Archive for the ‘Environment’ category

For a Good Time In Cambridge: E. O. Wilson edition

April 7, 2010

The man himself will be giving the third of the John M. Prather Lectures in Biology this afternoon.  The title:  “Consilience.”  The description:

The boundary between science on one side and the humanities and humanistic social sciences on the other is not an intrinsic epistemological divide but a broad borderland of previously poorly understood causal relationships. The borderland is now being explored, and offers increasing opportunities for collaboration across three great branches of learning. A definition of human nature will be offered and examples from the borderland will be used to illustrate it.

No one ever said Professor Wilson lacked ambition.

Time and place:  4 p.m., in the Harvard Science Center.  Map here, and more details on the lecture series here.

And a confession:  I’ll miss this one, as I missed the prior two, Monday and yesterday.  My teaching blocked Monday’s and today’s, while student work ate up yesterday, to my deep annoyance (having to, you know, actually do the job they pay you for can really suck sometimes).  But I can say that Edward O. Wilson is both one of the most important biological thinkers of the last half century and is a damn good speaker.  So if you have the chance, go and listen.

Image:  “Foraging ants (Eciton erratica) constructing a covered road—Soldiers sallying out on being disturbed.” from The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates, 1863.

Live Blogging President Obama’s Energy Address At MIT

October 23, 2009

Star studded crowd.  Gov. Patrick, Sen. Kerry, and local congressman Mike Capuano are here.

12:45:  Obama takes the podium.  Wild applause.  This is Obama country.

First words:  Thank you MIT!

In joke:  “I’ll be here a while.  I understand a bunch of engineering students have put my motorcade on top of Building Ten.

Reference image:

12:49:  Politician shout outs are now over.  Now the president is touting all the lovely things being done at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).  Makes the link to the notion of Americans as innovators willing to take risks on projects that might fail — and on the US as a place willing to support such efforts.

References Lincoln’s move during the Civil War to establish Land Grant Colleges; Roosevelt’s signing of the GI bill; after Sputnik, US invests in space technology….

So, the claim is being made that we have always been about innovation; that ambition is “in our DNA” — a phrase I understand and loathe.

But now — the economic challenges are huge.  “Economy in which we all share opportunity is one in which we all share crisis.” Said in context of globalized economy.

Says:  Energy that powers our economy also undreminse our security and threatens our planet”

12:53  Nation that gets to clean energy wins the next economic revolution “I want America to be that nation.”  (applause)

That’s why, he says, the stimulus act has more clean energy funding than ever appropriated before…summarizes what the 89 billion bucks in the stimulus packae will go to fund.

Talks about a Massachusetts project — a test facility for wind turbine blades.  It is notable that Obama so readily digs at least one layer down into the technical details; its a rhetorically powerful way to claim not just support for a good cause, but the real value of that cause, the notion that we are spending cash on things that matter.  Smart guy, I’ve heard.

Many props to Governor Patrick — local Mass politics are a subtext here.

12:59:  Pivot to the comprehensive legislation we need and discussing the implications of Kerry’s climate change bill.  Mentions cleaner fossil fuels; biofuels, nuclear, wind, waves and sun.

Saying that there is a long, planned, intelligible path from an economy powered by fossil fuel dependence/carbon pollution threats to one that is sustainable; not making the claim that we can get there in one swoop.

Talks about DOD and business leaders and others coming round to the notion that global warming and dependence on fossil fuels is a national security and economic threat…making the case for the necessity, not merely the desirability of action.

Again, it’s an interesting strategy rhetorically; it seems to me that he is working hard to box in opponents to a smaller and less defensible position.  I hope it works.

He says explicitly that the opponents are being marginalized — but that they will fight harder as we get closer to a bill.

“They will say that we are destroying our eocnomy…when it is”what we got now that’s threatening it.

“We’re going to have to work on those folks.  But there is a more dangerous myth — because we are all complicit in it.”

That there is nothing we can do “it’s pessimism” …that politics are broken etc…

1:01:  That implies we can’t solve problems any more, says POTUS, and he knows that can’t be true….we’ve seen it at MIT and elsewhere…we’ve done it before (electricity) etc.

Writing teacher here.  This is an ugly phrase:  of innovators “they will lead us in the future as they have done so in the past.”

Can’t quite get my head around that one.

