Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A definite maybe on nuclear power

I’ve been thinking of doing an “off the reservation” series of blog posts on issues where I stray from the general left-of-center tilt in this blog. Maybe I’ll just start with this one, where I endorse Belette’s “maybe” approach to nuclear power.

One criticism I’ll make of parts of the environmental movement is showing insufficient desperation over global warming. Fighting certain windmills because you think they’re ugly, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., isn’t showing desperation. Rejecting nuclear power outright is also showing insufficient desperation, so I think a pragmatic assessment of nukes is better.

Commenting on subjects raised in Belette’s post: as he suggests, there’s no way nukes will help meet emission targets in 2012, that’s way too soon to construct operating plants. This does touch on the worst argument against nukes, though – because they’re not a panacea, therefore they’re not worth pursuing. My take is that if they’ll help in the more distant future, I’ll take the help.

The economics issue is the biggest one. As Steve Bloom points out in Belette’s comments, conservation is a lot cheaper way to reduce CO2 than nukes are. I don’t have the figures but I think wind power is also cheaper (but it doesn’t work everywhere). If you add all the subsidies over the last 60 years that nuclear power received to its cost, it would be off the table completely. But, past subsidies are a sunk cost – it might be worth pointing out to nuke fans how subsidized their industry of choice has been, yet that doesn’t determine what we should do now. Steve may be referring to present/future subsidies, but I’m not aware of all that much for mature technology, as opposed to new nuclear tech. This is also where the “no panacea” argument rears its head – nukes won’t accomplish everything, but they could be one more solution to add to the mix.

Now here’s an idea that goes way off the reservation – one way to reduce nuclear power costs would be to reduce safety margins. Nukes are ridiculously safe compared to the thousands of people killed annually by coal power plant emissions, so reducing nuclear safety margins and shifting power from coal to nuclear would end up with a net safety benefit. This is politically unacceptable, though, so it’ll go nowhere.

As to nukes producing emissions comparable to coal/gas, I also highly doubt it. Even when I worked for Natural Resources Defense Council and we were fighting some lies on emissions put out by the nuclear industry, we didn’t make this claim.

Belette doesn’t mention the vulnerability to terrorism – that’s a significant problem. On the other hand, we already (hopefully) have more nuclear plants than can be blown up by terrorists, so adding more might not make a difference. On the third hand, if terrorists develop effective techniques for attacking nukes and our only available response is to shut down all the nuclear plants, then we don’t want to be any more dependent on nukes than we are currently.

So – show me a way to solve the economics issue and some type of fudge regarding terrorism, and I won’t stand in the way of nukes (even if I’m not totally enthusiastic).

P.S. The comments to Belette's post are worth reading

P.P.S. Being politically correct and all that, I researched whether the term "off the reservation" is offensive to Native Americans. I did find one Native American activist on the Web who said it was, while no one else seemed to care. The term seems to me to indicate a laudable inclination to break stupid rules, so I'll use it unless it seems clearly inappropriate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Peak oil and global warming

I recently added a peak-oil blog, The Oil Drum, to my blogroll, have been following the issue for a while, and just came back from a lecture at Stanford presenting contrasting views on the issue. I think there are really 3 questions on peak oil and global warming:

1. Is peak oil a real issue?

2. If it is, what effect will it have on efforts to control global warming?

3. What effect will global warming policies (and other enviro policies) have on efforts to overcome peak oil issues?

You'll wonder why I'm wasting your time with this post when I have no real answers to these questions, but I do have speculations, which is more than good enough for blogging work.

Question #1 was the focus of tonight's lecture, and I felt the speakers were talking past each other. One focused on the limited availability of a finite resource, and the other spoke of the ability of markets and technology to find substitutions. I don't think history is all that kind to the "Ohmigod we're all going to die"-type predictions, so I think the oil optimists have an edge on that part of the spectrum. On the other hand, history has given us two oil shocks in the 1970s, so I don't see why that can't be repeated, especially given oil concentration in the hands of cartels in unstable regions. Also, free markets are screwed up by bad information, and there's reason to believe that the information coming from Saudi Arabia and maybe other countries has exaggerated reserves. That would depress prices relative to the theoretical price that markets would have established given future shortages, meaning prices would be in for a shock when the correct information comes out.

So, some troubles ahead, I think.

