Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dear Slate: please fire whoever wrote the headlines below, immediately. Thank you.

Before you read on, decide for yourself what the two headlines mean. Knowing that Solyndra lost the government a lot of money, I took them to mean that the government lost even more money dealing with Tesla, at least a billion dollars. I assumed then it was an expose that showed Tesla paid back government loans via some surreptitious transfer of government funds.

The article itself is badly written and stupid, but it doesn't say what the headlines claim (and I assume Woolley didn't write the headers). The article admits that contrary to Solyndra, the US government made money from Tesla, but it could have made more money if it had structured the deal as an investment instead of a loan. It skates over what else might have changed, but mainly it fails to address the government was trying to promote technological change, not act as a VC company. I only assume Woolley has busted an artery for every government grant that ended up making money for recipients (maybe he should look into the lost patent opportunities in the fracking research grants). He should have many busted arteries.

I also welcome links where Woolley and Slate wrote in 2009 as opposed to long after the fact that the deal should have been structured to allow conversion of the loan to options.

The deal was a success, and slate-pitching a contrarian viewpoint shouldn't cross over into deception like they did here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Portland fluoride vote makes sense given limited information and time

Voters in Portland have for the umpteenth time stopped fluoridation of their water, not long after my water district voted to fund it here in Santa Clara County. I used to live in Portland and still visit regularly.

The city relies on a famous-to-Portland protected watershed for its water supply, the Bull Run watershed near Mount Hood. When I lived there in the 1990s, the Forest Service was still trying to log it. Portland voters of all stripes were generally up in arms. People knew that they had great water quality, and the attitude was it wasn't broken, so don't mess with it.

I've looked around the various news sites for exit polls explaining why Portlanders voted down fluoridation by around 60-40. There's plenty of activist reaction that doesn't tell you too much about the typical voter's reasoning, but my best guess is that it's the same reason they opposed logging their water source 20 years ago:  it ain't broke.

Maybe a typical Portlander sat down to mark the ballot with limited information beyond knowing that the water system is pretty good as is. With time ranging from five minutes to maybe one hour total over the previous several months, they learn that there are vicious arguments over fluoridation. At the upper range of that spectrum they might learn enough that there's a scientific consensus in favor of fluoridation, with only outlier experts in opposition.

For this amount of information about their water system, and for voters who put in only a few minutes to think about it, the vote against fluoridation isn't irrational. On the other hand, people who spend more than a few minutes on fluoridation should begin to see where the weight of scientific opinion is, and those people are acting irrationally when they overturn an unanimous decision by the city council that they had elected into office, reject what is the clear weight of scientific opinion and then don't put much time into examining the evidence themselves. I'll acknowledge that people who have put in a lot of time examining the evidence could often be anti-fluoride, but I suspect they began as anti-fluoride and then let that interest drive them into examining evidence and being biased in terms of what they accept.

If I'm right about this, the people who put very little time into considering the issue would be anti-fluoride, those who put a moderate amount of time would be somewhat more pro-fluoride, and those who put a lot of time would be all over the map, but quite possibly anti-fluoride and highly motivated.

As to its relevance to climate policy, the one advantage we have is that doing nothing seems like the conservative, do-no-harm option on fluoride, but climate activists have a strong argument against that. Still I think this indicates that we have to have a winning argument for people that spend five minutes thinking about the issue. My best nomination is
Climate change is real. Our modern weather isn't what our grandparents had, what we ourselves experienced in previous decades. You feel it in your bones to be true - that's why the other side is denying it so loudly, trying to overcome what we know is right.
Not the most scientific, but not completely unscientific, and maybe it works.

Monday, May 20, 2013

On opposing the National Rifle Association:
What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA. There is plenty of latent public support for gun control, his logic goes, but politicians only see a risk in voting for it. He wants to reverse that calculation.

To that end, Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.
We should do this on climate change. Absent Bloomberg's billions, maybe the aim should be lower, like state legislative elections where a state is teetering on the edge of doing something about climate.

(I'm also stealing this idea from someone I had dinner with the other day. Not always sure when someone would want credit.)

UPDATE:  I'll add that given the number of targets we would have, there's no need to be as knee-jerk as Bloomberg's group is (e.g., their attack on a moderate Dem like Begich in a conservative state like Alaska). My favorite would be to fund a climate-realist Republican who's challenging a Democrat who had voted against climate legislation. That's impossible at the federal level but not necessarily so at the state legislative level.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gradually-increasing gas tax that's buffered against price shocks

That's the answer. The question is what's better environmentally and economically than the current situation of an inadequate gas tax and a price that swings widely.

