Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Please take 30 seconds to sign the Consensus For Action

Statement here and at the California Governor's office. IIRC, it originally just had scientist signers but is now open to the rest of us. While it leads with climate change, it includes biodiversity, loss of natural lands, pollution, and (brave for a politician) overpopulation.

I could see some quibbling with the one-page summary describing quality of life to suffer "substantial degradation by 2050" if problems aren't fixed, but not enough to avoid signing. For certain aspects of quality of life it's definitely true (four of those five challenges, mixed result for pollution) and the quality of life will be much worse than it would be if we don't address the challenges. A large number of people will die as a result of the failure to solve those challenges. Whether economic outcomes will be worse than present seems hard to justify, but that's not the only way to determine quality of life. The important thing is to do something about these challenges, and taking 30 seconds to endorse it seems reasonable.

Gort upgrades the Climate Changeometer with Ocean Dethermalization

When Gort first visited in 1951, it spent little effort on climate change issues, focusing on other aspects of our planet instead:

Gort returned in 2012 to answer puny human climatologist questions about whether climate change caused particular weather phenomena by making an obvious point:  rather than struggle with theoretical analysis, you can simply use your Climate Changeometer to remove all the excess greenhouse gases and aerosols above natural levels and then measure the outcome. Comments at the link suggested temps on land would respond to Gort quickly, within a week or so, while temps above the oceans could take months and years.

Gort now brings us an upgrade.

The Climate Changeometer now comes with Ocean Dethermalization. The point is to think how current weather patterns are affected by anthropogenic climate change, so it's necessary to consider the vast majority of that heat accumulating in the oceans. Gort instantly removes that heat at the same time as it put the atmosphere back to 1860 levels. The Dethermalizer also depuffenates the oceans from the sea level rise caused by thermal expansion. I'm not sure how quickly the oceans would drop - if it's instantaneous, let's assume Gort will buffer any tsunami type effect.

I'd guess is that if you apply this experiment to a tropical storm a few days away from landfall, it would have a significant effect on that storm. I think this is a helpful way to communicate how we've changed our climate. It's probably more scientifically meaningful on a global and longer term level than about immediate weather phenomena, which might be why there's actual scholarship about it (thanks MMM). On the level of immediate weather, this combats the delayist/denialist dodge that attribution for individual weather events is impossible (allegedly), so there's no point in discussing climate change when we face weather tragedies that are made more likely by climate change.

One other point - I do like the argument that we're living in the Anthropocene such that but for climate change, the individual weather events we see wouldn't have happened. I made the argument a while back, glad to see it more prevalent now.

(And btw, credit to Aaron in the 2012 post for also thinking about ocean heat.)

Lewandowsky helps Kahan look a little better

newish Inquiring Minds podcast by Mooney and Viskontas features a good dialogue between Stephan Lewandowsky and Dan Kahan. Eli and yours truly haven't been all that persuaded with Kahan's interpretation of his own work, which is very critical of climate hawks and pretty silent about the denialists, but in Lewandowsky's presence he moderates it and comes off much more persuasively.

Kahan says he supports trying all approaches (not quite what he said earlier). He acknowledges communicating information can actually persuade people in the lab, which is good, but suggests it hasn't worked in the wild, somewhat contradicting his claimed preference for science over impression-based analysis

I think the framing analysis and group identitity analysis has a lot of value to it, and that's why communicating the 97% agreement among climatologists is so useful. The people who doubt climate science don't perceive themselves as 97% out of the mainstream (disregarding all the Galileos). When they understand where the consensus exists, that's their mental framework of where they belong and where the scientists who share their group identity also are found.

And that's ignoring the fence-sitters and those who are open to the science but don't know how strong it is, and by knowing that can give it a higher priority in their politics.

UPDATE:  thought I'd add that Kahan and later Viskontas assumed some unproven facts so I thought I'd do the same - if the climate hawks hadn't been out there all these years arguing the facts against the liars and misleaders, then we'd have an even worse public understanding than the present.

And just to be contrarian, I'll agree with Kahan on something and partially disagree with Lewandowsky. Kahan said we should watch for and attempt to prevent partisan group identity development where it has not yet occurred, like on GMOs and vaccinations. Sounds fine to me. Lewandowsky said politicians have not been pushing hard enough on climate - that sounds a bit like the bully pulpit argument that has not fared well among political scientists. I'm not sure the bully pulpit is so completely ineffective in the long term though, and Lewandowsky may have just been arguing that it's time to try out all their new techniques for science communication.

My immature reaction to the allegedly-controversial use of the Hiroshima heat widget

Eli's post below refers.

I'll just add one response to this statement by Tom:  "if you consider yourself a skeptic of climate change science, think the risks have been overblown, and oppose intervention in the economy to mitigate climate change, you probably find the comparison outrageous, and maybe even offensive." My response is to ask Tom or anyone to point to a statement by denialists about the science that is both true and outrageous. If they can find something, then maybe they have a point. Otherwise, not so much.

Giving and maintaining emergency kits for the holiday gift season

My kind-of annual post below, with a few changes. I've found that emergency kits make highly-appreciated gifts for friends and relatives, one of those things that are on everyone's to-do list but often don't get done. If the entire kit's too expensive, you can just give a car kit, or get a part (I suggest water and water purification) and upgrade over time.

If people have had kits for a few years then it's also time to consider replacing out the food. If you or someone you know uses camping food, you might switch out the old with the new a year or two before expiration, so you can use the food before it expires.

Easy-but-not-cheap 72-hour emergency kits for home, with purchase links

There are nine members of my wife's family in the Bay Area, and when I found out no one had the 72-hour emergency kits we're supposed to have, I put them together as presents (in-laws loved the kits, too). My emphases were making them easy for me to put together, easy for people with no camping experience to use, and ones that would last as many years as possible without needing replacement or maintenance. In return I was willing to pay more, be more bulky than the minimum possible, and have limited control over food selection.

72-Hour Home kits:
The above is the absolute minimum. Meals can be eaten in their pouches, so no dishes are needed. Flameless heating kits eliminate the need for cooking stoves (water has to be purified, though). Emergency meals also can be eaten with cold (purified) water although they taste bad. The food and flameless kits should be good for at least 3 or 4 years, and probably more than twice that long.

In earthquake country, your kit should be stored outside your home in case you can't get inside. So in your yard, your car, or somewhere else. The only maintenance this requires is to simply look every six months to see if the water's leaked through the seams of the plastic jugs - it happens fairly often.

Additional useful items:
  • Cheap flashlight/headlamp
  • Spare batteries in clear plastic bag so you can see if they've become corroded over time
  • Plastic tarp and cord as a rain shelter
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Emergency shelter, 1 per adult
  • Cheap or expensive first aid kit (I went with cheap kits from the local drugstore)
  • Cheap rain gear, spare shoes and clothes
  • Hand-crank radio/flashlight combination
Don't let the extras delay you from putting together the minimum.

I also made better-than-nothing emergency kits for everyone's car, in case you're stuck on the road:

Car kits:
  • Liter water bottle per person (enough to keep you hydrated for a few hours until you can find a water source)
  • Water purification tablets (can disinfect murky water from ditches, and you might need to) 
  • Emergency shelter
  • Small amount of long-lasting food (I found tins of honey-roasted peanuts that were good for four years)
  • Cheap rain poncho
  • Emergency contact list
  • Shoes you can walk many miles in, if that's not what you normally wear
  • Cheap, tiny flashlight
  • wool blanket (additional warmth, or traction under a spinning wheel in the mud or snow)
You can do much better than this car kit, but it's something in case destroyed roads/bridges keep you from getting home for 12-24 hours.