Ends with a pep paragraph…we can do this…we’re Americans, and we’re damn good at this kind of thing.

Last thoughts from your blogger:

He’s a good speaker, which we knew.  He’s smart as hell, which we also knew.  He’s a political process man.  This had no new initiatives or proposals in it, nor even a central, strong outline of how the specific actions discussed add up to the path to a sustainable energy future some decades out.

Rather, this speech seemed more or less to lay down a marker:  we’ve got some things going…we need now to pass the next piece of legislation — Kerry’s cap and trade plus other stuff bill is the one the President specifically referenced, along with the House bill already passed.

The praise for the various specific projects and research initiatives were designed to answer critics who say that we can’t escape fossil fuel use Most of the speech by running time was devoted to various general and specific paeans to the capacity of Americans to get this part of the job done.

Given that everybody, and especially me, are critics, here’s what I thought the speeh missed most:  I wanted to hear in this context a real and dire description of what failure here would mean, not just for the environment, but for the economy and safety of US citizens en masse and individually.

That is — I think it’s pretty well established that projecting the dire consquences of a 4 degree warming is still a hard thing to grasp (though this map is a good place to start).  But if you talk about the cost of wars, or even merely of the budget  year over year for Centcom…if you talk about clean energy jobs lost to other nations even now (see e.g. this story on the Chinese vs. American economic edge in solar energy products.)…if you talk about the lives lost here at home through the pollution being caused now by our current energy use pattern (18,o00 a year according to this report, about the same number as homicides for the last year I could pull the data quickly.  (See this CDC fact sheet and click through to the PDF  listed as the source for the summary numbers.)…if you go after the harm we suffer now through our dependence on our current energy mix, then the urgency for change and the willingness to assume risk in the service of that change will go up.

To be fair:  he did very clearly make the case that powerful interests in this area, like DOD, understand the implications of inaction and now favor significant energy policy change.  But he didn’t bring the reasons why home and down to the you and me level as sharply as I would have liked.

President Obama has the best pulpit in the world to preach this.  He has the right temperament too, by which I mean not his famous cool, but his genuine optimism, his sense that no problem is too hard for us to tackle.  That side of him was on display in full measure today, and I liked it.  But I think he needs to light more of a fire under us (sorry) on the other side, to remind us the most dangerous option we have right now is to stand pat.

And that’s my $.02

Obama and McCain on Climate Change: Who to Trust? Andy Revkin Tells You Who.

October 19, 2008

This post got kind of overshadowed mid- writing by the Powell news today — but on the off chance that issue analysis still matters, Andrew Revkin has an important  piece up at the NYT comparing Obama and McCain on climate change policy and expectations come next January.

Revkin keeps his poker face pretty well intact, but his straight reporting conveys a pretty clear impression:

Obama, though (a) imperfect given the urgency of the situation or (b) politically realistic/pragmatic, depending on where you sit, is likely to offer real and significant policy change for the better.

His opponent, for all that there are some vestiges left of the early 2000s McCain who did seem to take climate change seriously, is much less likely to do so — and he leads a party that remains much more opposed to real initiative in this area than the Democrats.

Revkin conveys this impression as a good reporter should:  by presenting what each candidate says, and then applying at least a first-order reality check to each claim.

Here’s the score card:

1.  As Revkin leads his piece, both candidates agree that climate change is real, human induced, and that the Bush adminstration has dropped the ball on the problem.

2.  Both candidates claim support for a cap and trade bill that would control carbon emissions by setting permitted emissions totals and creating a market for permits to pollute within those limits.

Most if not all economists view cap and trade as a much more dubious means of employing market mechanisms to control emissions than the preferred expedient of setting a carbon tax, thus building the external cost of pollution into the price of polluting goods and services.*

But even within the context of cap and trade, the difference between the two candidates policies are striking.  The key distinction is that Obama would auction permits to pollute (in a manner roughly equivalent to other government auctions of common resources, like the electromagnetic spectrum or resource extraction licenses on public lands), while McCain would not.

Unsurprisingly (at least to this observer), McCain’s position amounts to an enormous give-away to the polluting industries at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Obama captures the wealth that the “resource” of carbon permits would command, enabling him to pay for his promised investment in non-polluting energy research and development and to offset the extra cost of goods and services that must now account for the carbon price with a tax and or deficit reduction.