We need to increase the gas tax, a lot, to cover the economic externalities, decrease overconsumption, accelerate the transition away from internal combustion engines, and pay for infrastructure previously paid for by gas taxes on inefficient engines. At the same time, the public hates increasing gas prices and the more environmentally responsible leaders get beat up politically every time the price goes up, more than they recover politically when the price goes back down.

I think the public would prefer predictability and less variability even if the price goes up on a gradual basis. So here's my suggested deal:  set the federal and/or state gas taxes at the wholesale level and increase them at 5% annually (or whatever set level we can get, hopefully better than the usual inflation rate). That tax increase holds, if the wholesale price of gas doesn't change. If the wholesale price drops, the tax increase goes up even more so the year-on-year change is +5%. And if the wholesale price increases, the tax increases less or even decreases to get the same net increase.

This idea stabilizes the wholesale price, not retail which will vary with other costs, but overall it should dramatically reduce variability.

The downside is that the price doesn't react to temporary price signals so it's less efficient. On the other hand, an increasing tax captures more economic externalities, making the price more efficient compared to the present. I'd say the good outweighs the bad.

Second, the revenue stream is far more variable, but overall it will be better than present.

Just an idea

Monday, May 13, 2013

Live blogging Jim Hansen et al.

I'm trying this out as an experiment, will expand as he and others talk. We're at the WEST 2013 Sustainable Silicon Valley Summit. I'll occasionally throw in parenthetical comments.

Their big new thing is a Consensus Statement on Science, seeking endorsers here.

2 degrees C rise = 6 meter (feet? didn't catch it) sea level rise in the long term

Renewables just a small sliver of energy use relative to fossil fuels, can't do it on its own.

Fee and dividend - put cost at mines or point of entry

Start at $10/ton, increase $10 year

Arrgh, he's done already. Okay, on to Anthony Barnosky to discuss impacts

Incredible extinction crisis, this is the sixth. The current extinction rate is faster than anything since the dinosaurs.

90% of big fish are gone. From one to three centuries from now, we'll lose 75% of species will be gone.

40% of land surface is already transformed, and we're going to add another 2.5 billion people to population. Sometime this century the percentage will be 50% plus.

Standard Beijing air pollution reference.

More work days lost to enviro pollution than malarai AIDS and tuberculosis.

(Seems like he's talking about non-climate impacts we're having on environment)

Technology isn't obstacle to solutions. In 50 years we've built enough roads in the US to go around earth twice.

Cooperation from local to global (yes!)

(More below the jump, including Gov. Jerry Brown who's sitting in the audience right now listening to scientists)

Friday, May 10, 2013

The "doing something that's short of everything is nothing" fallacy

Above is the best name I've got for the fallacy I keep seeing in many contexts. Somebody else should come up with a better name.

There are some good arguments against expanding nuclear power as a solution to climate change (economics economics economics), but saying we shouldn't do it because by itself it won't solve the entire problem isn't a good argument. I've also seen it locally when some people argued that funding to remove barriers to fish passage is useless when it removes 90% of the barriers on a stream but not 100% of the barriers.

There's some inability to see one effort as part of a broader effort instead of being the magic solution. Maybe the name is "You're Not the One, So Go Away Fallacy"? "Magic Solution or Bust Fallacy"?

The latest manifestation of this is Dan Kahan, who should know better, and his unhappiness over/despite the spate of publicity for the Cook et al. survey of climate abstracts (see Kloor for the same but there's little hope for him). Eli's been blogging about our prequel survey - I would've pushed harder if I had realized how much coverage it could have received.

In essence, Kahan visually demonstrates all the media this study's achieved in a short time period and then says it hasn't solved denial of climate change, so what's the point? To be fair, he isn't claiming ownership of the Magic Solution himself and just poses questions.

Maybe my best response to Kahan's question are a few of my own. Let's forget the rejectionists right now and focus on the fence-sitters and those who generally accept climate change. Do all of those people understand just how strong the scientific consensus is? They're not the ones predisposed to reject these facts.

I'm just a lazy blogger and won't dig it out, but my guess is the Pew and Stanford polling would show that a large fraction of them don't know the strength of the consensus, and those are people that should be receptive to this information. Getting people to move from wishy-washiness and tribal loyalties to increased personal understanding and commitment to the issue is a significant part of the battle.