Question #2 gets some attention (see here and here). Peak oil could provoke an oil drilling craze - bad for the environment, but an overall neutral effect on AGW as compared to a world without a peak oil problem. But, peak oil could also bring tar sands and oil shale into production, and those suckers have to be heated to get oil. If you don't sequester the carbon released during heating - and I don't know how you would for shale being heated underground - then you have a net problem. And then there's substituting coal for oil - if you don't sequester it, you have a huge problem. And if prices are high already, there will be less political willpower to require sequestration for any of these alternatives.

Balancing against all that is the possibility that peak oil will jumpstart climate-friendly technologies a decade or two before we would otherwise get serious about doing something to reduce CO2 emissions.

So, you got me on this one. Looking back again at history, the 70s oil shocks helped alternative energy technologies while doing nothing for tar sands, shale, or coal gasification (don't know what effect it had on coal generally - probably a bad one in switching power plants from oil to coal). My guess is a possible net benefit to global warming, while a net negative to the environment overall.

Question #3 gets the least attention, I think. It says that maintaining our present lifestyle through other means (like coal gasification) won't work for completely different reasons. It will also impose additional costs for carbon sequestration, which could be hard for the world to absorb with peak oil shocks hitting it. If we ever become serious about stopping climate change, and also have to deal with peak oil at the same time, the transitional costs will be huge.

If we get serious about global warming first, that would be a great help in dealing with peak oil. Too bad it's not likely that we'll get serious about warming soon, though.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Battlebot, with a side of moron

My jaw has dropped several times in the last 6 months at the apparent mistakes by Karl Rove's lawyer, Richard Luskin, particularly the probable-accidental signal that journalists should start talking to the Plamegate prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. He may have now blown it again and waived attorney work-product privilege. Firedoglake has a good run-down here of the developments.

Relevant quote:

"Is Luskin a sloppy media hound and a moron, or is he simply acting as Rover's battlebot?"

My vote is battlebot for Rove, who's trying to mix the spin machine with the legal arena (they don't mix well). Luskin is doing what Rove wants him to do. But Luskin gets awarded a side of moron, for going along with it.

America thanks him, though.

And other fronts, a corrupted Vietnam war hero/Congressman pleads guilty to a conspiracy for accepting bribes. Talkingpointsmemo is all over it. Cunningham's resignation speech is kind of moving and sad - except that I first got the idea that he was simply pleading guilty. Nope, he struck a deal in a plea bargain. A heroic admission would just accept guilt and whatever punishment awaited him (but it would be terrible lawyering).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Arrgh - another ruined post

Wrote half a post last night on how global warming skeptics who refuse bets are applying the precautionary principle, when the computer crashed and destroyed everything.

I give up for now, and am going backpacking instead. Enjoy the holidays, and I'll try and resuscitate the post next week.

Meanwhile, check out Spocko's post on "How to talk to wing nuts" for those holiday conversations (scroll to Nov. 22d, I can't get a direct link to the post).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bested by a Curveball

The German intelligence agency is saying that the Bush Adminstration exaggerated the WMD claims of an Iraqi exile code-named Curveball, who "never claimed to produce germ weapons and never saw anyone else do so."

Interestingly, Curveball was known to be an unreliable, alcoholic liar (see here for more).

So by exaggerating his claims, the Bush Administration showed that an even a lying alcoholic stayed closer to the truth than the Bush presidency over Iraq.

UPDATE: just came across this: "Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the [pre-war National Intelligence Estimate] had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries." I think this factoid makes Bush I and Clinton look bad, but it makes Bush II look horrible.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Jiu-jitsu with the Bush Administration

Bush and pals have gone nuts in the last week because they've been accused of deliberately misleading America into war with the WMD and Al Qaeda allegations. I think the way to respond is to draw the Republicans out on why this issue is so important. How about saying:

"You're right to be so upset about being accused of something so awful. After all, Republicans, surely you agree that misleading America into a war is an impeachable offense. Let's settle how serious the charge is, figure out who's right and who's not, and take appropriate action against the side that's wrong, whoever it may be."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

My phone conversation with Bill Gray

Although there may have been no doubt by this point, global warming skeptic Bill Gray is not willing to make a bet based on his prediction that temperatures will decline in 5-8 years.

I got tired of approaching the issue in a roundabout way, located his number and called him this morning. I explained I wanted to bet him over his prediction, but admitted it would take some time, maybe as long as 15 years, to resolve a bet. Dr. Gray said that as a man in his seventies, that wasn't practical. I explained that there's a charitable foundation that we could both give our money to now, and the foundation would award the money to the charity of the winner's choice, which could be Gray's own research center. Gray then said that he just wasn't interested in participating in a long-term bet.

