Saturday, November 3. 2012
With every big storm you find a lot of people wanting to talk about climate change again. Sandy, especially with its record coastal surges, is one such storm. In its wake, Andrew Leonard wrote:
It's normally impossible to attribute a specific storm to something with such a broad sweep as climate change, but Trenberth does a good job of putting the factors into perspective:
Those numbers sound credible to me: global warming is small part of the storm, and it's easy to see how that small part makes big storms more likely, and given enough time inevitable. However, it's also easy to see why so many people don't get it: weather itself is so much more variable than climate, and unless you're a farmer or someone attuned to subtle climate disturbances weather is what you experience. You're used to temperatures changing 30 degrees or more in the course of a single day, so why should you get wound up over a barely perceptible 1 or 2 degree average change? Ocean levels vary several feet over a single tidal cycle, so how is a sea level rise of a few inches any different? Of course, it is different, as those inches get magnified by tides and low pressure and high winds into a record storm surge.
On the other hand, I'm convinced that there is a mind set that instinctively overreacts to climate change. I've noticed this most convincingly in paleontology, where every extinction event is bound to be written off to climate change before anyone can develop any actual evidence. I've never quite understood how this works, even if I can think of some specific cases where it might. Again, the problem is that climate changes are so much smaller than everyday weather changes, any shift of a degree or two is within what the species has adapted to. Many species can move, and some adapt fast enough. Clearly, there are cases where climate change cause species to go extinct: where mobility is blocked, or where new competitive pressures develop.
Still, we've found many examples where climate change hypotheses turn out to be unsatisfactory. The late Pleistocene extinctions of large animals have become a clear case, despite widespread and often very dramatic climate change. It turns out that what correlates far better with the extinctions is the arrival of human beings -- in Australia 40,000 years ago, in the Americas after 20,000 years ago, in isolated islands like New Zealand much later, in Mauritius (the dodo) in historical times. It may not be true that humans hunted down every last mammoth. It may even be true that their numbers were stressed by the end of the Ice Age, but it wasn't just climate.
Similarly, it's hard to imagine that any amount of climate change would decimate the human population. People have already adapted to nearly every plot of land on earth. Major climate change would push people to move, and cause local problems -- low-lying islands are an obvious concern -- but people would adapt. Property owners would be harder pressed: farms may no longer function as expected, and those premium seaside resorts may vanish under the rising tides. Expect an economic impact, especially from freak events like Sandy. But don't get overly worked up about "saving the earth" -- sheer hubris, especially when compared to a geologic record that shows the planet, if not necessarily much of its fauna, surviving far worse.
Bill McKibben is one such person who overreacts to climate change, especially in his sweeping metaphors like "the end of nature," but he's spent a lot of time and effort distilling the science. And he has a useful critique of the gospel of unlimited growth which is as far out of step with mainstream Clinton-Obama Democrats as it is with Republicans. One nit I'd like to pick is that it isn't human change to the environment didn't begin with greenhouse gas warming: we've been remolding the environment for hundreds, indeed thousands of years -- ever since we got rid of all those mammoths. For me, the full extent of human change on the landscape was driven home some years ago when I drove from Boston to Wichita and couldn't identify a single vista that would have been the same 500 years ago (even if you discount the missing bison).
It beggars the mind to understand how anyone, given how deeply humans have disturbed the world, can doubt that we have had a significant impact on the weather. If you want clear proof, you have to look no further than to the days after 9/11, when all private aircraft were grounded: over three days, the temperature rose three degrees simply because of how much sunlight was no longer deflected by vapor trails. No less clear is the physics of greenhouse gases, something we've understood for more than a century. As carbon dioxide concentration increased steadily over the 20th century, the question wasn't whether the physics was valid, just how the captured heat affected the weather. It's clear now that vapor trails, other pollution, and increased cloud cover helped mask the greenhouse effect -- less so in the Arctic, for reasons that should also be obvious -- but in the last 10-20 years the thermometer has been catching up with the physics, turning predictions we had blithely ignored into news, like last week.
