Monday, November 30, 2009

Romm, Roger wrong; Rabett right

What Eli said about the obvious relevance of population control to the climate crisis. Call me crazy, but I suspect there's some kind of connection between the larger US emissions relative to Canada and the larger US population. Similarly that a problem like climate requiring multiple generations to address could be affected by the relative success of population control over generations. African populations may not have anything like the US per-capita emissions now, but neither did South Korea fifty years ago. I both hope and fear that Africa undergoes a similar change in economics, in which case the number of its capita becomes darn important.

Roger's opposition may be motivated by a general dislike of doing anything societally-changing for reasons of climate (just a guess), which he reverse-projects as other people using climate change to advance their own social goals. (Although that charge against others does sometimes have a grain of truth.)

As for Romm's opposition, it appears to be that population control alone can't solve the problem, so don't bother with it. Only the first part of that argument is correct, and the second part is used against many partial solutions that people find inconvenient, like wind power or (possibly) nuclear power.

As for me, my interest in per-capita emission allocations creates a political reason for paying attention to population. It also means being concerned about international migration. I think some resistance on the left to population issues comes from revulsion against guilt-by-second-hand-association with some vile racists who've seized on population and border control. It's the racists who are the problem, though, not the population and immigration issues themselves.

A final note - recent increases in fertility in Northern Europe will make emissions control more difficult over multiple generations, if the trend continues. I see no reason against the reverse argument for reducing fertility elsewhere.

Bonus blogging: fantastic new pictures of geysers on Enceladus. There could be frozen microbes shooting out on those plumes - we just need to grab some and bring them back.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gingrich Effect

I've stolen the headline from Balloon Juice, and I hope the name sticks to this study: overall divorce rates for couples where one partner is very sick stays at an average level, but only because healthy women are much less likely to divorce a now-sick spouse while healthy men are much more likely to divorce their sick spouse. A healthy man is seven times more likely to divorce a sick spouse than a healthy woman is.

Some interesting comments at Balloon Juice. Someone points out that women often have financial reasons for staying in a marriage that men often don't. OTOH, that doesn't explain why women decrease their divorce rate - a seriously-sick husband is less of a financial advantage than a healthy one.

Other comments highlight how women are conditioned to be caretakers while men are disproportionately unable to handle being around someone sick (obviously, lots of generalizing here). I think it's interesting because it doesn't come close to eliminating the moral flaw, but suggests that women are challenged in an area where they are most prepared to overcome the betrayal temptation, while men are the least ready. Bottom line though: even if you're so ethically weak that you can't take care of your wife, that doesn't require a divorce.

No one raised the Medicaid issue: a divorce might not be a betrayal, but a way to protect the healthy spouse's assets while the sick spouse gets Medicaid assistance, and the relationship continues in an unmarried state following the "paper divorce". Not clear why this would create a gender differential, though. Maybe men have more assets from prior to the marriage that they can protect through divorce?

There may be some partial explanations, but men don't look too good in all this.

And there's always exceptions. A horrible spouse may be richly deserving of divorce papers and that might not change immediately after a cancer diagnosis. I doubt that describes Newt Gingrich's first wife, though.

Unrelated: just watched an old Coen brothers' film, Miller's Crossing. Very good, and very dark. This excellent, spoiler-filled review describes the conflict between ethics and love in the form of two fighting gangs and within the persona of the male lead. I completely disagree with the review as to which side won in the lead's mind.

And with that, I'm travelling for a bit, so there'll be little or no blogging until December.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Nimanic carnivore's dilemma

I haven't seen much discussion of the NY Times Op-Ed by Nicolette Niman of former Niman Ranch fame, arguing "that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian."

Call it highly unproven at this point, even accepting that she's talking about the tiny percent of beef in the US that's grass-fed. Typical grass-fed cattle aren't much better for greenhouse gas emissions than typical factory farmed. Niman has to resort to discussing techniques for reducing methane that are experimental or not widely adopted even among the small percent of cattle that's grass-fed.

She does have an interesting argument that one study shows a 19% increase in soil carbon sequestration from pasturing cattle instead of raising crops. My one-study rule applies though (one study's result isn't proof of anything, it might just show the need for lots of study to confirm the result). And I didn't know that turkeys could be grass-fed.

She left out the issue that most everyone does as well, that ranching provides an alternative land use to sprawl. She also left out the argument that lands that have been pastured for decades/centuries at the current rate of use are carbon neutral for that time period.