As for the Magic Solution, you got me. I think we do have to beat the drums for the truth, and having a consistent story that 97% of the abstracts and 97% of the relevant climatologists and over 95% certainty in the IPCC all say the same thing, is really helpful. We have a complete story that satisfies the need for closure while rejectionists have coincidences and conspiracies. The 97% agreement among abstracts reinforces the story.

UPDATE:  and this:
Republicans’ aggressive campaigning against Obama’s clean-energy agenda was “an overreaction,” Feehery said. “It made us seem like enemies of the environment. The idea that government has absolutely no role, that the climate is absolutely not changing—it’s not smart,” he said. “It’s also not smart if you’re talking about all the farmers in red states that make money off windmills. A lot of the base is there.”
The Magic Solution might be to quintuple wind production in Texas.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

A message from the recovery room

Eli's immediate post below as reference. I haven't written anything yet because I've been meaning to first set aside several hours to recover where everything ended up. I think where my hubris messed things up was in that wasn't just those skepticalish abstracts I wanted to understand, but an attempt to get all discrepancies in any category resolved by forgetting the abstracts when reviewers disagreed and reading the source papers instead. That bridged too far for us volunteers and ended it.

Still could be a good thing just to read the papers for the skeptical abstracts. I think some of the implicit doubting might go away (not all of it). That info could feed into the other studies.

Eli's done a great job resurrecting the work we all did.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Rumsfeld forgot the unknown knowns

I'm slogging my way through Steve Pinker's Better Angels book on the history of violence so I can finally write about how it's convincing and give it a negative review. Not done yet though, I'm only on page 534 and still have several hundred pages to go.

Way back on page 514 there was something worth writing about, an update on Donald Rumsfeld's sole contribution to humanity:  he talked about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, a useful way to look at problems. What Rumsfeld missed, says Pinker citing Dominic Johnson citing Slavoj Zizek, is unknown knowns, which are things known or knowable but are ignored or suppressed.

The context for Pinker was unknown knowns that Rumsfeld and the Bushies had in front of them about Iraq - lack of nuclear weapons development particularly, and the lack of a plan for governing the country. Unknown knowns applies even better to climate change - the evidence is hitting us in the face, literally so in some cases, and mountains of data and history available for anyone to see, but half of American politics refuses to see it. I doubt we'll get the hardcore denialists to know them, but we need to move the fencesitters so they're not stuck by the same unknown knowns.

UPDATE:  lifted from someone else's comment:
If the rational course of action involves admitting that you cannot have what you most want, don't bet on the persons involved being rational.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Non-negligent mistake vs negligence vs strict liability vs Benghazi

Tort law was one of my favorite classes in law school, gruesome injury cases being more interesting than contractual disputes over international chicken shipments.

The usual rule of non-negligent mistake is that you lump it. I drive over a virtually-invisible oil patch and go into a skid and injure you. No one would've seen it, so the injuries are your problem.

Negligence is when I failed to see an otherwise-visible oil patch because I was adjusting the car radio instead of carefully watching the road, and this time I owe you. The classic Reasonable Person wouldn't have adjusted the radio except in absolutely safe conditions. The RP isn't superhuman, supersmart, or superskilled, but he or she doesn't make easily foreseeable mistakes.

Strict liability reverses the rule of non-negligence:  if the harm was from something that even RP would not have avoided, the victim gets compensated. Same as the first case, I drive over a virtually-invisible oil patch and injure you, only that now, your injury results from the fact that I was transporting explosives that then exploded. Strict liability is considered a mostly-modern legal invention but there were earlier forms. Collapsing dams for watermill ponds were examples, and my favorite case was a pioneering, late 19th-Century balloonist who landed on a woman's vegetable patch. She hauled him into court for her veggies. He rightly pointed out that ballooning is brand new and no one knows how to land them - the judge said tough luck, if you do something abnormally risky like ballooning then you're strictly liable for any harm.

Negligence and strict liability seemed like separate concepts until Professor Grey pointed out that the Reasonable Person acts reasonably every time, but no actual human being does. It is unreasonable to expect someone to be reasonably prudent every time, but the law expects that, so a corner of strict liability is embedded in the law of negligence, presumably for the same societal reasons that we apply strict liability in other situations.

So this brings us to Benghazi - it's hard to figure out what the right wingers are screaming about, especially when their bizarre claims about coverups seem tangential to the real issue of inadequate security in the lead-up to the tragedy. I don't know if the inadequate security was a non-negligent mistake or negligence on someone's part, although I'd lean towards the latter. As far as the response  once the attacks started and the hurt feelings of the people who believe they didn't get accurate information in the near-term aftermath, the first of those two things is hard to judge and the second isn't all that important.