Additional tricks for both kits: put the contact lists in their own ziplock plastic bags to reduce the chance that they'll mold/get wet over the years.

Hopefully this is all unnecessary.

Lots of great comments here, and a resource link at Making Light. UPDATE:  and see the comments below.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone in the US and everywhere else. Seems like a good time to note we've found a way to step back from yet another war, a good thing to be thankful about. Political stuff below - please skip it if you don't want to deal with that on this holiday.

Moving away from war seems good, except to the Republican leadership, who see no success with the interim deal. They've forgotten that if somebody's trying to get something you don't want them to get, then delaying them is generally a victory for your side. And this is more than a delay - the highly-enriched uranium will be processed into an oxide form that is at least an additional step further away from being useful for a nuclear bomb. So six months from now, Iran will be (slightly) further away from a bomb than they are now, and with much more extensive verification. Seems preferable to me over an ongoing program of blowing up large chunks of Iran now and repeating every two or three years as a politically-united Iran rebuilds its nuclear program.

So not much learning on that side of the fence, but I'm not sure the left is much better. Juan Cole's been my go-to expert on the area (I suppose I should like his recent emphasis on climate but I don't think he brings nearly the value added to that as to the Middle East). He strongly supports the deal, but has also strongly opposed the sanctions that made the deal possible. His opposition stemmed partly from the valid argument that they impose real hardship on Iranians, but also from the very dubious claim that they make war more likely, and from the legally ridiculous assertion that western use of financial tools to block oil sales "is a financial blockade, and blockades are acts of war." Nothing in his recent posts indicate a reassessment of that position.

So everyone's prior assessment was right, and the new information about the success of the approach they had opposed doesn't change anything.

And then there's yours truly. I fell to somewhat to the left of Obama, repeatedly buying Seymour Hersh's statements over the years that the US was just a few months away from starting an air war in Iran. I considered it crazy to attack Iran, and contra Obama, that living with a nuclear Iran was better than a bombing campaign. I still think that's true, but the question is whether the threat of a potential attack added to the pressure created by sanctions to get Iran to this agreement.

It seems likely to me that the military threat helped more than harmed the process to agreement. Iranian hardliners may have welcomed an attack as a way to weaken internal opposition but they don't seem ascendant now. So maybe Obama was right about making the threat. Actually carrying through on the threat is a different matter - you are allowed to bluff in this game, although you need to do it carefully.

Anyway, as with the case with the narrow issue of chemical weapons in Syria, we're in something close to a best-case scenario. Thankfully.

Dueling policy tips: selected tips for policy-makers dealing with science

Interesting article in Nature on 20 weird tips "to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science" and reduce belly fat. It's good although even better IMNSHO would be directions on how to choose between dueling experts. I'd guess they'd say just discount the experts that run afoul of the most tips.

First few tips are straightforward in theory if not always so in practice, and need no comment. Moving on, regression to the mean and extrapolating beyond a data range strike me as things that smart people don't always understand. Replication versus pseudoreplication is also good - a replication that repeats the same errors in the original study, e.g. not accounting for confounding factors, will just give the same bad results.

Separating no effect from nonsignifance can be huge, and appears to be what drove the stupidity over whether the Oregon Medicaid study showed insurance resulting or not resulting  in improvements in health outcomes. I would also add to the tip "significance is significant", the coda "except when it's not."  Just do enough studies and you'll eventually trip over the 5% threshold due to repeated dice-rolling. That's what gets us cancer clusters (or many of them, anyway), and over multiple decades may even result in global temperatures temporarily going below or above the 95% confidence levels.

Cherrypicking and risk perception also are pretty obvious, but such a huge problem that we really need tattoos.

Scientists are human and become biased, yes. The one trick I'd add from the legal profession is the declaration against interest - if one of the expert's statements goes against what the expert would like to conclude, it's more likely to be true.

$200 million hydrogen highway probably won't work and is a good idea

Delayed blogging here, but thought I'd call out an initiative to fund $20 million annually for a decade to create hydrogen fueling stations in California. This should create 100 new fueling stations - currently the state has nine that are open to the public.

Maybe I'm being too skeptical, but electric vehicles have a huge leg up on hydrogen and still confront an enormous challenge getting an adequate infrastructure in place, so I have strong doubts about whether this will work. Still, they should try it. Maybe the range advantages of hydrogen will help it catch up with or complement electric vehicles. A price of $20 million annually for something that has enough of a chance to be beneficial is worth it.

Absent the potential fraud issue, Solyndra represented a similar, reasonable investment. It didn't work because the technology costs didn't work as expected. You need to spread your bets when you're dealing with a difficult investment. Other bets, like with Tesla, seem to be going well.

Don't trust civil war predictions. Including mine.

Last week I listened to a Commonwealth Club podcast about Syria from early September, where I heard their invited speakers make retrospective fools of themselves as they poked fun at how the Obama Administration "boxed itself in" on chemical weapons in Syria.

Hearing their predictions of a fiasco on that issue prompted me to write about my own predictions on the outcome of civil wars, which don't seem that great. I can give myself some slight credit in the summer of 2011 when the mainstream said the Libyan war was at a stalemate, I thought that temporary victories by the government obscured a long term advance by rebels. That's pretty much it in terms of good predictions (written down somewhat late) - I could see an existing trend but not a change in trend. Seven months before that I said Qaddafi would be out within a week. My Libya wrap-up concluded that Assad would win in Syria. By July 2012 I acknowledged my pessimism about Assad was wrong but then thought it looked like the rebels were slowly winning. That too was wrong, as we see in the screwed up stalemate today.

My only defense is that I don't think my predictions are worse than what you'll find in the MSM. I welcome links to someone who got predictions consistently right, and made them early. Meanwhile I think it's still useful to make predictions - the people who make policy recommendations without predicting what results will come from those recommendations aren't adding any value.

Keeping track of those predictions and eating some crow as appropriate is still required, though.

UPDATE:  more Commonwealth Club, more foolishness about Syria and chemical weapons. This time from the moderator, Janine Zacharia, former Wash Post Bureau Chief. Even more depressing was the Israeli consul, who outright refuses to believe that the Arab Spring could be remotely about a drive for democracy as opposed to basic instincts of an honor-driven society.

Pics and video from last week

First anti-CO2 graffiti I've seen. Apparently they're anti Peets Coffee as well. I don't know, I think Peets is fine. 

I attended a student rally on Monday at Stanford to promote climate divestment, about 40-50 students there. Not too bad. Their Facebook page is here.

Video from the rally.

Republican politicians are soft on crime

1. Opposing attempts to get innocent people out of jail means letting the guilty run free. Eschaton and LGM covered this recently (the Texas Monthly story is incredible).

2. The Bush Administration decreased enforcement of environmental and white collar crimes, and you can expect similar results at state levels.

3. Republican elites hide behind pretenses of defending individuals from overzealous prosecution while serving the worst corporate excesses. Read this Redstate article on Criminalizing America - not once is protecting lawbreaking corporations mentioned. I stopped and read while skimming Redstate because of the name of the author, alecstates. Anything from ALEC deserves special attention and admiration. Read the actual model legislation and its slightly clearer that requiring intentional breaking of the law, and not just intention to commit the act, is meant to make it incredibly difficult to prosecute a corporate entity. That particular proposal apparently traces back to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, part of the Kochtopus.

I'm sure there's more.