This all might be moot.  Between the economic crisis and the fact that the American  legislative process leaves a lot of room for folks like Sen. Inhofe to make mischief, a carbon market may still be a long way off.

But the difference between the two policies is a telltale:  McCain’s rhetoric seems environmentally friendly, but his approach is “dirty green” to use a phrase that Revkin quotes.

McCain’s underlying policy thrust sees support of existing industry players as its primary driver.  Obama is not completely innocent of such interest-group politics, but his approach is much cleaner – in the legislative sense as well as the green meaning of the term.

3.  Revkin goes on to note other weaknesses in McCain’s policy.   Revkin writes that  on the stump he’s been weakening his already palsied commitment to emissions targets, that he has a terrible record of voting to support renewable energy, and that one of his major “initiatives” — adding 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 is almost certainly a nonstarter:

Energy specialists say that is a difficult goal because of the high cost — one estimate is that each plant would cost $10 billion — and unresolved questions about where to store nuclear waste. Another issue is the lack of American expertise in building such plants after decades of opposition.

Obama has offered what Revkin calls “muted” support for nukes, as well as for the McCain cure-all, expanded offshore drilling.  But the essence of his approach is technological, running on two tracks:  towards increased energy efficiency, and towards carbon-free technologies for producing energy.

Most important, Obama has repeated stated recently that continuing to spend in these areas is essential in spite of — or really, good Keynsian that he is — because of the current financial crisis/recession.  McCain, for all his lip service to the same ambitions has (a) the above-noted dismal legislative record here and (b) is committed to his hatchet — the spending freeze that will block any major new government initiatives for the forseeable future.

Finally, no post about McCain and a research-centric area of policy would be complete without noting (a) that the broad anti-science theme of GOP-play-to-the-base politics makes it very unlikely that his administration will have the will of the individuals inside it to advance energy research outside the narrow confines of an oil/coal centric approach, and (b) that for all McCain’s stated commitment to increase science funding over his notional terms, the rest of his budget approach leaves no plausible way to do so and meet other commitments that are clearly higher priority for him:  tax cuts targeted at the wealthiest and increased military spending.

Remember the key number:  the size of the deficits he is pledged to eliminate is roughly equal to the sum total of non-defense discretionary spending.  For FY 2007, (the last year for which final figures are in) non-defense discretionary spending totalled $493 billion. The total deficit including both on and off-budget (think Iraq war supplemental appropriations…and look forward to bailout costs) has topped $500 billion each year since 2003.

In that fiscal context, anyone who believes the McCain vague promise to increase federal support for science should take a look at this bridge in Brooklyn I have on offer.  Same for any promises to take on an environmental problem that might actually cost money.

Image:  The Phillips and the Woodford Oil Wells in Pennsylvania, 1862.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: New York Times, Langurs, MIT Science Writing Edition

September 23, 2008

Check out this delightful story in todays Times about a conservation success in China, preserving habitat and restoring a population of highly threatened langurs.

A couple of things are of note about the piece.  First, it offers an example of one of the most important modern conservation ideas:  a command approach to preservation is hard one to enforce; much more likely to succeed is one that creates the right combination of economic and moral incentives for those on the front lines — the people, often very poor within the neighborhood in which conservation is to take place.

Second, good work has a long tail.  The scientist-hero of this story was moved to study the social behavior of langurs after reading E. O. Wilson’s seminal Sociobiology, first published in 1975.  A third of a century later, five hundred langurs owe their own, their home’s, and potentially their species’  continued existence to the spark of the ideas in that book.

Third — a little shameless self-promotion, at least the institutional variety.  The author of the piece, Philiip McKenna graduated from the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — my home base — in 2006.  We can’t take credit for his incredible work ethic, sense of story and spirit of adventure…but it is always a pleasure to think, with cause, I believe, that what we did here helped him on his way.

Image:  Mori Sosen, “Monkeys in Plum Tree,” 19th century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.  And yes, I know, this is a Japanese painting of a different species of monkey than the one discussed above.  I like the picture, OK?

Book Notes: “Boids…

August 31, 2008

...filthy, disgusting boids” edition.

One of the pleasures of being a teacher is seeing the success of students.*

So check out this review in today’s New York Times of Courtney Humphries’ new book on pigeons, Superdove:  How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…and the World.

