Monday, March 31, 2008

Review: The World Without Us

My very-informative reaction to The World Without Us: ehh. My apologies to Juniper Pearl if she's still coming around here, but I feel the same way about this book as I did with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink - a decent magazine article has been overstretched to book length.

I've always thought it would be kind of cool to watch nature reconquer our civilized spaces, and there's a fun animation showing this at the book's website, but after a while the fascination with the idea fades away. And the book uses that idea mostly to show how badly we've screwed up the planet, which I guess is okay but depressing.

The book isn't bad. The part about the Korean Demilitarized Zone was interesting, as well as the potential danger from microparticles of plastic to ocean life. I think he's got a bit of a Jared Diamond problem though of covering too many subject areas to be completely accurate, without Diamond's high ratio of interesting ideas that makes up for occasional errors.

Worth skimming, I think, but I can't tell people to rush out to get it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Will Stephen Johnson be rewarded by the fossil fuel industry?

One denialist argument is that scientists face tremendous pressure to support the mainstream view of climate change. The argument goes that those who support the mainstream will get the grants while those with skeptic opinions have no prospects for advancement (see this comment thread for an example).

I don't think that matches history - Einstein did pretty well in the world by overturning Newton, and quantum physicists seem to do well as they refute Einstein. Barry Marshall overturned the common belief that stress caused ulcers (a common belief being something different from a well-proven, established consensus) over a period of ten years, and has been showered with rewards since then.

Stephen Johnson, the US Environmental Protection Agency head doing everything he can stop greenhouse gas regulation, will be the next test of this idea when he steps down in 2009. While it's not scientific work of his that benefits the fossil fuel industries, it should demonstrate in general whether they reward people who help them. Talking Points Memo covers the latest from Johnson, delaying making official a finding that they've already been forced to conclude, in order to get "public comment."

The Bush Administration, which promised in the 2000 campaign to regulate carbon dioxide when Al Gore wasn't ready to go that far, has likely succeeded in stopping anything until a better presidency gets installed. We'll see if the fossil fuel industry rewards Johnson as their point man in this effort.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Putting Greenspan on the financial crisis team is like appointing Osama Bin Laden to 911 Commission*

This has got to be the worst idea Hillary Clinton's come up with:

She'd spoken on financial issues earlier in the day on the Penn campus, and she was pressed about one of her more controversial ideas: Naming Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, to what she called "a high-level emergency group" to deal with the problem of high risk mortgages
But she was especially prodded on the choice of Greenspan. As some critics have pointed out, the former Fed chair was inactive as the housing bubble grew, and in fact seemed to encourage some of the bad practices that blew up in Wall Street's face. As noted here:
He said a Fed study suggested many homeowners could have saved tens of thousands of dollars in the last decade if they had ARMs. Those savings would not have been realized, however, had interest rates shot up.

"American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage," Greenspan said.

So the Daily News asked, why Greenspan, that wasn't he off-base on the housing bubble, and here was her response:

"Not only that, but the Fed didn't act while he was there. But he has a calming influence still to this day on Wall Street -- don't ask me why because I never understand what he's saying -- but nevertheless people respond to that Delphic oracle approach. I think it would be wise to include him. And recently he's come out and vert smartly so that we have to deal with housing and maybe we need to have some kind of buyout mechanism for mortgages. So he's moved on his understanding and depth of the problem -- but you know you could pick three others. You just have to have some demonstrable involvement of presidential leadership...

So now we have John McCain saying he doesn't know much about the economy, and Hillary Clinton liking Greenspan even though she has no idea what he's saying -- God help the United States of America.

And Clinton tries this just as the mainstream media is finally reevaluating Greenspan's bloated reputation, years after it became obvious, with "Perhaps the Maestro composed some discordant notes after all." This Washington Post article finds the same February 2004 quote, but they need to keep working on the journalism thing. The article gives Greenspan the chance to claim he took back the "Yeah ARMs!" quote in March 2004. But that's not quite the whole story.

