Posted tagged ‘Global Warming’

Unlimber That Gas Mask

March 4, 2017

Amidst all the attention grabbing stuff — you know, just a president accusing his predecessor of high crimes — the Trump administration proceeds with impressive consistency with moves designed to make the world worse, Americans sicker/poorer, and their inner circle enriched.

Next week, it’ll be the air-we-breathe’s turn:

The Trump administration is expected to begin rolling back stringent federal regulations on vehicle pollution that contributes to global warming, according to people familiar with the matter, essentially marking a U-turn to efforts to force the American auto industry to produce more electric cars.

The announcement — which is expected as soon as Tuesday and will be made jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, and the transportation secretary, Elaine L. Chao — will immediately start to undo one of former President Barack Obama’s most significant environmental legacies.

During the same week, and possibly on the same day, Mr. Trump is expected to direct Mr. Pruitt to begin the more lengthy and legally complex process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s rules to cut planet-warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The regulatory rollback on vehicle pollution will relax restrictions on tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and will not require action by Congress. It will also have a major effect on the United States auto industry.

I don’t want to go all-apocalyptic on this news, in part because I want to sleep more than four hours tonight, and more because there are some secular processes underway that reduce the impact of Trump’s and Republican willingness to destroy the climate and give Americans respiratory diseases — think the long-term losing market battle coal is waging against everything else, and the advances in transportation tech that will help mitigate the license to ill being granted the domestic auto industry. (I’d note that those car companies based in countries that do impose efficiency rules will now get an advantage over the big three that could very likely hit the domestic industry hard in a decade or less…rather like the way Japanese car companies were poised to take advantage of the oil shocks of the 70s, to great wailing and gnashing of teeth in Detroit.)

But even with that rather meagre reed of hope, there’s no way to spin this as anything but craptastic news for both the global and every local environment.

Every act this administration takes; every law this congress takes is the fruit of a poisoned tree: an election manipulated by foreigners, and undermined by domestic law enforcement.  There’s no room for negotiation here.  Step one: 2018.

Image: Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Gas masks for man and horse demonstrated by American soldierc. 1917-18

They Are Who We Thought They Were (Republicans And Their War On Our Kids)

November 11, 2014

Republican priorities are — not “becoming,” because they always were — clear. Facing the one unequivocal existential threat to the American way of life (for starters) over the next century, here’s the GOP response to the oncoming rush of human-caused global warming:

The new Republican Congress is headed for a clash with the White House over two ambitious Environmental Protection Agencyregulations that are the heart of President Obama’s climate change agenda.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the next majority leader, has already vowed to fight the rules, which could curb planet-warming carbon pollution but ultimately shut down coal-fired power plants in his native Kentucky. Mr. McConnell and other Republicans are, in the meantime, stepping up their demands that the president approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry petroleum from Canadian oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

At this point, Republicans do not have the votes to repeal the E.P.A. regulations, which will have far more impact on curbing carbon emissions than stopping the pipeline, but they say they will use their new powers to delay, defund and otherwise undermine them. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent skeptic of climate change and the presumed new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected to open investigations into the E.P.A., call for cuts in its funding and delay the regulations as long as possible.

Just to update your scorecard, here’s what the latest IPCC report confirms is at stake:

i) Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea level rise.37 [RFC 1-5]

ii) Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.38 [RFC 2 and 3]

iii) Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.39 [RFC 2-4]

iv) Risk of mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.40 [RFC 2 and 3]

v) Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.41 [RFC 2-4]

vi) Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.42 [RFC 2 and 3]

vii) Risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.43 [RFC 1, 2, and 4]

viii) Risk of loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.44 [RFC 1, 3, and 4]

Many key risks constitute particular challenges for the least developed countries and vulnerable communities, given their limited ability to cope.

