Monday, January 28, 2013

Adding to the war on science: gun research, pregnancy-rape connection....

Keith Kloor is tired of people talking about the war on science. I'd think that he would have a point if other people stopped committing a war on science. It took the news events from the last year to let me know about several fronts in the war on science that I hadn't known:  limits on health research funding that might show gun control as reducing violence (something Obama is trying to get around but is still in the law) and the claim that women couldn't or rarely became pregnant from rape.

Another recent attack, although more of a war on math, is the claim that dividing up the electoral vote from states with a slight Democratic lean by congressional district instead of awarding all the votes to the victor will result in more attention to rural conservative districts. The reality is that attention only goes to electoral votes that are truly in play - you ignore the areas that are certain wins or certain losses. Conservative districts in battleground states have a at least a shot at attention - their votes now make a difference, but not when their effect could be taken for granted.  As has been noted, this issue is just an attempt to skew the national election at the expense of the local interest.

To be fair, the question remains of when a stupid claim by some people on one side, like the pregnancy-rape thing, can be considered a joint responsibility for that side of the spectrum.  I think when it rises to the level of being made repeatedly by the political elite, Congressmen and senatorial candidates, then I'd say they at least have a problem.

Shutting down funding as in gun research takes the attacks on science to another level, from denial to an active refusal to let other people understand the issue (UPDATE:  corrected from "shutting down funding entirely", per a comment request below). Climate denialists must be jealous, although I do recall Republican attempts to shut down earth-monitoring satellites.

Threats to science providers such as bogus referrals for criminal prosecution by powerful senators are the near-worst, though.

Stop making war on science, and I'll stop talking about it.  Calling them out on it is the small good thing that can be done in response.  I think it shows in the general intellectual dissatisfaction with the Republican Party elite, and someday the Republicans will have to come around.

UPDATE:  one missing aspect of the gun research discussion is the political signalling that goes beyond the letter of the prohibition on certain results from research.  The original prohibition is/was a signal of political strength by gun nuts and a warning to government-funded researchers to stay away.  If you fund studying of drunk driving and effect on public health safety, then you get a pat on the head no matter how good or bad the work is.  Fund a study on whether more guns result in more accidental shootings/suicides/illegal guns, and expect to see your work analyzed with great bias, and expect the agency to face funding cuts in the next cycle.  Obama's action is a bit of contrary signalling.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Driverless cars, high speed rail, and climate comedy

1. I'm more inclined than not to support high speed rail in California and elsewhere - we need to get people out of the sky.  OTOH, I've wondered for several years whether the otherwise-beneficial role of driverless cars could turn HSR into a financial dinosaur.  Those driverless cars could hook up together as a pod, and even if they can't go 200 mph, they could go faster than humans could drive them and be an acceptable way to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles when you can make productive use of the entire time.

Maybe building HSR in stages makes sense so we can cut our losses if needed.

2. Marginally related subject:  American University and Sierra Club are running an Eco-Comedy Video Competition for the funniest, under-three minute original video educating people about climate change.  I plan to submit 179 seconds of Joe Bastardi talking, but maybe you can think of something even funnier.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bringing 21st Century coal to Newcastle. I mean, to China.

To the Point had a discussion of the effort to take American coal, which is currently having trouble competing with natural gas, and export it to China.  Stanford's Frank Wolack says that it may not be so bad from a climate perspective.  His argument is that China is so hungry for power that bringing new coal to there will not really change its carbon emission patterns but will have a beneficial effect of raising the cost of coal in the US market and therefore assist the transition away from coal.  Opponents cite University of Montana's Thomas Power to argue that China's coal usage is very price-responsive and their energy usage is very inefficient.