So it is frustrating that Dr. Gray isn't willing to back up his policy position, which will have catastrophic impacts if he's wrong, with his money. On the other hand, he was nice enough in our conversation and I think his beliefs are sincere (which I don't think is true for some prominent denialists). He said he assumed I'll still be around in fifteen years and that he believes he's right, but if he's wrong, to please forgive him. It's hard to be angry with an unpretentious, sincere, elderly scientist that I've talked to directly. But he's wrong.

One way to look at betting over this kind of issue is to view it as a form of ethical insurance. The person who is wrong and loses the bet will have hindered the development of policy that follows the correct, winner's view. As an ethical matter, the loser should take some consolation that some of his/her money will go the winner or winner's charity, where it can hopefully do some good. I'm going to email this post to Dr. Gray - if he wants to figure out a way to be "forgiven" if it turns out he's wrong 15 years from now, then a bet that sends money to an appropriate charity would be a good way to do it. Meanwhile, I suggest he encourage other people who support his position to take up a bet on his side.

(My other bet offers may not exactly match his position, so I'll suggest this: I'll give 2:1 odds that temperatures in 15 years will be warmer than they'll be in 5 years. That should be good odds from his perspective.)

UPDATE: A simple alternative way to arrange a for-profit bet when the parties aren't sure they'll be around long enough - simply agree the bet is cancelled if either party dies before the bet's decided. I should've thought of this before.

key: global warming, bet

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My evening with Michael Crichton

Apparently the global warming skeptics Michael Crichton and Bill Gray so enjoyed their appearance together before a Senate Committee that they've taken their act on the road. Rounding out the card is Sallie Bailunas and George Taylor, more skeptics. Someone to represent the consensus view of 99% of the scientists? Who needs that? The team came to San Francisco tonight.

But they didn't count on me being there.

And unfortunately, it didn't matter that I was there.

I hate how I'd get ready for a pitched battle with evil (or in this case, stupidity), and have it just fizzle out. When I saw that Gray was joining Crichton after ignoring everyone who challenged him to a bet, I thought, "here's my chance to confront him publicly!" I imagined a microphone for the public to ask questions, where I would pull out $1000 cash along with a checkbook and demand a bet on the spot. Turns out they only take written questions and ran way over their allotted time. I did submit a bet question targeted at Gray and left my email address, but I had to leave. I'll be amazed to see anything in my inbox tomorrow. Meanwhile, they got my $35. I even wasted a half-hour getting there early to see if I could talk to Gray before the event, but no luck.

So reporting briefly on what they had to say, it wasn't much. Crichton said virtually nothing about his stupid book, trying instead to describe some meta-lessons about science and "complexity theory" for us idiots. He prattled on about mismanagement of Yellowstone in the 20th Century, ideas obviously cribbed from the book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which he never mentioned directly. His thesis, apparently, was that we interfered with nature in Yellowstone, thought we had science to support the interference, but we didn't really know what we were doing and screwed it up, and therefore we should continue to interfere with climate because reducing that interference may have chaos theory effects. Something like that.

Gray repeated his claim that temperatures will change to "cooling slightly" in 5-8 years. He said the doubling CO2 will cause a 0.3C temperature rise, and that water vapor is a negative feedback (rising vapor will cause dry air to descend, increasing transparency to infrared). I can't tell if 0.3C is a net effect after the alleged negative feedback, or how it fits into the forecast temperature drop, but he was very firm, again, in predicting the temperature drop. He said Crichton is his new hero, and that Gray would devote his remaining years to fighting global warming nonsense. Gray started talking about hurricanes, but I had to leave.

Sallie Bailunas talked earlier about how people blamed witches for erratic weather in the 1500s, apparently digging even further back in time than the tired "they laughed at Galileo, and they're laughing at me, therefore I'm the next Galileo" canard. I never heard Taylor, and some other guy talked about how natural pesticides in broccoli cause cancer so we should stop worrying about artificial pesticides and pollution.

That was it. The crowd ate it all up, and the large ballroom was packed. I expect they consider it a great success. Look for the show to come to your city next.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alito, abortion, and gay rights

I wonder how many Americans are like me - somewhat equivocal about some aspects of abortion rights, while strongly supportive of gay rights. What has struck me about the debate about Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito is that the respect for long-standing precedent, called stare decisis, will be of little help in deciding whether to reaffirm Lawrence v. Texas, decided in 2003 on privacy grounds similar to those of Roe v. Wade.