 

In case those near-term consequences aren’t motivation enough, consider the IPCC’s view of the longer term:

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Fall_of_the_Rebel_Angels_(obverse)_-_WGA2572

Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts. Some risks of climate change are considerable at 1 or 2°C above preindustrial levels (as shown in Assessment Box SPM.1). Global climate change risks are high to very high with global mean temperature increase of 4°C or more above preindustrial levels in all reasons for concern (Assessment Box SPM.1), and include severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors in some areas for parts of the year (high confidence). The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).

There is hope, or would be, given smart climate policy — really, almost any climate policy

The overall risks of climate change impacts can be reduced by limiting the rate and magnitude of climate change. Risks are reduced substantially under the assessed scenario with the lowest temperature projections (RCP2.6 – low emissions) compared to the highest temperature projections (RCP8.5 – high emissions), particularly in the second half of the 21st century (very high confidence). Reducing climate change can also reduce the scale of adaptation that might be required…

But, of course, such an approach — reducing the impact of climate change by controlling carbon emissions, while planning for a higher-carbon future —  is precisely what the Republican party has vowed to block.

My son was born in 2000.  in 2050, at the threshold of that second half of his century, he’ll face the world we make for him now.  The Republican party is conspiring with their paymasters in ways that will make his world significantly worse than the one our parents’ generation left for us.  Potentially — see Oreskes and Conway on this — it could be horrifically degraded, my son and his generation and their kids confronting catastrophic failures in the systems that make modern life go.

Obviously, this means that despite the wretched feelings that remain from last Tuesday’s debacle, we gotta keep fighting.  We need the Presidency in 2016, and as much of the Senate as we can claw back — and, perhaps more important, all those local and regional governments in which it is possible to attempt global-warming policy jurisdiction by jurisdiction.  A hard slog.  But necessary.

At the same time, I do have one question:  Why do Republicans hate their children so?

Image:  Hieronymous Bosch, Hell (the world before the flood) — panel from the Fall of thRebel Angels triptych,

Profiles In Courage

August 17, 2014

Republicans and global warming:

In stark contrast to their party’s public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible for climate change and recognize the need to address the problem.

However, they see little political benefit to speaking out on the issue…

Anthony Adragna, writing in Bloomberg BNA, points out that it’s not simply the lack of benefit that constains his sources.  Rather,

Most say the reluctance to publicly support efforts to address climate change has grown discernibly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Tea Party-backed candidates helped the Republican Party win control of the House, in part by targeting vulnerable Democrats for their support of legislation establishing a national emissions cap-and-trade system.

Ah, Brave Sir Robin GOP!

To give themselves cover, as Adragna notes, those who spoke to him came up with all kinds of alternative explanations for their reticence:

…the devastating impacts of the economic crisis, the low priority Americans place on addressing climate change and what Republicans say is overheated rhetoric from Democrats. Also playing a role in the reluctance to speak out is skepticism among Republican voters about federal government intervention and the increasing role of special interest money in elections.

That last one is sweet, isn’t it — that nasty “special interest” money.  I believe that special interest is spelled K.O.C.H. et al., but never mind.

And as for overheated rhetoric — well, I’m gearing up to do some separate posts about how all the climate news lately is worse than we thought, so for now, let me just leave you with this reminder of how badly, f**ked we may already be.

Bertin,_Nicolas_-_Phaéton_on_the_Chariot_of_Apollo_-_c._1720

Of course, no discussion of Republican failure to lead — or even engage — an issue would be complete without laying the blame where it clearly belongs:

“I do believe there is some resistance to come out publicly and say what’s happening here,” Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who served in Congress from 1993 through 2011 and is now a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, told Bloomberg BNA. “One thing that would be helpful would be having a president who could articulate the issue well and who the Republicans have some confidence in.”

Yes, if only Barack Obama would stop presidenting while Black/Democrat, the Republican Party would leap into the breach.

