"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Seeking Realistic Economic Scenarios

I find it enervating to listen to economists trying to explain our circumstances without reference to resource constraints, as if resources were a separate topic. Krugman's backing of Waxman-Markey carries some weight with me, but not as much as it would if he didn't totally neglect resource constraints.

Some of the things Tidal has said in comments here fit in with this point of view; essentially driving the collapse of the Ponzi scheme is the fact that our ability to borrow from the future is now facing substantive limits which it did not face before. The key resource constrain is usually taken to be peak oil; CO2 emissions constraints function similarly.

I am looking to collect articles which tie the current economic disruption to resource and especially energy constraints. Here, from the Oil Drum, is an interesting one which  manages to blame Richard Nixon for everything. 

I don't share the article's extreme pessimism (or revolutionism?) about the future of capitalism; I think the system will limp along and eventually learn to live within limits. But perhaps my own expectations aren't worth very much. Anyway I am not ready to talk about them at length.

I do share the article's sense that resource constraints and especially energy resource constraints are related to the current crisis for reasons other than a mere coincidence in time. To read even Krugman or DeLong is to believe that the problems of the economy and the problems of its key resource are completely decoupled. It's hard to find professional economists who make more sense than these guys and yet they aren't making much sense at all.

To be fair, Krugman does seem to understand that oil is finite. It's just that he doesn't seem to think that's very important, or relevant.

James Kunstler's May 18 blog entry is also worth reading. (And don't miss his eyesore of the month series if you are feeling sardonic!) But is there somebody convincingly arguing for a middle between collapse and "recovery"? Or is growth so hardwired that near-zero growth simply doesn't happen.

I'm looking for other articles wherein resource constraints are tied to the economic prognosis without going into revolutionary or Kunstlerian postapocalyptic scenarios. Any ideas, anyone?

Note: I am not looking for ecological economics, Daley, Ayres, etc., unless and to the extent that they specifically tie their analyses to the recent economic disruptions and the prognosis.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Motorcycle Maintenance and the Matter with Kansas

I. An Unlikely Distribution

Consider this astonishing map of the distribution of a particular pesticide.

There's a book out called "What's The Matter with Kansas" which investigates the strange prospect of the hardscrabble states of the interior voting reliably against their own economic interests. This is achieved by a certain sleight of hand with which Americans are sadly familiar, where a political philosophy really amounts to a stand-in for a certain subspectrum of religious beliefs.

There's another matter with Kansas, though, which is that its landscape is in ruins. I had the experience of driving into western Kansas from the Oklahoma panhandle during the spring flower season two years ago. It had been a stunningly beautiful spring in Texas with profusions and varieties of bright flowers all the way from Austin to Amarillo and beyond. Crossing into Oklahoma didn't change matters noticeably, but the transition to Kansas territory just a few miles further on was mortifying. It was like crossing a border into a land where color had been outlawed.

Every inch of the place was economically active, and every inch dedicated to the prosperity of people who obviously lived far, far away. Not a bluebonnet or an Indian paintbrush was anywhere to be seen, not even the sunflowers that the state chooses as its emblem. Nor much in the way of human creativity either. Since a drive diagonally across Kansas is a lengthy prospect, this was a bit discouraging, especially in the wake of the spectacular trip across Texas the previous two days.

I'll come back to the map in a bit; it has more to tell us.

II Zen and the Art of Integrity

A wonderful article by Matthew Crawford appeared in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, called "The Case for Working With Your Hands". In Crawford's case, it is about a transition from being a University of Chicago philosopher to being a motorcycle mechanic. Of course, as any well-read baby boomer will know, the idea of mixing philosophy and motorcycle maintenance isn't without precedent.

Crawford finds himself defending the idea that manual labor engages the intellect; a prospect that only people who don't do any could maintain. What does this have to do with me and my blog? I'm a clumsy and nerdy sort: the idea that my escape from my quandaries could be achieved with wrenches and screwdrivers seems a bit overwrought after all.

Here is the key passage in his article, and probably in his forthcoming book:
Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.
As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.
As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.
A "certain integrity". As opposed to "The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others." Here in a nutshell is what is wrong with us.

In a Jeffersonian democracy, where a great range of practical skills is distributed among the voters, one suspects that the capacity to maintain a fondness for some facts in preference to others would not be among those skills. In a world of specialization, one can be an expert on football scores and used car prices, say, without knowing much else about anything else. Cultural affinities align you with one or another opinion package. Those packages come with supporting facts.

In American politics these days, you only have two packages to choose from. One, increasingly narrowly defined, is also aligned with a narrow and literalist religious philosophy, entraining a certain amount of ugly racism and paranoia, and it is fortunately a little shy of the critical mass required to make the country seriously dangerous in the horrible tradition of 20th century totalitarian regimes. The alternative, though, for which the rest of us have increasing sympathy, is hardly immune from paranoia, selectivity of evidence, and foolish romanticism. Ultimately the selectivity of evidence becomes so severe that the two main groups operate, effectively, in distinct worlds. Their job, then, is not to promote their ideas, but to promote their "facts", facts whose implication is so overwhelming that no argumentation is necessary.

III. The "Good Guys" Do It Too

I was pretty much ousted from the progressive community in Madison, WI, some years back when I defended the locally based Kipp Corporation against accusations of the most wanton emission of pollutants into a residential neighborhood. The fact that the neighborhood had grown up around the factory and largely because of the factory was a matter of indifference to its contemporary left wing citizens. Their attitude was that the company "hadn't successfully proven that it wasn't emitting dioxins". My BS detector was good and thoroughly pinned.

Now Kipp was proposing to build a larger smokestack, something that probably would have affected the value of my own property at the time. But the battle wasn't being fought on those grounds at all. It was being fought over the proxy of imaginary dioxin and complaints of ilness that almost exclusively were being filed by a single citizen, who ostentatiously wears a gas mask to public meetings in the neighborhood. The neighborhood website, for which I was the first webmaster, currently features a skewed report about the company.
In 1999, an odor survey of neighborhood residents was conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Citizens reported sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, and other ailments as a result of exposure to odors they attribute to MKC.
Or so it says. I filled out the survey and reported no such problems. By the time of the survey, a great deal of noise was being made about Kipp; one supposes that neighbors had headaches and nausea in 1999! The "result of exposure" is, obviously, something of a judgment call. I don't recall the exact wording of the survey but I am pretty sure DNR didn't ask the question that way. I know some DNR folks. DNR has more competence than that.

Kipp, unsurprisingly, has packed its bags for the suburbs, and perhaps the last major manufacturer is gradually leaving Madison, which may be for the best for all concerned.

This experience, though, has made it clear to me where the hostility to environmentalism originates. Kipp has always been the model of a responsible corporate citizen, maintaining a clean and presentable facility, supporting community events and initiatives, providing decent employment for blue collar workers, resisting outsourcing, and in general being community minded. The ingratitude shown by the local community, its susceptibility to fear and innuendo, and its profound rudeness, tactics that might have more resonance with a truly corporate opposition, in this case were taken out against a closely held and responsibly run local business.