Finally, here in California the grass would have been originally grazed by elk and deer, while in the Midwest it would have been grazed by buffalo. It would be interesting to compare emissions on that basis.

Unrelated bonus blogging: Tim "Slob Hunter" Pawlenty may have gut-shot his reputation among the hunting community by abandoning a wounded deer in the field. This may well cause him more trouble in running for the Republican nomination than all the deaths from that bridge collapse in 2007.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tricked by the Girl Scouts

Coming out of the grocery store today, I saw the Girl Scouts sitting at their table and figured I could violate the diet for once-a-year cookies. Only after I came up and talked to them did I realize it's not cookies they're selling now, it's trail mix.

While I could safely avoid them with only a slight twinge of guilt by keeping my distance, the level of potential guilt in refusing to buy anything is inversely proportional to the distance between us, and it squares if you actually talk to the girls. In this case the potential guilt was reduced by the two girls' being older than the ones that are usually selling, but the reduction wasn't enough.

So I now own a can buttered peanuts, and have to wait for January for Thin Mints and Samoas.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Arguments against per-capita emission limits are arguments that support massive HFC-23 releases by developing countries

I think the takeaway that India and other countries should get, from the reasoning why industrialized countries must be allowed higher per-capita emissions, is that India should pump up its own emissions.

The reason why people think we Americans and Europeans should have higher per-capita emissions, as far as I know, are that we can do it, we make money doing it, and we've been doing it. As far as being able to do it, India might not be able to create an industrial economy overnight, but they could easily start creating and venting HFC-23 to the atmosphere, with 11,000 times the greenhouse gas effect of CO2.

Venting HFC-23 might not make money for India immediately, but if future emission reductions are based on each nation's baseline emissions, then it could make economic sense to pump up that baseline so reductions are less difficult.

The last argument by industrialized nations, that we've been polluting the atmosphere for a while and therefore should be allowed to continue at a higher rate than those who haven't been polluting, doesn't work quite as well as an argument for this thought experiment. However, it does mean that potential polluters should hurry up and start polluting as much as possible and as early as possible. It still says to India to get in line right away with high emissions to make as long a claim as possible the right to continue polluting.

Obviously it would be a disaster for India or any other developing country to carry out this idea, but it's no worse a disaster than what is already happening in the US and other developed nations who are already causing a high rate of per-capita emissions.

The alternative, I think, is to acknowledge that some form of per-capita emission limits are appropriate, that high-emission countries don't want low-emission countries to act as we do, and that we're willing to make it worth their while not to increase their emissions.

Bonus unrelated blogging: since I've disagreed with Joe Romm elsewhere in this blog, I'll just also note here that he's done a lot of good work, particularly on American climate policy issues. I'm adding Climate Progress to my blogroll.

More unrelated blogging: from TPM, Sarah Palin "rembers being a voracious reader [in her youth], favorites including John Steinbeck's 'The Pearl' and George Orwell's 'Animal Farm.'" I'd be more impressed with her voracity if it included books over 100 pages long.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mike Pence not as stupid as claimed

Congressman Mike Pence is one of the leaders of the Republican Party in the House and widely understood to be a moron.

This speech might show something different though:

(If the video doesn't work, try

He says his cousin 1. has cancer, 2. opposes health care reform, and 3. is awaiting approval for experimental treatment. Pence is serving the insurance industry and wingnut ideological vanity to deny health care to everyone else, while at the same time having the effect of pleading for special treatment for his cousin. Nice hat trick. Unless it's unintentional, in which case he's as stupid as believed.

In this era of performance-based outcomes, it's unclear whether Pence has successfully scored special treatment for his cousin. He failed to stop House passage, but will have another chance after a House-Senate conference committee produces a joint bill. Even if that passes though, I think he's still got a good chance of getting something for his cousin, something more like a fee-for-service model. Not that any of this would be spelled out, though, maybe not even spelled out in their own little minds.

Unrelated bonus blogging from Yglesias: "The world would be a better place if people looking for cheap thrills would stick to the black metal scene or maybe take up extreme sports rather than foreign policy punditry. "

Sunday, November 08, 2009

In lieu of an actual climate change post, I'll just quote myself

I win for lazy AND egotistical by quoting a comment I submitted to the Breakthrough Institute/Ted Norhaus attack piece on Joe Romm that doubled as a lame semi-defense of Superfreakonomics (hasn't been approved yet, so we'll see when it shows up).