To Adragna’s credit, he doesn’t let that claim go unchallenged — that Republicans who hold actual power, as opposed to those who are all ex- or former- somebodies, would actually be willing to take global warming seriously as soon as there’s a change at the White House:

[NRDC Action Fund spokesman David] Goldston said the Tea Party movement has swept many more deniers of climate change into Congress than ever before, and it has pushed Republicans away from basic environmental principles. He disagreed with others who said many Republicans privately acknowledge the risks of climate change, even if they don’t say so publicly.

“It’s very comforting for people to think that these people are pretending,” Goldston said. “It’s not true. The problem would be in many ways easier to solve if it was true.”

Read the whole thing.  Adragna tries to present the notion that Republicans as a party, as opposed to a handful of dissidents, actually do take this most serious of issues at all seriously.  He lets his sources make their best case…and the take-away is of a party that is in the hands of anti-science crackpots whom those who do know better are powerless to control  Which seems about right.

Oh, and when Mitch McConnel says that:

he [does] not believe in human-caused climate change.

“For everybody who thinks [the planet] is warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t,” McConnell told the newspaper.

I say “shut your festering gob” you hopeless git.  For everyone who says you are any kind of a public servant, I can find someone who swears you enjoy the carnal knowledge of barnyard animals.

Image: Nicholas Bertin, Phaéton on the Chariot of Apollo, c. 1720.

Hot Stuff

June 16, 2011

Over in Australia, where the plague of special interest enmeshed AGW “truthers” has been just as bad, if not worse than the miserable corps we have here,* an impressive cross section of the Oz scientific community is actually making some noise.

At a new website (still in beta) called The Conversation, set up to be a unfiltered source of news and analysis from the Australian academic community, a group of Australian climate scientists are trying to do to climate “skeptics” (aka buffoons and/or grifters) what Bruins forward Brad Marchand did to  Daniel Sedin’s chin in Game Six.  In an open letter announcing the start of two weeks worth of demonstration that climate change is real, due to human activity, and amenable to certain kinds of action within our power if not our grasp.  They write:

The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes.

Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.

 

Bam! Short, simple, clear and true.

They name and shame:

…Understandable economic insecurity and fear of radical change have been exploited by ideologues and vested interests to whip up ill-informed, populist rage, and climate scientists have become the punching bag of shock jocks and tabloid scribes.

Aided by a pervasive media culture that often considers peer-reviewed scientific evidence to be in need of “balance” by internet bloggers, this has enabled so-called “sceptics” to find a captive audience while largely escaping scrutiny.

Australians have been exposed to a phony public debate which is not remotely reflected in the scientific literature and community of experts.

And they make a promise:

For the next two weeks, our series of daily analyses will show how they can side-step the scientific literature and how they subvert normal peer review. They invariably ignore clear refutations of their arguments and continue to promote demonstrably false critiques.

We will show that “sceptics” often show little regard for truth and the critical procedures of the ethical conduct of science on which real skepticism is based.

And they’ve begun.  You can check out the series here.

Now, while I was born at night, it wasn’t last night, so I know that even sharply argued rational discourse won’t make a difference to the professional skeptics.  They’re in it for the money, and for the warm and fuzzies that come with comforting the comfortable.

The real targets of this kind of effort are the media, and through them, the mushy middle currently being persuaded by false information disseminated within a fake debate.

Anne Laurie wrote yesterday on the problem with that ambition:  that too many, in the US at least, have now crossed the line into territory where belief in the great secular-scientific conspiracy on AGW has entered the realm of religious commitment, of identity.  That’s territory in which argument has little or no pull; once it becomes a condition of one’s world view to affirm something false…counterarguments aren’t even heard.

She (and Tom Junod, who wrote the inciting essay at Esquire) may well be right.  But the triumph of (bad) faith over works in this field is recent, and not yet universal.

The long road back begins with both hard fact and sound reasoning, relayed over and over again — and the repetition, just as loud, just as often, of the counter meme, that those lying about global warming are doing so to line their own and their patrons pockets.

