Monday, March 31, 2014

Another sadly-unpaid endorsement: Duolingo

Here's the article that convinced me to try it after shaking off the Candy Crush demon.

I've now spent about 30 minutes a day for the past month learning languages. Okay, playing/learning languages, but it beats passively listening to Spanish radio. AFAICT you can't do the translations of actual docs on the app but have to go the website - I helped translate one document about renewable energy in Spain, but I'm way too low-level to do anything with the other languages. I just wish they'd add learning non-Indo-European languages from English.

Anyway, for some reason I've been designated brian.schm3 in case anyone else is playing.

Shameless self-promotion: on GoGreen America radio tomorrow 9 a.m. Pacific Time to talk climate divestment

Link is here to listen in live or to get the archived version.

UPDATE:  good timing with this BBC article on a discussion of the carbon bubble in the UK.

UPDATE 2:  archive link here.

My guess: Putin won't invade the rest of eastern Ukraine

My civil war predictions aren't so hot, but let's see how my war-war predictions turn out:  I think Putin means to consolidate control in Crimea and not invade the other parts of eastern Ukraine. There are good political and strategic reasons for thinking he'd go after Crimea and not the rest, but I'm basing my guess on the assumption that the smart time to invade another country is when it's unprepared. With a shaky government and unsteady military, that was last week. Now Putin's given the government time to sort out who in the military it can trust, go on alert and start calling up the reserves.

All that would have been predictable in advance to Putin's top military leaders, who would've told him then that if you're going to take east Ukraine, take east Ukraine. I've seen some speculation that he's waiting for a provocation as an excuse to go in, but that doesn't make sense to me - he wouldn't need an authentic provocation when he could just make one up. Every day that goes by makes an invasion more difficult and therefore less likely to be in the original plan.

I could be wrong of course. An invasion will defeat Ukraine's military regardless how much warning time is given, so maybe Putin doesn't care about the cost to Russia, but I'd think he would care about how triumphant-looking and problem-free it seems. A war could also happen by accident, the way people used to think that World War I started.

And then there's the claim that Putin is in an information bubble and believes at least some of his own propaganda. If that's true then it's hard to understand what world he perceives. OTOH, I don't think the actions so far make as little sense from the viewpoint of an authoritarian populist semi-dictator as westerners claim, so I'm not sure this KGB officer is that far unmoored from reality.

So that's my guess of no invasion for the rest of Ukraine, but it shows my level of confidence that I'll just check the news one last time before posting.

UPDATE:  we should also start the timer for news about significant Russian migration and settlement activity in Crimea - I give it six months. Will be interesting to see how our Likudnik congresscritters handle that one. And that btw may be the one good thing about all this for Crimean Tatars that hadn't yet moved back - they won't be stuck across a fortified border.

Indre, Chris, Steven, and Ed are acting like Keith

Delving into others' motives is tricky, especially when you're annoyed with them, but sometimes it's worth doing. For example, Keith Kloor pretty clearly is motivated to punch hippies, metaphorically. He used to do it over climate change. IRRC, he was a somewhat-late convert to mainstream climate science, and still took a lot of shots at climate activists. In the last year or two he's switched his hippie-punching mostly to GMO issues, and that's an improvement, because this time it can be occasionally accurate and it's a less important issue, anyway.

So what's up with Indre Viskontas, Chris Mooney, Steven Novella, and Ed Yong? The link between them and Kloor is glossing over the real environmental concerns about GMOs, particularly genetic contamination of wild and escaped relatives of GM plants, most recently for Indre, Chris and Steven here. They appropriately describe the lack of health impacts from GMOs but then jump to conclusions that GMOs aren't a problem.

I'm simplifying and being somewhat unfair. Ed's more of a straightforward journalist than the others, conveying news moreso than his opinion, and occasionally links to contrary views (including once to this blog). Steven acknowledges the complexity of some environmental issues (while making simplistic arguments himself regarding biodiversity impacts).

Still, the motivational link I see between all of them is a kind of progressive hipster science nerd vibe that I think wants to push away from the earlier environmental generation in some ways, the Earth Mother hippie types. They demonstrate their independent "skepticism" by showing their willingness to take potshots at something often described as a liberal myth. While it's nowhere nearly as bad as Kloor, it's still behavior that looks for a chance to take potshots at those ignorant hippies. For three of them it might also fit into a generational thing (Steven's around my age).

I assume all four of them would be unimpressed with my thoughts about their motivations, so I'd rather focus on Steven's muddying the waters in describing the naturalistic fallacy. I think it's better to think of the appeal to nature as a fallacious ethical argument, but moving from ethics to policy makes it not so innately fallacious. The big advantage that organic farming and conventional breeding techniques have is that they've been done for a long time, so we're more likely to know the consequences.