So, dueling profs, and what to do.  I've attempted Eli's sneaky trick to RTFA with only partial success.  Power's work is here:
....One recent study found that a 10 percent reduction in coal cost would result in a 12 percent increase in coal consumption. Another found that over half of the gain in China’s “energy intensity” improvement during the 1990s was a response to prices. In other words, coal exports will mean cheaper coal in Asia, and cheaper coal means more coal will be burned than would otherwise be the case.... Lower coal costs will encourage investments in new coal-burning facilities in Asia—which in turn create a 30- to 50-year demand for coal.... 
Energy usage per unit of GDP across the Chinese economy is almost four times that in the United States and almost eight times that in Japan. The Chinese government and the large state-owned enterprises that produce, distribute, and use larger amounts of energy are well aware of the burden that high and rising energy cost can impose on the economy. The energy policies embodied in the last several five-year plans have focused heavily on improving overall energy efficiency in order to effectively control energy costs. Lowering coal costs to China would undermine these valuable energy efficiency efforts....


Wolack's technical work eluded me, although there's plenty of mainstream press about it.  I didn't find it on his academic website or elsewhere, but maybe it's out there.  The gist seems to be that China is so power-hungry that its coal demand is relatively inelastic to price, while the US demand is elastic.  Prof. Power obviously disagrees, and I doubt I have the econ chops to sort through it rigorously.

That won't stop me though from first pontificating, and then maybe adding two possibly useful points.  Pontificatingly, I accept the premise that a fast-growing economy is going to have a desperate and therefore more inelastic demand for energy, but not all other things are equal.  In a far poorer society, energy input is a much greater relative cost than in a richer, expensive-labor economy, so its price will drive decisions more in the poorer economy.  Furthermore, the choice of what energy source you use to construct brand new power sources under conditions of growing demand (China) is much more elastic than the choice of whether you will walk away from a recently-constructed coal plant and use a different energy source (America).  Both of these factors weigh in favor greater price elasticity in China.

Possibly-useful point #1:  in the radio podcast, Wolack says opening up US coal to the international market isn't a large enough new supply to reduce overall coal prices and increase consumption.  The problem with this is the choice of scope compared to impact.  Lawyers do this - if they want an environmental impact to look small, they increase the overall area of comparison.  My choice of buying an SUV or an electric vehicle, for example, isn't by itself going to significantly affect the overall vehicle market, but it does matter in the context of many other decisions.  The same is true with a much bigger economic impact of putting more coal on the international market.

My other point is political.  Wolack says "China's increased [coal] imports have almost no impact on how much coal China uses (and thus its emissions from coal) – only on where it comes from."  I dispute that - in the long run.  Humanity's future depends in large part on how much coal is still in the ground 50 and 100 years from now.  As a political matter I think it will be easier to keep a lump of American coal in the ground than it will to be keep of lump of Chinese coal down under.  So, if I have a choice, I'd prefer to take the action right now that keeps more American coal in the ground. This could also be relevant to price elasticity - China's demand growth will eventually slow down, and anything that reduces locked-in preferences to coal could be helpful in the future.

So count me as someone who needs more persuasion on this idea.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Putting bad air down under (in the Up-Goer Five Way)

(I made this in the Up-Goer Five way, using Up-Goer Six.  Also, Up-Goer Five does let me say "Mr. William" and "Goer", so there.)

Mr. William says putting bad air way down under takes too much money, and then says why keep trying it?  One answer would be that it's not working out right now but may in the future, and given we use so many things that make bad air, it's too important to stop.

An even better reason to me is do it because it could make good party-office sense even if it doesn't make the best money sense.  It will be a lot less hard in party-office work to put the bad air business through change that will hurt it than to kill it (not to mention the fire air business down the road that we will need to do something with too).  It's the same reason for saying yes to getting power when we break apart really really small things - the only little-bad-air choice that the party-office right does like - I'll say yes to some of it as part of a big deal to act on bad-air change.

As I've done before, I see this as a lot like the office-party stuff at my water office-work.  We have the most-big city in the US that hasn't put stuff in its water to help keep the hard part of our mouth we use to eat from getting hurt because of the sweet things we eat or drink.  A poor part of the city has many problems in children with this.  While a personal story is not very good way to help reason out this party-office fight, I can say I've felt really bad mouth pain and would never want a small child to feel the same.  So we're going to put that stuff to the water.