“Follow the money” ain’t dignified (or original).  But everyone, including true believers, understand what it means.

So, good on ya, my Aussie kin.  Let’s have more of this, and over here.

*For more on that point, let me puff a book I’ve touted before, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  They document how telling the “science can’t be sure/it’s just a theory” meme is a profitable business of long standing — if you have the conscience of a goat with IBS

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, The Angel, Standing in the Sun, 1846.

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

On to the substance of the Palin pick

August 30, 2008

Update 9/1/08:  Ta-Nehisi Coates puts a spin on the same idea developed below shorter and stronger:  We aren’t saying that Palin is dumb, but that she’s either ignorant or playing on the ignorance of the rest of us.  Either way, not good.

I realize that there is probably something of Palin fatigue already weighing  in; my tours of the blogosphere and the MSM have been all Sarah, all the time for the last thirty hours or so.

So this is something of a placeholder for a longer, more considered post sometime next week.  But the topline I want to put out onto the intertubes is that the Republican ticket is now the most anti-science put out there by any national party since William Jennings Bryan headlined the Dems more than century ago.  (And, for all kinds of reasons, I fear I being unfair to the old bi-metallist, but that’s a post for a very different day.)

The troubles for science begin at the top.  I wrote about McCain as a hazard to the national science enterprise a few months ago in this post.  Short form:  after eight years of a range of assaults on science from the Bush led GOP — attacks in which McCain either acquiesced or participated — McCain’s budget priorities as laid out in his speeches and his issue statements would hit the American science in the gut, with its funding at great risk.

At the same time, this danger comes in the context of McCain himself appearing to be much more disinterested in than actively hostile to the actual content of science.  That is, he has a disdain for expertise — just see his repeatedly willed ignorance on such technically informed subjects as the gas tax holiday and energy policy.  But beyond that  “don’t bug me with the facts” reflex, McCain himself has not said anything that suggests he thinks the law of gravity was passed in the 81st Congress or anything like that

So the prognosis as I saw it in May was that a GOP win in November was for an ongoing cash decline of a thousand cuts, and neither rhetorical support or attack on the underlying ideas of science.

Then came Palin.  My first reaction was like that of a lot of people:  whaaat?  And then — this is an embarassment to the idea or brand of John McCain.  After a week in which Democrats rag on his judgment  he confirms his loose cannon label with this?

But the risk of such reactions is the Dan Quayle problem.  We’ve seen some very unlikey people get within a flat EKG of the Oval Office.  Palin is not just a reflection on McCain; she’s a suddenly potentially very powerful person whose own views, beliefs, and judgment matter.

There will be a lot of folks concentrating on filling in the Palin blank state, and early reports on the conventional political fronts are not promising — from her abuse of power scandal/investigation to stories of managerial incompetence as mayor of a small town; to the shock and dismay of those who politically know her best at the thought of her in the White House.

I’ll leave all that to the kind of folks linked to above.  Here, I just want to remind folks that her creationism and her global warming denialism are not just isolated oddball beliefs.  They are windows into the qualities of her mind, how she thinks and reasons.

And in the shortest form, what it tells me is that she is not someone who eagerly confronts harder truths.  It is certainly possible to have deep faith and understand the overwhelming explanatory (and useful) power of modern evolutionary biology and all its related fields.  But doing so requires hard thinking, and a willingness to sacrifice the simple comfort of Biblical literalism.  Simply saying saying that a creator did it is not the answer.

It is equally possible to have all kinds of doubts about the actual risks involved in global climate change, the scale of probable changes, and the appropriate policy response to the problem. But all but the flat-earth rump of the scientific community agree that anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases does/will produce some impact on the global climate system — even so well known a skeptic as my  MIT colleague Dick Lindzen says so, while dismissing the problem as both too uncertain and too minor to merit a policy response.  (I disagree — and have for a long time — but that’s not the point here.)

