Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ending ethanol subsidies, still working on the technology

Congress' alleged aversion to subsidies hasn't had much useful results that I can tell, but there is one exception:  the end to three decades of ethanol subsidies, and the massive tariff on imported ethanol.  The environmental impact is less clear because the requirement to oxygenate gas remains, so the ethanol will still get produced - it's just that the oil industry won't be getting a $6 billion annual undeserved tax writeoff.  Still, a good step.

Another longer term possibility is using scientific research to change corn yield to emphasize ethanol production, something that can change a borderline wasteful product into something useful.  We'll see, maybe it'll work.

In other news, the guys at the Breakthrough Institute apparently have a new book arguing the groundbreaking concept that science and technology can be used to solve our environmental problems.  I'm underwhelmed.  I'd be more whelmed though if instead of saying new tech solutions must include nuclear, they said that it could include nuclear, and let the performance of various solutions play themselves out.

To be fair, I haven't read it so maybe there's something interesting there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

And Matt Yglesias followed it with a post on economic bubbles

I have trouble understanding how a smart guy like Yglesias manages to keep going further down this path, but when I've said that he prefers society to always have more younger people than older people, I meant it as a somewhat joking criticism.

The joke's on me, because he's pretty literal about it now as a path for growth:

 [If immigration and lax land use regulation prime a state for population growth] then you don't need any particularly optimistic beliefs to see that the state is primed for certain kinds of investment. We're going to need new houses for these new people in the short-run, and we'll need new schools & hospitals, new car dealerships, and new highways for them in the medium run. So we're investing. And with that investment happening we need new Whataburger franchises and new H-E-Bs and probably new power plants as well. And now suddenly we're on the high equilibrium. We need more accountants and more wedding planners, we're going to need some fancy restaurants, we'll need hotels, we'll need more of everything. And since we'll need more of everything and the price of new homes will remain moderate, we'll expect the population to keep growing as people from around the country tend to move here in search of work.

As for how long that all is supposed to last, he's silent.  Ironic that the very next (not so good) post was about economic bubbles, so he acknowledges issues of unsustainability, while missing his own huge blind spot.

And yes, population growth can help economic growth, but it's unsustainable in any number of senses of the word.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Been there, didn't do that, but it was still pretty cool

We went there in 2010 and did a little bit of volunteer work with a group focusing on mountain gorilla preservation. We did the one-day hike through Bwindi thing and had what we considered an amazing encounter with a gorilla group, but not like this. I'm just impressed at the relatively calm dominance of the silverback in this video. The silverback we saw was far less tolerant, partway bluff-charging our guides when they walked in a direction that he wanted to go (they bluff-waved their machetes around in response, and everybody settled down).  You're not allowed to approach the baby gorillas but they can approach you.  We had one that came within ten feet of us, and that was pretty amazing to us.

The silverback in this video is calm but not completely, like at minute 2:50 when he pulls an infant away that was intensely scrutinizing the tourist's face.  One interesting speculation is that the silverback may have thought that staring into the man's face would be somewhat threatening, as it would've been to the silverback, but it would be hard to reason all the way through that without using a theory of mind.  And the silverback's quick glance at the man as he left was interesting - somewhat cautious, a bit threatening, and I suspect maybe just as curious as the females and juveniles but constrained by social norms from showing it as openly.  Or maybe I'm just anthropomorphizing, but it all seems plausible.

Only 700 of these guys in the wild, split into two geographically-separated groups.  As we see from the population structure of one male and a number of females, the effective breeding population is far smaller.  These gorillas haven't been bred in captivity.

Here's hoping this video helps raise awareness and maybe some money to keep the species alive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solar power externality and LCOE

I was talking to a very knowledgeable friend about whether solar power will become cheaper than coal in the next decade, and he pointed out a problem in how solar advocates price their power.  It's well known that you can't just estimate a solar panel's value based on its peak production capability, because much of the time that panel is producing less power or none at all, doing nothing to amortize costs.

Solar advocates admit this, and use Levelized Cost of Energy calculations to divide energy actually produced by all costs involved, over time and with a discount rate. While solar's over twice as expensive as coal now, the advocates project the cost differential to continue to diminish at the rate it has in the past, and to disappear in a decade.

So my friend's problem is this doesn't distinguish peaking power costs.  He's not using the denialist line that baseload power can't include solar at all, but that you still require additional power when solar can't provide it.   That additional power is expensive, and this cost externality isn't included in LCOE calculations.

Mulling this over, I think there's an economic and a political angle to take on it.  The economic angle is that if we want to consider externalities, then let's by all means consider all externalities - coal isn't going to do so well on that basis.

The political angle isn't whether we should consider externalities, but whether we will consider the externalities and which ones.  Greenhouse gas externalities will not be fully priced in for decades, especially for costs imposed on areas outside of the country where the gases are produced (why should we care about those effects?), but they will start to weigh in, a bit, on costs.  The brand new mercury rule shows some of the other externalities of fossil fuels will start getting price tags as well.  Overall, I think the political process will catch up more quickly on fossil fuel externalities, if still very inadequately, than on on LCOE pricing.

One other point my friend made that was a good one - discount rates for future costs mean few companies care about costs more than a decade ahead.  I thought new coal plant starts would be potentially affected by solar price competition, but maybe that price competition is still too far away.

UPDATE:  comments point to a good post at Romm's that discusses the various terms and state of play for solar in the US.  Ignoring environmental issues for a second to focus on economics, I think LCOE is fine for any buyer to use to determine whether solar prices out well, but the overall system has to consider other price issues as well.  The grid parity at the link works when you're buying electricity at the high retail rates, but it will take a lot longer if you're a utility that can buy wholesale.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

NIH recognizes chimps can waive rights

The decision by the National Institute of Health to nearly completely eliminate invasive medical experimentation on chimps has received a medium amount of attention.  Good news, overall, except the advisory committee had no consensus on testing vaccines on chimps.  The testing could accelerate vaccine development but requires infecting chimps with potentially horrible diseases.  The lack of a consensus doesn't mean testing should go forward, but leaves a vacuum.