But, many people are very angry about this and come when we meet to try to either change our mind or tell us what bad people we are.  One reason they give is that of the three things we can use in the water to help the hard part of our mouth, the one used most is just no-good stuff that comes out from the end of making other no-good stuff, and they say we're being made to drink bad water just as an easy way to throw away the no-good stuff.

I don't really buy that reason, but right now I might say that if we have to pay only a little more for the other two things than that one thing they don't like, then we should use those instead.  As a matter of party-office things, it gets us to a good choice when the "perfect" money-sense choice might cause a lot more of a party-office fight.

For a decision on how to fix bad air over a long time, same thing - we can't keep the party-office side out of it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You read it here first (or before these other guys, anyway)

(A little update:  a cooking fire from our Vietnam trip.  Time for biochar instead.)

One.  Eli says in 2009 that the developing world's role in climate mitigation should focus on reducing their emissions of black carbon by 90% or more in a decade, and now we learn that black carbon could be the #2 bad guy in the climate biz, displacing poor methane.  For my part, this is one of the few climate issues where I'm pretty optimistic.  Assuming the peak energy arguments are wrong, then economic development means wood burning cookfires and the like are gradually going to be less prevalent.

Another.  I argued last November that Obama should go big on immigration reform, getting immigrants who've been here for a long time on a reasonable path not just to legalization but to citizenship, and that seems to be what he intends.  Personally I doubt even the less-xenophobic faction of the Republican leadership will really go along with a real path to citizenship, despite the extremely vague statements of some.  To the extent they're obstructive, they'll pay the political price, but to the extent we get new voting citizens, it'll take a while before the Republicans live down their past practices.  Gun control is a good example that extends beyond immigration - the new groups are very supportive, especially Latinos.

A third.  At the same post above in November I did my own little calculation to determine there was only a 52% chance that all five conservative Supreme Court justices would defer escape to the Choir Invisible in the next four years, and last week Slate's slightly fancier look found a 54% chance that none would be no more in four.

Good enough for now.  I could add that Libya is looking good while Syria isn't, but maybe another time.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Key the extremes to their context

(via Climate Central.)

I'm not sure yet what I think of Mark Kleiman's post about how people always accept their side's arguments on a position and assume a contrary argument means the arguer is on the other team.  I'm no fan of centrism-worship, or of contrarianism-for-its-own-sake.  OTOH, a critical eye on the arguments used for our own side has some moral value.

In that sense, the 2012 record warmth in the lower 48 states, a record for 1.58% of the planet's surface for a single year, is getting overplayed.  At least, the key front and center should be context, that year after year, record highs generally exceed record lows, and that generally consistent result is significant additional support to the mountain of evidence for climate change.  What's important about 2012 in the lower 48, outside of bringing the American public mainstream a little a closer to the scientific mainstream, is how it reminds us of that context.*

Lose the context and you get big pronouncements like this from Watts Up:  "Low temperature records overwhelm highs in the USA this past week" (emphasis added).  Context may not cure foolishness, but it might help a little bit.

*One exception is if the 2012 record highs are so unprecedentedly big that natural variability couldn't ever explain them, equivalent to rolling two dice and having them come up 13.  That would be important, but I've missed any in-depth discussion of that possibility.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Crowded crowd-funding for solar projects

On Monday, Mosaic announced it would do the first-ever crowd-funding of solar projects, with a $25 minimum investment.  Yesterday I tried to buy in myself but their four new projects are fully funded.  They look like they might be having the same problem that Kiva used to have - more money than projects (it also seems like a different model than Kiva, the money goes directly to the projects rather than paying for a general fund).

Crowd-funding seems like a good way to get micro-investors involved in startups that would otherwise be impossible, to open up a new source of money for investment, to fund smaller projects that are too small for traditional investors, and to fund entirely new and different ventures that venture capital funders find uninteresting.  My impression is that Mosaic serves all but that last interest.  Obviously no one knows if it's going to succeed but it's just as obviously worth a try.  Maybe eco-grandparents will start buying Junior shares in solar projects instead of a stock as a college investment.