By contrast, Palin’s bald denial of the role of human actions in climate change just gives her an easy way out of confronting the complex and hard arguments about the scale, dangers, and responses to global warming.

And yet, the fact that a President Palin wouldn’t take global warming seriously  doesn’t bother me as much as the thought that the easy way out would be her preferred route on all the issues the occupant of the Oval Office has to confront.

This is tooth fairy thinking — if I want something to be true badly enough; if it is convenient or useful or comfortable for something to be true, then true it must be.

That is:  lots in the blogosphere and the mainstream media have questioned Palin as a candidate because her experience does not make her a plausible President on day one.  But on day two of the Palin era, what scares me much more is not the fact that she hasn’t done very much, nor even that she doesn’t know very much, but that the handful of data on the record that gives insight to her thinking about science tells us that her capacity for judgment is poor.

Which is, of course, exactly the same argument the Democratic National Convention made against her much more experienced, fully formally qualified running mate, John McCain.  McCain/Palin:  the Tooth Fairy ticket.

Oy.  More to come on this theme as the shock wears off.

Image:  August Malmström, “Dancing Fairies” 1861.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Eric Roston Wins!: Judge Someone by Their Enemies, Dept.

July 4, 2008

Eric Roston, author of the new and invaluable The Carbon Age, has done well, very well, in a two step sequence.

Step one: receive an intelligent and positive cite in Time Magazine for his book on the singular importance and dangers of element number 6. If you want to understand the basics and real significance of climate change, read Eric’s book.

Step two: Rush Limbaugh goes ballistic at the notion that capitalism might work.

For some reason, perhaps because he has shifted his substance abuse from prescription narcotics to petroleum, Rush seems to hate the free market that has driven oil prices up — and hence, as every ec. 101 textbook will tell you — has shifted behavior among energy consumers. He would rather, as Eric writes in his brutally funny response to Rush, support the vicious, dictatorial states and sponsors of terrorism that own so much of the world’s oil than see his fellow Americans reduced to riding bicycles or taking the bus.

This tempest in a teapot (dome?) illustrates a point this blog tries to make over and over again. It pays to be able to do the numbers. We all know that price changes alter consumer choices. We know that oil in particular and energy in general is traded in a global market. We know, or should, about the concept of peak oil . We can reason our way to the likely impact that increased demand and slowing then reversing production increases will have on our energy mix, our economy, and the wealth of nations. Rush can play a farcical King Canute as long as he wants, but he can no more hold back the flow of numbers, of the hard fact of supply and demand than the old Dane could restrain the tide.

The oddity in all this — or perhaps the revealing detail, is that Rush’s rhetoric is his usual song to the common man. But, as we learn here, there is a simpler reason to explain his howls of pain and rage at the thought of 4 buck a gallon gas that has nothing to do with any notional common touch. The old deaf (recovering, we hope) drug addict drives himself around in a Maybach 57S — no doubt a truly wonderful automobile. It must hurt, however, even for a man as rich as Limbaugh, to fill the tank of a $450,000 behemoth that scores 10 miles to the gallon in the city.

I’m sorry — but I somehow don’t see Eric Roston as the effete elitist out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans here. But then, I don’t see how a tax dodging Senator with seven homes, $200,000+ monthly credit card spending, a growing domestic staff, and a married-into inherited fortune worth more than 100 million behind him is somehow more of a regular guy than that other Senator who rose out of a broken home through education and talent to the realms of upper-middle class comfort. Just me, I guess.

In any event: Good job, Eric! By the quality (sic) of your enemies may we recognize your worth.

Image: Johannes Christiaan Schotel, “Low Tide in a Bay with a Moored Vessel and Fishing Boats,” Early nineteenth century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

News Flash — Dog Bites Man dept: John McCain does not care about global warming

June 18, 2008

This just in:  John McCain, who claims that “he has been a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore,” said on Monday that he believes “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we place as a very high priority.”