One intriguing development is that research can continue where chimps voluntarily subject themselves to it.  The chimps are trained to receive treats in return for allowing researchers to take blood samples, and it's up to the chimp to decide whether the research will proceed.  I suppose it's not impossible to do something similar with less intelligent animals, but it would be extremely difficult and not considered ethically important.

The other interesting development was the emphasis on testing on other animals instead of chimps - in other words, there's a moral scale and other animals rank below chimps.  These two developments inch toward the sapientist position I support - not animal rights, but rights based on intelligence.  A long way forward before we get there, though.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Glenn Greenwald is primarily responsible for the failure of progressive legislation since 2008.

The reasoning's simple:  Greenwald's part of the left, just like Obama and the Democrats who controlled the House and had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for a while.  Greenwald's side failed to pass enough progressive legislation, therefore Greenwald's primarily responsible.

If you don't like this reasoning, complain to Greenwald:  he used the same reasoning to say voters will determine that Republicans are not primarily responsible for the failure to pass progressive legislation, laying responsibility instead at Obama's feet, especially with repeated reference to the 60-person Senate majority.  Greenwald does some really good work on civil liberties but mixes it in with this terrible reasoning.  Fault lies primarily with the Republicans, secondarily with the Democratic Senators (and some Representatives) who refuse to vote in defense of the middle class and for scientific reality.  Obama is not a Prime Minister.  Maybe somewhere Greenwald has laid out how he thinks Obama could've pushed legislation through, but he certainly didn't make that point when I listened to him.

That's not to say Obama is blameless - Greenwald rightly points to the HAMP mortgage modification failure as a self-inflicted wound.  On legislation though, he and we have to deal in reality.

Speaking of reality and legislation, we might want to look ahead.  A best-case scenario in 2012 elections will bring Obama back along with marginal control of the Senate and House.  I'm guessing more likely that Obama returns and we only get one of the two congressional houses, and even worse scenarios are very plausible.  The  best case scenario, in other words, still has us in worse position than 2009-2010.  Things generally get worse in mid-term elections for the majority party, and the majority party starts getting tired and often corrupt after many years in office.  

I think the best chance to pass climate legislation for another four years was the one that we had before the 2010 elections.  It really is a shame that many enviros failed to push for cap-and-trade, because as marginally, politically viable as it was, it was the best shot for years to come.  A national carbon tax was not politically meaningful and will take a lot more changes of political fundamentals before it will be.  Some enviros missed the boat last time.  We can still work together though do things on a piecemeal basis and at the state and local level instead, and gradually enforce carbon regulation through the Clean Air Act and other laws.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Obama good, Obama ungood

The good news is decision that gay rights and human rights "are one and the same" in a speech by Hillary Clinton, one that states the Obama administration will work for this concept internationally, and put some money behind it.   They also acknowledge imperfections here in American, while being studiously silent on gay marriage.

The foreign policy realists would say this will cost us internationally, just as any other human rights effort will cost us.  They'd be correct in some areas, although other places like Europe it should actually help our image and soft power.  Long run is a different story though, as history kind of arcs somewhat toward justice.

How this gets reflected in domestic politics will be interesting, because people who are somewhat conservative on gay rights domestically, say hypothetically a political science professor who supports civil unions, would fall on the far left of the spectrum of the countries with the worst discrimination.  The natural Republican reflex of opposing everything Obama does will then start looking pretty awful in the context of horrible abuses overseas. Rick Perry lost no time decrying "special rights" promotion, but the actual Republican nominee will probably lose votes while irresolutely dodging the issue.  Score one for the good guys.

The ungood side is the decision to overrule FDA's authorization of selling the Plan B contraceptive as a standard over the counter item.  Double plus ungood not because of the politics but the false claim that the science gives any reason to do this.  To the FDA's credit, they more or less stated their disagreement and weren't suppressed from doing that.  This is standard, almost, Republican-style War on Science.  Chris Mooney's book on the subject noted the Democrats were guilty too of this offense, but just not nearly to the same extent.  One strike against the Obama Administration in this regard.

I don't want to end on that note, so I'll add another piece of good news.  Younger Americans are significantly more accepting of climate science than older ones.  Now consider that even some Republicans acknowledge their antipathy to gay rights is a dying cause.  The very few scientists who don't accept climate science are also aging out (page 12) and not being replaced by anyone except lawyers, so the younger generation is being educated the right way.  I'm not sure how many demographically-challenged positions the Republicans really want to take, but maybe they should reconsider.

UPDATE:  Chris Mooney on Plan B here.  Similar grasp of the obvious.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Water District reducing GHG emissions and California cap-and-trade

Today's Water District meeting featured an energy usage work study session.  We use a lot of energy moving water across much of the state and then treating it, about 5% of all our costs.  While we also have a policy saying we that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our policy isn't very clear.  I pressed staff on this issue and another director, Linda Lezotte, also followed up:

(Arrgh, something won't let me post more than one video excerpt.  It's here for the December 5 2011 meeting at the 01:11:00 mark, for about 4 minutes.  Two of us seven directors say we need to do more than merely "cost-effective" efforts to reduce GHG emissions, the other five don't say anything.)

We're pretty good overall in our energy usage.  Maybe we can partner with Sonoma County to be better.
We're part of a joint powers authority for buying our power at a rate that's both cheaper and with lower carbon emissions than our local utility provides.  Our CO2 emissions are 435lbs/MWh, one-third the national average (see the first link, Attachment 4, p 17). Not the one-tenth that we need, but pretty good.

