Tuesday, September 29, 2009

David Grinspoon still thinks there might be life on Venus

My wife and I attended a lecture by astronomer David Grinspoon, "Evolution of Planetary Exploration," a survey of the solar system, exoplanet discoveries, and a comparison to Darwin's five-year trip on the Beagle. I thought it was fine, although necessarily abbreviated. My wife with less exposure to astronomy thought it was great.

Grinspoon wrote Venus Revealed, a 1998 book sizing up the scientific understanding of Venus prior to European space mission that went there several years ago. (I'm not aware of a similar book today that incorporates the newest findings, and the European space agencies are doing their usual terrible job of releasing scientific information, so it might be a while to get a good new book.) At the end of the book, Grinspoon speculates that life might have survived the boiling off of venusian oceans and live today in the higher parts of the cloud deck.

I got a chance to ask him whether he still thinks it's possible and he said yes as an outside chance, although it would require atmospheric probes to figure it out. So neither the current European mission nor the upcoming Japanese one will answer the question, and we'll have to wait for a more spectacular mission.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Greening the Chamber: the current Board of Directors is a challenge

John Mashey suggests reviewing the US Chamber's Board of Directors for likely willingness to change their do-nothing approach to climate change.* Some of the members are below:

  • President and CEO Thomas Donahue: as the guy in charge, I assume he's personally responsible for the know-nothing approach, a Lee Raymond type who won't change except under threat to his career, if then. Also, former president of the trucking industry association.
  • Chair Robert Milligan: runs an "animal and meat protein processing company" in the Midwest. Not likely receptive to the problems of climate change to meat use and the fertilizer intensive agriculture that supports it.
  • Donald Shepard: an insurance guy - a possible realist? Unfortunately his background is life and pension insurance, but maybe he's been infected with some understanding of what property insurers think of reality.
  • Steve Van Andel: from Amway, which isn't a problem, but also very Michigan-oriented, which could be.

So, not very encouraging from the first glance. Not too surprising either - there had to be institutional reasons for taking such an awful stance. In addition, I know personally that real estate agent associations are very active at local chambers and often take great exception to land use controls, so I could see the same attitude reaching the national level.

On the other hand, we do have industries that have good reason to support addressing climate change, as well as normal industries that want a planet they can continue to do business on, so I think there are still prospects for change.

*I previously labelled the Chamber's approach as denialist, but instead of actually denying human-caused warming, the US Chamber just doesn't want to take serious steps to address it, either under the Clean Air Act or through current proposed legislation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Chamber of Commerce - leave it or fix it?

A major California utility, PG&E, has left the US Chamber of Commerce due to frustration with the Chamber's denialism. I've argued for "Greening the Chamber" by getting green businesses to change its policies, but there's something of a contradiction between quitting it and fixing it.

I'd still go for fixing it. The link describes a conversation with Microsoft about its continued role in the Chamber, despite Microsoft's opposition to the Chamber's policy. Corporations like Microsoft might be willing to work for change, but I don't think they'd be willing to quit. Also, green businesses could change local and state level Chambers even before they affect the national level, so it's not an all-or-nothing quest.

Other interesting news: Warming Law discusses the nuisance case against greenhouse gas polluters that has just passed an important hurdle of being accepted at the appellate level. It's possible that the Supreme Court will kill it, but I wouldn't count on it. Good news, and one more bargaining chip to help push the polluters in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

7-11 equals "small business"?

At my day job we played a role in San Jose passing the best takeout bag ban in the country for a major city - banning plastic and requiring highest recycled content that's currently feasible for paper bags.

I went to a number of meetings before yesterday's City Council showdown. The 7-11 retail chain mobilized against us, getting their franchisees to come to meetings and forecast economic ruin (also, claiming bans would make it easier for people to bring guns into the stores). At the Council meeting though, these people never identified themselves as part of 7-11, only "small business" managers and owners. Unfortunately I had already spoken so I couldn't call them on their little astroturf trick, but it didn't matter. They weren't convincing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Adding geologic weathering cycles to a wiki climate article

The wiki climate article Long-term effects of global warming has been criticized from reputable sources (not the usual scruffy crew) as being alarmist. To fix that and because it seemed like a good place anyway, I've added a short section on how the oceanic absorption and geologic weathering over many thousands of years will eventually take care of the CO2. It's here, but could use some additional info.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why I just gave a donation to ACORN

ACORN is probably significantly to the left of my politics in a lot of ways, but the heart of my reason for donating to it is that critics are taking advantage of the fact that ACORN recruits its employees from the low-income, poorly-educated, socially-disadvantaged communities that it's trying to serve. In that situation, some of its hundreds of employees will make stupid mistakes - that's no reason to condemn the whole organization.

An analogy that's probably offensive to those communities but might be the only way to get the point across to some people, is to employees working at alcohol and drug rehab clinics, many of whom are themselves recovering addicts. To expect a no-screwup rate at ACORN is like expecting a no-relapse rate among hundreds of recovering addicts given jobs at clinics.

Anyway, for more info, see this surprisingly balanced article by conservative columnist Debra Saunders (pointing out that the Philly ACORN office kicked out the posers), and broader context by Michael Tomasky. Or click on the ACORN link at the beginning of this post for their take.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Quenching CO2 saturation but not CO2 litigation

Two climate miniposts:

First, Rabett discusses the "quenching" phenomenon that explains why CO2 infrared absorption isn't quickly saturated here, with much more in the comments. I had never understood the idea that the energy from CO2-absorbed radiation is transferred by direct physical contact with other molecules instead of being re-emitted. The part I still don't understand then is whether saturation could ever limit IR absorption so long as there's plenty of non-greenhouse gas molecules in the atmosphere to do the quenching.