This, on top of his recently renewed call for the twofer environmental and economic foolishness of a gas tax holiday, makes it clear, to me at least, where Senator McCain actually stands on the issue of global warming.

Not to beat a horse I long sinced blogged to near-death here, but if you are even remotely serious about the issue of global warming (not to mention, being a “leader”) you don’t look for ways to encourage people to burn more oil.  You can’t have it both ways (or rather, if you are anything but a straight talking, honest kind of guy, you can try, but annoying folks like me will point out the contradiction).

So — for anyone tempted to back McCain because of his environmental commitments — remember the last time we trusted a plausible sounding, straight shooting kind of fella on this issue, look at the other promises McCain is making, and think long and hard when you find yourself all alone in the voting booth.

Image:   Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, “Moonlit Seascape with Shipwreck,” nineteenth century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

More On Steven Postrel’s Climate Issues…

April 30, 2008

Issues, as in he has ’em, and it matters because his ill-informed comments (and I’m trying to keep the discourse on a reasonably polite level, as Dr. Postrel himself has done) actually capture a much broader pathology in the realm of those who oppose taking climate science and its predictions seriously.

Last night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Roston, to see if he wanted to have a crack at the same material that I saw, frankly as nonsense born of a dangerous brew of ignorance of the field and an ideological predisposition to a given outcome.

I did so because while I have written at length about climate change — I did so mostly two decades ago. I have complained (to Eric among others) that what’s most depressing about that is how little I would have to change in my basic take on the subject now, and you can see Eric’s treatment of that claim here.

But the point is that Eric, a former Time magazine science/tech correspondent is now the author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age (Macmillan, July, 2008), and is much more deeply immersed in the current science and policy literature than I ever was. So when in doubt, call in the expert — and here is Eric’s first whack at Postrel’s argument. I should warn you — it ain’t pretty (that is to say, Eric fired for effect, and he got it).

Update: Eric Roston’s name now spelled correctly (with apologies).

Image: Francisco de Goya “Bravo Toro,” 1824-1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Does Climate Change Matter: Steven Postrel Edition

April 29, 2008

Last week I blogged at length (too much! sayeth the mythical average reader) about McCain’s gas tax holiday and the evil consequences for hopes to rein in carbon pollution/climate change.

In doing so I linked, approvingly, to Steven Postrel’s analysis of the relative policy and economic consequences of a carbon tax vs. a carbon cap-and-trade system to limit and/or roll back carbon emissions in the US. At the same time I snarked a couple of times (reasonably politely, I thought) about this bit of Postrel:

Let’s suppose you’ve been swept up in the recent frenzy and decided that it actually makes sense to apply coercive regulations to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s further suppose that you’ve caught up to the 21st century and know that imposing specific technology standards on particular sources of emissions is a sign of policy incompetence: You know that market-ish mechanisms can do a much better job than technology standards of allocating clean-up tasks to the lowest-cost producers; you know that market-ish mechanisms provide incentives for private innovation in emissions control while technology standards stifle better ideas.

Congratulations! You are now about where the public policy debate has fallen these days — naive about the quality of the natural science involved but possessing a sound insight about the smartest way to do a foolish thing. (Italics added — TL)

The essence of my snark was that Postrel was out of his competence — and wrong — by suggesting that the science of carbon pollution and climate change was poor.

In the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense of his claim, along with a slightly more irascible re-response to another commenter (and old friend of mine) who took issue with some of what he said in his first micro-essay.

Postrel’s comments are worth reading, as they are clear, internally coherent, and provide as sound a brief precis of the arguments for the do-nothing approach as anything I’ve read.

And what makes them important, IMHO, is that they thus succinctly express several of the most significant errors of that approach.

So — as Werner Wolf fans may remember, Lets Go To The Videotape!

By way of adjusting the frame of his argument, Postrel begins his first comment with a slight but significant shift. He says that climate scientists’ “judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.”

