Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sometimes, the universe spits back

Yesterday evening, I made a substantial-for-me donation to the John Edwards campaign, a kind of "I spit on the political universe" action in response to the primary elections so far.

Oh Universe, You are a funny one.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Climate adaptation and climate mitigation

TokyoTom has done a good job of concealing the fact that he has a blog, but he mistakenly let the news out with this post criticizing what I'll call the typical foolishness from the Ayn Rand Institute (Tom's more generous).

The Ayn Rand types go beyond the "adapting to climate change is better than doing anything to reduce it" excuse, and say that instead of helping poor countries that are harmed by climate change, we should just lecture them about the need to adopt unfettered capitalism.

TokyoTom's best response is that "far from 'forc[ing] rich countries to become poor', figuring out how to manage a global commons like the atmosphere, while it may have the effect of imposing a cost on the release of carbon, is basically aimed at privatising externalities, with the intention of increasing the efficiency of private transactions and net wealth." In other words, adaptation aid, aid to reduce emissions, and carbon trading make the market more efficient (my take on it, anyway).

And one point Tom may be hinting at in reference to developing nations "leap-frogging" our development path is that they cannot develop the way we did; the consequences would be disastrous for the environment.

There is an even worse outcome than for the entire Third World to industrialize the way we did. It's for a large portion of the Third World to industrialize like we did - say China, India, and Southeast Asia - while the much of the rest experiences little growth. For the entire Third World to industrialize like us would be a biological disaster, but for just part of it would be a human disaster.

I continue to think that the greatest social impact of climate change is on food-insecure people - subsistence farmers and farmers who are so poor that minor changes in farm income have significant effects on the quality of food they can purchase. These people are screwed by climate change while bearing minimal responsibility for the problem. I saw them last month in Madagascar, farmers rushing to get rice planting done in time when the rains came a month late. For the Ayn Rand types to be so self-righteous to them is just an amazing example of ignorance.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dressler's obesity-climate change analogy may be better than he intended

I mostly like Andrew Dressler's obesity-climate change analogy. To summarize: a. responding to obesity by cutting calories is like responding to climate change by reducing emissions; b. responding to obesity by not fighting it and simply adapting to the increased weight and health problems is like adapting to climate change through seawalls etc.; and c. responding to obesity by getting gastric-bypass or similar surgery is like geo-engineering in terms of riskiness.

While the analogy is slightly unfair in the case of adaptation, I think it's easy for the lay person to understand. The best part is the analogy between gastric-bypass surgery and geo-engineering in pointing out the extreme nature and risk involved in geo-engineering.

The analogy's value that Dressler might not have intended is that in some scenarios, surgery to treat obesity is a good idea despite the risks. If the patient is sufficiently, morbidly obese and otherwise unable to lose weight, the several-percent mortality risk from surgery and infection is less dangerous than forgoing surgery. The same may be true of geo-engineering - we're not in that situation yet, but we may end up in a situation where the political will exists for a risky geo-engineering solution but not for sufficient emissions reduction. I just hope it doesn't come to that.

And while we're on the analogy subject, I still like my analogy between managing groundwater and managing greenhouse gas emissions. The obesity metaphor is far more accessible to most people, but I think groundwater policy challenges are very similar to climate issues. While the 150 years of mistakes and mismanagement of groundwater in the US is hardly encouraging, it does provide some lessons (and we're even getting better at it, in some places).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An Edwards vote isn't like a Nader vote (and independent voters count, too)

So my candidate John Edwards is only doing a little better than my favored candidates usually do in an election. While it would take a miracle now for him to get the nomination, he could still be helpful in non-miraculous situations. The ideal situation is that his delegates at the convention decide whether Clinton or Obama gets the nomination, and Edwards endorses Obama in return for Obama fixing his health care proposal and a few other things. And even if that doesn't happen, a strong Edwards delegation can help push the party's platform in the right direction.