What the four of them might consider wrestling with is a non-insane application of the precautionary principle. Doing something that's a little more natural in the sense that its been done for a while is less likely to have unforeseen consequences.

The vast majority of what the four do is great, and I'm doing my usual thing of highlighting only the part I don't like, but they could all do better.

Amazonian in the Martian sense of the word

More from CourseraWeek 3:
In the ensemble average, mean annual runoff decreases in a 2°C world by around 30, 20, 40, and 20 percent in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, and Murray Darling river basins, respectively, while it increases by around 20 percent in both the Nile and the Ganges basins, compared to the 1961–190 baseline period. Thus, according to Fung et al. (2011), all these changes are approximately doubled in magnitude in a 4°C world.
Yikes. Now I see a reason for the lack of snark-hiding.

Thanks a lot, Khruschev

The news from Crimea is unsettling, partly because it's not entirely clear to me whether it's bad to have Crimea reattached to Russia in some form.

From a utilitarian perspective, removing the most eastern-oriented portion of Ukraine from its electoral politics would pretty much guarantee a western-oriented political outcome. My less-certain idea is that Russians living closest to the rest of Europe may have more European attitudes, so moving this population into Russia might also somewhat liberalize Russian political attitudes.

From other ethical perspectives, this area was Russian and is populated primarily by Russian speakers, and was only transferred to the Ukraine recently (1954) by a Soviet dictator for reasons that have little to do with the historical or ethical way to govern the region. There are the Crimean Tatars, but AFAICT that's a relatively small minority. I think as a general rule the majority in a region does not have the ethical right to secede their region from the country, but that rule should have exceptions.

The key downside, which may be what motivates Putin as an upside, is that having a Russian-occupied region would make it very difficult for Ukraine to join NATO. This reason partly motivated the Georgia war. Still, I don't see what's to be done about it. The history of eastern Europe in the last generation has been a tremendous victory for liberalism. Consolidating these gains is more important and valuable than restarting a cold war.

Saber-rattling with Russia might have some limited value but not a whole lot, going beyond saber-rattling is definitely a bad idea, and Russia's status as semi-democratic/semi-dictatorial is still fluid, so there are opportunities for liberalization that shouldn't be discouraged. The end game here isn't Ukraine, it's the political liberalization and stabilization of Russia, and successful democracies on its borders take us in that direction.

The game changes if Russian invades other parts of Ukraine, let alone the entire country. That's a real war with assistance needed, although it also needs a limited scope.

One other point I saw somewhere - as in other parts of Slavic Europe, the division here may be more religious than linguistic, with Ukrainian Catholics oriented to the west and Orthodox to the east.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Does acidification overcome the one PhD theory?

My pet theory is that no matter how ridiculous a concept may be, you can find at least one person with a PhD in that field who will advocate it (e.g., a microscopic number of biologists who are creationists). So where are the marine biologists who don't think ocean acidification is a significant concern?

You'll find researchers who publish an occasional piece of good news about marine life adapting to acidifying oceans, but I'd like someone to show me a marine biologist who has gone on to make the general conclusion "meh, acidification isn't something to be worried about."

Maybe I've just missed it, that marine biologist is out there and can rescue my pet theory. Or maybe they just haven't seen the value in being the next Bozo Galileo. I think the climate denialists rarely get paid for their services but this person might be one of the exceptions. The psychological reward is still more likely, some level of acceptance of their heroism.

UPDATE:  see John and John comments below for a range of opinion re whether climate denialists are "rarely" paid. I agree with John that the issue is partly definitional. Probably worth its own separate post, but I think a useful context is the anti-fluoride activists and 9-11 Truthers - there's even less money to be made in their fields, and they're still legion, even if the latter group is declining.


Blegging re human ability to taste the change in ocean acidity

Ocean acidification  has changed pH from about 8.2 to 8.1, so far.

My question - can we taste the difference? Might be an interesting factoid that we've altered the oceans so much that we can taste the difference, so imagine the effect on creatures whose biochemistry is dependent on that system.

I can't find the answer - anyone care to enlighten me? Please comment.

Reading around about acid manipulation in wine-making suggests this level of pH change is detectable to taste, but I'm not certain, and that's also starting at a very different level of acidity.

As good as it gets: patriarchy and Mitt

Taking the sympathetic documentary Mitt at face value, it shows a patriarchal culture at its very best. The women in these men's lives are loved and respected, and their counsel taken as seriously as the men's, but they're not the deciders. I also thought it was interesting that the wives of the sons made it into the inner circle, as did some male outside staff, but no female outsiders. That's the one point I'll make that I haven't seen in other reviews. I don't know enough about Obama's campaign to know if a similar documentary would've looked different, but I hope so.