(And it goes without saying that Obama should have pushed much harder on financial crimes related to the Great Recession, although it looks like some things are finally happening.)

Three words missing from the Caldeira/Emanuel/Hansen/Wigley letter supporting safer nuclear power

The letter's here, with the operative sentence "As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems." I would change the ending of that sentence to safer nuclear energy systems if fiscally prudent.

I personally couldn't support the letter as written just as I couldn't support the reverse, a letter urging unqualified opposition to nuclear energy. The reverse may be somewhat worse in the real world, because I think much of the opposition to nuclear energy isn't empirically based but tiered off of Cold War era ideological battles. Still, I don't see a whole lot of empiricism going on here. Why not urge advocacy and deployment of carbon capture and sequestration? CCS certainly has economic issues but adding 40% to the cost of coal might still keep it cheaper than nuclear, and CCS of biomass power is a carbon negative solution, one of the very few available. I'm not saying we must do CCS - maybe it doesn't pencil out - but then the same flexibility should apply to nuclear.

Just adding those three magic words may not be enough. We might need to finish the sentence  as safer nuclear energy systems if fiscally prudent and if nuclear proliferation issues are addressed. Nuclear power won't be a large solution to the climate change problem unless it spreads to many countries where it doesn't currently exist, maybe virtually all medium-sized and larger countries. Al Gore used to be a national security guy before he went green, and I think proliferation is one of the reasons for his nuclear skepticism.

Finally the sentence might need to read if fiscally prudent and if nuclear proliferation and terrorism issues are addressed. Terrorists causing catastrophic radioactive releases or getting their scheming hands on some radioactive material from these thousands of new nuclear plants around the world could be problematic. I'd concede this one isn't as important as the other two, but it's there.

The letter writers are right that accidents and nuclear waste, the issues most opponents emphasize, are way overblown, but they take a big step from that point to saying nuclear is therefore a good idea.

I'll stay a nuclear waffler for now.

The case for climate divestment in one sentence

Investors in fossil fuel companies make profits by imposing climate change on the world's most vulnerable, and on everyone else.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

To the Editors: Victor Davis Hanson doesn't understand income taxes

My LTE published by the Mercury News:
Hanson fails to understand tax rates

Victor Davis Hanson (Opinion, Oct. 25) strips more from the credibility of his arguments than anything else when he writes of the quiet desperation of the 1 percent in Silicon Valley, beginning with his assertion that they pay well above 50 percent in aggregate income tax rates. Hanson is unaware that a marginal rate applies only to income above the rate cutoff -- the amount a person earns below a rate cutoff is taxed at lower rates. A California couple has to earn more than a half-million dollars annually to begin paying slightly over 50 percent income tax on the additional money they make. They would have to earn many millions of dollars annually before their aggregate rate exceeds 50 percent. We're discussing far fewer than 1 percent at this point, people who can afford to give back to the California economy that helped them build that wealth. The rest of his argument is no better.

Hanson's Op-Ed read "Beneath veneers of high-end living, there are lives of quiet 1-percent desperation. With new federal and California tax hikes, aggregate income-tax rates on dot.commers can easily exceed 50 percent of their gross income." And it went south from there.

I expect a couple would have to make over $4 million annually to have a chance at 50% aggregate income tax rates, but that's making the ludicrous assumption that $4m includes no capital gains and ignores deductions. If you define income the way people usually do, as salary plus commission plus all investment income, I think few people below $10m annually pay over 50% in aggregate income tax. And while Romney's 14% rate was probably an outlier, the vast majority of people making over $10m have lots of investment income and pay very little. This doesn't include payroll taxes but those become a rounding error when your annual income exceeds $4m, and other taxes are also unimportant unless you've chosen a bonfire of vanities lifestyle.

Buffett said he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary, and he seems more accurate about the wealthiest than Hanson.

In other financial news, the US budget deficit is the lowest since the 2007-2008 fiscal year, at $680 billion. Interest on the debt is $415b, so the US is effectively spending only $265b above revenues and the rest is debt turnover. We're very close to having an operating/primary surplus in the near future, probably not a good idea with a still-limping economy.

Should be standard feature in high-rise neighborhoods

From SFGate:

Residents of the small Norwegian town of Rjukan have finally seen the light.

Tucked in between steep mountains, the town is normally shrouded in shadow for almost six months a year, with residents having to catch a cable car to the top of a nearby precipice to get a fix of midday vitamin D.

But on Wednesday faint rays from the winter sun for the first time reached the town's market square, thanks to three 183-square-foot (17-square-meter) mirrors placed on a mountain.

Cheering families, some on sun loungers, drinking cocktails and waving Norwegian flags, donned shades as the sun crept from behind a cloud to hit the mirrors and reflect down onto the faces of delighted children below.

People who live on the north side of high-rises could get sunlight the same way, with remote-controlled mirrors on the south side of adjacent buildings directing reflected sunlight.

Little quality of life amenities like this can reduce the downside of high-density living and increase the number of people who choose that option.

Krugman part 2: you can get pretty far just by regulating coal

Eli's excerpted Krugman's book review of Nordhaus below, but there was one other part of the review that especially interested me:
[Nordhaus] more or less ridicules claims that climate change isn’t happening or that it isn’t the result of human activity. And he calls for strong action: his best estimate of what we should be doing involves placing a substantial immediate tax on carbon.... 
Why is putting a price on carbon better than direct regulation of emissions? Every economist knows the arguments: efforts to reduce emissions can take place along many “margins,” and we should give people an incentive to exploit all of those margins.... The answer is, all of the above. And putting a price on carbon does, in fact, give people an incentive to do all of the above....

And yet there is a slightly odd dissonance in this book’s emphasis on carbon pricing. As I’ve just suggested, the standard economic argument for emissions pricing comes from the observation that there are many margins on which we should operate. Yet as Nordhaus himself points out, studies attempting to analyze how we might most efficiently reduce carbon emissions strongly suggest that just one of these margins should account for the bulk of any improvement—namely, we have to sharply reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity generation. Certainly it would be good to operate on other margins, especially because these studies might be wrong—maybe, for example, it would be easier than we think for consumers to shift to a radically lower-energy lifestyle, or there might be radical new ideas for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the message I took from this book was that direct action to regulate emissions from electricity generation would be a surprisingly good substitute for carbon pricing—not as good, but not bad.

And this conclusion becomes especially interesting given the current legal and political situation in the United States, where nothing like a carbon-pricing scheme has a chance of getting through Congress at least until or unless Democrats regain control of both houses, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency has asserted its right and duty to regulate power plant emissions, and has already introduced rules that will probably prevent the construction of any new coal-fired plants. Taking on the existing plants is going to be much tougher and more controversial, but looks for the moment like a more feasible path than carbon pricing.
(Emphasis added.)

The Republican Party has consistently opposed market mechanisms to help the environment, forcing us to use regulations instead or let the environment go to pot. Some times regulations work better than others, but it would be helpful if the Republicans just gave the market a chance.

Nearby (and especially distant) mountains don't prevent sea level rise/saltwater intrusion problems

Per Eli's post below, Judith Curry's put up a silly guest post by Rud Istvan saying that climate change poses no water supply problems to Caribbean islands. There are too many fish to shoot as Istvan gishgallops them in the barrel, so let's talk first about where he's right:  if nobody lived on these islands, then there'd be no water supply problems on those islands for those people who don't live there. In fact, a few people could live on those islands and if they always used far less water than the islands provided with a comfortable margin to spare, then again the problems from climate change would likely be minimal. His lamentation that humans are flawed is correct, while his claim that it doesn't count when climate change makes existing problems worse, not so much.