People like Leonard jump on those occasions because the basic facts are so obvious, yet for so many people denial has become hopelessly ingrained -- so much so that they are unapproachable with facts, with reason, with anything. Even people who know better -- Barack Obama being a conspicuous example -- shy away from bringing up the subject, so fierce is the resistance. For many years that resistance was easily traced to a handful of carbon dioxide-producing companies, notably ExxonMobil -- they style themselves as oil, gas, and coal companies, after their immediate products, or as energy companies, after the service we obtain from their products, but in the final analysis most of what they produce ultimately wafts through the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (and a few other noxious chemicals). But in recent years, the company propaganda has gone viral, infecting the oxygen-starved brains of self-appointed conservatives -- you know, the people who'd rather wreck and waste things than conserve them.
I don't know, or at least can't explain, all of the reasons the right has for maximizing the transfer of fossil fuels to the atmosphere. In particular, I'm not sure whether the fundamentalist religious issue is that God gave us dominion over the earth and that makes it property so it's ours to ruin, or that the rapture is coming soon anyway, so why not use it before we lose it? (Either view is simply nuts.) Three reasons are clearer: one is the right's instinctive deference to the rich and powerful, a class that includes plenty of oil and coal magnates; another is that externalities -- unaccounted for side-effects of the sale of products -- are a form of market failure, but the right believes that markets are perfect so they persist in ignoring failures; and the third is that the only way to correct market failure is for a superior party like the government to step in and regulate the market, and that, of course, is the root of all evil.
Ergo, since the only way to arrest or limit climate change is for government to take a more involved role, in order to fight back the government the right winds up denying the rationale -- either that climate change is happening, or that anything can be done about it, at least any intrusion on their lifestyle that the American people will tolerate, at least as long as they don't know any better. Admittedly, the right isn't always consistent about these things: they rarely balk at using government force to limit things they don't like, such as drugs or illicit sex (or its enablers, like birth control and abortions). But oil and coal are things they like, because the far right was literally built on those fortunes.
But as we see -- and as Leonard, among others, keep reminding us -- the right's ability to snuff out debate over climate change in mainstream media and political circles doesn't suffice to make the weather behave itself. The issue keeps bouncing back, because it keeps affecting people in myriad ways. And when people get hurt by the weather, which in the US happens hundreds of times in dozens of ways every year, they tend to look to the government for help, partly because the market is no help, partly because charity is inefficient, but mostly because in the deep recesses of their minds they still harbor the far-left idea that a democratic government works for them. And the funny thing is that when disaster strikes, even confirmed ideological right-wingers -- the very people who laughed at Reagan's joke about the scariest thing you can hear being: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" -- demand to be helped.
At some point, you'd think the right would try to sort out its own schizophrenia: to recognize that sometimes markets don't work and sometimes government does and is necessary, and a long list of other related issues that keep driving them crazy. But for now they can't: they'd rather bury themselves in ignorance, blind themselves with superstitions, live in a Dark Age of their own delusion. Or so they think, when they think at all.
Tuesday, October 30. 2012
Woke up this morning thinking of the folly of drowning the federal government in a bathtub. For starters, like without the US National Hurricane Center would be much more precarious. Otherwise, who would have suspected that when Hurricane Sandy crossed Jamaica on Oct. 22 a week later it would drop 24 inches of snow on West Virginia? More important, of course, were the storm surge warnings and evacuations. For a recounting of death before such warnings see Erik Larson's book on the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, although recognize that even then Isaac Cline was a federal employee, working for the U.S. Weather Bureau. The Norquist mob would have had him in their sights as well, and may well relish how close he literally came to drowning.
Forecasting helps. For the past week responsible authorities have been preparing to repair the inevitable breaks and disruptions that the storm was expected to leave. The cleanup may look messy, but it would be far worse without the preparation and the concern, and that happens because of and through government -- which is right, because only the government represents the interest and will of the people. Private businesses may look out for themselves, and charities may help patch some of the cracks, but only government moves deliberately enough to make a big difference. (That is, of course, when it does try -- something Bush's patronage cronies had trouble understanding.) Ronald Reagan once joked that the most fearsome words in the English language were, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Funny line, except in the midst of a disaster. In such times, no one sits around contemplating how the free market is going to come to their rescue. No matter what their political stripes, they demand action from their government: lots of it, and now.