Beyond this, I'm not sure what to make of this portrait of a nice, self-aware, and unassuming man who lied and lied and lied and who, if he had been successful, would have semi-wittingly killed thousands through his actions on Obamacare and climate. It would be interesting to know more about the documentarian Whitely who filtered what we see, and why Romney's fellow Republican candidates in 2008 despised him so much.

Worth watching though!

Hypocrisy: not the worst sin, but maybe the most amusing

Rand Paul on whether Hilary Clinton should be president:
“You know what’s funny about it is I tell people – they’re like, ‘Why did you bring up the Clintons? Why did you bring up Bill being such a predator and sexual harassment and what he did with an intern in the workplace?’” Paul said. “I said, ‘Well, because they asked me the question'....One of the things we have done that is a step forward, has been over the last couple of decades is women should be protected from predatory behavior of their bosses. And that’s what Bill Clinton’s affair, whatever you want to call it with an intern was, was sexual harassment.”
also here:
He added, “It’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history.”
He added with Bill and Hillary Clinton, “Sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.”

And then there's Rand Paul on people judging him over his long relationship to big ol' racist aide Jack Hunter:
“Why don’t we talk about Rand Paul, I’m the one doing the interview. You can go ahead and beat up on an ex-employee of mine, but why don’t we talk about Rand Paul and what I’m trying to do to grow the party, and then we might have an intelligent discussion,” the Kentucky Republican said.
also here:
He added that it was “unfair” to suggest that he should be painted with a “broad brush” because of the actions of his former aide.

Bonus quote from Paul: "hypocrisy defeats their whole argument." I wouldn't beat yourself up like that, but I agree it doesn't make you  look good.

Obama's political key for rejecting Keystone

Thought I'd take a break from checking Rabett Run every half hour for Eli's groundbreaking post on or after February 30, and write about something else.

Obama's in a bind on Keystone, with the State Department finding that it won't have much of a climate effect because the oil would otherwise just get out by rail and get burnt anyway. Keystone proponents will say his "own experts" are saying that it passes the test Obama set for it.

If Obama wanted to kill Keystone he could consider saying that outside experts and even some government experts disagree, but I'm not sure that limits the political damage that much. We could say, so what? Absorb the political hit and save the planet, but that's not a sustainable political strategy. You save it for special occasions.

I think the best messaging Obama could use if he struck down Keystone is that whether the tar sand oil stays in the ground is a political assessment - whether the other modes for moving oil will receive political approval, whether a delay might result in changed Canadian policies just as American policies have changed, and whether the uncertainty over future oil prices is reason enough to stop the approval. Combine that with Obama's message that while we need to use fossil fuels, we should only use the cleanest fuels and there's no question that this stuff doesn't qualify, and he might have a viable political message.

UPDATE:  two additional points. You think Keystone is bad for the climate? Here's what's somewhat worse - a slightly smaller amount of tar sand oil exported by rail. Enviros are betting on a significant decrease in tar sand oil exports in the absence of the pipeline, or else things become even worse than otherwise.

The other is that this issue will still be alive, regardless, for at least part of the 2016 presidential election. If Obama approves Keystone, then resolving inevitable litigation will take at least a year or two, plenty of time for candidates to be asked to weigh in on the litigation and what to do about it. If Obama kills it, some candidates in 2015 will say it's not too late to reverse his decision. I think in reality that January 2017 may be too late, but people might not realize that during the initial part of campaign season.

Figure of the day

Regional temp and precipitation changes for two scenarios in 2100, from Week 2 of the Climate MOOC:

Being a water guy, I'm focusing on the precip. Central America is screwed. And sell any farmland you own in the eastern Mediterranean basin.

If that increased precip in the western Pacific is from storms instead of steady rain, that could be unpleasant. Something China might want to consider.

Lawyers, scientists, and Woody Allen

Not sure what our scientist readers will think of this, but I expect lawyers and scientists might get grouped together and distinguishable from the general public when thinking about the Woody Allen allegations (latest here, good summary of the evidence here).

I'd say a reasonable conclusion based on available evidence is "probably guilty". Lawyers and scientists can stop there, but I think much of the public can't, at least those who care about it. They have to think he's guilty or he's innocent - it's not acceptable to believe there's a 90% chance he's guilty, a 9% chance his daughter was manipulated into a false memory, and a 1% chance she's outright lying.

Lawyers and scientists may reach this outcome differently - lawyers think about process and advocacy more than an objective truth that's separate from process, and modern scientists think about models rather than truth - but get to the same result. At least that's my purely anecdotal sense.

