian minorities.  Peeling off enough of them to assist the rebels would definitely help.

6.  Speaking of Syrian Christians, it's interesting that conservative American Christians are so aggressive over Syria when most of them were far more reticent to support change in Egypt.  The obvious difference is the attitude of the regimes toward Israel.  I'm guessing conservative American Christians aren't all that interested in the fate of Syrian Orthodox synods.

7.  The rebels in Syria seem even more like a black box than the ones in Libya.  OTOH, things seem to be going okay in Libya (no takers still on my Libya bet offer).

8.  Not sure of the value of my military predictions, but here's one:  Assad won't use chemical weapons.  I believe without evidence that Western nations have secretly communicated to him their guarantee that the gain to him from using them will be outweighed by the Western response.  He might still be tempted to use them in extremis but at that point, hopefully, anyone given the order will realize the personal best option is to disobey/take government succession planning into their own hands.

UPDATE:  forgot to reference the one-month rule that started working in Libya around May 2011 - from then on, setbacks to the rebels never lasted more than 30 days, and each month left them more powerful than the month before.  My guess is the same rule may have started applying in Syria a month or two ago, and a month or two more of the same will indicate the eventual result.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The pros are using sports to explain climate science

I'm very glad to see this:

More info at the UCAR website.

I've been arguing for this type of analogy for years.  There are alot of people out there, especially high school age students but not just them, who haven't thought much about statistics and how they apply to weather and climate.  They do have an intuitive understanding of statistics when it comes to their favorite sport.  This is a way to reach them.  The climate/weather distinction works especially well when they consider short term event in their sport where random effects are important, versus long term outcomes where overriding factors become obvious.

In other climate news, iron fertilization of the ocean may have some, limited potential to eliminate between 1 and 10 percent of current emission levels from the atmosphere.  As with any other geoengineering approach, we should think carefully about it, but we should consider it.  If some day we used other means to get our net emissions to near zero, this may be one of several techniques like biochar and biomass power-plus-sequestration that could start reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to acceptable levels within a century from now, instead of the several centuries that the oceans will need to absorb most of the CO2 naturally.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The decisions came in the context of accumulating scientific evidence"

Above is from George Will of all people, acknowledging that juvenile criminal defendants have different brains and different levels of culpability than adults:
This [Supreme Court] ruling extends two others, one holding that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children under 18, the other that it bars life without parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense. These decisions held that regarding culpability, and hence sentencing, children are constitutionally unlike adults. The decisions came in the context of accumulating scientific evidence about increased impulsivity and diminished responsibility because of adolescent brain development.
I vacillate between wanting to react with snarkiness versus simply welcoming sanity when I find it coming from an unexpected person.  I sure wish he'd replicate his interest in accumulation of scientific evidence to the far more conclusive area of climate change.  Or better yet, I'd like to know why a person like Will can think reasonably in some regards (this isn't the first time for him) and fall so short in others.

Anyway, thanks for the sanity, George.  Consider expanding it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My six million dollar memo

I wish I always generated an economic return of $3 million per page.

The above is gross oversimplification and credit-hogging that should be shared.  The somewhat more accurate summary is that my Water District may go to the voters to request an extension of a property tax that will otherwise expire.  I've pushed on the contents of the tax in the past, like getting more money to deal with sea level rise along San Francisco Bay, and on Tuesday I tried to redirect and increase the funding for environmental programs.  I wrote a two-page memo to convince staff and especially the directors to make the changes.  I didn't get redirection, but I did get $6 million more for to help our streams, and that seems like a good outcome.

A longer version of this post, including the memo in all its glory is here at my Water District blog.  The main reason I'm writing here is just to comment on how useful it's been that I'm willing to make my arguments in writing.  Not many of my fellow directors seem to want to do that, but I think it's been essential in helping me change policies that I'm willing to put down on paper exactly what I think they should say.  I might not get that exact change, but I get something.

I taught an undergrad class some years back where I emphasized the importance of writing well, or at least writing adequately.  I'll stand by that claim.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The space alien's answer to the greenhouse gas/heatwave question

If you asked a scientifically advanced space alien whether current heat waves are worsened by our greenhouse gas emissions, it might take the complicated probabilistic approach humans have used to explain that our emissions have made the heat waves far more likely.  Or maybe it will do something easier.

Our space alien, Gort, sends out the Insta-Array of temperature sensors to get a reading, and then presses the "Ennaturalnate" button on the Climate Changeometer, instantly reverting all global greenhouse gas levels to their pre-industrial levels.  I'll leave the final answer to the non-lawyers here, but I think that all other things being equal, there would be a small but real drop in temperature within a few hours.  If one third of our warming to date is from direct effects of greenhouse gases, then Ennaturalnate should instantly drop temps in a heatwave between .25 and .5F.  Non-lawyers, is this right?  UPDATE:  per the initial comments, might take more like a week for a heat wave on land, and far longer over oceans or globally.

So that's the first and simplest answer for the news media that has so much trouble with this - if you could immediately remove all the human additions to the atmosphere, then temperatures would drop within hours, a small amount.  If the local television allows more than a five second soundbite, then you add that moreover there are feedback effects that make things significantly worse and add up over time.  And many of the climate denialists would have to agree about the near instantaneous effect, because many of the acknowledge climate forcing while making up nonsense about feedbacks being negative.  These denialists can add their caveats, but noone cares.