This is a disaster. If every accusation of environmental malfeasance must be taken on faith, there is little motivation for activists to actually determine whether their accusations are founded. Accusations are taken to be true on the principle of selected facts. Why spend effort on weighing evidence? One could argue that there's so much more good work to be done; why bother fussing about evidence when you can go directly to good, satisfying action?

IV Bee Colony Disorder and Bayer

As a natural worrier, one problem that has been worrying me has been the decline of bee colonies. As of last week, I thought of it as mysterious, so when I saw Bee Colony Disorder being blamed on pesticides on Twitter last week, I thought to investigate.

The tweet in question came my way from @monkchips who seems a decent enough sort on the whole. For instance he likes Frank Lloyd Wright. Can't be all bad. He said:
Bayer pesticides are killing our bees. Please protest against imidacloprid. [v:glynnmoody] http://bit.ly/abZEU
I asked him for evidence, and his reply was simply:
Bayer found imidacloprid in pollen of flowering trees at concentr's high enough to kill a honeybee in mins http://bit.ly/9jc3N
Which leads to a rather typical advocacy article on Salon; the connection to the Colony disorder is made by innuendo. Nobody is denying that this stuff may have damaged a bee or two; this puts the manufacturer in an awkward position, leaving a romantic/absolutist green position easy to take up. But there's really no evidence presented that bee colony decline is connected with this substance. And normally it would have stopped there.

But as scientifically literate people participate in Twitter, new possibilities for connections emerge. One @jenncuisine (an inspiring chef and an environmental chemist) pointed me to the map up above. All that remained for me was to find a map of bee colony disorder in the US for comparison, which I did. And here it is:

Not as detailed a map, admittedly, but even so, enough to assert that the correlation is very weak. No reports in Kansas? Reports in Iowa and South Dakota?

Whether or not imidacloprid is killing some bees, it is not likely to be responsible for the alarming phenomenon of Bee Colony Disorder. Implications to the contrary need evidence, not innuendo, and it took little investigation to provide evidence to the contrary.

V The Matter with Kansas

Still, the very strange map of where this substance is applied, compared with my own experience of a very sharp decline in ecosystem health exactly coincident with the Kansas line, doesn't leave me enthusiastic about this behavior. Do other pesticides show a similar pattern?Was my experience just coincidental in some way? What exactly is the matter with Kansas?

We have to have some way of investigating evidence scrupulously.

The problem with the press isn't Craig's List or bloggers. The problem is an incapacity to examine and weigh evidence. We are left on our own, guessing. This is turn is responsible for the collapse of reasoned discourse. How can we reason together when we are operating on different evidence?

The solution to the journalistic quandary may need to emerge from the scientific blogosphere. Scientists, at least honest ones, are like motorcycle mechanics. We do not get to pick and choose our evidence. Whether or not Bayer is killing bees, is there something odd about Kansas beyond its politics, after all?

Would it not be worthwhile to find out, from someone without any agenda other than truth?

Waxman-Markey Counterproductive?

Gar Lipow argues, and convincingly so, in a current article on Grist, that Waxman-Markey's cap and trade provisions are counterproductive.

I am still deferring to Mr. Gore and to Mr. Krugman, not to mention to David Roberts who seems to be wavering. So I am relectuant to argue against this bill. 

Lipow doesn't address the issue of appearing in Copenhagen with nothing much to show. This still seems to me to at least weigh in favor of some large bill. But he does address the issue of putting bad metrics into practice to start with. 

In closing Lipow quotes Peter Dorman, so I'll quote the same paragraph as something to think about:
Mainstream environmental groups are ... soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.

Stacy Morford, on the SolveClimate site, is also on the fence.

In terms of public awareness, I lunched with a bunch of intelligent and astute American adults yesterday. None of them had heard of Waxman-Markey, though one person had heard of Rep. Waxman. 

Maybe this sort of opacity is necessary as a matter of realpolitik these days, but I don't have to like it, do I? Shouldn't this have escaped the energy blogs and made a tiny impact on the mainstream?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surviving Montreal Traffic

An art contest in defense of pedestrians and bicycles.

Nos 6 & 7 are creative:

"For us, the annual appearance of potholes is a sign that Nature is constantly retaking the roots of our city. So, before we get around to gving her a good slap in the face, we installed some turf grass in several potholes around the Plateau Mont Royal."
"Nous estimons que nous ne pouvons nous contenter du statu quo proposé par la Ville de Montréal, si nous voulons voir non pas un maintien, mais une amélioration de notre situation."


We believe that we can't be satisfied with the status quo proposed by the city if we want to improve our situation rather than just maintaining it. The solution includes public transport, but also a reduction in the traffic capacity of the streets.

I'm trying to imagine Texans arguing for less parking in their neighborhood to encourage more bicycles, trains and busses. Take that, Ben Wear!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Waxy Markup

Adam Siegel is trying to plow through the details of Waxman-Markey so there is one more reason for me not to. 

I am trying to get a grip on the whole business and hope to have something to say after  the dust settles. For the present, I am in favor of anything other than going to Copenhagen empty-handed and am somewhat reassured by Krugman's acquiescence

I've never really followed legislation through the negotiation phase before. I've heard it isn't pretty. That assessment turns out to be correct. 

I'll point to useful articles as I come across them. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Yeah, right

American passenger train service:

Train service to Toronto for the severely irrational. But though Air Canada services the route, people who travel between those two places may be uncommon.

What about just zipping across the southern tier?

Holy three days and five hours, Batman! (Three days and seven hours with the time zones, actually.)

For comparison (both one-way), the bus takes 25 hours and costs $71.50 with advanced purchase. Google says it is a 16 hour drive.

Oops. It appears that the Gulf Coast route, though marked on the map, isn't in service at all.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

waxing poetic

In the end, I reluctantly conclude that David Roberts is right that we (and I in particular) should STFU about the Waxman Markey legislation and let the politicians take it as far as they can.

This is what is ironically called a "real world" compromise, in which we understand perfectly what techniques would be needed to make a world of vastly greater human dignity, beauty, mutual support and happiness (though, perhaps, a wee bit less ludicrously funny), but the "real world" of politics interferes to make a thorough bureaucratic muddle of it all.

The NYTimes explains this flavor of realism here.
How did cap and trade, hatched as an academic theory in obscure economic journals half a century ago, become the policy of choice in the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption that befouls the public square or leaves the nation hostage to foreign oil producers?

The answer is not to be found in the study of economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy debates are ultimately settled: politics.


Cap and trade, ... is almost perfectly designed for the buying and selling of political support through the granting of valuable emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific Congressional districts. That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has used such concessions to patch together a Democratic majority to pass a far-reaching bill to regulate carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan.
The upshot is a lot of short term gain spread around to specific people, and a balancing amount of unnecessary extra long term pain spread around to nobody in particular. This is the activation energy of politics.

When I discovered the distinction between popular and less popular blogs about global change, I noted that the dominant players, at least so far, are the more politically oriented ones. I inadvertently offended Joe Romm, but whatever his educational background, his thinking is pretty inside-the-beltway. David Roberts, though happily ensconced in the other Washington and pretty critical on the whole about DC, is also in the class of unabashedly liberal/progressive blogs. These are the guys who, at least at present, are getting the traffic, relatively speaking. Maybe that is as it should be. Maybe the group of people I want to reach is intrinsically smaller. Anyway, while we may agree on many things, what they try to do on their blogs and what I try to do on mine are not alike.