One good aspect of this recent publicity is it helps rebut the concept that a legal presumption of innocence has to apply to how individuals think of these issues. A welcome further step would be dropping any presumptions and live in doubt.

Not that doubt has to be blind. There's nothing to doubt about the child-rapist Roman Polanski, and multiple independent allegations against Bill Cosby don't leave much room for doubt.

Warming up to the Warming World MOOC

I thought I'd try out the World Bank's Warming World MOOC and it's going well. As a four-week course I thought it might be too basic, even for a non-scientist, but Week 1 had some new-to-me items as well as fine tuning what I generally knew (e.g., current CO2 are the highest not in 3-5 million years as I thought, but 15 million years).

In the new-to-me category, food production in both India and Africa can be strongly, adversely affected by high heat - I thought the food-security issue was primarily about precipitation changes. Climate change can kill a lot of poor children in yet another way that I didn't know.

Other new thing - what the heck's the matter with Luxembourg?

Its 2009 and 2010 per capita emissions are worse than  Canada, Australia, and the US. That's just embarassing. Get a grip!

Anyway, the course seems worth checking out. I'm too lazy to do the essay portion though so no certificate for me.

Friday, January 31, 2014

I'm kind of a big deal, in Australia

No need to provide additional context or links to the articles, I think.

Relatedly, Richard Lindzen is supposedly claiming he's willing to make the same bet, on the cold side. Someone needs to tell James Annan, who tried to take Lindzen up on this bet offer years ago and then Lindzen denied making it.

Steyn doesn't understand the picture

It's from his blog post. He seems to think the hand covering his mouth belongs to Michael Mann, but it's actually his own lawyer's.

Didn't work though, so his legal analyst team appears to have had enough:


They can quit him, it turns out, and the blog post is an indication why. Steyn (or maybe National Review) does manage to keep himself from repeating the f-word about Mann, so that's good. But then:
Up north, following a similar SLAPP suit from the Canadian Islamic Congress, my publisher Maclean's, who are far less ideologically simpatico to me than NR, nevertheless understood the stakes — and helped get a disgusting law with a 100 percent conviction rate first stayed by a hitherto jelly-spined jurist and ultimately repealed by the Parliament of Canada.
Having already dissed the judge he had before his current one, he then writes above that the Canadian judge who actually gave him a success is a "hitherto jelly-spined jurist." Current judge Weisberg now knows what thanks to expect even if he eventually rules in Steyn's favor, given that anything short of exactly what Steyn wants at any time constitutes "jelly-spinedness".

Steyn wonders why he's not supposed to talk about the judge, and fails to realize that not bad-mouthing your own judge in your own case where the issue is whether you defame people recklessly isn't the same as his made-up claim that people aren't supposed to criticize judges generally. He appears to have judgment issues.

And there's this paragraph:
I take the view that I'm entitled to say the same thing in Seattle as I would in Sydney or Stockholm, Sofia or Suva. But, were Dr. Mann to prevail, it would nevertheless be the case that his peculiarly thin skin and insecurities would enjoy greater protection under U.S. law than they do in Britain, Canada, Australia, and other jurisdictions. It would thus be a major setback for the First Amendment.
That's a ridiculous comparison of libel laws, btw, where public figures like Mann have much more trouble winning in the US than England. Mainly though I think there's finally an undertone of something less than confidence in the trial outcome. Maybe he's waking up.

Did anyone else pick up this Pielke prediction?

From November 11, 2011, RPJr says:
The Obama Administration has put off a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until immediately after the 2012 election. At that point a newly elected Republican president will be able to quickly approve it or President Obama can do the same without concern for an upcoming election.
Responding to enviro claims that rejecting the original Keystone application was a victory, RPJr continues:
Let's return to this February, 2013 and see if "victory" still smells as sweet -- when plans re-emerge for crude oil flowing south, regardless of who wins the election.
Well, so much for the timing of Pielke's prediction. I think it's quite possible that Obama will approve Keystone, but unlike Romney, he'll counterbalance any approval with something to help the climate. And the more he delays, the more he'll have to counterbalance with something meaningful rather than refer to past actions. Each year the tar sands stay in the ground increases the chance that at least some of it will stay there, so delay has a value in addition to making victory possible.

Happy to link to anyone who pointed this out before.

Snowden helped and harmed the US, so cut him a deal

(Could've sworn I blogged in the past that the Obama Admin had gone too far on the government surveillance, but can't find it. Oh well. (UPDATE:  stumbled on it here, from June last year.))