A brief aside:  I've heard a similar claim from far more credible people that climate change's effects on biodiversity is overemphasized because it only adds to other stresses, most notably habitat destruction that keeps species from being able to migrate to new areas. I'm not buying it.

So the main issue is Istvan's claim that if you can draw a line of any length on the earth's surface from A to B without going below sea level and where A is high up, then B cannot have a saltwater intrusion problem. He only references Caribbean islands, but I don't see why the argument doesn't apply everywhere. So his first example was Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic, at over 3000m elevation:

Pico Duarte's also over 100 km from Santo Domingo, and still further away from many other DR cities. Some of the other peaks he mentions are closer to those island's biggest cities, except for Pico Turquina in Cuba, which is closer to Port-au-Prince in Haiti than to Havana. Moving water a significant distance isn't easy, and contra Istvan, it's made harder when the landscape is mountainous.

Examining his claim, you would think California with a top elevation of 4400m wouldn't have a problem with saltwater intrusion, but we do. Los Angeles has been battling saltwater intrusion since 1915, and now spends millions of dollars injecting freshwater and treated wastewater to keep saltwater out.  LA, btw, has significant mountains in the same county over 3000m tall, and still has the problem. LA probably has an advantage over many Caribbean islands in that its complex geology limits where saltwater can intrude.

Freshwater tends to float on top of salt water, which is good when you've got saltwater intrusion deep below ground but problematic if you live at sea level near the coast when sea level is rising. Coastal cities on continents tend to have saltwater oceans in one direction and freshwater-providing land in the other three. On islands that starts to get problematic, especially the smaller islands. Most contamination also occurs in the upper ground, so drawing from your uppermost freshwater because that's all you got raises another set of issues.

Finally, higher temperatures will mean greater water demand, for farming, landscaping, and for native vegetation that limit how much water gets past their roots and into the water table. My water district sees large changes in water demand depending on whether we have a warm or cool summer. In the next few years we plan to calculate how climate change is going to increase future demand, but it's safe to say that Caribbean islands will need more water for human activities while getting less of it in the water table.

So all that's pretty silly, but the most striking part for me is Rud Istvan's assertion that human mistakes harming the Caribbean societies count when they're committed by the people there, but not when they're committed by Rud Istvan and others who don't want to face the reality of climate change.

UPDATE:  my attempt to comment at Curry's got bounced back. I'll store the comment here for now, pretty much the same as above:

As a director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District in northern California, I would like to inform Rud Istvan that the existence of mountains in a general area does not prevent saltwater intrusion. In Los Angeles, for example, the 3000m San Gabriel Mountains are physically adjacent to the city in the same county, and still they have to spend millions of dollars annually fighting saltwater intrusion. Contrast that to Cuba's highest peak, which is closer to Port-au-Prince Haiti than it is to Havana.

It's also important to note that warmer temperatures increase water demand from both artificial and natural landscapes, which will further depress freshwater tables and increase saltwater intrusion.

Istvan might consider doing further research on these issues before he reaches for what appears to be simplistic conclusions. Climate change makes water supply problems worse as a general matter. Islanders (and for what it's worth, everyone else) may not have handled their other water supply issues perfectly, but that's no excuse to keep greenhouse gas emissions high.

Sympathy for those lost in the shuffle

Interesting editorial in the Mercury News over the "resource reshuffling" issue and California's effort to control climate change. And attention, carbon tax fans, you're not safe from this issue either.

It's a variation on the leakage problem, that reducing carbon emissions in one jurisdiction might result in more emissions elsewhere. The argument in this case is that coal and gas plants outside of California that previously supplied the California and other state markets would just reshuffle who gets supplied with what, with California achieving "reduced" emissions only because other states are being credited with the "increased" emissions.

I'm not sure what to think of the argument. To be fair, it reminds me a lot of my Burma boycott days from the 1990s, when a retail buyer of clothing from a manufacturer would promise not to take any of their Burma imports. We said that's unacceptable, the manufacture will just reshuffle the Burma stuff to another retailer who doesn't even pretend to care about ethics.

But there's always another hand. The resource reshuffling mentioned here shrinks the market for the worst fuels - gas can sell anywhere, while coal can't. And doesn't that reshuffling happen all the time anyway - if I buy an electric car and a bunch of solar panels, wouldn't just a tiny decrease in gas price result in more purchases that (almost) make up for my removal of my vehicle from the market? What's the real solution - is California supposed to go to other states, buy and shut down their coal plants, and then buy and shut down any new coal plants proposed to take the old plants' place? As for the editorial, it suggests continued responsibility for the reshuffled emissions - but for how long? Forever?

I think I could agree with some transitional responsibility for reshuffled emissions for one or a few years, but after a while I'd say the emissions belong to whoever's creating them, not whoever used to create them in the past.

Notes from the Seattle Divestment Forum today and yesterday

I got my five minutes at the press conference, starting about 10 minutes into the video below:

(Link here for Oct. 17 video - no idea why the freeze frame is on my blathering mug instead the mayor's....)

The main takeaway from the conference - two thirds of fossil fuel reserves represented on world capital stock exchanges have to stay in the ground to stay within the 2C temp rise goal. The valuation of the rest is a carbon bubble.
     My note - I suppose it could be that the carbon returns to the ground instead of the fossil fuel stays, although CCS hasn't done well.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn:  we're the first generation to experience climate change, and the last to be able to stop it.
     My note - a bit of an overstatement and understatement - we can't stop it, and even a business as usual scenario for X years in the future would be disastrous but not a reason to do nothing starting X years in the future.

A contract-and-grow strategy works for fossil fuel companies - e.g., an oil company that stops throwing away profits on finding new fossil reserves and increases dividends instead will be worth more and serve its owners better than a typical oil company that spends money finding reserves it will never burn.

Lots of discussion on fiduciary duty, something used as an excuse to not divest. Bob Massie calls it a Harry Potter spell - "Fiduciarydutyparalyis!" Given the risks from companies that say they don't care about the future, the fiduciary duty could actually support divestment - what does that say about the quality of the management?

One speaker presented two portfolios, one with fossil fuel companies and one without. The one without had a larger carbon footprint. Climate divestment can get tricky.
       My note - I expect that most of the time, this would not be the usual outcome. Perfect v good issue.

Talking to financial people, it sounds like the recognition of financial exposure that you see in the insurance sector is starting to happen in the financial sector.

A number of professionals showed backcast simulations of divested portfolios v. typical portfolios. Overall it seemed to not diverge all that much.

One person asked a question I had - would recognizing the carbon bubble create a race by companies to get the fuel burnt first, before we hit the ceiling? Response said no, projects are currently being cancelled. YMMV.

Investor engagement/shareholder activism - speakers acknowledged this can be a viable alternative in some circumstances, but argued that if a problem with a business is its core business strategy, then shareholder activism won't work. One speaker made a slightly contrary argument - they're going to engage directly with fossil fuel companies to get them to drop the $100b most expensive new fossil fuel projects in planning stages, setting the stage for shareholder lawsuits if they don't drop them and then the projects crash and burn metaphorically.

Someone raised the slippery slope issue that climate divestment is only one issue and that it opens the door to still other ways to reduce the investment universe. I can understand the reasoning - I think a reasonable response might be that you can consider multiple causes, up to whatever line you choose to draw on restricting your investment universe. Then cage match the causes against each other. The speaker said you also have to look at the investor's mission and the cost of a screen - e.g., divesting from Russia-investing companies would be much more difficult than divesting from top 200 fossil fuels.