TN writes, "I can find no evidence that you or any of the other prominent bloggers and columnists we cited have ever publicly rebuked Romm for his behavior, which is toxic to civil and healthy democratic discourse."

Nice addition of the "we cited" escape clause. If you look a little more broadly you get William Connolley at Stoat who went after Romm quite harshly long before your post here:

Now the funny thing about that is what Connolley had to say about the Superfreaks and how it contrasted with your approach:

"Joe Romm has a fairly characteristic attack; and just for a change I'll agree with him; though he chooses odd bits to assault."

Personally I think Connolley is over-harsh with Romm, while I also think Romm is insufficiently cautious about his interpretations of what he's learned.

It's more than clear, however, that Superfreaks wrote a horribly-flawed chapter. While I'm no one of consequence, I was able to write three posts critiquing Levitt and Dubner without once referencing Romm, and I doubt I'm the only one.

I think the most telling part of TN's post was citing favorably to Jon Stewart's puff-piece interview of Levitt, the shoddiest work I've ever seen from Stewart. It was a content-free response that ignored the many substantive criticisms to the chapter, and here we see it repeated again, beyond a few cursory acknowledgments of errors.

I've been meaning to write some kind of open letter to Joe Romm saying "don't blow it with your increased visibility, and be more cautious about your interpretations of facts". Maybe this will have to do. He can keep the vitriol if he wants, but he needs to be more careful on the factual interpretation.

UPDATE: Two more thoughts: first, the quote-feeding attack on Romm is a red herring. I've been asked by journalists after they've gotten a feel for my viewpoint, "Is it your position that (attempts to describe in a sentence what I've been saying)." Romm knew Caldeira, and he was doing the same thing I've experienced, even if he did it a little clumsily.

Second, Romm needs to be more accurate. I'm particularly concerned that low-IQ/high visibility types who don't check sources use Romm as a crutch. For example, I defended Romm from William's critique as not providing worthwhile information when I pointed to Romm raising the possibility that no-till farming might not store carbon. But then Romm blows it by significantly exaggerating the report (read the comments at the link). This is the kind of thing he needs to fix.

UPDATE 2:  post edited to lower the tone, remove unnecessary wisecracks on my part.

Friday, November 06, 2009

TigerHawk's right - Obama should apologize to conservatives about the state secrets privilege

TigherHawk and Glenn Greenwald both call out Obama Administration's decision to assert that state secrets require dismissal of the Shubert case brought against the government for secret wiretapping. TigherHawk from the right says Obama should apologize to conservatives for criticizing the same behavior by the Bush Administration, while Greenwald does his usual thing.

I agree with TH, although I think Obama owes at least as much of an apology to us who supported him.

The state secret privilege should rarely be used, if used it should even be more rare to outright remove court consideration of a piece of evidence, and it should almost never be used to outright dismiss a case. And even in that one-in-a-million last category, there should be an administrative procedure established so the plaintiff has a chance at justice in a protected setting. I'll just refer back to Greenwald's outrage on this one.

The CIA had invoked the state secrets privilege, insisting that the case against one of its agents be dropped because he was working covertly and his identity couldn't be revealed. And they keptinsisting that even after his cover had been lifted. When Lamberth found out, he was not a happy judge.

More here. This is yet another data point that restates the obvious: just because the government invokes the state secrets privilege doesn't mean there really are state secrets involved. Congress and the courts, who know this perfectly well, would be wise to demand a wee bit more judicial oversight in these cases instead of allowing the executive absolute discretion. Pat Leahy's State Secrets Protection Act would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

First response to Williams and Zabel's anti-cap-and-trade legislation

So these two EPA lawyers are making a splash, and maybe rightfully so since they oppose cap-and-trade despite being intimately involved in the existing acid-rain cap-and-trade. They propose a "fee and refund", basically a carbon tax with 100% remittance on a per-capita basis. Their op-ed is here, and the paper they've produced is here. I'm reacting to the paper.

Initial comments:

1. Our choice for this year and next year is cap-and-trade or nothing - their proposal isn't going to happen before 2011, if then. I think the right goalpost to judge their position is whether it convinces people that current proposals are worse than doing nothing, or alternatively that their proposal is so superior that doing nothing for two years with the possibility of eventually trying their idea is better than cap-and-trade.