In an interview last year, Greenspan said he continued to support ARMs in March 2004, but for people buying homes for two to three years. This is different from saying he reverted to supporting fixed mortgages. More importantly, the only way that short-term purchases could make sense, given a double set of closing costs in a three year period, is if prices are continually going up. Greenspan's endorsement was an endorsement of a housing bubble.

Finally, in the Post article, Greenspan says "protection of property rights, so critical to a market economy, requires a critical mass of owners to sustain political support." Political manipulation wasn't his job, and shouldn't have been his job.

Adding, just one more thing - while Bernanke is far better than Greenspan, he was on the Federal Reserve Board before becoming chair, and was also Bush's former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. Bernanke would make a list of the Top 100 People Most Responsible for our current crisis. Let's hope he does a better job of getting us out of it.

*Turns out that Dean Baker has a similar view of Clinton's idea.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Apples and oranges comparison of sacrificing today for a better future climate

One of the many silly arguments made by the climate delayers is that we shouldn't undertake financial costs today to improve the physical climate in 2050 or 2100, because those future societies will be richer than us. Climate change mitigation is taking from the poor present to give to wealthy future when really we should pollute, pollute, pollute, and be happy.

An interesting concept if applied across the board, and somewhat at odds with other moral precepts holding that we, the present, create future generations and have a moral obligation to improve their lot. Still, there's another reply that Felix Salmon came up with a while back:

the $400 billion cost will not be borne by all present citizens equally – it will be borne much more by the rich, who are the major consumers of energy. If you compare the wealth of the rich today to the wealth of future generations in general tomorrow, then the increase looks much smaller.
I'd add that the benefits, to the extent that it involves technology transfers to developing countries, can help present-day poor people (yes, I know the $400b could help today's poorest even more effectively than through clean tech, but that's a purely rhetorical argument since it won't actually be used for that purpose.)

The rest of Salmon's post is also good.

Via Brad DeLong.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

They pay a price for being right about Iraq and the economy

Via Ezra, Jim Henley offers his musings on why he was right about Iraq five years ago. Henley could've helped out by linking to exactly when he gave the right arguments, but I scrolled through much of his March 2003 archive and he appears to be right for the right reasons (cost of occupation mainly, a little about doubts over WMDs).

I was thinking of writing my own little piece about how and why I went wrong and sat on the fence over Iraq in 2003, but linking to Henley is better. It's interesting that people who were wrong continue to get featured prominently, and people like Chris Hitchens who insanely insist they're not wrong also get prominence, but the people who were right are ignored. Dean Baker has made a similar point about the experts warning against the housing bubble and how they're still being ignored.

Anyway, I'm adding Henley to my blogroll, as the least I can do.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Peak Oil hyperlink to watch (and I'm finally a believer)

Courtesy of the always-informative Peak Oil site, The Oil Drum, is this quarterly-updated link to liquid fuels production figures. Oil production is virtually unchanged since mid-2004, even though oil prices have quadrupled since 2002.

I finally found somewhat long-term comparison figures for oil prices and production, also at The Oil Drum (scroll to slides 12 and 13). Basically, production rose about 2% annually from 1983 to 2004 while price stayed the same in nominal terms and declined in real terms (the one exception is flat production from 1990-1994, but prices declined 30% then). It's very hard to look at those figures and not conclude that something different is happening to production now. I think we've hit the peak and I doubt we'll ever exceed these recent figures, barring some amazing technological breakthrough.

This doesn't necessarily mean a Mad-Max style future in a year or two though. If I owned oil reserves, which I unfortunately don't, I might look at this same info and conclude I could earn more money but slowly extracting my oil and letting most of it appreciate in the ground, than I could earn by opening the spigots and seeing what investment return rate I could get from the sale value of the oil. In other words, peak oil might be right about the end of increasing production, while being wrong about an immediate and accelerating dropoff in production. This scenario could still be painful though.

Peak oil could pose real risk to climate change solutions if coal-to-liquids gets off the ground. So far that seems like a pipe dream (pipe nightmare?), but we'll see.