On a personal note, I ran into a guy who I used to work with on Burma human-rights issues 18 years ago, and saw him today for the first time since then. Small world.

Eye-opening for those of us who don't have to deal with this ourselves

Sexual harassment from Bora Zivkovic, who's done so much good for science blogging and then used it to harass women. What a shame. Comments worth reading too, one woman after another talking about dealing with the same damn thing.

More context here.

Supreme Court's latest nonsense - it takes four to tango but five to win

The Supremes have decided to accept an industry/US Chamber appeal of a lower court decision saying the EPA was "unambiguously correct" when it used regulating greenhouse gases for motor vehicles as a trigger to begin regulating emissions by power plants. They refused to consider broader questions, including reconsideration of their 2007 decision that effectively mandated the beginning of EPA regulation. The EPA also interpreted legal requirements of the Clean Air Act to allow them to focus only on major polluters - the forces of darkness tried to make a poison pill of the law by forcing them to regulate everybody, and AFAICT that's been shut down.

This issue involves arcana of the CAA, much of it beyond my area. I can just say that it takes only four of the nine supremes to accept an appeal but it takes five to win. The original 2007 vote was 5-4. Granting cert to consider the appeal doesn't necessarily indicate a change in the vote count, but it does indicate that at least four think they've got a chance to ruin the global environment.

While it's legal arcana, the environmental implications are huge. That the US Chamber is again choosing the fossil fuel industry interests over the green business interests shows its dysfunction in failing to represent American businesses.

LA Times chooses not to publish nonsense Letters to the Editor

Specifically, if a letter asserts that there's no sign humans have caused climate change, then they don't publish it, instead hoping that some other letter may contain factual information.

This strikes me as reasonable enough; the usual comparison to creationism applies. I would limit it somewhat - if a LTE quoted one of the very few peer-reviewed, skeptical abstracts, then that's not complete nonsense. Whether an outlier opinion deserves such a prominent placement is the next question and probably depends on the letter and context.

My anecdotal sense is that the false equivalence of ten and even five years ago in the mainstream media over climate science has changed, and the LA Times is one example.

Government disappearances

A little personal tale from the government shutdown - I came back yesterday from vacation at Baxter State Park visiting three moose, two beaver, one insolent racoon, and a million colored leaves, with the plan of leaving next week for our water district's fall trip to Washington DC. We go to lobby the Feds on funding for our various flood control projects and San Francisco Bay restoration program. So much for that trip - our staff tell us that government officials we'd been planning to meet are basically disappearing - they're not even legally allowed to answer calls we make to them on their government-issue phones. The story's that it will get even worse after Friday - the Office of Management and Budget has allowed a few agencies to teeter forward on rollover funding, but that's done with after this week. So we'll be going in November on the hope that things will work out then.

Here's my thought experiment:  why shouldn't the Democrats demand that the Republican House pass climate change legislation or a fiscal stimulus as a condition of funding the government and raising the debt limit? If the tactic of taking the national and global economy hostage is legitimate, why shouldn't Democrats use it?

This isn't even a case where Republicans can argue the ends justify the means, a utilitarian argument they usually avoid. The ends they seek are the opposite of the ends that Democrats would seek so there's no utility-maximizing outcome, just a government shutdown and potential default. The only way to win the game is not to play - except of course for trying to win elections, a legitimate way to change the law.

One good thing about the strange fact of the Army Corps of Engineers running America's domestic flood control program is they're more likely to operate during a government shutdown, so we were able to do a little negotiation at yesterday's district board meeting. Not sure if it'll be interesting, but I'm attaching below a clip where I tried unsuccessfully to pin down one of their experts on an environmental issue. For decades we've allowed trees and bushy vegetation to grow on our levees along streams, incorporating them into our riparian system and providing important benefits to endangered fish. Recently the Corps has been changing that.

I think he's truly trying to be helpful, but I'm not sure if I failed to ask the right question or if it's just that it's not possible to be more specific.

(Video here, October 8, Item 2.1)

In a good news item, a request I made over the summer to increase the rebate we give people to tear out their lawns and put in low-water use landscaping is being supported by staff. Some of our local cities match our rebate and will increase their matching, so in some places we're rebating $2 per square foot of removed lawn, which will pick up a significant fraction of the cost.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fifteen years later, Patrick Michaels finally makes a bet on climate change

Via Tamino, I learned of a not particularly large, $250 bet with Scott Supak over whether there will be statistically significant warming in 25 years starting in 1997 (details posted at Roy Spencer's blog).

This is an update to a bet offer that Michaels' newsletter made in 1998 for a 10 year period. James Annan learned of that offer in 2005 and tried to accept, but the new editor Chip Knappenberger pulled a Lindzen (defined here) and declined to keep that bet. Seems like a pretty good bet for Scott despite starting in the 1997-1998 El Nino, some uncertainty about defining statistical signficance, and despite using HADCRUT which as I understand it leaves out the rapidly-warming high Arctic.

I btw have my own series of bets with up to $9,000 on the line, starting with 2007 five-year average and ending with 2017, 2022, and 2027 five-year averages. So far it's not going well for me, but it's early days. Best case scenario is at the end of 2029, I've lost my shirt. Worst case scenario is I've won every bet. Almost-worst case scenario is that statistical or a real temporary lull cost me on the 10-year bet (which will slow down efforts to address the problem) while I win on the 20.

Dexter deteriorated because breaking good isn't very interesting

(Spoilers for Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Deadwood)

Guess my loss of interest in Dexter was justified as that series limps to its finale. I stopped watching in the third season because Dexter became less interesting as he evolved into someone less creepy and more normal, and according to the link that problem has only continued. The link contrasts Dexter to Breaking Bad, whose lead character has become worse as the show has become even better.

For another great show with a similar problem in the character arc, look at Deadwood. One of my favorite shows ever, but I didn't like Al Swearengen's improved moral character. They fixed that in the finale, though. We'll see what happens with Dexter.

Any other good ambiguous shows out there?

The one weird trick missing from coverage of carbon emission rules for new power plants

Don't know how often I'll get away with a semi-bogus title like the one above, but I'll use it while I can.

Anyway, draft rules from last year for new plants have been revised without too much weakening. New gas plants with newest technology won't have trouble meeting limits, while the best coal plants, barring some breakthrough, will likely have to sequester about 40% of their emissions.

So the one weird trick that people forget is this is not a free market, it's a regulated utility market, so reactions between price and market have intermediaries. While the assumption is likely correct that virtually no coal plants would've been built anyway, to the extent that assumption changes for political reasons, this proposal means that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will be required. The issue of passing on sequestration costs in a regulated utility arose previously:

[One utility decided on a] recent deferral of a large-scale CCS retrofit demonstration project on one of its coal-fired power plants because the State’s utility regulators would not approve CCS without a regulatory requirement to reduce CO2.

This rule makes CCS slightly more possible, and there are four plants currently being constructed with CCS with special financial help, but this rule could assist these or similar plants.

With that weird trick out of the way, some other thoughts

- to litigate, the fossil fuel industry has to show it has standing to sue, and that could be an issue. Standing requires injury. If no coal plants were going to be built anyway, where's the injury? Once again, a conservative legal technique designed to cripple the law might have potential blowback against the conservatives.

- when the litigation happens, I have no idea of the maximum time it will take to finish, but it's pretty safe to say at least a year to happen, likely much longer than that. I believe these cases go direct to appellate courts, but from there they can request whether the Supreme Court would consider a further appeal.