2. They are comparing their own proposal's pre-sausage ideal with cap-and-trade legislation's mostly post-sausage reality. Waxman-Markey has passed the House, and Kerry-Boxer is designed to have a chance of getting three-fifth's vote in the Senate. (This reminds me of talking to a Swedish convert to Buddhism who compared the theoretical ethics of Buddhism taught to her by her instructors with the sordid reality of two thousand years of Christian society. We were in Thailand at the time, and I suggested that the sordid reality in Buddhist Thailand wasn't so great either.) What the WZ proposal would look like after getting through the sausage-making might not seem so much better as it does right now.

This objection has limits - we can hardly ask them to deliberately make their proposal worse. OTOH, they could show what they would do to make it more politically viable. Making it more viable without reducing the incentives to cut down emissions and without costing more would be a pretty good trick that I'd like to see.

More specifics:

Page 2 and 3: they discuss Obama's support for cap-and-trade. His original proposal would have been 100% auction and remitted 80% of revenue. Post-sausage, that's gone down a hell of a lot. One could expect something similar for their proposal.

p. 3: urgency requires a stronger approach, their own. Well, we're losing two years minimum by dropping the current approach, so this cuts both ways. (My own tangent: I've been wondering to what extent carbon-negative approaches like biochar and biomass-plus-sequestration could be used to compensate for overshooting dangerous CO2 levels. Could we hit 570 ppm by the year 2070 and then rapidly pull it down to way below 350 ppm, without relying on Pielkian dreams and armwaving? Would that be good enough to avoid disaster?)

p. 4: acid rain controls are a lot easier. Yes, but that's well known.

p. 5: "sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions has not been demonstrated to be safe or permanent and is expected to be costly." That's pretty dismissive when they say later that renewables cost three times as much as fossil fuels and they want to make renewables cheaper through carbon fees. The claims I've seen for sequestration is that it adds only 20-40% to the cost of coal, so depending on how much weight you give to those claims, it's a cheaper option. Permanence is an issue, but we have some real problems in the next two centuries that might need priority.

p. 5: standard argument against offsets, another Victor/Wara reference.

p. 7: "In addition, setting up a capand-trade system will be very complex and time consuming. Once begun, a cap-and-trade program would have a great deal of inertia. It would be difficult to dismantle and would create a variety of interest groups with investments in maintaining the program, however ineffective it proved to be for addressing climate change." Yep. And it's disconcerting because we can't possibly rely on initial legislation to solve this problem - we're going to have to make it better every 5-10 years as we get a better handle on the problem and as denialists get further marginalized. Not an easy issue, but that's the problem with sausage.

p. 10: this is the most-flawed part, I think. They want to triple the price of fossil fuels with carbon fees in ten years, and expect renewables to drop to nearly one-third the current prices. I don't see the political will to absorb the dislocation of fossil fuel increases, and the expectation that renewables would become this cheap is wrong, I think. Economies of scale work in the long run, but a gigantic push to replace all fossil fuels would increase the cost of renewables, not decrease them in the short to medium term.

That's all I've got for now, maybe I'll come back and finish later.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein:

Barack Obama wasn't on the ballot yesterday, and he won't be on the ballot in 2010. If his voters stayed home last night, many politicians will take that as proof that they'll stay home in 2010, too. That doesn't just make the map harder for Democrats. It also moves Democrats to the right, as their consultants will explain that a winning coalition requires more voters from relatively conservative blocs, like seniors and downscale independents, and thus a more centrist campaign strategy.

More reason not to expect vast political improvements. If I could wave a magic wand, there's no question I'd take the WZ proposal over the House and Senate bills, but that's not the situation we've got. Sadly.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Marginalized Republicans versus reformed Republicans

Yet another interesting post by Nate Silver where he argues that Democrats should hope for a hard-right conservative candidate to win against the Democratic candidate in the heavily Republican New York congressional district. Nate argues that this small-scale victory would fool the wingnuts into believing that being really wingnutty is a good strategy in the forthcoming 2010 and 2012 elections.

I think he's right, but it's not the best case scenario. We need the Republicans to follow the evolution of the British Conservatives into becoming a responsible opposition, and that's not going to happen until the Republicans get beat up multiple times in an election. Putting that off means the Democrats get a free ride without any useful alternative.

Anyway, we'll find out tomorrow.