UPDATE: Good comments attached to this post. In particular, Troy found a more current production update. It seems to show some recent production response to higher prices. I may have overstated things by saying production has already peaked, but I still think we're at least close to the peak, and consistent 2% increases in oil supply are part of the past.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

So much for employee ownership

I used to think that employees owning the corporations they worked for was the potential solution to the problems of modern capitalism. This solution fails though when employee-owned (or partially-owned) companies go bankrupt, like Enron, or nearly bankrupt, like Bear Stearns, and the inevitable layoffs mean the employees lose both their assets and their income stream. Solving the Marxist problem of alienation between labor and capital isn't a feature, it's a bug.

The one exception might be when employees buy their company to keep it from going under. In this case the employees' capital is different from everyone else's, in that their investment can keep them employed. On the other hand, they may still lose their jobs in the end while also losing all the assets they plowed into a dying enterprise. So I'm not sure whether even this exception is a good idea.

Anyway, I'm watching the capital market implosion pretty closely. It's not looking good when the lefty economic blogs I read argue that it might not be possible to punish corporate managers who kill their financial enterprises because our financial system is so fragile right now.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

California enviro justice groups should do some self-examination on climate change

One aspect of environmental justice theory is that environmental burdens fall disproportionately on poor minorities, and that environmental solutions designed by more powerful groups often fail to address or even exacerbate this disproportionality.

The classic examples is air pollution and trading pollution permits. Air pollution can affect powerful middle and upper class communities. Enviromental justice theory posits that here in the US, at least, politically powerful constituencies react to this problem by reducing pollution while reducing costs born by industries (and costs to the classes who have a stake in those industries) through trading pollution permits, so a polluting plant can continue operating while buying permits from cleaner operators. The effect: encouraging, or at least allowing, hot spots where permit-buying, polluting industries are located, usually next to poor minority communities. While this hot spot problem can be addressed, the usual failure to do so supports environmental justice's validity.

But then we've got The California Environmental Justice Movement’s Declaration on Use of Carbon Trading Schemes to Address Climate Change. The "California" part of the declaration should be in quotes - while I recognize a few of the signatory groups, many are new to me or aren't even from California. Basically it says that carbon trading hasn't worked well, that creating a "right to pollute" is immoral, and that carbon trading can create hot spots, so they oppose a carbon trading system in California.

Two problems with the declaration. First, nowhere does it acknowledge that there are no "hot spot" problems with CO2 emissions themselves - they diffuse quickly and cause warming on a global scale. All they can claim is that CO2 trading will not by itself help control copolluntants that are supposed to be controlled by other processes (and even that's not completely true - ratcheting down CO2 will inevitably help with other emissions, the only question is how fast it'll help).

The other problem is they haven't examined the environmental justice implications of their own proposals. Climate change is a classic environmental justice problem for people outside of developed regions like California. Subsistence farmers in developing nations are far poorer than the communities served by these groups in California (and also produce fewer emissions). Delaying a carbon trading program to address co-pollutants that are subject to separate regulations anyway could provide significant harm to people these groups have ignored, in favor of their better-off constituencies.

I suppose the groups would deny that argument by saying that carbon-trading just doesn't work, period. Fine, but that's a separate argument (one that I don't think they'll win) and not an enviro justice argument.

Too bad Communities for a Better Environment signed the declaration - they're a good group otherwise.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Geraldine Ferraro on wikipedia

I thought I'd look up Geraldine Ferraro on wikipedia to see what she's done since her unsuccessful vice-presidential run in 1984. Turns out it's running unsuccessfully for office and making boatloads of money.

Also found this:

Mondale's campaign was already far behind the Republican ticket when Ferraro joined the ticket, and one issue that hurt her credibility was her disclosure of her husband's tax returns. In July 1984, she said she would release both her and her husband's tax returns. Yet a month later she backtracked and said she would release only her returns. Then she backtracked again, saying her husband would release "a financial — a tax statement" on August 20. But she must not have consulted her husband, because Zaccaro initially refused.[13]

Reminds me of a current controversy. Let's find out what the Clintons have in their returns before we get a similar problem.