- in a bit of irony for coal, their fight against cap-and-trade is coming back to bite them as far as new plants are concerned. New coal will have to reduce carbon by about 40%. I expect that if they have to sequester 40%, then sequestering 80% wouldn't have been hard, and if cap and trade had been in place, they could've sold the extra amount to existing plants.

UPDATE:  ironic timing - Norway is closing down its massive CCS project amid criticism and cost overruns. This keeps happening to CCS systems. Solar power has a mix of good news and bad news, but CCS seems to only have bad news. This will have to change if it's going to play an important role in the future.

Storms crashing on peoples' heads can fill some information deficits on climate

A study of Rutgers University students testing their automatic attitude preferences for environmental politicians versus anti-tax politicians found a significant shift to the environmental candidate after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (full article behind paywall). Physical evidence literally hitting you in the face may satisfy the information deficit. Hopefully someone can check on Colorado in a little while.

I'm pretty certain that in 50 years, the number of climate deniers will be similar to the number of Flat Earthers no matter how well or poorly we communicate the issue. Objective reality has a role to play. The issue is how much sooner than 50 years  from now we can get people to take required action.

Following up on Eli's post on the Kahan paper, I have a thought experiment to follow up Kahan's study:  what if immediately after the subjects had completed the study, the researchers explained to them how the math actually works and then asked them if they wanted to revise their answers? It seems highly likely there would be a tremendous shift to the correct answer (and if the low numeracy people didn't shift, that tends to support Michael Tobis' view). This result would support the information deficit model. It's questionable how closely this resembles what happens in the real world, but the same could be said about Kahan's setup.

Obviously framing and psychological identity play a role in getting us to confront climate change soon, but so does the science, and so does the exposure of bad arguments used to deny the science.
Just a public service announcement for this climate divestment discussion. I'll do my best to make it, probably just for the 18th. If you're going, drop a comment.

Inside the Third Reich

I had planned to review two memoirs, Ulysses Grant and Albert Speer, but it's just been too long to say anything coherent about Grant's book other than it's well worth reading and escaped from copyright. Both books are well-written which is the key thing, much more so than honesty or historical value. It relates to my guess as to why I prefer Roy Spencer over RPJr. despite Roy being even more wrong:  Roy's a good writer.

To finish up with Grant, he's probably not worth reading though if you don't like military history. His account of the Mexican-American War, where he served with Robert E Lee, filled a substantial gap in my own knowledge. He never discusses his mostly-failed administration, which is unfortunate. He does put the war criminal/racist-for-his-time Nathan Forrest in his place. More than worth the price.

As is Speer's memoir about his life as one of Hitler's top officials and a potential heir, although the need to be cautious about viewpoint for any autobiography goes into overtime for the repentant Nazi. I have an amateur interest in World War II and in psychopaths, so a person who knew Hitler well could have an interesting story. My amateur guess after reading this and other accounts is that Hitler wasn't a psychopath, or at least not in all respects. Just a monster. His inability to form personal bonds seems psychopathic, but his deep emotional currents don't match the profile, nor his kindness to animals.

The missing element from Speer's account is what made Hitler so electrifying and dominant. Speer himself was clearly under Hitler's thumb for many years but doesn't make you really feel why that was so, and Hitler's many flaws weren't all that hidden, even early on. I didn't realize how boring the man was. The whole concept of charisma is mysterious to me, a poorly-defined, quasi-supernatural characteristic that makes me skeptical. Maybe it's a combination of hypnotic skills at a distance and pheromones up close. Anyway, Speer doesn't help clarify it.

It's pretty clear I'm not going to write the definitive review of WWII, Hitler, or even Speer, so I'll just recommend the book, and after the jump I'll just call out a few interesting points:

(click here for the full post)

Dear Bjorn: if you spend money to reduce a problem and the problem's reduced, that doesn't magically mean the problem reduced itself

One piece of Lomborg's alleged evidence that climate change hasn't produced extreme weather:  "Damage from flooding in the United States has declined from 0.2 percent of gross domestic product in 1940 to less than 0.05 percent today."

I vaguely remembered seeing this lame argument before, and after I clicked his source link I saw a familiar piece of liver. Should've guessed.

The problem with this argument is that the vast majority of money spent on flood control activities happened after 1940, and the damage-reduction effect of those flood control expenditures is incremental (flood control projects typically last 30-50 years, and rebuilding is cheaper than the original building). Extreme storm precipitation could get worse and the damage could still decrease, if you put in some effort at flood control. There's no accounting in the data set for the cost of that effort.

That's only one of many problems with Lomborg, but it's in my bailiwick so I had to call it out. And btw, the data doesn't include Sandy damages (the NOAA flood loss data set ended in September 2012), so that also might end up being a disturbance in the Force of the trend line.

California carbon caps will overcome challenges; California climate polling has good news

California in the next half-decade will face a similar challenge the European carbon market faced, but with a better outcome and better reason for it.

Future emissions are now projected to be lower than anticipated under the cap and trade program, and with many allocations given freely, the price of allocations to be auctioned could have been at risk. However, unlike the European system, California included a price floor. That floor increases over time, as does the percentage of allocations auctioned instead of those wasted on giveaways. These steps together with a gradual tightening of the overall cap will keep the market functioning. This is happening in large part just because the Europeans went first and we learned from them. The European system could be improved, as could California's, but having problems that others learn from doesn't make their system a failure.

One reason why emission projects are low is that cap-and-trade is only one part of California's system to reducing emissions. Per the link above, regulations affecting renewable power and carbon fuel standards are eating into overall emission levels. In effect, the system has a certain redundancy with cap-and-trade backing up other components - again, that's not a showing of weakness. I don't know if it's the policy-optimal design, but it beats nothing, regardless of Naomi Klein may have to say.

Maybe in a few years we'll have the political willpower to enact improvements. A recent poll showed 79% of Californians think global warming is happening. Of them, 71% are very sure or extremely sure it's happening (p. 20). I don't like how they did the follow-up question of what's causing the warming (p. 11), however. They asked all respondents to assume warming was happening and then asked whether humans or nature are the cause. They should've asked only the ones who accept it as happening, so we can see what percent believe there's a problem and humans are the cause, as they'd be likely supporters of actions to address climate. It's a shame that only 55% think there's a scientific consensus (p. 22) - seems like there's an information deficit among those who should be receptive to the concept that a strong consensus exists out there in support of their own beliefs.

Other datapoints:  some 68% support more renewable power even if it costs the average family $100/year, and the public is evenly split on fracking (p. 37). I was really hoping for age breakdowns so I could chortle, but that wasn't provided.

I generally take specific poll numbers with a grain of salt, but trends over time seem more credible. Hopefully they'll repeat the poll over the next few years.

What Joe Romm said about Naomi Klein's 'you're with me or you're against the planet' argument

That is all.

So what happens after the second and third major uses of chemical weapons by Assad?

UPDATE:  I agree with Josh Marshall that turning over the chemical weapons for destruction is fine as an alternative, and IMO much better than a strike. If Assad only plays along for a while and then refuses, we could reassess whether to strike then or wait for him to use them again.

I'm glad that Obama is going to Congress, and he obviously shouldn't move ahead if Congress doesn't pass the resolution. The US moves too slowly on domestic matters. We have at times like World War II, Libya, and Syria itself, also moved too slowly on military involvement overseas. The more typical pattern though is for military involvement happening too quickly and on false pretenses. Getting Congress involved is a good idea in the long run, even if it results this time around in the mistake of tying Obama's hands. Waiting so that we can go from 97% sure of what happened to 99%+ sure is also a good idea.