While California cap-and-trade doesn't apply directly to us, it does apply to the joint powers authority called PWRPA that we helped establish to get our power, and we may have a chance to sell carbon allowances from environmental improvements that we make:

(UPDATE:  okay, more linkrot, but it's towards the end of the discussion of Item 4.1 at the link above.)

In addition to what you can see on the video is the 3 hours that we spent in closed (confidential) session to discuss internally the negotiations with labor unions for new contracts.  Obviously I can't talk about what happened then, but the financial issues highlight how important the economics of all this is. If doing the right thing environmentally can help us out financially, we're going to do more of the right thing, especially right now when finances are so tight.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Crowd-sourced screening of abusive/misogynist comments for women bloggers

I've been reading more in the past few weeks about the type of garbage that women bloggers have to put up with, stuff I've never experienced.  A recent comparison:
 As the New Statesmanblogger David Allen Green told me: "In three years of blogging and tweeting about highly controversial political topics, I have never once had any of the gender-based abuse that, say, Cath Elliott, Penny Red or Ellie Gellard routinely receive."
One way to discourage this is for women bloggers to moderate and screen comments so the abusive ones never get printed.  This adds to the blogger's work load, though (and may not be possible at some work blogs), and more importantly, the anonymous abuser still gets away with exposing the blogger to abuse that ranges from mean-spirited to threats of rape.

The idea I'm suggesting is that for the bloggers who want to do so, they should be able to outsource comment screening to third-party volunteers who will kill the abusive comments (or alternatively, set them aside for later review by the blogger if she wants to check, or alert her if comments go beyond misogyny and make actual threats).  This would deprive the morons of their ability to directly insult the women they're targeting.  I suppose they could try and threaten us reviewers, but they wouldn't even know who we are or what our gender is, so have fun with that.

I don't think it would be too hard to crowdsource the screening:  you're reading for abuse, not trying to handle the content, so it would be a pretty quick and easy thing to do.  A confidence rating system like Ebay uses could help bloggers decide if they trust the reviewers.   We'd need some special software so comments could be redirected in this manner, but I can't imagine it would be that difficult.  An enterprising blogging platform could even attach some discrete advertising to make the project pay for itself.

Just an idea I'll thow out there.  I'd even put some effort into it if someone wanted to make it happen.

(Probably should re-emphasize that the best solution is for the particular men making the comments, to stop.  This is a second-best solution, and only for the bloggers who'd want to make use of it.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Godfather's Pizza and Al Gore

The graph shows a partisan change in approval of Godfather's Pizza since Herman Cain declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination (context here).  Republicans like his former company a lot more now, and Democrats a lot less.

I have in the past been pretty dismissive of claims from right-leaning and other analysts that Al Gore's prominence in climate change activism has much to do with Republican denial of climate reality.  Godfather's Pizza argues in favor of those claims, though.

Obviously, opinion on cheap pizza and on the fate of our climate involve different levels of moral responsibility.  If Republicans react poorly to Gore's warnings, that reflects poorly on them and not Gore.  Still, efforts like the We Can Solve It campaign might need a lot more reinforcement:

Of course, Gingrich has backed off of his earlier interest in reality.  There's only so much you can do, if the Republican leadership is so unwilling to do much anything at all.  Maybe there are a enough younger Republican leaders, people like Chris Christie (or maybe others like Romney and McCain if Romney loses next year), to join in the leadership on the climate movement.  Otherwise it's up to the public.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Climate related comments elsewhere

At Same Facts, James Wimberley continues to do a good job IMHO of defending the "solar on track to be cheaper than coal" idea. I wrote:

What I’d be most interested in knowing is the rate of starts for new coal power plants, especially in countries with no local coal supplies (therefore no coal lobby). A new plant takes a couple years to build and 30-50 years to pay off, so [Efficient Market Hypothesis] (if accurate) would expect to see a significant dropoff for these.

At Nature, on a post about whether mastodons got stuck in post-earthquake mud and starved over a period of months, I skepticized:

I follow climate change denialism closely, so I'm very suspicious when non-experts proclaim themselves to be personally incredulous regarding a conclusion by experts. 
That said, as a non-expert, I am personally incredulous that partially submerged mammoths couldn't pull themselves out of the soil when liquefaction had ended. 
Tar pits I can believe. Full submersion and immediate suffocation I can believe. But being stuck in one spot and slowly starving to death without being able to pull their legs out of the soil, is something that needs to be a little more convincing. Maybe they need to a mechanical analysis of soil strength and compare it to an elephant's strength.

Sure felt like an article I would read on April Fool's Day, but what do I know. (UPDATE:  the teeming hordes of pro-stuck-mammoth factionalists attack in the comments, all two of them, and I guess they have a point.)

Finally, not a comment but a link to an interesting NY Times article on growing crops underneath trees.  No mention of albedo issues from trees being darker than typical ag, though.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My review of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire: epic meh

So I can't exactly pan his books seeing as I've read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series in less than three months, but if I could go back in time I'd warn myself, don't do it. Or maybe just read the first book, which is the best, and then watch the HBO Game of Thrones show as it gradually recapitulates the books (disclaimer: haven't seen it, but it gets great reviews).

The series is epic, but it's meh. The level of detail is stunning - I've never read a book with such descriptions of each dish of food at so many meals. The battles and intrigues are epic. And they don't lead to anything. Five books later, and I don't have a sense of a plot line that's really advanced from the beginning. The characters just run around in their clown car of a fantasy world, coming and going to various lands and occasionally getting bumped off. It feels like an alternate history, which is fine, even amazing, but after a while it just all fades into one damn thing after another.

Tolkien could wrap up a story arc in three books. Martin hasn't done it in five - he claims he'll do it in seven, but the last two haven't been written yet, so who knows really, and these aren't quick reads like the Harry Potter books. My suggestion is to just watch the show instead (based on all the rave reviews), it saves a lot of time. Of course, it's too late for me - I'll read the books when they come out.