I discovered that while there is no doubt that I describe myself as liberal/progressive in contrast to other political postures, that is only a crude generalization in my case, since my politics takes a back seat to evidence-based reasoning, and sometimes I say things that progressives hate, for instance, "CCS sure had better work" and "coal is not the enemy of the human race" and so on.

Consequently, my writing and my thinking is not about how to advance liberalism or progressivism or my preferred political parties, but about what the most effective response to circumstances would be. Almost invariably, these ideas are considered "unrealistic".

While carbon emission contraints are long overdue and there is a very dramatic mismatch between policy and evidence, it is an unusual sort of slow motion crisis. The effect of delaying a response to the second year of the present congress would be relatively inconsequential, compared to the distorting influences of a bad bill.

And in so saying, I fall into the fourth way: neither partisan nor afraid to draw a conclusion, feeling grimly disappointed that political realism creates such a muddle out of what ought to be a straightforward application of the part of economics that obviously works.

Commercial activity responds effectively to monetary incentives. Seriously. It does.

But I'm not an absolutist. The dominant factor in the present circumstances is the upcoming Copenhagen negotiation. It makes a great deal of difference to all the other countries whether the US shows up having made real substantive cuts, by which the participants will mean, exactly, large symbolic actions that might eventually lead to real substantive cuts.

How much better off will this leave grand gesture us than did the grand gestures of the past, most notably Kyoto?

Oddly, much better, since Damocles' sword has slipped much lower, and since America would not find itself explicitly rejecting international cooperation. Maybe some of these theoretical cuts will eventually exit the "real world" of politics and enter the other (unreal?) world where the actual radiative properties of the atmosphere are changing at an unusually high and climbing rate.

So it's perhaps best to leave the politicians to their craftiness or craziness. Because like it or not the radiative properties of the atmosphere for the next 100,000 years may depend sensitively on an all-too-casually chosen word here and there, and on the ensuing future sturm und drang among lawyers and judges and corprate interests about what the word actually means.

After a half century of our warnings and a quarter century of our drum banging, at least they are taking note in their peculiar way. Will it be enough?

The answer seems to be that, enough or not, it is the best we can do this year, and that this year matters.

In short
@david_h_roberts is right: we shouldn't quibble too much re Waxman Markey. Timing is politically important so let's cope.

PS - That's right, the Canadians are smarter.

PPS - Or maybe not. Krugman, taking me completely by surprise, prefers a cap to a tax.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Cruel Hoax: Growth and Equity Cannot be Sustained

Via a perceptive summary at Bristling Badger, Jared Diamond addresses the Tobis tautology:
China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent. If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.
Yes, this is the problem. We can't equitably sustain the impact we already have. Which means that there are only two possible ways out of an absolute decline:

1) Abandoning the pretense that we have any interest in being fair
2) Reducing the impact per unit of wealth elevenfold

And that is just to break even!

Consider what an economist would consider business as usual.

Consider 2.5% annual growth, wherein the rest of the world can eventually catch up entirely to our final level. Let's give it fifty years of more growth. Then we hold still and wait for the rest of the world to catch up to us; this will provide a lower bound. (Things are worse if we keep growing after that, but this is a good place to start.)

Plus we suppose a 40% increase in population that the demographers are telling us is what to expect.

And now consider what the world what have to do to break even on impacts.

OK, the 2.5 % growth for 50 years amounts to a 3.4 fold increase in wealth for us. If the population does not increase, that means the 11-fold increase in the prior calculation (for others to catch up only to 2008 levels in the west) has to be multiplied by 3.4 to catch up to the west, plus another factor of 1.4 to account for the increased population.

As a consequence, the impact per unit of wealth has to decline by a factor of 11 * 3.4 * 1.4 = 52.9 .

In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty. Even that may not be sustainable: that is what is needed to fulfill the implicit promise of a growth economy to the rest of the world for another fifty years without increasing the RATE at which the earth is damaged. And even so, the growth idea implies continuing reduction in impact per unit of wealth thereafter.

This entirely leaves aside arguments from energy availability. It's completely sink-driven. For the most part, supply-side energy depletion arguments (peak all) are "served concurrently". They don't make matters easier, but at least they don't add new multipliers.

What really has me dismayed is the scenario that the west will indeed abandon the pretense of international equity and try to become explicitly cynical and apartheid. This would leave the numbers much more plausible, but the world in sorry shape, mutually hostile, sectarian and violent by choice.

The recent rise of China in particular, and to a significant but lesser extent of India, will probably preclude success of this strategy. I hope so. In that scenario, the "growth" would all be channeled to the military in any case, essentially leaving individuals no additional wealth.

As Diamond points out, our existing patterns, especially in North America, are very wasteful; little actual well-being results from much of the high-impact activity. Oddly, in this wastefulness there is some hope, hope that our inevitable "decline" will not be too severe or disruptive, hope that what we can trim is mostly useless anyway.

Maybe there is some way to impose some sort of "growth" on this just to humor the economists, the bankers and the pension funds, but in actual fact our North American rate of impact on the world is so unsustainable that we will either see a long period of decline or something vastly worse.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A bit more on cap and trade

People who have put more effort than I have into reading the Waxman-Markey bill are coming up with widely differing interpretations, not just of what its impacts will be, but of what it actually means.

One interesting case against is this analysis by Payal Parekh, who thinks the cap and trade components of the Waxman-Markey bill will do very little for American carbon emissions. Others do interpret the provisions differently; the real question is which interpretation will be advanced by the affected economic interests and how it will stand up in court.

I do gather from the comments to that article that a key flaw in trading emissions rights is double counting: a behavior that would likely have been done anyway can now be sold for credits that greatly exceed the expense of the action. This causes the cost of remediation to increase, not decrease.

On the other hand, I begin to see the urgency arguments as well; they do not stem from any physical process that can't delay a year for an effort to design an elegant bill and . They stem from the need for the US not to show up in Copenhagen empty-handed. The whole world is desperate for a semblance of major action from the US. Even if the cap-and-trade provision of Waxman is completely toothless, it sounds big. In other words, it's the semblance that seems to matter.

Of course, the atmosphere pays no attention to symbolic actions. So one question, especially presuming Parekh has it right, is whether a bad bill immediately makes a good bill in the next few years harder to achieve. I suspect so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Architects May Come, Architects May Go

This morning's talk of car free cities put me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright, a man whose genius is widely but not universally appreciated. His greatest works, I think, happened early in his career (the Dana House in Springfield justifies a day trip from Chicago, assuming you have already seen the Robie House). Irene and I were married in Wright's First Unitarian Meetinghouse in Madison, which has its delights but is not remotely comparable.

But Wright remained a very interesting man, and one not much constrained by conventional wisdom. One of his obsessions was a pattern of settlement neither urban nor suburban. Oddly, it's in some ways reminiscent of the large scale patterns of the deep south, with settlement strung endlessly along four lane highways without ever managing to be rural or urban. Of course, it would look better if Mr. Wright were on the zoning commission, or, well, if there were a zoning commission at all.