Not too much original to say here other than if a whistleblower reveals information that causes what passes for a consensus these days in Washington that the government's overreached on surveillance, that's clearly a great benefit to American society and others who've been snooped on.

Snowden also revealed info on how we've snooped on non-allies, which was unnecessary and harmful. Revealing our snooping on allies led to huge hypocrisy from said allies, although it might also help with reduced Orwellianness towards Jane Six-Pack Foreigner. Also worth noting that he apparently lied to a dozen or two fellow employees to persuade them to break protocol and give him their passwords, and they're now as unemployed as he is but minus the celebrity status.

I guess he'd have been more heroic had he stayed to take his punishment, but I don't see it as a requirement that one maximizes the price one pays for doing the right thing (given that a lot of what he did was right).

Assuming the claim he's a Russian spy are just bull, then cut him a deal:  he cooperates to limit any future damage, tells all he knows about where he's hid the information still out there, he forfeits all future book/movie royalties, and in return he comes home and gets probation for a few years.

Sen. Inhofe, got any coastal vacation properties where you want to sell options?

From a comment of mine at Same Facts about coastal properties and sea level rise:
One other option for climate denialist landowners – sell 99-year options to obtain ownership of their land for token value should it become uninhabitable. Denialists will be willing to [sell] this cheaply. Science believers will be willing to buy in order to get whatever residual value the land has other than residential use (harvest, recreation etc.).
A denialist with a large expensive coastal property should be willing sell for a small amount of money an option to buy it for a nominal amount if sea level makes it uninhabitable. The obvious problem is once the land's uninhabitable then it loses a lot of value, but maybe there are other uses that give some benefit to owning it.

I had an earlier version of this idea several years back thinking about the end-of-the-world types and how to bet with them (aren't we due another outbreak?). Climate change isn't the end of the world, but it's going to be curtains for a lot of residences.

UPDATE:  just thought I'd add a personal note - yours truly is now the Vice-Chair of our Water District, a feat I achieved by "waiting my turn." It doesn't mean a whole lot, one or two extra committee assignments. If I'm re-elected then I'll be Chair next year and have the honor of chucking aside any goals I have for the District for that year, to work instead on the goals of the rest of the Board and on everything else the Chair's got to get done. Should be fun.

Two climate politics predictions

My political predictions are somewhat better than my civil war predictions, so with that faint praise, here's one:  if Obama doesn't approve Keystone before November, then he won't approve it at all. It's good politics but bad policy to approve Keystone. The political reward diminishes after the lower-turnout, more conservative, off-presidential election year, while the policy and international reasons for not approving Keystone get stronger with more delay. And not to get too wildly hopeful, stringing along the idiotic Canadian government before cutting them off might make it harder for PM Harper to figure out alternative ways to harm the planet with tar sands.

I only put a little emphasis on the recent addition of climate hawks and Keystone opponents to the Obama admin - he's the one they work for. It might be a hint of how the wind's blowing, though.

OTOH, there's still 10 months to make a decision. And just to caveat it a bit, I could imagine Obama locking himself so close to a promise before the election without getting to the final signoff that he does approve it soon afterwards. So far though this reinforces the obvious point I made almost two years ago that delay is a victory (albeit not THE victory) when you're trying stop somebody else from doing something. Just like it is in Iran.

The other prediction came from reading in Stoat of the welcome retirement for Richard Lindzen, leaving the ranks of non-retired, denialist climatologists even thinner than before. John Mashey noted in the comments that the 2009 "mass" petition to the American Physical Society to deny climate science from 0.45% of its membership was skewed much older than the general membership. My second prediction is this petition will not be repeated because it will be even less successful in the future than it was in 2009, as demographic destiny wins out. This might explain why Singer and friends kept switching from one meritless type of mass document to another - recycling an old one some years later will just highlight increasing consensus.

The climate news hook about record cold is that it doesn't happen much. Also, betting opportunities.

So, it looks like record-breaking cold in parts of the US. That's a great hook for newsmakers to remind us that record-breaking cold doesn't happen nearly as often as record-breaking warmth. It's not hard - all they have to do is show this:

If the blue matched the red, then that might indicate a problem with our understanding of climate change. Occasional deviations, like what we're seeing now, doesn't change that.

The years since 2010 have generally followed this pattern, although 2013 didn't. For one year out of the last 20, record cold exceeded record warmth, but this decade is running at a ratio of 3:1 overall between record highs and record lows. If someone thinks 2014 is likely to have more record cold than warm, let's do a bet.