UPDATE: Media Matters makes the excellent point that McCain hasn't released his returns either, while receiving much less scrutiny. Obama would be well-advised to go after both of them at the same time over this issue.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Scientists leaned towards warming in the 1970s

The climate denier argument, that scientists predicted massive cooling in the 1970s and therefore can't be trusted now, contradicted actual scientific opinion of the time. The National Academy of Sciences said in 1975 that "we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate."

Despite some hysterical media reports to the contrary at the time, it turns out that scientists were actually leaning toward warming. RealClimate reports that a survey of abstracts discussing future climate change from 1965 to 1979 found 7 abstracts predicting cooling, 42 predicting warming,* and 20 that were neutral. The 20 that were neutral probably doesn't add much information unless they expressly stated something like "we cannot make an accurate prediction as to climate change." The key issue is that for every one scientific paper predicting cooling, there were six that predicted the exact opposite.

These results should encourage us, in that climatology headed in the right direction from its infancy, without the massive modern research investment, much of a pre-existing scientific base, or even an instrumental record showing warming (temperatures slightly cooled from the 1940s to the early 1970s). It would be useful to confirm that the warming predictions were right for the right reasons - that the cumulative increase in greenhouse gas emissions would overcome the transitory and declining effect of aerosol pollution. That was likely the case though (page 4): "By 1978, the question of the relative role of aerosol cooling and greenhouse warming had been sorted out. Greenhouse warming, the researchers concluded, was the dominant forcing."

Andrew Dessler has raised an objection to research based on reviewing large number of abstracts, however. He points to an abstract he helped write as an example of one that only an expert in that climate subfield could understand as supporting or opposing the climate change consensus. Dessler argues that the best way to understand the science is to read the IPCC, an "expert synthesis" of the scientific viewpoint.

So is Dessler right? While the 1975 National Academy of Sciences report doesn't reach anything like the IPCC's depth, it still was an "expert synthesis," and its studied neutrality differs somewhat from the conclusion reached by reviewing abstracts (even after acknowledging the abstract review also covers a post-1975 period).

To a limited extent, Dessler has a point. People active in the field of work who can synthesize expert opinion can go into far greater depth than a review of abstracts. Despite that fact, the abstract review adds value. To the extent that the NAS report attempts to synthesize a consensus, I don't think the abstract review necessarily disagrees with it. The abstract review shows how the science was leaning, not a consensus. Being able to know that is valuable.

Reviewing abstracts may not be as fraught with error as Dessler fears. As a non-scientist reading Dessler's abstract, I miss a lot of it but still understand it to validate existing models for simulating water vapor in the atmosphere, and therefore supporting the consensus. A climate scientist, even one not an expert in that field, could follow much of the rest.

Finally, an abstract will clearly lay out the major conclusion of the research. Research that provides the umpteenth support for the widely-held consensus view is not a major conclusion, but a finding that contradicts the consensus will be a major conclusion, spelled out clearly in the abstract. An honest review of abstracts will likely detect deviations from consensus (some of the work on current abstracts haven't been honest), as well as all but the most-arcane implications. I'd guess that this review of abstracts from 1965-1979 will stand the test of time.

What hasn't stood the test of time on this issue is Newsweek's reporting in 1975, or its reporting on itself in 2006. The magazine claimed in 1975 that scientists were "almost unanimous" in a continuing trend towards cooling, and then claimed in 2006 that the science of the time was wrong but its own depiction of the state of science was accurate. Time for Newsweek to do another update.

More info on the abstract review is available here.

*RealClimate misstates the number as 44.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Obama should offer to help fund the MI and FL do-overs

As part of his keeping a moral high ground against HRC,* Obama should offer to help pay for the as yet uncertain, do-over mail-in primary/caucus in Florida and Michigan. His campaign should offer to help along with the help of the state and national Democratic parties, and help from Clinton. When Clinton refuses, Obama can offer to help pay anyway and look that much better.

Even if Hillary ultimately wins those states, and Michigan would be difficult for her, her margin couldn't possibly be enough to make a difference, and it's a better gamble than dealing with the damage she'll cause as she tries to push through delegates from uncontested elections. And of course there's always the "it's the right thing to do" argument.