Lots of stupid arguments being made on both sides. The antis say that anything short of overthrowing Assad is a failure as a deterrent and that a military strike will harm domestic programs at home. The pros say that failure to strike puts the US in immediate danger, and continue with the old chestnut of conflating chemical weapons with nuclear weapons as "weapons of mass destruction." The antis make sadly laughable claims that diplomacy is going to do anything about chemical weapons or about the problems in the Syrian opposition (Rep. Chris Smith says a military strike won't deter Assad but Smith's proposal to eventually set up a war crimes tribunal may help). I heard another Republican Congressman criticize Obama for not attacking when the previous, ambiguous chemical weapons uses occurred, and then say he'd vote against authorization.

The key issue is that the chemical weapons use and what to do about Syria overall are separate issues, despite the desire of extremists like McCain to tie them together. Obama seems to understand that. A reaction by the US and France to the chemical weapons use, either a military or non-military reaction, would succeed if it leaves Syrian decisionmakers thinking that doing it again would not be in their best interest (or if it really was just a mistake, then realize they had to get their system under control). I just can't think of a non-military reaction that has that effect.

I think it's not ridiculous to argue that the outside world should do nothing (sorry, do diplomacy only) after further chemical weapons attacks - we can't solve all the world's problems - but I think on balance it's a bad argument. I'm guessing that if the authorization goes down, Obama will just wait for further attacks, and then most likely strike without asking Congress (even though he should ask Congress).

Yes, the US is being hugely hypocritical in opposing Assad while doing nothing elsewhere, like Bahrain. That's not a reason to do nothing but instead a reason to fix our act in Bahrain.

For those who think the current bad news in Libya proves our involvement there was a mistake, my bet offer is still open, and updated.

More on plug-in v gas engine infrastructure

My post in August suggested that as plug-in hybrid and EV sales rise to several percentage points and more of market share, we'll start to see incremental degradation of the societal infrastructure supporting gas engines, mainly a loss of gas stations and car maintenance shops. I argued that range anxiety and "range irritation" will be an issue for gas engine vehicles in some urban areas within a decade or so.

Some pushback happened in comments over whether gas engine range anxiety will really be an issue and when it might occur. James Wimberley correctly points out that the current average age of vehicles is 11 years for a lifespan of 20 years, not 10 years as I said. Wiki says that's an increase from 9.4 year average in 2007 which suggests it may lower some as the economy improves. More importantly, wiki says "many Americans own three or more vehicles. The low marginal cost of registering and insuring additional older vehicles means many vehicles that are rarely used are still given full weight in the statistics." What we care about is more likely to be the median age of the vehicle that gets median usage. Still, I agree that it will take more than five years for that median vehicle to reflect current year market share.

On range anxiety, I did some unscientific (yes I know) checking around on Google Maps of two areas I know pretty well - South San Francisco Bay area and upstate New York. You have to get out to the more distant suburbs before gas station density really starts dropping and range anxiety seems more likely. In the exurbs, you usually travel on arterials where the gas stations are located, and people choosing to live in exurbs tend to accept lots of driving as part of the tradeoffs they're making.

Still, not every trip in exurbia is a long one that will pass by a convenient gas station. And while other people may be perfect, I certainly have let the gas tank get low enough to be more than a little anxious, even in the more urban-ish area where I live. Any decrease in gas station density could intensify that.

I had previously suggested a five mile trip just to get gas as problematic, but there's nothing magical about that number. While gas engine range irritation is probably more important, I still think range anxiety complaints will happen somewhere within a decade.

Range irritation, which I'd define as annoyance at the time spent filling up and maintaining gas engine vehicles, is the main issue. Driving even a quarter mile in heavy traffic can take time and that will get worse as station density decreases/population density increases. Drivers can plan their gas trips to avoid busy traffic, but that puts them in the same planning constraint situation that EV drivers face. When plug-ins can charge both at home and wherever they normally drive to, they're the more convenient vehicle.

In related news, plug-ins captured 6% of the August market share in Norway, presumably even more than that in Oslo. Significant financial incentives in Norway balance out the negative externalities from gas engines. Maybe Oslo will be the first place where the infrastructure favors plug-ins over gas.

In less cheerful news, Australian voters look likely to have scrapped their carbon tax on the most polluting businesses. Instead they'll have taxpayer tributes to the same businesses in return for reducing the harm they're causing to Australia and the world. While this was likely a secondary issue in the election, I think it does indicate the reason why it's helpful to make political compromises in order to get broader support for climate solutions.

Albert Speer's memoirs on Nazis rejecting gas warfare

Recently finished Speer's memoir, Inside the Third Reich. I'll have my own comments on the chemical weapons issue, but in case they're useless, I'll separate out a piece of history from late 1944 (at pp. 413-414 of the paperback):
Hitler, to be sure, had always rejected gas warfare; but now he hinted at a situation conference in headquarters that the use of gas might stop the advance of the Soviet troops. He went on with vague speculations that the West would accept gas warfare against the East because at this stage of the war the British and American governments had an interest in stopping the Russian advance. When no one at the situation conference spoke up in agreement, Hitler did not return to the subject. 
Undoubtedly the generals feared the unpredictable consequences.

Hitler, btw, had been temporarily blinded in World War I from a British gas attack.

Cultural cognition model versus "powerful groups are lying" model

Fair amount of Twitter discussion of a Dan Kahan paper setting up a lab battle between information deficit as explaining people's policy misunderstandings (Science Comprehension Thesis or "SCT") versus a psychological reaction to facts that conflict or confirm with personal and group ideology (Identity-protective Cognition Thesis or "ICT"). Kahan et al. found that people with better numerical ability applied that ability when the conclusions favored their ideology and sometimes didn't when the conclusions were problematic for them. This has the effect of increasing political polarization for people with higher numerical ability, which he says shows ICT as better explaining the effect than SCT. Chris Mooney has a decent writeup here.

With that throat-clearing done, the main issue is what Steve Bloom and Michael Mann said, in effect that the Powerful Groups Are Lying (PGAL) model better explains why the public has problems accepting climate science. Some organizations and people are lying and acting in bad faith, feeding into and creating the cultural identity that Kahan researches. My own suspicion that climate deniers are cozying up to evolution deniers is a conscious effort to snuff the Creation Care evangelical movement and preserve a conservative religious group identity, so this identity that Kahan talks about isn't a fixed thing - it's manipulated.

Secondary to all that, Mooney overplays it when he asks whether the Kahan paper will "slay the 'deficit model' once and for all." The study showed that highly numerate people were better than innumerate ones at understanding a problem, even when that understanding conflicted with their group identity. In the paper, Kahan says (p. 25):
ICT predicts that more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interest in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs.
The results in the experiment suggest that high-Numeracy partisans did exactly that in the gun-ban conditions. 
That seems to be either wrong or sloppy writing because the highly numerate people did better despite the group identity cost, presumably by using their better skills. The general argument in the paper is fine that polarization increases - both groups do better at high numeracy but one will do far better than the other when it reinforces their identity. If both improve then the deficit model isn't slain.

Mapping this directly to climate change, it suggests that both reasonably-educated conservatives and liberals will benefit from more science education on climate, although it will penetrate better with liberals. The real need, though, is for the PGAL effort to stop manipulating group identity and force-feeding disinformation.

Kahan's right though when he says "people, once predisposed, misinform themselves, summoning all their reason." That may be a common flaw, but it's still a moral flaw. The disinformers who feed this weakness are the crack dealers of politics.