(Self-serving alert here.)  With this impressively positive review Courtney  becomes the latest advertisement for the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, from which she received her MS in 2004.

I can’t yet comment myself on Courtney’s work yet, but the reviewer, Elizabeth Royte gives it a rave, and as soon as the looming semester gets past the first flurry of insanity, I’ll read and report.  In the meantime — check it out yourselves, and remember:  new good authors need even more reader love than the writers you already know you like.   Take a flyer on this (heh).

*Sadly, my pride in Courtney is entirely institutional; she graduated from our program the year before I arrived here.  But pride it is — it is always great to see good young writers from one’s own shop do well.

Image:   Jiang Tingxi, “Eleven Pigeons.”  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Why Obama is right and McCain wrong on Energy: MIT edition

August 1, 2008

Continuing the energy theme just a little longer….

This may be a bit of home-institution boosting, and I haven’t done any due diligence on this press release, but still, this is promising news out of Daniel Nocera’s lab at MIT.  It is also a perfect example why Obama’s emphasis on alternatives to oil and coal is the better choice of governing philosophies for US energy policy, and McCain’s oil now, oil forever approach is not.

Nocera and his post doc, Matthew Kanan have taken a long look the process of photosynthesis that enables plants to extract usable energy from sunlight.  They’ve come up with a two-step process that can split ordinary, neutral pH water into hydrogen and oxygen to supply the feedstocks for fuel cells that could supply electricity to power cars, homes or whatever.  The key to the idea is the use of solar-generated electricity to power the electrolysis taking place in the Nocera lab’s device.  More detail in the press release, and Nocera’s general description of this line of research here

There is, as always, the caveat:  this is a research finding, not an industrial process.  It will take time and significant engineering creativity to turn this advance into a major source of energy and a partial replacement for carbon-based fuels — if it ever gets there.

But this is the necessary initial step.  You don’t get alternative energy unless you do the research.  You can’t do the research if you can’t get funding.  It is difficult — though to be sure, as this finding shows, not impossible — to pay for this work when you have a disinterested or actively hostile, petroleum-addicted President and administration.  A President Obama would do so — candidate Obama has already made that very clear as recently as yesterday, whatever the national press thought of the important news of the day.  A President McCain, delivering on candidate McCain’s promise to develop all available domestic sources of oil….not so much.

Here’s the MIT press release making the point for me:

The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

And as a lagniappe, this bit of barely informed editorializing:  the reason McCain’s approach is wrongheaded is not just that there it encourages the use of polluting sources of energy instead of pursuing clean or cleaner sources; it’s not that there is some mystical reward to using a renewable source as opposed to a notionally available, notionally cheap(ish) nonrenewable source — this isn’t a tree – hugger argument.  No, it’s wrong because it increases the liklihood that the transition we will have to make someday to a non-oil based economy will come harder, more expensively, and more destructively than it needs to, or would under a more science – friendly approach.  The real energy question is when and how much do you want to pay the piper.

That is:  McCain hasn’t noticed, though he has surely been told, that oil is something of a mug’s game,  coming under pressure from both supply and demand sides.  Between peak oil and the rise of major developing nations — economies that remained tied to oil are buying into not just an increasingly high price for their energy, but also a significant, and I would bet, on nothing more than a hunch, an increasing risk of oil shocks, major disruptions in supply  and/or price over the next decades.

That, as much as the absolute cost of energy as a share of any economic activity, is what ought to scare people, (if my hunch is correct).  Major uncertainty is a very expensive quality; when the probability collapses into a particular damaging event, the impact on real people’s real lives is profound.  Why on earth should we place ourselves more in the path of such an oncoming train than we have to.

And one last note — as I’ve given Marc Ambinder some eminently deserved grief (hey–if he can assert his judgment as fact, so can I) for his blithering yesterday about why he isn’t talking about energy, he has a solid post about Obama’s economic message today that contains a bit of content reporting and a bit of process analysis.  Nothing fancy, but just an example of a beat reporter writing a clear and useful little story from within his defined territory.  Credit where credit is due.

Carbon TV: Steve Colbert meets Eric Roston

July 30, 2008

In case you missed it last night — you can see it here.

Colbert is the energizer bunny. Eric did a good job — but Stephen definitely made him work.

Closing line (Colbert’s) “This book is made of carbon.”