Just one lawyer's view of the issue.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The real process problem that Republican leaders have with Obama's immigration order

UPDATE:  per the comments, the change was a policy change and not a new Executive Order as it was originally reported.  Not sure that changes the analysis.)

Republican leaders have complained at great length about the alleged process problem with Obama's DREAM executive order, deferring for two years any action to remove illegal immigrants who were brought here as children.  They say it's not up to Obama to choose which laws to enforce, and the correct process is to change the law via Congress.

So this is silly- prosecutorial discretion is a standard executive function.  The Rs do have a process concern, just not the one they mentioned.  See the recently-passed transportation bill instead:
Thanks to the stubbornness of the Senate’s political odd couple — the liberal Barbara Boxer of California and the conservative James Inhofe of Oklahoma — Congress approved on Friday afternoon a serviceable transportation bill.... it does not include two anti-environmental riders pressed by the House — one approving the risky Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, the other preventing regulation of toxic coal ash waste from power plants....There are flaws, some serious. Financing for “transportation alternatives” — bike paths, pedestrian walkways and the like — suffered modest cuts. The bill also directs the transportation secretary to suspend environmental reviews of highway and transit projects costing less than $5 million, in violation of environmental law.
What's the relation?  Must-pass, popular legislation is a great place to push one's priorities onto one's opposition, especially unpopular things like stopping regulation of toxic coal ash.  The Rs didn't get all they wanted, but they did get some of it.

They wanted the same process for popular, must-pass legislation barely tolerating illegal immigrants brought here as children - they wanted to see what other, unrelated and toxic provisions they could get passed at the same time within Democratic legislation.  Now, it's no longer must-pass - the Ds can help their constituencies via Executive Order, so Rs have to actually offer something better than the EO to get them on board.

Expect the same thing, by the way, for whatever your favorite flavor of climate legislation.  It won't stay pure.  Sorry about that.  To whatever (limited) extent we can get similar climate results via EPA regulation under the Clean Air Act, that reduces Republican leverage, just as Obama did on the immigration issue.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My second tiny Godwin violation: Romney's Downfall

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo asks:
Can someone tell me when the Mitt/Bain Downfall video gets posted on Youtube? 

Well, okay then.

I did this once before, three years ago, and forgot everything. But it came back:

(UPDATE:  per the comments, you need to turn on the captions, using the box on the lower right in the Youtube video.)

For more info, see this TPM post.  I wrote a while back on the evidence in Romney's 2010 tax form suggesting that he paid even less or no taxes in prior years, so yet another reason to wonder what he's hiding. The disposal of fetuses comes from this Mother Jones article.

And just in case anyone's interested in my first Godwin violation regarding climate denialists, here's Singer's Downfall:


More info on that one at the old blog.

UPDATE 2: just thought I'd mention that I slammed the Romney's Downfall piece together pretty fast, so if anyone has suggestions for subtitle improvements, I could decide to upgrade the captions.  Or you can also use the link right above this update; it has tips for how to make a Downfall video yourself.

America != Europe. How's that for insight?

I'm planning to write a post on how a revenue neutral carbon tax might, just might, have a shot in the US in the medium term.  First though I have to disagree with William's argument that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the only way to go - or to be more fair, is the best political approach.

I'll just sycophantically second Eli's first comment to William's post that both taxing and regulating can work.  The other main point I'll make is that taxes are sticky in the US - they don't like to go up.  Saint Ronnie approved a rate increase in the US gas tax from 5 cents to 9 cents in 1983, and it's now 18.4 cents, a net decrease after inflation.  Regulations by contrast do get tougher - not only the CAFE standards that Eli talks about at length, but also the nickel-and-dime increases in regulations on coal plants that are helping natural gas in putting a squeeze on that industry.

It's a fact of life in the US that we accept regulation more readily than taxes and especially tax increases.  Seems like it might be a little different elsewhere.

I suppose regulation is somewhat less transparent, but you could also think of it as a solution to a coordination problem.  A tax approach makes the solution appear as painful as possible, and because we'll underachieve the solution regardless, we might consider a solution that doesn't highlight the pain and therefore gets more done.

Three other points.  It's helpful to clarify assumptions in any discussion, and in this case are we assuming the people are economically rational actors divorced from real world psychology and politics, or are we having a meaningful discussion?  Personally I prefer the latter, but it's helpful to identify your assumption if you want to talk about the former.

Second, at least in the US, a significant carbon tax that has any remote chance of passing political muster will have some balancing combination of exemptions and financial support for those interests and people/constituencies most affected by the tax.  The exemptions will distort the economics, and the financial support raises the question of where the money will come from if your carbon tax is revenue neutral.  These aren't easy political issues.

Finally, William points out that putting a floor on the price for carbon allowances in a cap and trade system contradicts the argument that allowances let you set right emission levels, something that's a lot harder to do with taxes.  He's right, but this gets back to initial assumptions - the cap-and-trade isn't a platonic ideal but an assessment of what's politically and economically achievable.  Putting a floor (or ceiling) on the price is a way to correct for misjudgments at the beginning as to what would be achievable in the future.

UPDATE:  William responds in the comments.