Because some smart people seem confused about this, voting for Edwards isn't a wasted vote if Obama is your second choice. Democratic primary delegates are awarded proportionately, so Clinton gets no more delegates on a 45-35-20 Clinton/Obama/Edwards vote split than with a 45-55 Clinton/Obama vote split (UPDATE: this is wrong for California - the candidate with a plurality gets extra delegates, I'm not sure how many. Strange how hard it is to get accurate info). She does get the psychological boost of coming in first, but I don't think that's reason enough to vote for the second-choice candidate.

Finally, at least in California, independents can vote in the Democratic primary. I think it's still possible to order the Democratic party ballot by mail, and independents can pick them up at the polls.

(And in case this seems really anti-Clinton: I surprised myself on reading this post, but in case the hypothetical crisis ocurred, Clinton would be my first choice (after Gore). But she'd only be my first choice by a hair, and other non-hypothetical issues are still more important.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Madagascar, Part 3: Wrapping Up

(Female indri in a duet with her mate, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.)

A few Madagascar-related odds and ends: The rainy season started a month late, according to the people there. One of our guides said that climate change is already affecting them. But who knows, could be natural variation, so we should leave the poor innocent greenhouse gas emitters alone.

Speaking of which, I still haven't purchased carbon offsets for our travel contribution to the problem. I keep meaning to do a fairly intense amount of research on what offsets work the best, and haven't gotten around to it.

I've upgraded the wikipedia entry for Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, and created an entry for Man and the Environment where we did our volunteer work, so I hope that gives a little back for the experience.

Finally, I'm putting a trip report below, which is probably of interest only to people who might be travelling to Madagascar in the near future.

General info:

Our guidebook - Lonely Planet Madagascar. It was acceptable, getting a little old. Prices are now in ariary, not the Madagascar francs. Prices in general were 50-150% more expensive than listed in the book, but I'm not sure how the dollar's fall in value affected that. Some roads are in better shape than listed - in particular, Ranomafana Park is now an easy drive on a well-paved road.

Costs - our hotels cost between $7 and $70 for a room for two, meals between $5 and $20. Both of those could have cost much less if you're willing to stay at sketchier places and try your stomach out on food not prepared for foreigners.

Timing - we went in mid-December for 3+ weeks, which is in the beginning of the rainy season and the start of the low season for tourists. On the bad side it meant we had rain most days and were occasionally pelted, and were on the periphery of two cyclones. On the good side, we could almost always stay anywhere we wanted, and finding guides and transport wasn't a problem. Some things will be easier or harder for other visitors depending on when they're there.

Language - we took a very basic French course before we went. It was very helpful, although I think a fluent French speaker would get much more out of the experience. We found English-speaking guides almost everywhere, although none were fluent enough to have really complex conversation.

Annoyances - bed bugs and fleas almost everywhere. They irritated me and tormented my wife. Only one (expensive) hotel, Residence Lapasoa, didn't have them. We learned to put on DEET before getting into bed. Travelers might consider treating a bedsheet with permethrin and bringing it along. On the other hand, we had almost no trouble with mosquitoes, so our malaria prophylaxis was probably unnecessary.

Other: Our best guide was our driver, Andry, who we hired through Tany Mena Tours. Tany Mena did not have all the special offerings that the Lonely Planet guide described, but Andry was great and highly recommended.

I'm also happy to answer any questions in the comments, or just email me.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hammurabi versus Huckabee on the history of marriage

Via the Volokhs, Mike Huckabee says, "Marriage has historically, as long as there’s been human history, meant a man and a woman in a relationship for life."

Volokh uses the Bible to prove him wrong, but we can do even better. My wife and I had a few days in Paris on our way back from Madagascar, and at the Louvre we saw a stele with Hammurabi's Code of Laws, the first known example of law. Here are two of the laws:

138. If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go.

142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.