But that still leaves the screw-up in the security preparations. Even if it's negligence that resulted in four deaths, I don't hold that as a major screw-up of the Obama Administration. They make thousands of security decision, and they will screw some of them up. Someone should pay for it somewhere in the chain of command (assuming it is negligence), but this is small potatoes - it would be unreasonable to go from this to concluding that the administration as a whole is negligent.

I wish the worst thing we could say about the Bush Administration was that they screwed up and four people died.

UPDATE:  I need to do some additional research but I think Paul Ryan lied to the public on national television about a national security issue in the vice-presidential debate when he said there was virtually no US security in Libya compared to what we have at the Paris embassy, while knowing that CIA was nearby. He should get hit with this when he runs in 2016.

Friday, May 03, 2013

ICYMI*, Chait's optimist take on Obama and climate

Boiling it down to the essence:

After Obama’s original cap-and-trade plan failed, he started using the agency regulatory powers directly. (This is how Obama has been able to issue new regulations on cars, fuel, appliances, and future power plants.)

So far, there is one hole in his regulatory agenda: power plants that currently exist. This is, unfortunately, a very large hole, as these plants, mostly coal, emit 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions.... 
Then, a few weeks after last year’s election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions....Much like a cap-and-trade bill, it would allow market signals to indicate the most efficient ways for states to hit their targets—instead of shutting coal plants down, some utilities might pay consumers to weatherize their homes, while others might switch some of their generators over to cleaner fuels....Here is a way for Obama to use his powers—his own powers, unencumbered by the morass of a dysfunctional Congress—in such a way that is neither as ineffectual as a firecracker nor as devastating as a nuke: The NRDC calculates its plan would reduce our reliance on coal by about a quarter and national carbon emissions by 10 percent.... 
[NRDC's] Lashof predicted the following sequence of events. The agency will finish drafting its regulation scheme by the end of the year. It will then take about a year of public comments and revisions, at which point it will finalize its rule. That will be the end of 2014, just after the midterm elections. Another nine months to a year will be required to carry out the rule, which will get us to the end of 2015—and the international climate summit.

I've thought the most likely outcome is that Obama would do the wrong thing on Keystone and match it with a right thing on something else about climate. Not sure if the timing proposed above would make it the right thing to be matched with Keystone. This is far more important than Keystone, though, if it happens.

The remainder of Chait's article argued that Obama has used the regulatory structure as much as he could for small-bore climate actions, and if you set aside the bully pulpit issue then he's done a decent job. My impression, not backed by solid data, is that he passed up a lot of politically viable chances for small-bore actions on climate.

NRDC's proposal is here. Basically your state's average emission rate has to be somewhat better than a combined rate for coal and natural gas produced by current plants, with the combined rate determined by the mix of coal and gas you currently have. AFAICT if your state already has little coal and a lot of renewables, you don't have to do much, but if your state has a lot of coal power, the punched is eased somewhat. Many different trading devices allowed to reduce emissions rate, including purchasing efficiency efforts by consumers.

UPDATE:  clarified per the comment.

*ICYMI, ICYMI, means in case you missed it. I missed it when it came to that acronym for a while.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Seven generations is a shared perspective with emergency planning

As part of my Water District work, I've started expanding my policy focus to emergency/disaster planning, or "resilience" as the current buzzword goes. Taking the long view seems as necessary in disaster planning as it does for the environment - planning for a 100 year flood means many areas will go 200 years or longer before the event you've planned for finally happens. I sure wish we could do climate planning in anticipation of what things could be like in the year 2213.

What got me started on this post is a presentation I saw yesterday - I'm the Water District rep to a regional planning organization for emergencies, and the presentation was on the role of local ham radio. We have over 7000 licensed radio operators in our county of nearly 2 million, and about 700 have taken additional training in emergency communication. Another 100 or so maintain emergency kits so they can travel to a site and start communication even if all power, phone, cellular, and internet access is down. They have a separate non-profit and work closely with government emergency services, and it's all volunteer with minimal (but some) governmental funding. It's a great backup system.

Resilience in response to changes is an emergency planning concept as well as environmental concept - a healthy ecosystem and climate can absorb challenges and still function. If we push things to the edge, then maybe not.

UPDATE:  forgot to note an important psychological difference. Emergency planning is all about training so that much of what you do is rote and you only improvise as little as needed. The quasi-military, hierarchical culture is obviously a different world.