I suppose the good thing about a disaster is that it helps focus the mind. Otherwise, some people can get pretty confused. Take, please, Mitt Romney. Ed Kilgore quotes Ryan Grim, quoting Romney (for video, follow the Grim link):
Decentralizing government is fine and dandy in principle, but it doesn't necessarily work, and is certain to fail for disaster relief. The obvious problem is that the states have much tighter budgets -- they have to pay as they go, which means they'd have to save ahead of disasters (most likely through buying private market insurance), whereas the feds not only have deeper pockets, they can refill them as needed. You might try arguing that you can have the feds fund (or at least insure) the states, but you'd still get a whole series of inefficiencies and inequities: redundant or missing expertise, coordination problems (many disasters, like Sandy, cross borders), inconsistent policies and red tape. Even now, with the feds doing most of the work, you have vast differences from state to state -- Florida, which has a lot of practice, is relatively effective in doling out federal money, while Mississippi and Louisiana don't seem to be able to do anything competently (or without the taints of corruption and racism).
Romney compounds his ideological delusions about disaster relief with further idiocy about the federal debt. The core fact is that the federal debt, unlike your mortgage or car payment, does not have to be paid off -- not in your lifetime, or in your children's, or in their children's. Sure, that doesn't mean that you can expand it infinitely, but it means there's no clock-running-out scenario. (Also, things get tougher for debts that are denominated in other currencies, as you can see from Greece, Spain, etc. But US debt is exclusively denominated in dollars, and within some limits can be floated in inflated dollars.) Such harping on the debt only works if you assume government have to live like you do -- an assumption that defies our every experience. (Another telling joke: if you owe a bank a thousand dollars, that's your problem, but if you owe the bank a billion, that's the bank's problem.)
The point Romney and other deficit hawks are trying to drive home is the idea that we're broke, and when we're broke we can't afford things no matter how much we need them. (So suck it up, and plod along until you can. Better yet, get rich like Romney -- ignoring that he did it all with borrowed money, the debts for which he was able to pass on to the companies he ruined.) But when disaster hits, debt is often the only way out: e.g., you need to clean up the muck and broken windows in order for your your business to earn the cash to pay for repairs. And disaster shakes loose your illusions about individualism, so it's not just about you: if you repair your business but your neighbors do not, your location is soon worthless. Likewise, you depend on access roads being repaired, the power grid; you depend on public sanitation and health; you depend on police and firemen and courts and a solvent government, and those are all things that federal disaster relief make possible. And you depend on the economy bouncing back so people will buy from your business. The Republican dream of drowning the government will make all of that impossible. "Starving the beast" just withers the hand you may someday depend on to rescue you.
John Nichols has another piece that quotes the same Romney transcript. Alex Seitz-Wald has another; also later a piece not on what Romney was thinking but on what he's doing in face of the actual disaster: collecting canned goods, the ultimate hack charity drive:
Today, we got a look at Romney's charity in action, when he held an event that he swears was not a campaign rally in Ohio aimed at "storm relief" (the choice of a song with the lyrics "Knee deep in the water somewhere" was perhaps ill advised). The Romney campaign encouraged attendees to bring canned goods, clothes and other items to be sent to hurricane victims. "We have a lot of goods here . . . that these people will need," Romney said in his brief remarks. "We're going to box them up, then send them into New Jersey."
Most likely he just wanted a photo op to look like he was doing something at a time when the actual president was -- a structural problem which, I think, is one of the reasons why we shouldn't let sitting presidents run for reŽlection. Looks like Romney also flipped on getting rid of FEMA, although from what little sense I can make of his new position the least I can say is he didn't make a very clean landing.