UPDATE:  I half-expected to either get flamed or ignored, but apparently the rabbits agree that Martin's overrated. They provide alternatives.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Peiser relies on deception

Benny Peiser, sadly, appears to be on the upswing in climate change denialism (and possibly wrong elsewhere, although I don't know the Easter Island issues well). My experience with him is that he made an incorrect factual assertion, stopped making it when caught by a knowledgeable audience, and then repeated the original assertion in front of different audiences that didn't know the truth and didn't know about his retraction. This is the person being quoted by news media today.

I laid out the sequence of events here. To summarize, he claimed in a comment thread at Deltoid to have repeated an analysis by climate historian Naomi Oreskes and found a different result. Other comments proved him wrong. Peiser continued to post in the comment thread without but stopped repeating his assertion that he had replicated Oreskes. Several days later he then repeated the original assertion on a different website where people don't know that he'd been refuted. I also found him repeating it in subsequent weeks, despite saying in email correspondence with me "I [Peiser] don't know" if he had done the same analysis.

I know the media has a problem trying to get accurate information on denialists because this type of deceptiveness is so common there, but they should communicate to the public that their sources like Benny Peiser make claims to the public that they refuse to defend in front of informed audiences. A far better approach would be to analyze the denialists, not for the credibility of their claims but for the politics that the denialists are manipulating.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

To fluoridate, someday, and a personal announcement

Previous post dilemmaized over whether and how to fluoridate at my next Water District Board meeting, which was yesterday. Here's the news:

Santa Clara Valley Water District OKs adding fluoride to its drinking water

Silicon Valley's largest drinking water provider took the first steps Tuesday toward adding fluoride to the drinking water in most of Santa Clara County, including San Jose, the largest city in the nation without the cavity-battling additive.
After a lively 90-minute debate at a packed meeting, the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District voted 7-0 to put the district on record supporting fluoridation.

It could've been 6-1 because of a side issue where I disagreed with my colleagues about creating yet another Board committee to oversee this, but they were willing to split up the vote so I could agree with them on the main issue and then get shot down over the new committee.

If you're so inclined, you can listen to a couple minutes of my comments while looking at uninteresting shot of the board room below (source link here):

I made clear that I wanted public education on infant formula and on reverse osmosis for those who don't want fluoride, and that we keep checking in on the scientific consensus. I think I'll win that fight. When we'll do this and who will pay for it is less clear. I think it's a legitimate expenditure of public funds, but we're not a public health agency. If they want Water District money to fix people's teeth, my vote would be that they have to wait a while. We need to fix our seismic risks at our dams, restore the environment, and reduce flood damages.

So there ends my fluoride series for this blog. My personal announcement is that after nearly nine years at my day job with the Committee for Green Foothills, I gave notice that it's time for me to do something else, starting in January. It's a great place, but it's time for me to do something new. I am very interested in climate change policy work, but am open to other ideas as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what will happen next.

Monday, November 07, 2011

To fluoridate or not to fluoridate, that is the question. Next Tuesday at my Water District Board meeting

I'll reproduce below most of an old post about fluoridation. I had previously expected to see an identical situation with climate change in terms of the debate, but it's not. I think factors overall favor fluoridating, but not quite as overwhelmingly as I expected. On Tuesday, my fellow Directors and I get to figure out next steps.

Fluoridation opponents have made lots of mistakes in my opinion, but supporters have overstated the consensus. In particular, fluoride levels four to eight times the recommended level do have rare adverse effects, which isn't a huge safety margin in toxicity issues (UPDATE: I mean rare and severe effects - some cosmetic problems to teeth are common). Very slight adverse effects on larger groups would also be hard to rule out.

The Center for Disease Control recommends mixing non-fluoridated water in formula for babies that use formula exclusively. I can also attest to hearing from the significant number of people, if still a minority, who are just anguished that we're putting something they consider toxic in their water. Home-based reverse osmosis systems can remove their fluoride, I think.

And then there's the money cost - over $4m to construct and $800k to operate. We might get funding to construct but get stuck with operating, which people forget is the bigger cost.

So. The staff recommendation is to proceed if someone else pays for it. We'll see. If we do go forward, we may need to educate people about infant formula and let people know they can get reverse osmosis kits if they want.

Anyway, here's most of the old post, with the science:

Fluoridating water, or a funny thing happened on my way to backseat driving

I originally labelled this blog Backseat Driving back in 2004 because I anticipated it to be a blog where I would second-guess decisions made by politicians and other people. That worked out fine more or less until November 2010, when for some reason I was elected to the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board. Turns out that San Jose is the largest city in the US without fluoridated water supplies (in much of the city, anyway), and the seven of us directors have to decide whether we'll help or hinder the fluoridation process. So I'm pushed into the front seat for this one.

We've got some legal and economic issues to handle (it's not quite as cheap as everyone says, I want to know where the money's going to come from), but the relevant issue here is science. I read the guest post at climate blogger Coby Beck's place, The Case Against Fluoride, fairly closely a while back, especially the raucous debate in the comments. As a spectator with some, limited reading of the available information, I'd say the fluoridators seemed more persuasive than skeptics, but it wasn't the absolute demolishing that I expected.

The fluoride skeptics really hurt their cause when say fluoride doesn't prevent cavities - it's so obviously effective that people making this claim are damaging their own credibility. I'd consider it comparable to denying that the planet has warmed in the last 50 years.