Second, the lawsuit against the California waiver that allows California (and many other states following California's lead) to set greenhouse gas emissions for vehicles is back on again, despite the automaker commitment not to sue. The auto dealers are suing instead, in a typical trick. I agree with Warming Law that this isn't a moot issue, despite the fact that the feds have now adopted California's standards. It's a backstop against something going wrong with a federal effort (or, gods help us, a denialist Republican elected president in 2012). It also reinforces the legitimacy of the Clean Air Act waiver process which has been granted in virtually all cases before it became politically inconvenient for the fossil fuel industry and their political minions. California may need to do this again in the future, so we need to keep the option open.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island

My wife and I just returned from an 8-day backpacking trip on Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail, sometimes considered as one of the best backpacking trails in the world. That may be true, but whether it's the most enjoyable depends on weather, tides, and your physical fitness. Don't count on ordinary good fitness to get you through this trail with no problems. The first half of our trip rained crazily, and going up steep, mud covered hillsides was incredible slow going.

We would have quit at the half-way point where you can escape, but the weather then turned great. If you can go when tides are extra low during the time of day you're hiking, then a flat sandstone shelf emerges from the water and provides easy hiking after a few hours drying (we got only a taste of that).

Still, the rain forest life was amazing. Every tree covered in moss, and often with ferns and huckleberries growing out of any tiny crook. It rivals (or according to wiki, exceeds) the amount of life I've seen in tropical rain forests.

If you go, get the tides right and go in July or August, probably. Or be in incredible shape. And bring one or preferably two hiking poles, and a backpack cover to protect your pack.

I'm happy to talk to anyone who's interested in more info.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention our visit to a British Columbia parliament session in Victoria, which was memorable. Same left-right issues, but in a different and more raucous context.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Indigenous environmental damage and environmentalism

NY Times had an interesting article a week or two ago about marine ecosystems being damaged by ancient humans in many different areas of the world due to overexploitation.

I've been interested for a while now in variations of the idea of prehistoric environmental damage and environmental management. There's no debate that island-hopping humans killed off many flightless bird species long before European sailors started doing the same thing. The evidence that humans killed off ice-age mammals in North America and that Mayan overuse of the environment caused their collapse also seems pretty strong to me.

The general concept would be that ancient humans exploited and damaged their environments to the full extent that their technology and population levels would allow - in other words, just like us. The main difference from moderns is their technology stabilized or changed slowly, limiting human populations, and a new equilibrium was reached until European peoples and technologies were introduced.

The few exceptions to this rule, where indigenous peoples could have damaged their environment but didn't, are even more interesting. The Polynesian concepts of taboos, tapu, and rahui all protected resources.

Another potential exception that I haven't seen discussed is salmon fishing. While native cultures couldn't wipe out salmon runs on rivers, they could do so on small creeks. The fact that they didn't is pretty interesting, and something I'd like to know more about. Maybe some other examples are out there, too.

And with that, I'll be traveling for a while, so no posting for ten days or so.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Nice to see Watts Up taken down a peg

As has been noted elsewhere, Peter Sinclair's video that had been removed from YouTube because of Anthony Watts inappropriate DMCA takedown notice is now back.

To be completely accurate, YouTube presumably hasn't reviewed the copyright issue, instead they're just following DMCA procedures that allow them to restore content automatically without them being held liable. Watts theoretically could still bring a copyright claim against Sinclair, but the fact that he hasn't in the time period since Sinclair's counternotice went up suggests that Watts knows he has no case.

Apparently Watts hasn't said anything more on his site, which also suggests he's figured out the score.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

What "torture doesn't work" actually means

Possible meaning:

1. "No accurate and useful information has ever been given by detainees while being tortured." No one, except for the shallowest, self-satisfied strawman builder would give the statement this possible meaning.

2. "The value of useful information given during torture is hidden and overwhelmed by the false information and false leads given during the detainees' attempt to stop the torture." Some people believe this; I don't know whether it's true.

3. Variation on number 2 above, adding "the torture prevents opportunities for rapport-building techniques that get better-quality information with fewer false leads." I think this is what expert interrogators actually believe. I suspect they're right except for the never-happened hypothetical ticking nuclear bomb situation (one other possible exception: during actual combat, where capturing an enemy soldier in the middle of a firefight could give very useful information).

4. Variation on number 2 above, adding "the interrogators are are also likely to believe the false information given by the detainee because the detainee is seeking to give the response that the interrogator wants to hear." I think this is what happened with a number of detainees who were willing to say Al Qaeda was tied to Saddam, and the interrogators actually believed it.

5. "The value of any good intel from torture is far outweighed by the harm done to the effort to win hearts and minds and separate the terrorists from public support." This is an independent reason that complements numbers 2 through 4 above and is the one that settles it, in my opinion. Of course, right wingers and the faux moderates who position themselves on interrogations could care less about what is the actual road to victory.

A tangent about additional rightwing nonsense: in discussing the National Review's current semi-defense of its 1964 opposition to civil rights, WF Buckley's alleged renunciation of prior racist views came up in the comments. I wrote a follow-up comment saying that I find much mention of his renunciation, but no actual quotes. If anyone's seen where Buckley comes clean, I'd like to know.