In the Lawrence case, five Supreme Court justices found a right to privacy protected intimate sexual relations in one's home. A sixth justice, O'Connor, found the Texas law illegal on equal protection laws, since the law banned only homosexual sodomy and discriminated against defendants according to the gender of the persons the defendants were with. The Court in Lawrence expressly over-ruled a previous Supreme Court ruling, and said stare decisis was not absolute.

Alito would replace O'Connor and is unlikely to support her equal-protection claim. One more judge replaced and the entire ruling can go away. I think gay rights are even more at stake than abortion rights, but you hardly hear anything about it in the context of the Supreme Court fight.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I'm not learning much from the French riots

From Juan Cole: France refused to adopt affirmative action, instead using "color-blind" policies that ignored the reality of racism, engendering the resentment that eventually exploded.

Okay, so the right wing concept that we should drop affirmative action has been tried and failed.

From TAPPED: France has a much more generous welfare state for the poor than the US, with better housing, better education, and a better standard of living, but the social and political isolation remained and caused the riots.

Okay, so the left wing concept of a decent welfare net with the panacea of a good education for the poor also doesn't work. Many Americans on the left, maybe me included, have felt that national health insurance plus an educational system that doesn't screw over the poor is all that's needed for a wave of prosperity and social harmony. Maybe it's not so simple.

On the other hand, I'm not buying that affirmative action plus neglect of the poor (the US model) is the solution either.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Searching denialist blogs on global warming

I've been offering to bet bloggers who either deny global warming is happening, or make related, ridiculous assertions that could be tested in 10-20 year bets. My bet offers are here.

My bet offers have never been accepted, and I usually hear nothing in response from denialists, indicating to me that they have no leg to stand on.

Clicking on the links below will automatically search the blogs to see if they're continuing to make ridiculous assertions. If they are, I encourage anyone to challenge them in the comments to take up the bet that they've been offered. I'm only going to list the ones who allow comments open to anyone - the ones who don't have definitely shown their own fear.

I'm including the dates to indicate when I contacted them and offered a bet:

Commonsensewonder (9.23.05)

IMAO (9.05)

Captain's Quarters (10.3.05)

Rightwing News (10.21.05)

Outside the Beltway (a "weaselblog," 10.8.05) (11.11.05 - group blog, not all posters are denialists)

Blogs for Bush (11.20.05 - also a group blog)

Tim Blair (12.19.05)

Volokh Conspiracy/Dave Kopel (6.4.06)

key: global warming, bet

Saturday, November 05, 2005

NASA and marginal stupidity

I've been thinking about Kevin V.'s post for a while about the craziness of NASA's manned space program. I've got mixed feelings - Kevin's generally right, but this might also be one of the very few areas where the Bush administration has created a policy improvement over Clinton. They upgraded the manned program from "unimaginably stupid waste of money" to "stupid waste of money." Instead of using the proven-dangerous Shuttle on an indefinite mission to a tin can circling the world for no good reason, we're going to the moon, and possibly Mars - for no good reason.

Where the rubber hits the road in the future, as Kevin implies, is in marginal changes to increase the budget allocations for the manned program. While "stupid" is better than "unimaginably stupid", the "more expensive stupid policy" isn't necessarily better than "less expensive, unimaginably stupid."

Latest news: NASA wants $5 billion more for shuttles. While the extra money goes to the old shuttle program, I think it's needed only because they're phasing out that program. Relevant quote: "Mr. Boehlert said he did not see how NASA could fulfill its commitment to complete the space station, develop a shuttle replacement called the Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2012 and maintain the agency's science programs with the flat NASA budgets forecast for the near future."

Marginal stupidity in budget allocation is rearing its head. We'll see who wins the budget battles, science or stupidity.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Primate infanticide

Via Tangled Bank, I read this interesting post comparing infanticide in human and non-human primates. It appears that the evolutionary explanations that best fit the data for infanticide in our cousins do not work well with the infanticide data for humans. One example of a difference in the data: no recorded case, ever, of a non-human primate mother committing infanticide of her own offspring in the wild. I assume they're excluding abandonment, which maybe they shouldn't, but still it clearly indicates that we're a weird primate.

Another interesting aspect is that chimp infanticide appears somewhat harder to explain with simple evolutionary principles than is the case with monkeys. That fits my own little theory that behaviour of smart animals is hard to predict, and we're a lot smarter than chimps.