The closer issue is adverse effects, and whether a substantial number of people are very slightly harmed by fluoridation, or if a small number of people are substantially harmed. The 2006 National of Sciences report doesn't condemn fluoridation, but it doesn't absolve it, either:
Bone Fractures

....Overall, there was consensus among the committee that there is scientific evidence that under certain conditions fluoride can weaken bone and increase the risk of fractures. The majority of the committee concluded that lifetime exposure to fluoride at drinking-water concentrations of 4 mg/L or higher is likely to increase fracture rates in the population, compared with exposure to 1 mg/L, particularly in some demographic subgroups that are prone to accumulate fluoride into their bones (e.g., people with renal disease)....There were few studies to assess fracture risk in populations exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L in drinking water. The best available study, from Finland, suggested an increased rate of hip fracture in populations exposed to fluoride at concentrations above 1.5 mg/L. However, this study alone is not sufficient to judge fracture risk for people exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L. Thus, no conclusions could be drawn about fracture risk or safety at 2 mg/L....

(In California, 2 mg/L was the limit, and 0.7 is the new proposed goal. -Ed)
Neurotoxicity and Neurobehavioral Effects

Animal and human studies of fluoride have been published reporting adverse cognitive and behavioral effects. A few epidemiologic studies of Chinese populations have reported IQ deficits in children exposed to fluoride at 2.5 to 4 mg/L in drinking water. Although the studies lacked sufficient detail for the committee to fully assess their quality and relevance to U.S. populations, the consistency of the results appears significant enough to warrant additional research on the effects of fluoride on intelligence....

Endocrine Effects

The chief endocrine effects of fluoride exposures in experimental animals and in humans include decreased thyroid function, increased calcitonin activity, increased parathyroid hormone activity, secondary hyperparathyroidism, impaired glucose tolerance, and possible effects on timing of sexual maturity. Some of these effects are associated with fluoride intake that is achievable at fluoride concentrations in drinking water of 4 mg/L or less, especially for young children or for individuals with high water intake. Many of the effects could be considered subclinical effects, meaning that they are not adverse health effects. However, recent work on borderline hormonal imbalances and endocrine-disrupting chemicals indicated that adverse health effects, or increased risks for developing adverse effects, might be associated with seemingly mild imbalances or perturbations in hormone concentrations. Further research is needed to explore these possibilities....
(Removed discussion of bone cancer as not very troubling given its rarity. Ed.)

These were the most troubling findings, mostly about what hasn't been proven, and mostly dealing with levels that are five times what's planned for drinking water. The report expressly ignored the benefits of fluoridation. It's important to balance out potential concerns over rare, severe complications related to fluoride with the certainty that rare, severe complications can result from cavities.

The bottom line as a policy maker in my little arena is that I shouldn't try and figure out the science myself, but I should try to figure out what the scientific consensus is, figure out where the consensus doesn't yet exist, and then plug that information into everything else we have to balance.

The science seems to favor fluoridation, but it's not a slam dunk. And we still have potential policy barriers, and the overall cost issues. Figuring this all out will be interesting.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Tidal wetland sediment accretion might keep up with sea level rise in one location. Maybe.

I attended our annual Santa Clara County Creeks Conference last Saturday, with an even better than usual program that included a panel on tidal wetlands restoration in South San Francisco Bay, where we're bringing back 16,000 acres of tidal wetlands from former saltponds (will post a video link when it's online).

The restoration has barely begun, but the land that sank after being separated from tidal flows has gained sediment rapidly, something that's necessary to create a complex environment of open water, partially submerged, and emergent tidal environments. While it's slowed more after the first few years that individual ponds have been opened to the the tides, they're still adding sediment, two inches annually, far more than the worst projections for sea level rise.

So, good for us. Except that California is a geologically young area with lots of gradients, erosion, and sediment flow. Our particular part of San Francisco Bay might also disproportionately benefit from the "backwash" of sediment from the rest of the Bay.

Our tidal wetlands can keep up where they are, for now, but whether that will work in other places is less clear.  Still, it's one small piece of good news that demonstrates the value of restoring tidal wetlands, which have been lost to a far greater extent in the US than even freshwater wetlands have.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Ideal human population is 100 billion. Off-planet.

My off planet assumptions are for 200-300 years; that the Moon, asteroids, and free-floating colonies have been settled with lots of people; that Martian life discovery protects Mars from colonization; and that Venus hasn't yet been terraformed. And that there's no Singularity - otherwise all bets are off.* There's lots of room out there in space, and changing some of these assumptions make mine a low-end figure.

I think this is the good way to approach it if you're a space nerd who's deeply concerned about population growth and how little any side of the political spectrum has done to address it. We're not anti-human. Live long and prosper! Just as long as it's mostly out there, where you can't take the sky from me.

On planet Earth, we're messing up big time. What the global ideal population would be depends on trading off numbers against resource constraints. If we don't want resource constraints, want everyone to live like kings, and want minimal harm to the environment, then I think we're looking at 100 million people. If you settle for the median American quality of life with some reasonable technological upgrades to reduce environmental impacts, then we're looking at a billion people, one-tenth of what we'll see in 89 years. For larger numbers with modest environmental impacts, the only way I can imagine an ideal life is if people get most of the high quality of life experiences through virtual reality.

It's a rotten shame that the left in the US has mostly forgotten about the population problem due to some overstatements decades ago, and a fear of doing anything that tar them with espousing a policy that's also espoused for racist reasons by racists. The right is even worse, either ignoring the problem for ideological reasons or dog-whistling racist or fear-inducing reasons to control population. All the above gets magnified tenfold when discussing immigration to the US, where we convert the usually-young immigrants into highly impacting Americans, with descendants.

Maybe we can take the latest milestone of 7,000,000,000 people to do something about population, and even about immigration, without playing into the hands of racists.

*I think we'll pass the Singularity point in less than 50 years.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A scientist is a feather, a lawyer is a sail

Some time ago I guest-lectured to some undergrads in a science curriculum track about environmental advocacy. I said I had read somewhere that a scientist is a feather and the evidence is the wind - the scientist makes no effort to control the evidence but just floats wherever it takes her. Obviously this is an incomplete construct that ignores hypothesis formation etc., but is supposed to represent the ideal of how a scientist reacts to evidence.