Speaking of which, via Chris Mooney, I see Fox News' Stuart Varney says we have more of a problem with global cooling than warming. So I sent him this:

We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, data for the other 98% of the earth's surface would be nice. I probably just haven't looked hard enough. I did find this paywalled Coumou/Robinson/Rahmstorf abstract saying in our warming world record heat is happening five times as often as you'd expect in a non-warming world, so it seems likely there's at least a similar large disparity in heat to cold record ratios worldwide.  

UPDATE:  thanks to Steve Bloom in the comments (and Eli) for finding unpaywalled versions of the Coumou et al. piece. The full article doesn't address cold records, but it clearly shows the ratio of heat records is off the hook because of global warming. And per Daniel Wirt in the comments, the climate change effect of a warming Arctic could be shifting the location of the cold, causing our current cold records.

They keep talking carbon treaties, and I'll keep talking carbon trade agreements

More speculation on a carbon treaty in the news lately, so I'll once again point out that treaties require 67 votes in the Senate while trade agreements require majorities in both houses. Which do you want?

The best-while-feasible outcome may be a treaty without teeth describing goals that maybe could get 67 votes, and then put the real dealmaking in a trade agreement. Or as per the discussion below, blur the distinction between treaties and executive/legislative agreements, and just submit it for majority vote in both houses.

Next-best would be the model the Bushies used with strategic nuclear weapons - reduce our own arsenal but only on the condition that we don't obtain a mutual promise from Russia to do the same. Yes, unilateral concessions are preferable to Republicans over mutual agreements. Maybe simultaneous global unilateral concessions to reduce emissions can happen.

Anyway, a repost from wayback in 2009:

The climate treaty won't be the international agreement with teeth 
Jonathan Zasloff, a friend/law prof/Same Facts blogger, is publishing a proposal in the Northwestern University Law Review suggesting that the US Trade Representative rather than the State Department should take the lead in negotiation a new international climate agreement. (Abstract here, you should also be able to download the full text.) His argument that USTR is better suited than State to coordinate positions of many US governmental agencies makes sense to me. He also argues that the climate agreement could include trade concessions. 
This argument reminds me of one I've made for several years, that trade agreements instead of treaties should provide the real teeth for international climate agreements. The main reason is that treaties need 67 votes in the Senate while trade agreements only need 60 to overcome an initial filibuster. 
I've thought I've been making a lonely argument, but maybe not. I corresponded with Jonathan, and he goes even further. Relevant parts of his email, with his permission to blog them:
I suppose that I disagree with your position because it's not clear to me why climate change agreements need to be submitted as treaties. The Third Restatement of US Foreign Relations Law endorses a pretty broad interchangeability argument.
To be sure, there are those scholars who argue against interchangeability, but it may prove too much. Laurence Tribe has at least suggested quite strongly that all agreements must be submitted as treaties, and so I think he rejects the trade/climate distinction. That could throw out more than 90% of America's international agreements! John Yoo says that something must be submitted as a treaty if it is outside Congress' Article I power, which makes sense, but then he lists a whole lot of things outside that power, which doesn't...
The most recent scholarly statement on the matter is Oona Hathaway's piece in Yale, where she basically says that outside very narrow limitations (not relevant to climate), everything can and should be submitted as an executive-legislative agreement. Her argument is basically policy-based, saying that it makes more sense to do agreements through executive-legislative agreements, and saves the treaty clause from superfluity by these very narrow limitations. 
My very tentative approach is what might be called the Meat Loaf principle, i.e. two out of three ain't bad. The Treaty Clause makes sense because it essentially says that if you're going to ignore the House, you've got to get 2/3 of the Senate; if you're going to override a Presidential veto of a law implementing an international agreement, then you've got to get 2/3 of both Houses. (Interesting and subtle questions of whether an "executive-legislative agreement" can be passed over a Presidential veto, i.e. what's the difference between an executive-legislative agreement and a normal law?). It's a political issue--the way in which an agreement should be submitted depends upon the political context, i.e. whether you can get it through the House or not. 

I think Jonathan is disagreeing with my exclusive reference to trade agreements, and I think he's right that any executive-legislative climate agreement would be constitutional. Doing it as a trade agreement makes political sense, though. 
The other argument for why treaties shouldn't and don't need to be used was in yesterday's New York Times. Johns Yoo and Bolton argue that treaties must be used for a next climate agreement. Anything written by those two johns, particularly by them together, is guaranteed to be both wrong and evil. In particular I don't seen a logical reason why trade agreements under their own argument shouldn't be subject to two-thirds vote. I'm sure Yoo has his nonsensical reason for excluding them, but meshing a climate agreement into a trade agreement would help tie their arguments even further up in knots. 
Here's hoping that Obama listens to the johns and does the opposite. 
(One additional note - this isn't to say there should be no treaty at all. A treaty in addition to some other agreement would be fine, but the teeth should be elsewhere.) 
UPDATE: Just checked, and Jonathan wrote about this issue yesterday.