The idea goes further than the linear sprawl, though. In fact, people would have long narrow lots strung out behind their dwellings on these linear structures. At the places where the lines crossed, immense skyscrapers would rise, containing most industrial and commercial activity. Great swaths of wilderness would be preserved between these linear structures. The benefits of city, suburb, farm and wilderness all interact in a unified whole. To be sure, Wright envisioned automobiles and even personal helicopters, but the design is very suitable for almost total conversion to externally powered train traffic (and without meeting any area-density requirement at all). 

I have always regretted the loss of optimism about the future. Even the people who think they are being optimistic these are promoting something far shabbier and sadder than what is well within, at least, our technical capabilities. 

I can't resist another picture: this one has been reproduced as a poster and a copy of it is over my desk at the U of T:

This poster has been following me around for decades now. I've had my ups and downs with DOE in general and Rick Stevens in particular, but the moment I liked Rick the most was when he saw the drawing, took it in within a second or two, and said "why can't the real world be like that?"

Yes, Rick, that is exactly the question. As far as I'm concerned, you can have all my tax dollars for your superdupercomputers if you can answer that one.

Images via the Hochschulle Darmstadt

Car Free

Quick note to call attention to this article in the New York Times: Car-Free In America?

Interesting comment by Witold Rybyczynski: 
There are only six American downtown districts that are dense enough to support mass transit, which you need if you’re going to be carless: New York City (Midtown and Downtown), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. 
Interesting that those are the exact cities (minus Philadelphia, plus Montreal and Toronto) that formed my idea of what a city is. All mass transit towns. Everything else still seems exceptional and sub-urban in the sense where "sub" means "worse than".

And there's a featured reader comment:
That one just fascinates me. Is "impossible" too strong?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Couple of Defenses of Cap and Trade

Kevin Drum has a good introductory pro-cap article that seems to summarize the conventional wisdom in some circles. It's better than nothing. I pretty much found myself starting to be convinced until this bit:
With a tax, you know exactly what the price of carbon will be, but you don't know for sure how much carbon reduction that tax will get you. You have to guess. With cap and trade, you don't know for sure how much carbon will cost, but you do know exactly how much carbon reduction you'll get. Whatever technical flaws cap and trade may have compared with taxes, this by itself is enough to convince most environmental groups that it's a superior approach.
As I've said before, I think it's pretty trivial to work around this. All you have to do is adjust the tax rate annually, and you won't be too far off your targets.

The other part of the article that bothered me was this:
Cap and trade's market-friendly trading mechanism, combined with the fact that the acid rain program was so successful, makes it far more likely than a tax to survive on Capitol Hill.
In this case it's probably true, but it isn't something to be tolerated indefinitely. Unless we have a really deep redesign of how money works, deeper than I expect could work at this point, we'll have taxes. So the amount of taxes should be determined by reason, not by ignorant voters and cowardly politicians. As long as the voters don't understand taxes and the politicians avoid explaining them, we have a problem. Still, this would only be an argument in favor of cap and trade to the extent people don't notice that it is, effectively, a complicated tax, something they have already noticed.

Joe Romm is also making the case in more detail. Perhaps most valuably, he points to a readable summary of the proposed legislation. (Don't get me wrong, it's still a slog, but it's a relatively short slog.)

And Joe certainly has credentials as far as being worried about people gaming the system. He defers to WRI (second link in previous paragraph) on the likelihood that it won't happen in this case.

I think a simple tax for carbon extraction and a simple credit for sequestration, per mass, is the best place to start. People who actually live or work on farms and ranches or in very rural areas could get a 100% rebate. (And I am sure hobby farmers would game this, but it's the least of our problems.) The rest should be a dividend for all taxpayers. This would not actually work out regressive.

That said, I do appreciate the extra information. I am still wondering who drafted the legislation, when, and how. And I am wondering if such a faltering start as this bill provides might not do more harm than good.

on foresight


Monday, May 11, 2009

Peak All

It matters somewhat whether fossil fuels are used up before or after really major climate change cuts in. Peak oil seems to be in our future regardless, but there is some question about peak coal.

Climate change specialists in my experience scoff at the concept, but there is some talk here and there that we will run out of coal somewhere not too far in excess of the 500 ppmv that climate folks are hoping to see as the peak. (Yes, we are still saying 450, but you can discount that a tad.)

Here's the picture from somebody called the Energy Watch Group. (Sorry for the excruciating colors. I can't help noticing that fuel people have a uniformly dreadful sense of graphic design.)

In the Oil Drum report, Shaun Chamberlain of the Lean Economy Connection points out that, as with oil, the energy required to extract the material increases over time, but, as is less true of oil, the quality of the material also varies dramatically. Accordingly, the mass peak of coal happens some time after the energy peak. The peak energy extraction appears to be only 25 years in the future.

I have zero expertise to bring to bear on the question. It seems plausible either way.

After all, I've seen several arguments that holders of oil resources are motivated to exaggerate their reserves. (Kunstler's Long Emergency, which seems excessive in many places, is pretty compelling on this score.)

Actually, I hope this scenario is true, because rather than science having to convince the world to avoid scenarios that they have a hard time imagining, those scenarios simply wouldn't be accessible.

The upshot would be the same: we have to move off of carbon as quickly as possible.

The only case where the delayers have anything useful to say is the one where greenhouse sensitivity is extremely small compared to the conventional wisdom and where coal supplies are large compared to the conventional wisdom. So this possibility of peak coal just further weakens the argument against getting in gear to make the shift.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Great Relaxation Revisited

I have tried to make the case that an economic slowdown properly handled can be a good thing on balance, even though it will be certainly stressful in the short run for people who are unprepared for it. I proposed repackaging the whole business, dropping the depressing words "depression" and "recession" in favor of "relaxation", on the presumption that the level of activity in the most advanced economies is already excessive.

There's a pair of related articles that recently appeared on the Oil Drum by Nate Hagens The first, called "It's the Ecology, Stupid" (aargh, why didn't I think of that one!) Hagens summarizes the situation elegantly:

Our current socio-ecological regime is founded on a worldview that emerged during a period—the early Industrial Revolution—when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure (33). Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were sparser, and inadequate access to infrastructure and consumer goods represented the main limit on improvements to human well-being. This set of circumstances has been called an ‘‘empty’’ world (34). In an empty world, it made sense to ignore relatively abundant ecosystem goods and services, and to favor the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few so that it could be invested and focus solely on increasing the consumption of market goods and services, which were relatively scarce. If wealth had to be concentrated in the hands of the few where it would be invested to fuel future growth, rather than distributed to the many where it would be consumed at the cost of growth, this was a sacrifice the present had to make for the future.

Our current worldview of what is desirable and what is possible was obviously forged in this empty world context. For example, ‘‘recession,’’ our word for economic decline, is defined as two or more consecutive quarters in which the GDP does not grow. Unending physical growth of the economy is only possible within a system unconstrained by any biophysical limits. Our current institutional and technical approach is also an extension of a long-term trend of adaptation to an empty world. Western society has increasingly favored the institutions that promote the private sector over the public sector, capital accumulation by the few over asset building by the many (35, 36), and finance over the production of real goods and services.