The advocate isn't a feather, neutral as to where the wind blow. I didn't have a good analogy then for an environmental advocate/lawyer, but now I think the advocate is a sail and the evidence is the wind - how and where it blows is critical, but you have a role as well in where you're going. I also like the sail analogy instead of a sailor, retaining the ideal that the lawyer is a tool of the client/sailor (ideally) and isn't in charge of the ship.

What the sail analogy doesn't capture is the idea that legal contests are pattern-fitting contests. One side says the present facts and law fit that side's represented pattern of facts and law, while the other side presents different patterns.

Still working it out.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

China follows up India in committing to being better than US on per-capita emissions

As has been covered in a few places, China has committed not to "follow the path of the US" with its current level of per capita emissions. (I agree with Joe Romm, btw, that they're not otherwise likely to hit the US level by 2017. They were at one-third the US level three years ago, and it can't go up that fast.)

India made an even better commitment three years ago, not to exceed the average developed country's per capita emissions (significantly lower than US per capita). These two commitments significantly exceed anything developed countries have done, especially because of the legacy emissions from developed countries over past generations vastly dwarf that of developing nations.

The third line of defense for denialists and delayers is that India and China are the problem because their total emissions are increasing. They have yet to provide a convincing reason why Western nations deserve permanently higher per capita emission levels.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, and I have one-seventh of the vote over several hundred million dollars

My light-speed brain took over a month to put the two issues in the blog headline together. Santa Clara Valley Water District has several hundred million dollars in financial reserves. I wonder if there's anything financially responsible that the Water District can do with the voters' financial reserves, in light of the abuse of the financial system by Wall Street titans.

Just thinking, no answers yet....

UPDATE: I figured the bunnies would have some ideas.

UPDATE 2: KQED's California Report shows other people thinking about the same thing.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

California creates second-largest cap and trade market, to start next year

Still looking around for the best writeup, but this seems pretty good:

The California Air Resources Board yesterday [Oct. 21] gave its final approval to the state’s cap-and-trade system, which sets limits on carbon emissions starting next year.
CARB unanimously approved details of the regulations over the objections of industry groups, the San Francisco Chroniclereported, with the board’s major actions focusing on the allocation of carbon allowances.
Under the plan approved yesterday, the state will limit carbon emissions from its 350 or so biggest emitters starting in 2012, with enforcement starting in 2013. The carbon cap will drop every year until 2020. Over this time, CARB expects the program to prevent 273 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
The regulations will cover electric utilities and large industrial plants first, later expanding to cover fuel distributors. Each company covered by the program will need to hold allowances for carbon that they emit over the cap, and companies will be able to trade these allowances in the marketplace. This will create the world’s second-largest carbon market behind that of the EU, with about $10 billion in allowances traded by 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Initially 90 percent of allowances will be free, with companies needing to buy the other 10 percent. From there some industries will see the percentage of free allowances drop to about 30 percent. Emitters will also be able to meet up to eight percent of their required emissions reductions through carbon offsets.
In a letter to the board, industry groups and the California Chamber of Commerce called the 10 percent purchase requirement an “unjustified, job-killing tax,” and they said California would lose business to other states and countries. Water agencies are also covered by the regulation, and they told the board that the program would increase water rates.
Environmental justice groups had argued that cap-and-trade would increase pollution in low-income neighborhoods near high-emitting facilities, because polluters could simply buy the right to increase pollution.
The board yesterday responded to these concerns by approving an adaptive management plan, which would monitor the air quality of neighborhoods near regulated facilities, the APreported. If pollution does increase, the CARB said it would respond.
Last week Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced it is entering the nascent California carbon trading market with an agreed option to buy several million tons of offsets from TerraPass, through 2020.

Just to add a few comments: limits in 2012 with no enforcement until 2013 sounds to me like the program really starts in 2013. OTOH, the market is already getting moving (see the last sentence from the article), so that's good.

I believe the free allowances are grandfathered from past emissions. That would also be anti-competitive, because new entrants would have to buy allowances. No wonder the Chamber wants them to be all free.

The part about water agencies complaining is news to me. Guess I should look that up.

The enviro justice groups' lawsuit is a huge mistake. This response is cutting it close to the law though - I hope it works out.

Together with Australia's carbon tax and the European Union's cap system finally getting beyond its intentionally-easy stage, we're seeing some incremental progress. We need far far more than incremental progress, but we shouldn't forget that it's happening, either.

Good writeup of the original California program here, by an offset critic who thinks California's system isn't too bad. I believe the finalized program is only marginally different.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My weeklong life as a Washington water lobbyist

I'm not sure how interested the bunnies are in my spectacularly exotic work at a local water district, but I guess I'll find out. I spent this week as one of two elected directors visiting Washington DC to talk about our local flood control and water supply projects, and to try and scare up some money for more. Some notes:

  • I can confirm the obvious statement that the budget process is broken. I respect the antipathy to earmarks and am open to replacing them with another process, but what we have instead is virtually no process to provide local input into federal decision-making about local projects. We had multiple meetings with Congressional offices where they often said they could do little to help, and just one with the Office of Management and Budget, which now has all the power.
  • There is real interest in the Obama Administration in the environment. We talked about environmental benefits to one relatively high-level official in the Department of Agriculture who'd been hired from an environmental organization. She raised Obama's Great Outdoorsinitiative that tries to reconnect Americans to our natural environment, including urban areas. So I pointed to a map that we brought. Here in south San Jose, wild elk will sometimes roam within city limits. In north San Jose where San Francisco Bay ends,leopard sharks swim. Connecting them is Coyote Creek, a major intact riparian system running through central San Jose with migrating, endangered steelhead, a bike/pedestrian pathway, great views of hawk nests. Our flood control project is a major tributary where we want to rip out concrete, replace it with vegetated-earth banks, and add riparian habitat next to an elementary school. She liked it.
  • We can at least take some actions to adapt to climate change. We're trying to restore 15,000 acres of abandoned salt-making ponds to tidal wetlands, but the pond levees form part of the antiquated levee system protecting urban land in the South Bay. We want to rebuild and strengthen the landward side of the multi-ring levee system, and only then can we breach the bayside of the salt pond levees and restore them to tidal flow and vegetation. This was our one meeting with OMB, and there I emphasized that we're sizing the levees to accommodate 50 years of sea level rise (based on Cal. Academy of Sciences 2006 report, using the high end of three scenarios), and sized so they can be built up higher if needed. The OMB people seemed interested, so we'll see.