And if that's not an old-enough post, here's another on the same from my blog toddlerhood in 2005.

Welcome to the 2014 elections

The Hill anticipates a climate change focus in the elections this year where both sides attempt to use it to their advantage. Their argument is anecdotal rather than data driven, but it seems logical enough. Per their anecdote, the first attack ad on a politician for being a climate denier happened last year, and maybe we'll see some more this time around.

Which side will benefit overall is another question, but it's all local. Yours truly will also be up for re-election this year, and if I drew an opponent who denied climate change then that would make things much easier for me. In the Alaska and Kentucky Senate races, climate reality has to overcome some people's self interest and world view.

There's a parallel between the demographic issues the old-guard Republican leadership faces and the climate issue. Young people accept climate science more than the older ones, and demographic replacement marches on. Economic issues may also be getting more complex. The old guard's right that coal jobs are disappearing although they ignore the long-term causes, while renewable energy jobs are growing everywhere and give people reasons to embrace reality. In contrast to that hope, non-presidential elections tend to be more conservative and older. This year will also see many more Democrats than Republicans up for election in the Senate, although the ratio reverses strongly in 2016.

Fun times ahead.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

I am the object of people power at (all four of them)

The parallels between climate denial and fluoride opposition continue to intrigue, especially their mutual rejection of the importance of scientific consensus and their occasionally-sophisticated amateur understanding of the field. put up a petition announcing I was personally legally responsible (news to me) for the damages and death caused by our decision to fluoridate our water. My response to the masses of four people* who've signed so far:

Thank you for caring about the quality of the public's water. This water is monitored and tested to a far greater extent than, for instance, bottled water, and is much safer as a result.

I have spent a great deal of time examining the health issues regarding fluoride. My conclusion is that I should not make my own conclusion, as there is too much conflicting information for me as a non-expert to make an adequate conclusion. Instead I look to see if there is a scientific consensus on this issue (and not just this issue but also climate change, evolution, or engineering issues). I think the scientific consensus is that water fluoridation does help prevent caries, and the prevention of caries can also prevent serious health complications from tooth decay. It also seems especially helpful for economically disadvantaged children. I do not think there is a scientific consensus that fluoride is harmless. At the present time, the risk from fluoride is only a potential risk, while the harm from not fluoridating is proven. In my opinion, that justifies fluoridation.

If you think the consensus is wrong, I suggest that you work to change the consensus.

I have written extensively on this at the links below: 
Finally, the petition severely overstates its arguments in several respects. Let's choose just one section:

"According to the National Research Council (NRC) and the 2012 Harvard University comprehensive review of the studies, fluoride in drinking water, even at low levels, damages the brain and significantly reduces intelligence. Animal studies conducted in the 1990s by EPA scientists found dementia-like effects at the same concentration (1 ppm) used to “fluoridate” water...."

That "Harvard" study, which I've read, was a study by several researchers affiliated with Harvard. I've no doubt you'll find other "Harvard" studies that support fluoridation. It also neglects the 2010 Health Canada analysis (a true consensus document, unlike the Harvard researchers) that found that most of the same Chinese studies used by the Harvard study were too unreliable and too poor quality to rely upon. The 2006 NRC report, which I've also read, reached the same conclusion that more research was needed. The petition's overstatement doesn't assist its goal.

I'm sorry I'm not in agreement with you. I do think certain issues like vulnerable individuals (guardians of infants reliant on milk formula, maybe others) could use separate education about the issues they face and possible advice to use other water sources. Meanwhile I will rely upon the consensus position, if one exists and as it changes over time. I urge you to go change it if you think that is that is the right approach.

*Not denigrating them at all, I'm glad they're involved, and I'm just recognizing that I swim in a small pond.

Dissent blowback, or two cheers for Justice Scalia

I guess it's lawblogging day, so here's an idea I've been thinking about for years but haven't seen in the legal literature (maybe it's there somewhere):  when the dissent says the majority opinion could have massive legal implications, the dissent is helping making those implications happen.

Let's count down in reverse chronicological order, cheering for Justice Scalia and the anti-gay marriage lawyers:

Hooray!:  Judges in Utah and Ohio say Scalia in dissent was right in saying the Windsor decision requiring federal recognition of gay marriage requires those two states to give some recognition of gay marriage. 
Hip!:  Court majority refuses to respond to dissent's draft argument in a way that limits the potential legal implications of their conclusion. 
Hip!:  Dissent, following the initial vote that shows its opinion will be the dissent and not the majority, argues in a draft response to the draft majority opinion that it will have far-reaching (and by the dissent's perspective, negative) implications. 
Hooray!:  Lawyers/advocates opposing same-sex marriage, not yet knowing the outcome, argue that striking down DOMA could eventually strike down state laws prohibiting same sex marriage. 
Hip!:  Lawyers supporting same-sex marriage dance around implications of striking down DOMA 
Hip!:  Legal action against DOMA begins, but what are the broader legal implications of victory for either side?