Hardly fair or modern, but it's an unquestionable recognition of divorce from the very beginning of legal history. Huckabee got it wrong from the start.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Madagascar Part 2: the society

So we were short term visitors with just a superficial understanding of the place, but it's hard to understand why Madagascar is one of the fifteen poorest countries in the world. It's not overpopulated, so far - we drove and hiked for many miles through areas that weren't desert with absolutely no one there. Socially, it doesn't feel like a violent or crime-ridden country either, not compared to the rest of Africa or Latin America. And compared to India and Muslim countries I've visited, women seem to have more opportunities and exposure to the real world (far from equal, though). My wife and I both noticed the uncommon-elsewhere sight of men carrying and taking care of babies and small children. And even in rural areas, we saw children going to school, although not in the off-road villages.

I guess part of being a resource-extraction dependent economy is that resource price determines everything. Vanilla can only take Madagascar so far, the original forest is almost all gone, and the replacement eucalyptus and pine might not be very valuable.

Then there are ethnic issues I barely understand. Madagascar was first settled by Polynesians and is culturally and linguistically more Polynesian than African. Genetically it's a mix of African and Polynesian traits, a very striking people. The 18 different tribes have their conflicts, and slavery was abolished later there than in the US, so that is bound to be related to desperate underclass we saw in Tana, the capital city.

And while it's not overpopulated yet, that's changing, with 40% of the population less than 14 years old. They have a lot of challenges ahead.

Economic issues aside, the society is very interesting. Our guidebook said the Malagasy were reserved - I don't know what it's talking about, we thought people were extremely nice and cheerful. The French influence is extremely strong, however much it's resented. The people's striking features, and maybe the low HIV incidence, has the unfortunate result of a lot of sex tourism by French men.

The most unusual societal feature was "famadihana" ceremonies - exhuming and reburying the dead. Initial burials are usually sad affairs, but after several years, the body is exhumed, bones are cleaned and wrapped, and a large party is held during which the dead person is told about all that's happened in the meantime and then reburied. Practices differ by tribe, but it seems like a good way to deal with grief that the rest of us could learn from.

I never saw the ceremony, although we did see the cliffside crypts and caves that are used in the south, and the tombs in the north. There's always something more to see.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back, back, back from Madagascar

So we're back from the honeymoon - 25 days in Madagascar, the first week doing some volunteer work, and the rest checking out the sights. An amazing country, well worth visiting.

The lemurs were the same highlight for us as for everyone else. They seem otherwordly in a way that monkeys don't. Part of the reason is the big eyes on the small face looking at you. The large lemurs in particular seemed strangely even more like us than monkeys, as they move bipedally through trees, leaping 30-feet gaps while standing upright. The ghostly white lemurs (sifakas) in the south, and the tailless, crying indris in the east were the most striking.

Environmentally though, the vast majority of the country is nuked. A naive observer might not notice it, thinking the countryside has always been rice paddies, grasslands, and scrubby forests. What we see is what replaced the original forests, and even the scrubby trees are Australian eucalyptus and Chinese pine with no ecological value. One of our guides said "Madagascar used to be the green island, but now it is the red island from all the erosion."

We volunteered with a Malagasy NGO, Man and the Environment, which is participating in efforts to develop ecological buffer reserves around national parks where resource extraction is compatible with the ecology. We tried to do some GPS mapping of clearings in the reserves - I hope it'll be helpful but I'm not sure it will be. In the middle of nowhere we came across land owned by Genentech. Even more strangely, it was a clearing instead of virgin land that I'd guess would have more biotech prospects. More mysteries.

The good news is that the forest does grow back aggressively if given a chance. We saw lemurs in 20-40 year old secondary forest. All that's needed is the economic opportunity.

One place in particular raised an interesting carbon offset question. We did a five-day trek in the country's largest national park, l'Isalo. In past centuries it had been 80% forested, but now was only 10% forested, a figure that our guide said had not changed since the park was established in 1961. It seems that more manpower to patrol the park to stop illegal burning is all that's needed to help the forest grow back, and manpower is cheap in Madagascar. Arguably they should be doing it anyway, but they're not and haven't for nearly 50 years, so it seems like spending money on better management could meet the "additionality" test of offsets. I'm sure l'Isalo isn't unique in developing countries in this regard.

I'll do another post or two about the people, and on the standard, we-went-there-and-did-that stuff that's all so fascinating.