I sure wish I knew politically-viable ways to make GHG emissions pay for our climate adaptation projects, either on a local, state, or national level, but it's not jumping out at me (don't forget that "politically-viable" requirement). Our riverine flood protection projects also have to be sized for sea level rise because they empty into the Bay, so the costs add up.

My one other observation is that a lot of people we met with sure are young. Our nation is in the hands of twenty-somethings, presumably because we can get away with paying them nothing and working them constantly. Let's hope it works out.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The most perceptive pro-Palin comment ever written

In lieu of demonstrating new and independent thought, I've decided to occasionally re-post some stuff from my old blog. As we finally say farewell to Sarah Palin's overextended fifteen minutes,here's one:

Supporters of Palin say they're not using "rational theorizing"

Interesting comment in a post by a pro-Palin conservative:

I think Sarah Palin is indeed a Rorschach test for’s about what Conservativsm MEANS....

The core idea behind Conservatism is that most of human learning is done not by rational theorizing, but by pattern recognition....

This pattern recognition is called common sense, and over generations, it’s called traditions, conventions etc. Religion is usually a carrier meme for these evolved patterns. It’s sort of an evolutionary process, like a genetic algorithm....

Liberals, Lefties and even many Libertarians want to use only 10% of the human knowledge that’s rational.....

Conservatives are practical people who instinctively recognize the importance of evolved patterns in human learning: because our rational knowledge simply isn’t enough yet, these common sense patterns are our second best option to use. And to use these patterns effectively you don’t particularly have to be very smart i.e. very rational. You have to be _wise_ and you have to have a good character: you have to set hubris and pride aside and be able to accept traditions you don’t fully understand....

Anti-Palin Conservatives don’t understand it. They think Conservativism is about having different theories than the Left, they don’t understand that it’s that theories and rational knowledge isn’t so important.

What's especially interesting is the enthusiastic response following this idea of "going with your gut and calling it wisdom". I think the truth is a lot of what all of us consider reasoned analysis that reaches a conclusion is actually a gut response that's going through the motions, but to not even bother to fight for logic and knowledge is pretty striking.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Media finally listening to what Brian Schmidt has to say about climate change


Astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, 44, named in Sweden as one of three winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, used his first day in the spotlight to appeal to "policy people" to listen to scientists on climate change.


"The science is science. Policy is policy. And I would really like the scientists to continue to debate what's right and what's wrong about everything, accelerating universe, climate," he told reporters in Canberra.

"And I'd really like the policy people to debate how to deal with what is coming in from the scientists, rather than an ill-formed scientific debate.

I even like astronomy. This guy is my overachieving alter-ego. He could at least have the common decency of getting old before receiving the Nobel Prize, but no.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Spencer Weart and Never at War

1. Spencer Weart.

I've been interested for quite a while in the theory that democracies don't fight wars with other democracies, but only recently learned that Spencer Weart, the historian-god of climate change science, also wrote a book in 1998 called Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. (I'm shamefully cribbing off of wiki rather than his book, but I'll get around to the real thing sometime I swear).

Weart makes the maximalist argument, that any country sufficiently democratic to have let at least 2/3 of male adults to vote and control the government for at least three years will not go to war with a similar democracy. He includes many classic Greek city-states in this category. The book then discusses borderline cases and his theories about why democracies don't fight each other.

Wiki has a quite good general article on the democratic peace theory - as with any other field, you can find some expert who absolutely denies the consensus position, but it seems pretty clear that well-established democracies don't fight each other, and quite likely that even immature democracies are less likely to fight democracies. No consensus on why that's the case however.

My own view: I don't know enough about classical Greece to say anything relevant. I think democracy requires at least a certain level of organization and sophistication before the democratic peace kicks in. Hunter-gatherer and small-scale agricultural societies were reasonably democratic/anarchic and very often violent toward outgroups. Weart's maximalist position may or may not work - the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan that started a year after Weart's book is a contrary example. OTOH, Pakistan's elected parliament didn't really control its military which initiated that war.

That Weart could even plausibly maintain his position suggests the overall strength of the democratic peace theory.

2. Israel.

Israel's antipathy and fear of the Arab Spring is interesting in light of the fact that Israeli policymakers should know about democratic peace theory. Why Israelis thought their security was better protected by a hated 82-year old tyrant instead of a potential shot at Egyptian democratization isn't clear. I guess one response would be to look at how unpopular Israel is now with the average Egyptian, but I suspect that unpopularity itself could partially be a result of Israeli antipathy to Arab democracy.

I think the disinterest in Arab democracy in light of democratic peace theory suggests at least partially that Israel isn't all that worried about its security. It also suggests that Israel does not want democratically elected Arab leaders to be expressing grievances about West Bank and Gaza, because those leaders are much more persuasive that what Israel's had to deal with previously.

3. Labor unions.

Something of a tangent here, but one pithy statement I read somewhere about peace between democracies went to the effect of "yes it works in practice, but can you make it work in theory?" Weart isn't the only one who's tried to explain it, and no one's got a consensus theory for it.

