Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Will be out of touch for a while, maybe sometime early January. Meanwhile, those who missed it should read Brad Johnson's piece from a few weeks back explaining the need to give solutions to people in order to convince them the problem is real.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Volokh Corrections #28 and #29: Adler should study environmental groups, Lindgren should review abstracts more carefully

Several weeks ago I was listening to Environmental Defense Fund's Insider Podcast where they described how their advocacy of "catch-shares" for commercial fisheries (allocating a percentage of fish caught to individual fishermen, instead of a quota) has created an ownership interest among fishermen that supports sustainable fishing. It was also a short time after the election where the California electorate preserved our premier climate change law, ratifying the way for the second-largest cap-and-trade market in the world to begin functioning in 2012.

About the same time, Jonathan Adler is writing about the "decline of the environmental movement" as it supposedly veers off course. Personally, I'm not surprised that environmental concerns played a lesser role than economic ones in the worst economy since the 1930s. Even then, climate legislation got further at the national level than it previously had in 10 years, California and other states move forward, the EPA will take its own actions on climate, and environmental groups continue to innovate. Adler could benefit from undertaking some research on these issues.

And more recently, Jim Lindgren complains about the pernicious effect of long-term unemployment benefits, quoting a study as finding "a 0.4% increase in the unemployment rate because of extending benefits for up to a total of 99 weeks." What he missed in the study is its main conclusion, that:

Analysis of unemployment data suggests that extended unemployment insurance benefits have not been important factors in the increase in the duration of unemployment or in the elevated unemployment rate.

Yes, it also found a 0.4% increase in unemployment from extending benefits, but that is minor in comparison to the real factors driving long-term unemployment. This makes clear the level of hardship Lindgren and friends would impose on people who are jobless and are sincerely looking.

There's also a bias in the study that suggests the 0.4% figure doesn't represent slackers. The study authors can think of two reasons why extending benefit durations could increase unemployment:

First, the extension of UI benefits, which represents an increase in their value, may reduce the intensity with which UI-eligible unemployed individuals search for work. This could occur because the additional UI benefits reduce the net gains from finding a job and also serve as an income cushion that helps households maintain acceptable consumption levels in the face of unemployment shocks (Chetty 2008). Alternatively, the measured unemployment rate may be artificially inflated because some individuals who are not actively searching for work or who are unwilling to take available jobs are identifying themselves as active searchers in order to receive UI benefits.

A third possibility is the rate is artificially inflated because people who would've given up in the absence of UI benefits accept the condition placed on receiving benefits, that they seek actively seek work and would accept jobs. They're not liars, and no one is being harmed by extending their benefits.

So just like Adler, Lindgren might benefit from studying the subject he's writing about more closely.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

First day on the job

My first water district board meeting was on Tuesday the 14th, and I've yet to rescue the world from all that's terrible. Actually, we did okay. If you feel like watching nearly six hours of scintillating and occasionally confused dialog, you can see it here.

Not sure if I did anything myself that directly helped the environment. I did speak in support of a project that helps endangered fish by keeping invasive species out of our streams, but it was really a budgetary comment (the program to help endangered species had spent a lot of money to date on planning and design, so I wanted to express my support for seeing some money starting to be spent on actions that help the fish).

I think a lot of our environmental work is going to be like this, where the environmental benefit results from getting good government efforts through first.

And today, I spoke on behalf of the Water District at the ceremonial ground-breaking for a new pedestrian overpass crossing Highway 101 here in Mountain View (it extends a creekside trail, thus the Water District connection and funding). That was fun, definitely environmental, and I got the chance to blather on despite having no personal responsibility for the decisions that all happened long before me. Life of a politician....

Sunday, December 12, 2010 presentation

Last week, on a tip from John Mashey, I went to a presentation in Portola Valley about the Ice911 organization. They have an intriguing if still-a-little vague approach to the loss of ice by using floating, retrievable, high albedo material in water that would either facilitate freezing or slow melting by making water cooler than it would otherwise be.

I had found their website a little frustrating in that it never showed or even described their product. I think one reason for that is what they really have is a concept and don't want to focus on any particular product - the version of their concept that actually works may end up being very different. The lawyer in me also suspects an intellectual property reason - while they're a non-profit, they can leverage investments by selling or leasing exclusive rights, and that means they can't publish a description of their work too early.

Anyway, I wish them luck. They're operating on a shoestring budget financed by what I'm guessing are wealthy local individuals (helpful for them to be located in one of wealthiest towns in the US). They call what they're doing "eco-engineering" to distinguish it from the more blase attitude found with some geoengineering schemes.

The albedo cooling concept might also be relevant to other areas. We lose a lot of water in reservoirs to evaporation. Maybe their ideas would have application here in California, and any water saved is water we don't have to pump from hundreds of miles away - a big energy savings as well as a reduction in net demand for water.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Judging the experts on the arsenic-bacteria pushback

Here's an angry pushback contradicting the implications of the recent Science article finding Mono Lake bacteria that could use arsenic instead of phosphorus. It's interesting from my perspective because I know virtually nothing about the field and am completely incompetent to judge its validity, but it feels like the pushback you see from the 3% of climatologists who have some doubts about climate disruption. It does sound "sciencey", which must be what climate skeptics think when they read something from Lindzen or Michaels telling them what they want to hear.

In this case, my worth-little gut reaction is that she might have a point. A big difference from people like Pielke Sr. and Judith Curry is that Redfield seems to be attracting support from experts (see the comments), instead of incredulous looks. And she's pushing back on a single paper at the cutting edge of new research, instead of trying to overturn decades of established knowledge. Finally, while her certainty in the post is offputting (as is her attacks on the Mars meteorite researchers, one of whom was a housemate of mine), she's much more reasonable in response to comments that criticize her post.

Should be interesting to see where this goes.

UPDATE: As Eli comments below, the problem may be pushing a cool discovery far beyond where it belongs. I posted something relevant to Rosie Redfield's blog:

This part of the OP interested me, re that either P or As had to be added for the bacteria to grow:

"(21) Agreed, with the proviso that the media be tested and shown to be identical except for the phosphate and arsenate. But this wouldn't mean that arsenic replaced phosphorus in any biological molecules in GFAJ cells, just that the cells needed arsenate for something."

That cells needed arsenate for something would be an interesting finding, I'd guess. And cells need As for something that P does is also implied by this finding.

Is this an area of potential agreement between the original article authors and critics?