Our current [worldview is] failing to meet our needs in a changing world. Anthropogenic climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, pandemics, ozone depletion, pollution, and the loss of other life-sustaining ecosystem services all pose serious threats to civilization. These crises can be traced back to one, albeit complex problem: we have failed to adapt our current socioecological regime from an empty world to a full world. The aspects of our regime that no longer serve us in a full world can be grouped under two interrelated themes: a belief in unlimited growth, and a growing and unsustainable complexity.

In fact, I wish I had written pretty much the whole thing.
the task is huge and will take a concerted and sustained effort if we hope to make the transition a relatively smooth one. It will require a whole systems approach at multiple scales in space and time. It will require integrated, systems-level redesign of our entire socio-ecological regime, focused explicitly and directly on the goal of sustainable quality of life rather than the proxy of unlimited material growth. It must acknowledge physical limits, the nature of complex systems, a realistic view of human behavior and well-being, the critical role of natural and social capital, and the irreducible uncertainty surrounding these issues. It is also important to recognize, however,that a transition will occur in any case, and that it will almost certainly be driven by crises. Whether these crises lead to decline or collapse followed by ultimate rebuilding, or to a relatively smooth transition depends on our ability to anticipate the required changes and to develop new institutions that are better adapted to those conditions.
Hagen's followup is to call attention to an article by Jay Hanson that most people, myself included, would find excessive. Like the Unabomber tract, there are interesting ideas buried in the madness and it's not unworthy of your attention, though I would like to make clear that I don't think it's remotely ethically sound and so it's fortunate that it's impractical as well.

But I did like the idea that we should replace "avarice" with "sloth" as the key vice of our age. "Lazy is good" needs to be our motto. "Shoddy is better than nothing". Or how about "Less fear, more beer." In times of shortage, laziness is immoral. In times of glut and surplus, ambition is immoral. It's the common good that requires us to scale back our ambitions.

Jay Hanson (no relation to Jim Hansen, presumably) has been talking doom at www.dieoff.org for some time. Like most peak-oilers he is infected with a truly wretched sense of design as well as a sort of apocalyptic vocabulary, but he makes more sense than you might want to admit.

On a related note I finally had a chance to actually confront an economist today about some of this stuff. She had given a talk to the Ethical Society of Austin about the roots of the economic crisis; you know, credit swaps, excessive mortgages, and all. The word "resources" never appeared.

Of course, I, member in good standing of the Virtual Club of Rome, raised the issue of limits to growth. The response was telling. It was nonsensical to talk about limits, since they were so abstract and obviously so far into the future. Substitutability. Outer space. Technology. Bla bla bla. This was all to be expected and all eventually came up.

But the strangest comment was the first one: "Why would you want to limit growth?" As if the laws of physics represented a political position! Talk about "head-slappingly false".

I think the tautology is pretty obvious, but it's outside the box for economists. I mentioned it to her and she seemed to hear it, but she didn't find it germane to her interests or as providing a realistic constraint to her models and theories.

We are just not talking their language. It's like trying to bring the hockey rule of the blue line into a conversation on swine flu.

Ultimately, it seems there are people who have tremendous faith in technology who don't really understand or care about the principles of thermodynamics. I suspect if you could catch Jeffrey Sachs in an unguarded moment he might admit to getting it. Other than the ecological / environmental economics fringes, though, you will have a hard time finding another economist who cares very much about the earth as a physical system, not even the most down-to-earth ones, like Stiglitz or DeLong or Krugman.

The most mind-boggling thing was that the economist I was talking to thought our problems were because politicians weren't paying enough attention to economists. It's really like these people live on a different planet.

Image from The Non-Consumer Advocate from a related article called "In Defense of Non-Productivity"

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Waxman-Markey Bill

It's interesting how none of the proponents of Waxman-Markey would point to the text, but it's not hard to find. It's linked here and is officially called the "American Clean Energy and Security Act".

Although it is one of those things intimidatingly described as being over 600 pages long, it was very amusing to discover that the margins and font size match what you'd expect for a nine-year-old's primer. There are about 200 words per page at most. So, though inhumanely formatted, the entire thing is only about 120,000 words. Not an easy thing to read but not overwhelming either.

Where did this come from? Waxman and Markey's staffs? Lobbyists? Anyway it is proportionally less mysterious at 200 words per page than at the 1000 or so I imagined. (This is the first time I ever looked at draft legislation.)

The claim for the legislation is as follows:
The American Clean Energy and Security Act will create millions of new clean energy jobs, save consumers hundreds of billions of dollars in energy costs, enhance America's energy independence, and cut global warming pollution. To meet these goals, the legislation has four titles:
  • * A clean energy title that promotes renewable sources of energy, carbon capture and sequestration technologies, low-carbon fuels, clean electric vehicles, and the smart grid and electricity transmission;
  • * An energy efficiency title that increases energy efficiency across all sectors of the economy, including buildings, appliances, transportation, and industry;
  • * A global warming title that places limits on emissions of heat-trapping pollutants; and
  • * A transitioning title that protects U.S. consumers and industry and promotes green jobs during the transition to a clean energy economy.
The process envisioned by the committee is as follows:

The Energy and Commerce Committee will complete consideration of the legislation by Memorial Day. The preliminary schedule follows:

  • Week of April 20: Energy and Environment Subcommittee Hearings
  • Week of April 27: Energy and Environment Subcommittee Markup Period Begins
  • Week of May 11: Full Energy and Commerce Committee Markup Period Begins
So this thing is well on its way. My biggest concern is that it is a bundle of good intentions with nonobvious flaws that the drafters of the bill will not have the time to see but that the impacted industries will have ample time and motivation to discover and exploit. This is the reason to always err on the side of simplicity.

First impression: This is not a cap and trade bill. This is a big pile of conventional wisdom bill. The trouble with conventional wisdom is that it may not be consistent. Inconsistent legislation leads to incoherent behavior, which makes things worse. I can't understand why something of this importance needs to be rushed. Yes, the present congress needs to act, but they have another year to iron out the kinks and promote the product.

The argument for rushing, aside from the usual naive confusion about the time scales of the climate problem (and probably about the time scales of the "green economy" and surely about the economic tradeoffs of it) amounts to "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", and the argument for cap and trade over a tax amounts to "it's pretty much the same thing but the teabaggers won't put up with it if we call it a tax". On the latter point, sorry but nobody is being fooled, teabaggers included.

On the arguments from urgency, wouldn't it be better to 1) take the time to think things through and 2) try to exert some leadership so that the public understands and supports the endeavor? These suggestions appear alien to the present governing class and lobbying classes, which means that not much has changed yet.

And, though it's always a bit baffling to see Republicans attacking Wall Street, don't they have a point here?
Barton and Walden are now pressing the EPA about why the case took so long to prosecute, the apparent leniency in sentencing, and the reported prosecution cost of $80 million. They're also probing the accuracy of EPA comments indicating there may be a raft of other fraud cases that haven't been investigated.

Legislators also point to alleged fraud in the European Union emissions trading market. Under the program, companies are allowed to offset their emissions by investing in projects like high-efficiency power plants that cut greenhouse gas emissions. These projects are often located overseas where verification is difficult, if not impossible.