Well that’s open to debate — and I’ll take a crack at that below. But note the tricky little sidestep there. In his own post on taxes v. cap and trade, he clearly indicts “the quality of the natural science.” Here, called to the mat on that, he says, in effect, no– not really — it’s just when climate scientists apply their knowledge to domains beyond the reach of their pretty little heads that we get into trouble.

OK — he didn’t say that; but the implication is clear, and its clearly not what he said in his initial post, so my snark still stands.

But so what? Rhetorical sleight of hand is always nice to expose, but Postrel goes on from this claim, to argue the implications of his assertion that climate scientists — along with those who believe what the vast majority of them are telling us — are foolish naifs, and it is here, I think that his more serious errors become apparent.

Postrel’s first argument in favor of doing nothing rests on what he calls thought experiments. (They aren’t really — in the shameless self promotion department, see my account of thought experiments in the hands of someone who knew how to create a hypothetical that actually penetrated to the heart of an issue.)

Postrel asks “if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly.”

There are several problems with this, and with the parallel straw man question on natural warming. First, the rhetoric: Postrel asserts, absent evidence beyond his own assessment of human nature/political process, that humans would not attempt to control nature to their own advantage. “Because I said so” (a loose translation of “when pigs fly”) is neither persuasive nor accurate in this case.

(By the way — Postrel took my old friend and trenchant blogger Lovable Liberal to task for an alleged confusion of the distinction between rhetoric and argument. I’d say the phrase “When pigs fly” settles the case in LL’s favor — though I’m happy to allow my friend to wield the blade of his Harvard philosophy degree to discipline Dr. Postrel on this matter in his own time and space.)

But beyond the fact that Postrel advances as argument a mere ex cathdra claim, the problem here is that he is clearly wrong on the facts. Human beings have routinely intervened in large ways and small to alter climate/environmental conditions to their benefit in the context of natural, cyclical change. See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature for some classic writing on the subject — but examples are legion, and stretch back at least to Sumerian attempts to irrigate their corner of the fertile crescent.

More broadly — and more to the larger issues with Postrel’s case — there is both a moral and a practical argument to be made that the “experiments” Postrel proposes are in fact arguments of either ignorance or bad faith.

Bad faith first: It seems reasonable to test the assumption behind the question. Postrel asserts by implication that reasonable observers should see no difference between a “natural” and an intentionally, consciously chosen act. Is that so? Ask yourself whether you feel or reason a difference between a natural process that alters ecological conditions and actions undertaken by humans now fully aware of the fact that their acts have consequences for people and ecosystems who/that derive no benefit from the original action.

I think that it is obvious that there is such a difference, and I think the recognition of that distinction is deeply ingrained in our law, customs, cultures, systems of belief and so on.

(For an example in the realm of both law and belief consider the Talmudic discussions of responsibility and compensation required when an ox causes damage depending on what knowledge the owner had of the propensity of his animal to cause injury.)

Hence my use of the term “straw man” for what Postrel would rather label more grandly a “thought experiment.” It fails to achieve that status both because, at least in Postrel’s hands, it becomes a question that assumes its answer (airborne pork and so on) — and because it rests on a false assumption of the equivalence of the question with the situation to be explored.

Now to the issue of ignorance. Why might it be a good idea to intervene now, when it would not have been, say 70,000 years ago, (when, we have just been informed, homo sapiens may have flirted with extinction brought on to poor adaptation to an undeniably natural climate change)?

Because, (more relentless self promotion alert) as I discussed here, before Jared Diamond and John McPhee did the same to much greater effect, the current anthropogenic climate change has one crucial difference from all the natural variation humans have endured throughout their evolutionary history.

That change?

We’ve built a whole lot of stuff in the way since the last Ice Age ended.

Over the last several hundred years we have constructed critical infrastructure on the assumption that the climate regime is going to stay more or less constant over time. We’ve done that all over the world, of course, and while there are some technological fixes available to the rich (see the Dutch engineering of their sub-sea level coastal fortifications), more broadly, we’ve got a lot of life, wealth and property invested in the notion that the ocean will stay more or less where it is.