The other advantage is for people who want to do something renewable but can't do it on their own property.  Our townhouse has a small roof facing east/west with shading on the east - not an ideal place for solar.  Mosaic might be a better use of money to offset our emissions, and as an offset that others can use.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Precautionary principle possibilities

The options:

1. Prove a negative, or no dice.  No technology can be used unless it's proven in advance to never have risks.  That can't be done, so we can't use any technology, new or existing.

2. Risky, smishky.  Defined risks are no reason to stop or alter use of a technology unless the risk has moved from possibly harmful to scientifically-certain harm.  With no certainties in science, this also can't be done.

3. Squishy real life choice.  evidence rising to a level of x for harms whose severity rises to a level of y compared to the technology's benefit of less than z is the point at which you stop or alter the technology's use unless and until additional research changes the value of those variables.  The only minuscule problem with this is it doesn't provide much of a guideline.  But it's right.

Discussion below in this blog and at Stoat are relevant.  Anti- and pro-GMO forces argue for positions 1 and 2 although they're usually vague about it, as a clear description of their perspective doesn't help them win.  Switching over to variables x, y, and z, pro-GMOers like Keith Kloor obfuscate the non-zero value of x, while anti-GMOers exaggerate the other way.

So what to do?  Caution, I guess.

To try to move from saying something squishy to something interesting, how about this:  prior to the 1970s, the correct policy conclusion was that CFCs have no broad-based environmental harms and should be used liberally.  That's not right, it turns out, but that's the information we had at the time.  The key is moving quickly as new evidence for variables x and y came out.  From a political science/international coordination perspective, the world moved amazingly quickly on ozone-depleting chemicals.  From an environmental perspective, my sense is that we barely dodged a bullet (and we still have another 40 years or so of slowly declining CFC concentrations where something new could go wrong).  We'll see how well we'll do on climate change with already, well-established x and a range of bad to horrible values for y.

Moderately relevant:  I've had a sci-fi story in my head for a while, an alternative history where CFCs were invented and widely-used a century earlier than in real life and long before the science could anticipate their problems.  Society would be finding nature melting and cracking around them, along with peoples' skin, and have no idea of the reason.  Not a particularly happy story.  So, caution.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Four out of five dentists say it's the scientific consensus, stupid

I'm late to the game of the Cox/Ince editorial on science and policy, but two points:

1. It's not "science" that matters most at the intersection of science and policy but scientific consensus that does.  If there's a well-established consensus with very few expert dissenters, then you've got factual conclusions as far as policymakers are concerned.  The consensus could be wrong of course, but that's not really relevant to policymakers - they don't have a choice of waiting for a perfect consensus because that won't happen.  What's missing from the commentary I've seen is that policymakers also don't have the choice of second-guessing the consensus by becoming their own Galileos.

Let's forget climate change for a while and take my constrained policymaking field instead.  Should I direct my water district to add fluoride to our water supply?  The vast majority of dentists say it helps teeth, but some disagree.  Does adding fluoride create non-dental health risks for the general population?  The vast majority of oncologists, endocrinologists, and neurologists reflected in the scientific consensus say somewhere between "no" and "not proven," but some disagree.  It's ridiculous to think I could get sufficient expertise in those three fields as well as dentistry to let me judge between experts.

And fluoride is just one issue.  What about water supply decontamination - should we use chlorine or chloramine?  What is the maximum horizontal acceleration that a worst-case earthquake will exert on each of our eleven dams?  Is the stream gauge appropriately sited to be provide accurate data on stream flow during storm events?  How much chromium 6 is tolerable in our stored groundwater?  Can migrating steelhead trout make it up the proposed fish ladder? I'm not second-guessing these things if they have an expert consensus behind it, regardless of a few dissenters.

Incidentally, I don't distinguish between scientific consensus and other expert consensus.  Seismologists tell us the maximum acceleration during an earthquake, and engineers tell us what dams can handle.  I don't see a difference.