I think the concepts behind evolutionary psychology, that evolutionary principles help explain human psychology, is worth considering. I'd take any simple explanations evolutionary theories with a boulder of salt, though.

key: science, ape

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reasonable libertarianism

I've been thinking of posting occasionally about my libertarian sympathies (and antipathies). I've occasionally cast Libertarian Party votes but can't quite take on the libertarian label, and many libertarians wouldn't accept me as a member of their club, anyway. I think "reasonable libertarianism" is a good reality-based concept of maximizing human freedom in a non-simplistic manner.

So here's a reasonable libertarian concept that I think could work: transitional adulthood. I accept that many people are rightly concerned with the consequences of conferring maximum freedom on 18- or 21-year olds. It's crazy to think that young adults magically transform from dependents to free agents on a single birthday, and it's crazy to ignore how a childhood with poor upbringing or much worse could result in self-destructive paths that are hardly a matter of free will.

Transitional adulthood gives people some time to shake off bad educational, psychological, and economic upbringing and be responsible for their own preparation for full autonomy. Any time period will be arbitrary, but I think seven years, from the ages of 18 to 25, is a good choice. Options that might not be a good idea for an 18-year old could be considered with eyes wide open by someone in their mid-twenties.

Two examples that I think would work: becoming a prostitute, and becoming a professional boxer. Both of these careers entail significant risks, and I think teenagers might fall into those fields based on other people controlling/screwing up their childhoods. It's a different story if they begin making money in those fields as full adults.

This is where reasonable libertarianism could work, I think, and actually make society a little better, in addition to being more free.

key: libertarian

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

October 2005 Iraq casualties

On to the monthly casualty report for October:

Avg. daily military fatality rate (nearly all of them Americans): 3.19. September was 1.73, August was 2.68. and October 2004 was 2.16. Overall average to date is 2.33, up 0.03. Total US dead as of today: 2,035.

Iraqi monthly military/police fatalities: 215. September was 233, August was 281, and no stats published for October 2004 (January 2005 is when the stats started: 109). Total dead: 3,509.

New monthly statistic: Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 465. September was 640, August was 1,524, stats begin in March 2005: 240. Note that the civilian numbers may be less accurate than others, but could still be useful in determining trends.

Comments: not much to add this month. My recollection is that daily casualties rose after the constitutional referendum, instead of falling as it has in the past after criticial events. And a side note: Juan Cole passes along a report that Shiite Ayatollah Sistani may call for a timetable for US withdrawal. I agree with Cole that if he does, the US will have to acquiesce. I expect that the Bush Administration would be glad to announce a timetable before our 2006 elections saying "we're not withdrawing out of weakness, but in acknowledgment of the growing strength of Iraqi democracy," or something equally transparent.

key: Iraq, monthly report

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Sam Alito = bad

In case you need more detail than the title, look here:

  • "Alito appears to have favored environmental protections 'mainly in the face of unanimous agreement and overwhelming evidence against polluters,'";
  • His reading of the 11th Amendment may block enforcement of federal environmental laws against state governments and related agencies (cities, etc.) that construct environmentally damaging infrastructure;
  • He supports restrictions on citizen suits based on harsh application of "standing," a doctrine not found anywhere in the Constitution that conservatives made up to overrule congressional authority; and
  • His reading of the Constitution's Commerce Clause would limit its power, which in turn could limit environmental laws based on the Commerce Clause power.

For a stupid defense of Alito by a stupid blog, try Powerline. They say his dissent in an opinion saying it was illegal to strip-search a 10 year-old girl with a faulty warrant was correct, but they make the mistake of providing a link so you can read the actual decision. The warrant was faulty because it failed to request a search of all the building's occupants, although a supporting affidavit did request such a search. The problem is that the reviewing magistrate never had to confront whether the affidavit gave enough evidence to support a search of all occupants, because the warrant didn't ask for that search. End result for Alito: if the government undertakes a criminal procedure that resembles a legal action, then it's legal.

In Alito's defense, he apparently has supported gender discrimination as grounds for political asylum. Overall, he's probably one of those biased-but-persuadable conservative judges. Liberal causes start out with two strikes against them in his court - you can win sometimes, but it's not easy or fair.

But none of the above determines whether Dems should filibuster. If they do, Republicans will violate the Constitution and deploy the nuclear option to confirm him. Democrats can then shut down everything else Congress does in retaliation. Repubs will blame the Dems for obstructionism. Not sure this plays out well in an election year.

I almost blogged a while back that we should confirm Miers, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Maybe that was a mistake.