Environmental groups alleged, and EU officials acknowledged, that much of the offsets weren't legitimate. "Billions of dollars have been transferred from taxpayers to undeserving project developers and a growing army of carbon brokers and consultants," said environmental organization Friends of the Earth.

Such examples are also raising fears about the next U.S. market, which will be far more complicated and much larger than both Reclaim and the EU emissions program.

"All of the evil things that Wall Street will do to an unregulated financial commodity market, they will try to do in spades to this carbon market," said Mark Cooper, head of research at the Consumer Federation of America.
Yes, of course Barton will oppose a tax just as vehemently, but will he have as cogent an argument?

We already have the example of well-intentioned major legislation on corn ethanol backfiring spectacularly. Nobody said this was going to be easy.

Can we have the same level of intellectual rigor about legislation as we do about science or medicine or engineering? Where did the Waxman-Markey text come from, and what makes anybody think that three weeks of markup will be enough, given the corporate interests' decades of followup looking for profitable loopholes, never mind weaknesses in enforcement.

I want some reassurance that years of critical thought went into this document. As far as I know it sprung into existence this year as a direct consequence of existing political constraints and not much else. Please tell me I am wrong.

I suppose I have to try to read it now. Groan.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Two Cultures

Living in Austin is fun, but sometimes you wonder if you can actually participate in anything important if you don't live on one of the coasts, something I have peculiarly never managed. This weekend, I am just beside myself with frustration that I can't possibly attend the New York Academy of Sciences meeting reprising C P Snow's famous "Two Cultures" lecture. I guess we can hope that it's captured and logged somehow. Who knows?

(Chris Mooney, who is not only attending but is on the panel (jealous fume) recently said it had not yet filled up. Not sure if this is still true, but if you are in commuter train range of the City, you might want to consider attending.)

This comes to mind because of two photoblog windows that happen to be open in the usual smattering of attention deficit evidence on my desktop. (Hmm... We live in a time when desktops have windows...)

From the wonderful thingsihavelearnedinmylife.com (which is largely about text as art), we have this quote: "There is no way to draw anything wrong."

And from the marine biology blog Guilty Planet, which I discovered via an alarming bit of historical fumetti about fish catches in the Keys, we have this in Jennifer Jacquet's blurb:

"As a kid, she read 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth and would come to discover that while those 50 things were indeed simple, saving the Earth was not."

Which to me says this: in the arts, there is respect for every opinion while in the sciences there is disrespect for every opinion. Accordingly, in a society where, as Paul Murray recently pointed out, almost everyone who understands science is a scientific professional, the encouraging, positive, go along-to-get-along relativism of the arts is considered social adept while the challenging, skeptical, everything-you-know-is-wrong absolutism of the sciences is considered maladroit, arrogant and offensive.

So, last night, I managed to meet my old friend King of the Road, who showed up among the In It readership a few months back, for dinner at a little barbecue place halfway to Houston. (Again, the blog habit makes my life better while holding down a fringe science job just seems to get in the way.) I guess we had chatted on the phone once in the twenty years intervening since we last met, but it was interesting to see how quickly patterns of an old friendship reassert themselves sometimes. Anyway, Rob's (King's) take on all this is something like "the world is put together in a certain way, and science tries to be put together that way, so there can't be a better way to understand the world". He also said that if you just want to eat, sleep and play guitar, he could perfectly understand that, but then you probably should defer to people who like to think when you put together your opinions.

Anyway, that's the choir; there are many more blogs addressing this group (I mean teh science group, not the guitar group) than our population would presently warrant. Why do we talk to each other and not the world? Because we like to think. Because we do not know how to talk to the rest of the world very effectively. Because the world isn't very interested. Because most people form ideas and then look for evidence to support those ideas rather than looking for evidence to shoot their ideas down. Because most people are taught to trust their intuitions while we are taught to treat them with the deepest suspicion.

What's really at issue is the gap in cognitive style. People simply do not accept that some people are much better at thinking about certain subjects than most everybody else; even though they are quite content to have basketball superstars and guitar heroes.

Paul Murray has quoted one member of the Texas Board of Education as saying "If I don't understand it, it isn't science".

This person's opinion is consequential; he was deciding on the next decade of science education in Texas and indirectly of many of the rural states that follow Texas's lead.

So my view of the two cultures isn't science vs the arts; it's science vs. everybody who doesn't get science. Most politicians, lawyers and business people are included in the "don't get it" group.

As things become overwhelmingly complex, what we need is a society in which intellectual humility is tied to respect for scientific process. When I was a boy, I thought it obvious that this was emerging, but my intuition, alas, was wrong.

So finally, Mr. Obama is increasing the profile and the budget for science. Rob and I discussed what this would amount to. I moaned about all the ways the scientific enterprise itself is broken (partly due to the decades of neglect, partly due to its own internal contradictions). Rob quickly picked up with the question of whether a sudden influx of resources would help very much; indeed, whether there was all that much of use that science could do. I think if the influx is quasi-permanent (which is to say, that the collapse of the republican coalition is permanent) it may attract some of the people science has been losing to such unproductive pursuits as law or finance, but that's a very slow process.

If Obama wants to support science, shoveling money into grant programs may not be the way to do it. There are very serious problems in the way science is designed, conducted and communicated. Business as usual with a few extra bucks may return the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s for a short while. We could re-establish the PhD mill for a few years but isn't sustainable. Science cannot go back to growing, as a professional enterprise, faster than society as a whole. It's that growth rate/sustainability thing again. There is a limit to how many people can be paid to do science.

The main point, though is this. There is no way to draw anything wrong. But there is only one way to think anything right.

I think science desperately needs improvement on two fronts. The first is science that is less effective at writing publications and more effective at reading them, doubting them, testing them and making the winners accessible.

The second, and this is even more important, is to take science education and science promotion and amateur science seriously. That is, people need to reassess the relationship between opinion and fact such that fact wins.

I'll try to make this case to Obama's RFC. We don't, for the most part, need more science. We need better science, and we need better connections between science and the rest of the world.

Picture from Jerry Mikeska's Barbeque at I-10 exit 698. (in Texas of course; does anybody else have an exit 698?) Turn your sound volume down before clicking, or don't say I didn't warn you. Jerry stopped by our table said hi. Like any small business type in Texas, he is a very nice man, but in the interest of scientific accuracy I have to say his brisket is nasty. Stick with the sausage which is fine.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cap & Trade vs Emissions Tax

A nice effort to untangle the cap and trade vs carbon tax mess at Yale Environment360, interviewing eight experts.
There was disagreement on many points, but on one issue most concurred. As Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said, imposing some sort of price on fossil fuels “is a big improvement over the do-nothing status quo.”
If this is the best they can do, I find the cap-and-trade arguments very unconvincing both in themselves and by comparison with those advanced by carbon tax proponents.

This (from Fred Krupp of the EDF) seems to be the crux of their argument:
From an environmental point of view, the advantage of an emissions cap over a carbon tax is clear: A cap puts a legal limit on pollution. A tax does not. Guessing what level of tax might drive the pollution cuts we need to avert runaway climate change is a risk we simply can’t afford to take. Only a cap with strong emissions reduction targets — and clear rules for meeting them — can guarantee that we achieve the environmental goal.
That is the sort of argument you get from people who are not telling you their real motivations. The time constant of the problem is thirty years; the time constant of a tax rate is what? The Fed adjusts the prime several times a year. It's an argument without foundation in reality, and yet all the proponents quoted here are flogging it very hard. As usual when people advance ideas that seem obviously wrong to me, I wonder how they are motivated to convince themselves of this.