I noticed James Carville likes this idea too, which makes me wary. I'll stick with it anyway.

*At least he's mostly followed the high road. I hate those Fear-of-a-Health-Mandate mailers his campaign keeps sending out, but still he's done a better job.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Hot Sox versus the Cold Sox: the baseball analogy for climate communication

Some people have trouble understanding the low signal-to-noise ratio over the short term period of a decade or so during the current climate change. While the loudest ones shouting about the currently-cold January likely already understand the issue but don't care about the truth, some people can be persuaded. For these people, baseball is a good analogy - even a casual baseball fan understands in a single game, the worse team sometimes beats the better one, and only in the long run do you get to know the truth.

So comparing a recent time period to an older one is like looking at a matchup between two baseball teams, the Hot Sox and the Cold Sox. The Global Warming Baseball Analogy is that the Hot Sox has been gradually improving the quality of its players relative to the Cold Sox, so Hot is tending to win against Cold. Comparing a single matchup of a recent year to an older one is just like looking at a single baseball game - one game alone has only a slight chance of reflecting which is the better team. And to compare one month like January to the past is like judging two baseball teams based on a single inning. It doesn't prove anything.

And anyway, as Deltoid points out in the link above, January 2007 was the warmest January ever. The same people screaming about the drop relative to January 2008 usually scream about 1998 being warmer than recent years (according to some instrumental records). However, January 2007 was warmer than January 1998. If the skeptics deny this is important, then it can only be because comparing two January months is insufficient to prove anything.

I'd agree with them, so then we can quit the useless comparison to January 2008, and I'd extend it to saying comparing 1998 to 2008 is almost as useless. Multiyear averaging gives the validity of longer-term stats that a baseball fan would understand. Five-year averaging (graph at the Deltoid link) has been going upward with only slight interruptions ever since the 1970s, and 1998 didn't change that upward trend.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bay Area local: Spocko collects Melanie Morgan's scalp

No one's giving Spocko credit for the firing of third-tier wingnut Melanie Morgan from right-wing talk radio station KSFO here in the Bay Area, but he's done more to track the dreck coming out of there than anyone else I know of, and he fed it to the bigger media-tracking outlets. Maybe the firing was primarily for financial reasons, but her nonsense (some of it mentioned at the second link) may also have made her more trouble than she was worth. Good work - she's now much less likely to follow Michael Savage as a local export poisoning the rest of the country.

The funny thing about KSFO is on weekend mornings they have great radio shows about gardening and home repair. They should do that stuff all the time, I genuinely like it.

Via Atrios.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Time to Goeglein the climate denialists?

Tim Goeglein, a fairly-important Bush White House aide, committed at least 20 acts of plagiarism over the last 8 years, only to lose his job several hours after one blogger caught one act of plagiarism (synopsis here, the post that started it with a fascinating comment thread is here).

I think many climate denialists don't believe what they're saying or at least are willing to be deceptive to push their opinion. If their ethics allow deception, they might have taken the next step of intellectual theft. We need to check them out for plagiarism. I think Steve Milloy is the most likely, although I don't have any proof of it, just a feeling.

How to check denialists out in a coordinated fashion so we don't re-cover old ground is a bit of a problem. All I can think of is to put a notice on their Wikipedia Talk page about what articles have been checked. Any other suggestions would be welcome.

Apparently Doonesbury had a cartoon during Watergate where investigators wished that Nixon would just rob a bank, as that was the only way to get him. I kind of feel like this idea is the same thing. But they may have actually done it, like Goeglein.

UPDATE: Walter Williams provides hilarious comments in defense of Goeglein at the link above. Turns out he's a climate denialist. The circle is complete.

UPDATE 2: In comments, John Mashey points to Tim Lambert's discovery that Klaus-Martin Schulte plagiarized Benny Peiser (of all people) and Chris Monckton. It doesn't seem to have made enough of a splash, but hopefully will make any reputable journal steer clear of Schulte.