The intersection with policy gets complicated if the consensus has an important dissenting faction or if there's no consensus at all, but that's not what we're facing on some issues, like global climate change.

2.  Contrary to what scientists often say, the science can all-but-decide policy because some policy questions are easy.  Scientific predictions of climate change in the next century under business as usual emission scenarios run from "bad" to "potentially disastrous".  That's pretty much all we need to know from a policy perspective to conclude that we have to deal with it.  The question of how we deal with it isn't easy or exclusively a science question, but whether to deal with it was answered by science.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Anecdata from the last few weeks in northern Vietnam.

1.  The government subsidizes fossil fuels via price caps and money-losing, government-owned energy sector companies, and Hanoi's air pollution is eye-stinging bad (I went jogging and wondered how much life expectancy that cost me).  Presumably Saigon and some other industrial areas are equivalent or worse.

No use ignoring the political support that subsidies of staple products create, especially from politically-important urban residents, but it seems like an alternative arrangement of withdrawing the subsidy and using the money in other ways that help urban air quality could create equivalent support.  Mexico is a decent model.

2.  Just as I've decided that other people's personal problems are far easier to solve than my own personal problems, other nation's political problems are far easier to solve than my nation's.  Why can't the US pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax?  Well, that's complicated....

3.  The government does a decent job of hiding political repression from the casual observer, while massive corruption is openly discussed.  Internet access was everywhere and I didn't find any English language websites blocked, although maybe that will change as English fluency and machine translation improve.  Soviet-style propaganda posters and public loudspeakers spouting messages were also everywhere though and more than a little creepy.  Uncle Ho's picture dominated many living rooms, probably a sincere gesture.

Of the two people who opened up to us in our travels, one was fairly supportive of the government and the other strongly dismissive.

4.  On the good side, we lost count after seeing three dozen or so electric bikes.  Hanoi has as many motorcycle scooters as people so the count isn't even a tenth of a percent, but they're there.  Just as electrifying cars and switching to renewable power is a major/the major part of the American climate solution, electrifying two-wheeled transport could be Vietnam's.  The government also seems to do a decent job of supporting infrastructure for two-wheeled transport, with cement paths and narrow bridges.  A huge tax on cars supports the two-wheel system, often doubling the car's costs.  Why can't we do that in the US, at least for luxury cars?  Well, that's complicated....

5.  I didn't spot a single solar PV system but did see plenty of solar water heaters, every one of them brand new.  Lots of hydro capacity and some construction, both of the all-good, small hydro and mixed result large hydro.  A side-note here:  funny how some enviros are reconsidering opposition to nuclear power but no one talks about large-scale hydro, which by contrast to nukes is economically cheap.  Maybe that's because the major dam projects are all finished in the industrialized world.

6.  Climate isn't quite warm enough for year-round rice production in north Vietnam, so many paddies are left fallow.  It seems like there is sometimes (not always) a choice available to farmers whether to flood or keep dry those fallow paddies, and that might affect methane production in the off season.  There might be a policy opportunity here, incentivizing farmers to keep the paddies dry in the off-season, and verification by satellite would be easy.

7.  I have a flood control idea for my water district, of using a smart grid composed of residential rainwater retention systems to shave the peak off of a flood.  I think it has a shot of being feasible in small, urbanized watersheds.  I wonder if the same couldn't be true for watersheds dominated by rice paddies, emptying them in anticipation of a major storm and then letting them take up some of the excess.

8.  Little-founded speculation, but where the hell are the birds?  I know it's winter and the Vietnamese trap and eat even the little birds, but still the forests and skies seem empty.  Maybe Rachel Carson's future has happened here.

Spectacular scenery but don't come for the wildlife, at least in the north.

9.  Touristing note:  Lonely Planet never led us wrong, other than a two bad addresses for hotels.  In particular, Handspan, Blue Swimmer, Asia Outdoors, and Sapa O'Chau all did a great job for us tourists, adjusting for the necessary flexibility and English fluency level of a developing country.