Compare to, say, Jeffrey Sachs's argument:
Cap-and-trade emissions trading seems to politicians to be the ideal solution. It is “market-based,” does not require the T-word (taxes), and can be worked out with special-interest groups in back-room negotiations. For the rest of us, however, cap-and-trade seems a funny way to do business.

A straightforward carbon tax has vast advantages. It can be levied upstream at a few dozen places — at the wellhead, the mine face, and the liquid natural gas depot — rather than at thousands or tens of thousands of businesses. A carbon tax covers the entire economy, including automobiles, household use, and other units impossible to reach in cap-and-trade. A carbon tax puts a clear price on carbon emissions for many years ahead, while a cap-and-trade system gives a highly fluctuating spot price. A carbon tax raises a clear amount of revenue, which can be used for targeted purposes (R&D for sustainable energy) or rebated to the public in one way or another, while the revenues from a cap-and-trade system are likely to be bargained away well before the first trade ever takes place.
As usual, Sachs makes sense to me. You?

Update: Joe Romm, to me unsurprisingly, falls into line, but very much to his credit allows and attracts extensive discussion in the comments to his posting. I found some of the comments very interesting indeed. There is, in particular, some very pointed criticism of the Waxman bill itself from Laurie Williams, with a link to a detailed analysis, and this very cogent comment from Dan Galpern:
Serious shortcomings in the Waxman-Markey (W-M) measure, some of which you have illuminated, coupled with the nature of the climate crisis, which you have done so much to publicize, easily could lead persons to support an alternative. While your ear may be finely tuned to Washington-insider realpolitik, it is not true that every proposal not already supported by this administration is off the table. Indeed, the W-M draft retains gaping holes with respect to auctioning, use of revenues, and so on. A full-throated debate about this legislation remains necessary and relevant.

Also, this comment on an article on DailyKos:
First, I agree that we've simply ignored this for far too long. However, I'm also concerned that the recent doom-mongering is yet another iteration of the Shock Doctrine - an attempt by the Wall Street set to push through policies which have not been very successful in curbing carbon emissions, but merely create yet another phony market for speculators to siphon off the labor of the productive. Without a doubt, a carbon tax will be more successful in achieving these goals with a lower economic cost, yet we're told: "Don't worry about that! Don't think! We have to pass cap-and-trade immediately, or we're all doomed!"

Have we really not yet learned to disregard media-driven hysteria and think rationally?

I don't think that's what motivates David Roberts or Joe Romm, but it's worth a ponder whether it's what's pushing the congress away from a simple tax/dividend scheme.

Meta: This little throw-away item has legs. Energy Collective picked it up, and David replied to it (among others, but I think I may have been the prverbial straw and David the respective camel) not only on Grist but also on Huffington.

Since this is all over the place, I need to follow up. Here is what I wrote on Grist. Huffington invariably loses my comments so I'll post it here instead.

Since we've been so far from any legislative action until now, I hadn't thought much about the exact form that action would take. So I'm a novice to this part of the debate, looking for cogent arguments. I am not yet trying to stake out a position; I am just reporting my initial reactions to the positions presented in the Yale article.

All I have heard from cappers so far, other than the argument that cap and trade creates a cap better than a tax does, is counterarguments to the arguments for the tax, and arguments from expediency ("the document already exists") indifference ("it should be quite possible to reach pretty much the same result from either direction") and failure of leadership ("the general population will not tolerate a tax but may be fooled briefly by a policy that is not called a tax, which raises energy prices and creates federal revenue").

So I have four problems:

1) Frankly, it is dishonest to create a Rube Goldberg contraption that is effectively a tax, call it somehting else, and deny that any taxation is involved. It continues the behaviors that make people distrust politics and politicians and the process that keeps the population confused about cause and effect.

2) It starts from complexity, leaving it impossible to advocate for simplicity and transparency.

3) It is presented as a fait accompli, but I have no idea where it came from. Where was the public consultation? Where was the effort to bring the public on board?

4) It smacks very much of business-as-usual, lobbyists, earmarks, etc. Businesses with Washington insider status get huge giveaways. Startups whose skills are actually in energy technology are placed at a distinct disadvantage.

In short, all the advantages you propose seem tactical rather than substantive. Even presuming those tactical advantages are true, the origins of the tactical advantage are deeply obscure from where I am sitting. It just feels like something elaborate and unclear is being sprung on me, and that most of the people supporting it are more interested in politics than in science.

Kevin Drum's rebuttal to Sachs is typical. It states pretty much that if you put the right ingredients into cap-and-trade it can act a lot like a tax. Your caliing Sachs "head-slappingly false" really doesn't seem to follow from that. If you put the right ingredients into a soup it can taste a whole lot like a chocolate cake, but that is still not what I want you to put my birthday candles in.

So again: it's easy to understand what a simple carbon tax would look like and how it could be tuned to achieve desired objectives. A compelling argument would address the follwoing:

1) What is cap and trade? Is it better in principle than a tax, and if so, why?

2) What exactly is the 700 page bill you are putting up as an alternative? (preferably with a link to the text and another link to a plain-english pointwise summary)

3) Where did it come from? Who drafted it? When? What interests are accounted for?

4) How are new ideas balanced against established interests? Specifically, given that existing interests are given permits, doesn't it systematically promote large institutional and corporate interests while suppressing startups and innovation? This is a clear weakness: what compensates for it?

Again, I am just starting to think about this. Honestly, I am nowhere near committed. Although the "head-slappingly" thing seems contrived to wedge me away, I am not entirely decided yet. Maybe all these questions are answered. All I say is that based on the Yale piece, I am becoming nervous that the answers are not going to be very compelling.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Administration RFC

From the Office of Science and Technology Policy:
Presidential Memo on Scientific Integrity: Request for Comment

On March 9, 2009, the President issued a memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies on the subject of scientific integrity, stating that “science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues.”

The memorandum requires the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to craft recommendations for Presidential action to ensure scientific integrity in the executive branch. We hereby seek public input to inform the drafting of those recommendations.

Comments from the public will help the OSTP determine what should be included in these recommendations. Over the next six posts on this blog, we will seek your comments, as they may pertain to each of the six different principles outlined in the memorandum. To provide some seeds for thought, we have asked one or two framing questions after each principle. Feel free to respond in other ways to the principle, or even to other comments. You may want to consult the Fact Sheet for the Memorandum before commenting.