And of course, it isn’t just coastlines we need to worry about. Global warming is not just an issue of sea level rise; it presents, as Postrel does accept, a much broader range of possible consequences.

Climate change affects rainfall, storm severity, longer term patterns of drought and damp and so on. Global agriculture on industrial scales are built on climate assumptions. Land use and distribution reflect generations of dispute and resolution on the question of access to climate resources and so on. Radical change in the climate regime — an expansion of drought areas, shift of rainfall patterns and so on — might not, as Postrel and others have argued, produce a net loss of ecosystem capacity world wide. But such shifts do devastate human constructions built on a set of beliefs about the climate that are no longer true.

Put this another way: Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. Rather, it was a natural event — category 3 or 4 hurricanes are going to hit in the western gulf with a certain frequency; that’s just the way that part of the system goes.

What made Katrina a human disaster was the fact that since the last major hurricane came that way, New Orleans in all its modern glory and inadequately engineered levees had grown up in the way. Take that and spread it all over the globe, and you have the reason why modern anthropogenic climate change is scarier than the Little Ice Age was. The broad argument we should do nothing because the climate has always varied fails to take into account this change from then to now.

This has gone on long enough. Just a couple more errors to pick at, and then I’ll stop, not having exhausted the problems with Dr. Postrel’s much more elegantly brief original comment.

His argument on the difficulty of agreeing on a temperature (“hubands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms!”) is another straw man. The question is whether we should slow or reverse the forcing agent of climate change. The target, if any, is an atmospheric concentration of CO2, not a temperature. The straw man gets even more hay-like when you consider the issue is not even purely about hitting some admittedly at least partly arbitrary target: it is about at least slowing the pace of change to make possible what Postrel says he wants.

What’s that?

Adaptation to climate change.

Here, Postrel shows a glimmer of the real risks involved, the fact that so much of human built society depends on ecosystem assumptions that carbon pollution calls into question. But his call for engineered solutions to the effects of climate change, rather than approaches to alter the underlying driver of the shift another way of saying that rich nations, the source of most carbon pollution to date, will ride out whatever storms there may be while the poorer ones suffer.

That may be a depressingly realistic assessment of the likely outcome (particularly under the current administration) — but it’s ugly, and I suspect, poor policy as well.

Poor people rendered desperate move. Such motion causes conflict. Conflict is not always, but is often vastly more costly even for very distant, and seemingly uninvolved parties than resolving the causes of conflict before the shooting starts. I’m sure acute readers can think of other costs ecosystem change impose on the rich.

Postrel closes with the hope that we would look for other technological solutions to climate change besides simply reducing carbon emissions — mentioning a scheme to reduce the earth’s albedo (reflectivity) by injecting particles into the upper atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I read that as he being willing to experiment with the global ecosystem properties to ameliorate the consequences of another, larger, less controlled experiment the human species is currently conducting. I’m not against technological approaches to climate change, where appropriate but I can’t see why Postrel favors one experiment over another here. (I know — presumed cost — but his claim that changing the earth’s albedo is inevitably cheap seems to undervalue the risk involved in such a what-the-hell tech fix.)

I haven’t exhausted all I’d say about Postrel’s comment, but given that this response is already several times longer than his original thoughts, I’ll rumble to a halt here.

We do agree on one thing: creating policy that does the least harm with the greatest possibility of good is exceptionally difficult. But he has inferred from that difficulty that the principle of least harm thus leads us to no or minimal policy response to our ongoing, uncontrolled experiment with not only our own lives, but those of everyone and everything else on earth.

With all due respect, I think that this is, strictly speaking, nuts.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow,” 1569. (One of my favorite works of art and an iconic image from the Europe of the Little Ice Age). Source: Wikimedia Commons.