I put in bold the two decision points where actors should have known that they were creating a risk of making things worse from their own perspective, but they went ahead and did it anyway. For a dissenting judge, I think the issue is that the judge has his own policy perspective, but he's also interested in being right. I bet Scalia may consider himself vindicated right now, even as he's also horrified at the prospect of loving gay couples being treated like real human beings.

The advocates OTOH might not want to be right about the broad negative implications of losing, but at the time they make their argument, they don't know they're going to lose, so they make the broad argument in hopes that it helps them win.

And while I think Scalia et al. are on the wrong side of history, the dissent blowback problem is value-neutral. If you're arguing for the good guys, you also have to consider what will happen when you say the other side's viewpoint will have huge implications, and the court goes with the other side anyway.

A carbon-reduction tax credit is a carbon tax, and that's a good thing

Stoats of the world can take pleasure in this proposal by outgoing senator Max Baucus to simplify the approximately one billion Amercian clean energy tax incentives and to provide instead a tax credit based on how much carbon reduction (above a threshold) is produced per unit of electricity or unit of transportation fuel.

There's no economic difference between providing a tax credit that reduces from a higher baseline, versus imposing a tax that increases from a lower baseline, so long as they're equally comprehensive. That is a problem with Baucus' proposal in that it's not comprehensive (e.g., no incentive for conservation and no incentive for carbon savings below the threshold) but I expect a similar problem would result from an overt carbon tax that went through political processing. So I disagree with the article's distinction between this credit and a tax. What the credit also does is make it easier poltically to do a trade at some point - we'll give up this carbon reduction tax credit in return for (hopefully) a more comprehensive carbon tax.

There's also a problem in the failure to reward technological development that's too distant to be commercially rewarding, but that could be handled differently.

Just a proposal, but a good one.

Karl Doenitz on Adolf Hitler

From the Nuremberg Interviews:

[Hitler] always seemed reasonable and his demands seemed for the good of Germany. Now I see that he had too little consideration for the other peoples, such as the Jews....

Well, that's one way to put it.

Maybe he did deserve a ten-year sentence.

Quantifying some of the deaths from sea level rise

The Gort comment thread produced this at one point:
No one can seem to point to any real harm [from climate change], certainly not currently.
So that's silly, as well as completely missing the point that you can attribute events to climate change if you conduct the thought experiment of removing all the increased greenhouse gases and ocean heat. It also shows the real motivation for lukewarmers tricking themselves on the issue of attributing severe events - they think that if you can't attribute any one injury with certainty to climate change, then no one anywhere has been injured by climate change.

A general solution to this is to educate people about statistics and probability, but a more specific response might be to look at the 6000-plus deaths from Typhoon Haiyan. Wiki says most of the damage and loss of life was from a storm surge of up to 19 feet. In that part of the world, sea level rise to date is even worse than normal. Let's say it's one foot, although you could plug in another number.

Now depending on how good the original data was or how well it could be reconstructed, you could figure out the death rate in an area at a certain level above sea level that was hit by a surge, compare it to death rates a foot higher and a foot lower in sea level and figure out the incremental mortality from sea level rise. For example an area 16 feet above sea level with a 19 foot surge might experiences one death while a similarly-dense bordering area 15 feet above sea level experiences 10 deaths, 14 feet elevation 30 deaths, and 13 feet with 60 deaths. Sea level rise is responsible for 9 deaths at 15 feet, 20 deaths at 14 feet, and 30 deaths at 13 feet. You could do the same calculation with property damage. My guess is the numbers keep going up until you reach areas where everything was flattened.

For people, an additional complication is that many evacuated, so the actual population density when the storm hit probably wasn't what a survey showed in normal times. Maybe you can account for this. I'd guess though that the lowest areas were the most likely to evacuate, so not accounting for evacuations would underestimate the effect of sea level rise.

And Haiyan was just one event.



From National Geographic, via Buzzfeed. I wanted to see if that foreground tree is still there.


From Google Street View. Same stones (with a few patch jobs). The tree's scrawnier but definitely the same one 50+ years later. I wonder how long it's been there.

UPDATE:  I think I agree with the comments, the Street View should be a car length to the left. Still the right tree, though.