This comment period will end on May 13th. Thank you in advance for your input.
Here's more on the memorandum:
Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology." - President Barack Obama
  • * Today, President Obama is signing a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity. This memorandum helps to implement one of the President’s key campaign commitments on science policy, which was to "restore scientific integrity in government decision making."
  • * Science and technology are essential to achieving a broad range of national goals: driving economic growth and job creation; allowing Americans to live longer, healthier lives; developing clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on foreign oil; protecting our environment for future generations of Americans; strengthening national and homeland security; and more.
  • * Realizing the potential of science and technology to help achieve all of these goals requires that the Administration’s decisions about public policy be guided by the most accurate and objective scientific advice available. The public must be able to trust that advice, as well, and to be confident that public officials will not conceal or distort the scientific findings that are relevant to policy choices.
  • * Accordingly, the President is assigning to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) the responsibility of ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological issues.
  • * Within 120 days, the Director of OSTP must develop a strategy for ensuring that:
  1. - The selection of scientists and technology professionals for science and technology positions in the executive branch is based on those individuals’ scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, and experience;
  2. - Agencies make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied upon in policy decisions;
  3. - Agencies use scientific and technological information that has been subject to well-established scientific processes such as peer review; and
  4. - Agencies have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency, including whistleblower protection.
H/T @timoreilly

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Transition Town Austin

Hello, Central Texas! (Is this thang on?) Howdy y'all!

Now don't get me wrong. I like the people who have been showing up at the early meetings of Transition Town Austin. But it's not enough.

We need to see a critical mass of upbeat, creative and technically adept folks. Valuable as local production is, the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world isn't just about turnip farming.

That special Austin energy is just the kick in the butt that the Transition movement needs.
Let's see if we can't make it happen.

A great opportunity to kick off a bright green approach to Austin's future happens next week at a reorganization meeting for Transition Austin.

I made y'all a little web page to make the case. Go have a look.

Check out the recent coverage of the transition movement in the NYTimes magazine. And please come join the meetup on the evening of Tuesday the 12th.

As far as I can tell, the excellent logo appears in only one undistinguished place on the net: www.green-e.org/news/Green-eNewsSummer2007.html The anonymous artist deserves better.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tonight: Why Earth Science is Under Attack in Texas

Paul Murray is an oil man and a self-avowedly conservative voter. His slide above reads "There is an anti-science coalition in our country. They are in denial or misrepresenting their views." Paul is active in the resistance to the injection of religion into the school science curriculum. (photo credit: me and my iPhone)

Caught in the Crossfire: Why Earth Science is Under Attack in Texas
by Paul E. Murray

7 PM Monday May 4

Building 130: The Bureau of Economic Geology
10100 Burnet Road
Austin, Texas 78758

The Texas State Board of Education is completing its decadal revision to the science standards for K-12 schools in Texas. This year features the addition of standards for the proposed capstone course in Earth and Space Science (ESS) for a 4th year high school science credit. The headlines around the world regarding the Texas science standards have focused on the debate over the teaching of evolution in biology class, but the same forces on the State Board who wish to weaken biology have now turned their sites on the ESS curriculum as well. It is a tale of subterfuge, deceit and political maneuvering that has implications not just for Texas students, but for the textbooks and science standards across the entire nation. This talk is intended to be a primer on the issues, a cautionary tale, and a call to action for geoscientists in Texas .

Paul E. Murray, Vice President, Texas Citizens for Science

Update: I thought Paul had the audience wrapped around his finger, but he tells me there was some kicking back after the event. Anyway, he's an excellent and convincing speaker, and he and some audience members painetd a grim picture of resurgent superstition being exported not only to other parts of America but to other countries as well, so don't y'all feel so smug about Texas, thanks. Two of his main points that stick with me:

- The group of people who understand science is not substantially different from the group of people who do science for a living.

- If you comb through the data to select evidence to support your point of view, no matter what you think about science, what you are doing is not science by definition.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Steady State Economy

There's an outfit called the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Here is its position statement, which has some notable signatories.

In my articles of last week and future followups I have been trying to decide if there might be some way to thread the needle: i.e., keep the necessary forms of growth to avoid disruption of the administrative processes we have developed in a growth economy, while avoiding further growth in impact and indeed allowing a slow scaling back. As far as I know I am the only person trying to articulate such a position, if it is feasible. If I become convinced it is infeasible, I will sign on to the CASSE position.

Via Tommy T, here is a recent open letter from the organization's executive director:
The evidence continues to mount. The way we run the economy around
the world is damaging the life-support systems of the planet. We are
treading water in a sea of profound environmental problems (like
climate disruption, species extinctions, and deforestation to name a
few). At the same time, our financial systems have entered a crisis
mode in the midst of increasing unemployment and a widening gap
between the haves and the have-nots. In the quest for economic growth,
the nations of the world are locked in a tragic competition for the
planet’s remaining natural capital. If economic growth is the best way
to manage our affairs, then why should I be worried about global
warming and losing my job at the same time?

The grow-at-all-costs mindset is at fault. It is time to examine the
irrational assumptions behind this mindset and get busy changing it to
fit the realities of the natural world. The modifier “grow-at-all-
costs” is perfectly applicable. Nations have an acute unwillingness to
explore the costs of growth. Economic growth is simply an increase in
the production and consumption of goods and services, and is indicated
by increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP, therefore, has become
the standard measure of economic progress, even though it was only
intended as an accounting tool. Prompted by banks, governmental
organizations, and the media, citizens generally applaud increases in
GDP. The problem with GDP is that it doesn’t separate costs from
benefits. It simply adds them together under the heading of economic
activity. Even if the costs of growth outweigh the benefits, as the
evidence suggests, we still pursue it.

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)
takes a different position. The CASSE position, a document that can be
signed by individuals and endorsed by organizations, recognizes the
conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. It
proposes the steady state economy, characterized by stable population
and per capita consumption, as a desirable alternative to continued

Many leading sustainability thinkers have signed this position,
including David Suzuki, Vandana Shiva, David Orr, Bill McKibben,
Herman Daly, Caroline Lucas, Gus Speth, and Wendell Berry. Dozens of
organizations have endorsed the position, and it has been used as a
model for professional scientific societies to adopt their own
positions on economic growth. The point is to develop a critical mass
of support behind the idea of prosperous, yet non-growing economy – a
truly sustainable and green economy. Without this critical mass,
politicians will remain stuck in the old paradigm of growth that
continues to erode the foundation of life-support systems on the planet.

To find evidence that our leaders are mired in the old paradigm, we
need look no further than the bank bailouts. Stimulus spending to get
the economy growing is not the change we need. We can certainly strive
for growth in some industries, such as solar energy, but it must be
accompanied by declines in others, such as fossil fuel energy. As we
sift through the rubble of our collapsed financial institutions, we
shouldn’t be looking at how to rebuild them into the same old
apparatus of growth. It’s the incessant growth, mostly in the form of
speculative bubbles, that caused the collapse in the first place.

Many policy changes can help us establish financial systems and an
economy that are sustainable. But the chances of enacting them are
miniscule until we can demonstrate that a broad base of the electorate
recognizes that perpetual exponential economic growth is not the path
to prosperity. Simply put, society has to demand the change before it
can occur. We need to take a position on economic growth and promote
the concept of the steady state economy on the streets of our
communities, in the halls of our governments, and in the corridors of
our businesses. With enough voices, we can jumpstart the transition to
a better economy.

Please sign the CASSE position on economic growth to voice support for
a prosperous, yet non-growing economy.

Robert Dietz,

Executive Director

Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) is
a U.S. nonprofit organization, and our mission is to advance the
steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a
policy goal with widespread public support.