I feel the same way about unions - the increasing inequality and declining middle class seems to be an effect of declining union power, but I don't think there's a good explanation about why unions benefit society generally, as opposed to just their members. I think the data is pretty good that they do benefit society, and there are plenty of theories why, but I'm not convinced as to why.

We'll just have to live with uncertainty.

Friday, September 16, 2011

French nuclear power pricing, and solar power pricing

Via Romm:
Pro-nuclear power France still has escalating costs for nuclear power. It's not American litigation driving these costs.

Also via Romm:

My opinion is that we should maintain and relicense most nuclear power plants (that's cheap), but nukes don't have an expanded role absent massive Republican governmental subsidies, with an unhelpful loan subsidy assist from Obama. A lot safer than coal, though.

UPDATE: probably should add that widely distributed wind power and grid charging off of power stored in plug-in car batteries could handle much of the night time load.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Eight percent increase in belief in climate change in the US

Up to 83%, and the Stanford analyst thinks the Republican presidential denialism may be part of it:
As Americans watch Republicans debate the issue, they are forced to mull over what they think about global warming, said Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University.

And what they think is also influenced by reports this year that global temperatures in 2010 were tied with 2005 to be the warmest year since the 1880s.

"That is exactly the kind of situation that will provoke the public to think about the issue in a way that they haven't before," Krosnick said about news reports on the Republicans denying climate change science.

I sure hope he's right. The debates were skewed with 1.5 candidates arguing for sanity and the rest denialists, playing to a skewed-conservative audience. If that still helped climate realism, then bring on the national campaign. The increasing recognition of Republican leadership being anti-science is probably sinking in somewhat.

I wonder though if it's more just the particular time, right after record heat and weather disasters. The previous poll was done in early June rather than the end of summer heat. Or maybe fading memories of the made-up nonsense over the stolen climate emails.

Anyway, modest progress for realism.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So what would have been the major headlines if violent crime rose 12%

The important good news even if it gets ho-hum coverage is that violent crime is down yet again, this time by 12% last year, down 70% from the 1993 high point. Contrary to the article and its unnamed experts, I don't think the experts are necessarily surprised that crime went down in the short-term in a bad economy (longer term impacts to society from the economy are less hopeful tho). What is surprising is that it went down that much, as the article's one expert says.

Regression to the mean suggests stabilization or increase would be more likely than this large decrease. Maybe someday we'll have some certainty on why it's happening. The whole lead-reduction/crime-reduction thing seems really strong, but not definite. The "more porn, less rape" theory also seems to have some support although not as much. "More abortion, less crime" is also interesting and the least supported in my nonexpert opinion (but can be tested overseas).

Anyway, it's nice to have some good domestic news along with the good news from the Arab world.

A tangent: I recently watched Predator 2 after being told it was good (my review: meh). Filmed in 1990 and set in 1997, it took the then-upward crime trajectory and sent it forward to an ungovernable future. Interestingly bad prediction.

Monday, September 12, 2011

John McPhee, pre-1960 geology, and the climate consensus

A previous post refers to my semi-fruitless quest for a precedent of science in any field being as incredibly 100% wrong as the denialists claim is the case for climate. Commenters there suggested geology before plate tectonics as the best shot. Someone mentioned McPhee's Assembling California for context examining the history of the science of plate tectonics, a book I've had sitting around and unread.

Off to the races!
[Wary of multiple theories by some geologists for what made mountains rise,] many more geologists would not venture further than than to say (indisputably) that "earth forces" or "orogenic forces" had lifted the geosynclines, and that these forces were "not well understood".

[regarding different California mountain geosynclines thrust on top of each other,] "that was the Golconda Thrust. No one knew how this 'orogeny' happened."

[on one side of a mountain range geosyncline] there were shallow-water sediments followed by deep-water material, but there was no other side. "That was never explained".

"the geosynclinal cycle was said to be about two hundred million years. In the Overthrust Belt in Montana, forty thousand feet of Precambrian sediment had been thrust over Cretaceous sediment. As students, we wondered why all that Precambrian was still there. What had the source geosyncline been doing sitting there for a billion years when the cycle was two hundred million? There was no answer."

Halls's idea [orogeny not from tectonics] was not preposterous. It was incomplete. There was, after all, marine rock in mountains. Between the geosyncline and the mountains, though, something was missing, and what was missing was plate tectonics.
(text excerpts pages 38-40).

I think the picture isn't of a scientific field that's confident in a wrong paradigm, but one that has many acknowledged, open questions and hadn't yet accepted a solution that was proven with the subsequent accumulation of evidence. This isn't a matter of overconfidence, the claim made by denialists against climatology.

There's also the issue of whether European geologists were more open to tectonics than Americans prior to 1960, something I don't know anything about.

Granted, this is a pop-sci book, but McPhee's pretty good, so I'll see what else he has to say on this subject.

UPDATE: some great comments below. Read them! In particular, I did wheel reinventing from a 2008 comment at Deltoid:
[tectonics is] a good illustration of one flavor of paradigm shift, in this case, where plausible hypotheses were identified early, but evidence just didn't get strong enough for a long time, but when new kinds of evidence popped up, the discipline pretty much changed views in a decade.

But indeed, the evidence for AGW is (by now) immensely stronger than the evidence for continental drift in 1920. After all, Arrhenius was talking about Greenhouse Effect over 100 years ago, and that wasn't accepted instantly either :-)

And also this:
For a proper comparison in your search for "a precedent of science in any field being as incredibly 100% wrong as the denialists claim is the case for climate.", you really need to consider the supposed "wrong-headed" theory in the light of the existing evidence base. In other words we want a theory that is "bone-headed" in the context of the knowledge-base pertaining at the time.

So Newtonian dynamics isn't a teribly good example since it was a theory that was entirely consistent with the existing evidence base).