I should also say not all the deniers know they're lying, and from my conversations with some of them I'm sure they believe what they're saying. Others though are a different story.

Friday, August 30, 2013

We did our divestment

The Water District board voted 7-0 last night to enact our climate divestment policy - no new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, get rid of what we currently have by 2016, and send letters to the state agency managing our pension funds, a state water agency association, and our local government counterparts encouraging them to do the same. Also yesterday, we cut our own compensation by just under 10%, reverting it back to what the board received in 2008.

There was some reasonable discussion of whether we should distinguish the best fossil fuel companies from the rest. We decided to go ahead with the simple divestment from all of them, and consider at a future time whether we should amend the policy in favor of the better companies.

Like I said earlier, this should make us the first water district and third government agency of any kind to complete this step. 350.org has a press release here. The San Jose Mercury News published an article, and to make it interesting I'll just copy below mostly just the critical parts:

In the 1980s, hundreds of American cities, states and universities sold their investments in South African companies as part of a protest against that country's former apartheid government.

Now, environmental groups are trying to duplicate that effort, but with global warming polluters in the role of villain. And, just as with South African divestment a generation ago, the Bay Area is at the head of the parade again, prompting cheers from environmentalists and jeers from skeptics who say the whole effort amounts to little more than empty symbolism.... 
"It is unfortunate some people seem to feel supplying consumers with reliable and affordable energy is somehow comparable to apartheid," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, in Sacramento.

"Petroleum energy provides billions of people worldwide with mobility, comfort, security and economic prosperity, he said."

Hull said that many oil companies "understand the desire to develop new alternative energy sources and reduce our collective carbon footprint" and that many fossil fuel companies are working on renewable energy projects.

Jeremy Carl, an energy expert and research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who has been critical of the tactics of the environmental movement, said that climate change is occurring and is a problem. But rather than divestment, activists should work with companies and governments to promote issues like tax credits to encourage renewable energy research, or a carbon tax that would be offset by tax refunds to the public.

"We've seen people saying the fossil fuel companies are awful, and then driving home in their car and turning on their natural gas-powered electricity," he said. "I find it totally a distasteful and hypocritical way of looking at a serious situation. It trivializes an important issue."

I don't find that very persuasive, somehow. I have no interest in the flack from WSPA but I wonder if it's worth talking to Jeremy Carl, who's only a 15 minute drive away from me in my fossil-fueled car.

Per my previous post, I think the primary effect of these actions are cultural/political and not directly economic. OTOH, there's an economic cost to cultural disfavor - I bet tobacco companies have to pay a premium to hire and retain employees who might otherwise prefer to not kill people for a living. Could work the same way here as another form of cultural tax on carbon.

Video below of every fascinating moment of the discussion, assuming the video works (discussion begins about a minute into the video). It's Item 9.1 if you want to read it as well.

The EV v. gas infrastructure argument cuts both ways

The big challenge for electric vehicles is that we have the societal infrastructure to support gas engines but not electric. Despite that fact, in California the hybrid and EV plug-ins are now 1.8% of the market. Globally and nationally, estimates range from one to three percent of all vehicles in 2019-2020 will be the two types of plug-ins (see page 4).

The infrastructure challenge is real even if "range axiety" is overhyped. To the extent that challenge to plug-ins is met and overcome, though, then the shoe is on the other foot. Every sale of a plug-in vehicle decreases support for the infrastructure supporting gas vehicles. When plugins are taking only one percent of the market, the decrease is insignificant. When they take three percent, it's starting to be significant, and we can expect the effect to increase and to be concentrated in some areas. If nearly two percent of California car sales are electric now, then what will be the percent in a decade, and what will be the situation in the San Francisco and LA metropolitan areas?

There are going to be fewer gas stations and fewer gas engine car servicing businesses. They'll try to adapt but plugins and especially EVs won't need charging stations in the same places and they won't need as much maintenance.

I think we may be about a decade away from hearing the first complaints of range anxiety and range irritation coming from gas vehicle owners in some markets, where they'll have to drive five miles or more out of their way each time they want to gas up, while their plugins can charge whenever they're at home, work, or shopping. The process may accelerate as investors hesitate to put money in the gas vehicle infrastructure, knowing they'll need a number of years to make a profit while their market is shrinking.

I know I'm pretty good at counting my chickens before they hatch, and I recognize that cars have a 10-year lifespan so it takes a while for the existing car population to reflect changes in sales (UPDATE:  per the comments, more like 20 years, although older cars are driven much less). Still, I can see this happening in a decade in some markets, especially where I live.

Tamino uses math to describe how denialists handle data, but I prefer visuals

From Senorgif. Title:  Uh, Not a Good Fit.

Republicans writing the Fall 2014 campaign commercials for Democrats

Prelude here:  a Republican operative with a pre-existing condition and no insurance rethinks the Obamacare thing.


"We're the Jones Family, living right here with you in Houston, and we've been conservative Republicans for as long as we can remember. When Republican leaders told us not to sign up for health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, we believed them. After signup eligibility closed, Suzie here got hit by a car [PHOTO MONTAGE OF MEDICAL TREATMENT]. We're incredibly relieved that Suzie is recovering, but the bills have ruined us because our Republican leaders told us not to get insurance."

"We can't wait until the eligibility for Obamacare insurance signup starts again, and we'll be signing up."

"We're still conservatives, but something has gone deeply wrong with the Republican Party leadership. We're protecting our family this fall by voting for [DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE] who will help us get and keep affordable health care. You should do the same."


I don't think the effort to get people to not sign up will be very successful, but it should be successful enough to have plenty of Real People examples, like the hypothetical one above, in contested campaigns throughout the country.

While not all Republicans/conservatives have called for a boycott, a lot have and the rest have done everything they could to sabotage health care. I think this commercial would be a fair shot against your typical Tea Party Congressman unless he or she made an exception and told people to sign up on the exchanges.

Good chance we'll be the first water district in the country to divest from fossil fuels, starting August 27th

I'm guessing we're first on the planet too, but who knows. I previously wrote a memo suggesting we drop investments in fossil fuel companies (the big push by 350.org), and we directed staff to return to us with a proposal. It's now available (to RTFD, click here for the policy and scroll to Attachment 5 to get to the memo and discussion). It's pretty simple - no investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, relying primarily but not exclusively on third-party documentation of what constitutes the top 200 companies. Our district doesn't control pension funds, so I'll ask that we also include a letter to the state CalPERS board urging them to take the same step that we're doing.

Along with being the first water district in the solar system to have a climate divestment policy after the August 27 meeting (assuming I'm not counting my chickens too early), I think we might also be the third government agency to do it. Reading through the 350.org list of twenty cities, Seattle and Santa Monica are the only cities with a controlling policy in place. A handful of others have passed advisory measures but don't mandate the change, some aren't currently invested in fossil fuel companies but don't have a policy, and the rest are still investigating the idea.

I think there are a fair number of water districts like ours with significant climate awareness and political responsiveness, so I hope this will spread. As for its actual impact on those companies, even if it spreads widely, that's less clear. The pool of money available to be invested in those companies would have to shrink a lot before the companies are forced to pay a premium in dividends or interest rates in order to get investments. I suppose it could happen, but I think the primary effect is cultural, creating an awareness that they are basically little different from tobacco companies and the apartheid-era South African investments.

There is a difference from South Africa in that it wouldn't be good if we halted all fossil fuel use immediately, but somehow I'm not too worried about that outcome.