While we're at it, Republicans are often confused about who actually benefits from that government largesse they incessantly moan about. Like the old canard about how everyone overestimates how much federal money goes to foreign aid, they also have (and prey upon) a truly irrational fear of supporting the needy (and unworthy). In fact, an awful lot of what government does is to support businesses and their owners, and disaster aid is one of many chunks that fit. Indeed, you have to wonder when the rich are going to wise up and realize that they need the government much more than the poor do, and that the wholesale destruction of public goods and values is going to come back to hurt them. Robert H. Frank has a piece that starts to make this case, although he could go a lot further. The piece is called "Higher Taxes Help the Richest, Too." More on that, later.
Saturday, August 27. 2011
Brief piece in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "All-time 100-degree record still in sight":
Forecasts for today and tomorrow are 98 and 96 respectively, but Wednesday is projected for 102F. It's not at all unusual to get 100 degree days in the first two, sometimes even three, September weeks. We did catch a break in early August, which is the only reason this is close.
Still, with all due respect to Hurricane Irene creeping up the east coast, the worst weather in the nation looks to be in Phoenix, which hit 117F yesterday topped by yet another duster.
As for hurricanes, I've only experienced two, and both living in Boston which isn't the sort of peak experience you get on the edge of the Gulf or across the Caribbean. Main thing I was struck by was the size and sweep of the storm: I'm used to tornados, which are devastating but tiny, hit or (mostly) miss, but when the hurricane came through everybody got hit. First one offered the whole effect, including a brief calm as the eye passed over, preceded and followed by three hours of heavy winds. That was 50 miles inland, so they probably didn't top 70 mph -- I've lived through winds that fast in Kansas, but they just come and go in a few minutes. I don't recall any hurricanes from when I lived in New York or New Jersey, although I did catch one of New York's massive blackouts. Still, that was short compared to the three days it took them to restore power following my first hurricane.
I've been collecting links about the Republicans' latest brain surge, on how they're going to hold up emergency disaster relief funds to extort further budget cuts, so more on that later. One is a Ron Paul quote about how he wishes we could turn the calendar back to 1900 -- an odd choice of nostalgia for a congressman representing Galveston, TX, where more than 8,000 people were killed by a 1900 hurricane. No matter how bad Irene is, it won't compare, mostly because we know what's coming, where it's going, and every government from South Carolina to Maine (and on into Canada) are working to minimize the damage and expedite repairs. In 1900 people justly feared Acts of God; now we have more to worry about from Acts of Cantor.
Update: Cam Patterson wrote a thoughtful comment on this post here.
Thursday, August 25. 2011
Brian Beutler: Cantor Spox: If There's Hurricane Damage, Costs Have to Be Paid for With Spending Cuts: With his brain locked onto a single commanding idea, and perhaps a bit intoxicated by his sense that he can just say things and make them dictates, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has decided that any unplanned, unbudgeted disaster relief has to be paid for in cash cut from other planned, budgeted programs. I never thought I'd long for the days when Republicans asserted that government should be run like a business. But the fact is that if any viable business was hit by uninsured storm losses the first thing they'd do is go to the bank and take out a loan. Same basic thing for households: say a storm smashes your car and the insurance doesn't cover replacing it, what do you do? Most folks need that car bad enough to go in debt to buy a new (or new old) one. Then, of course, you adjust your budget to cover the cost of the new debt, but you don't stop eating or paying the rent or whatever. You adjust.
The problem is that people with small minds and rigid ideas cannot adjust. They won't bend; they just snap. How such people rose to the leadership ranks of the Republican Party is probably an interesting story, but I doubt that it would come out much different from the case histories in Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: if you take these rigid, uncompromisable "principles" to their absurd conclusions, you'll find that when you finally see government swirl down the drain in Grover Norquist's bathtub, you'll see civilization vanish with it.
It feels a little weird to have written that last line, because I've always regarded the federal government as an oppressive burden as much as a blessing. I might even have applauded if had Cantor had insisted that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had to be budgeted out of cuts elsewhere, which at least would have forced Congress to think a bit setting out on paths that would soon cost trillions of dollars. On the other hand, disaster relief is something that only government can do, and that we instinctively look to government to do -- derisively, of course, when government fails miserably, like Bush did after Katrina. Moreover, while Cantor may laugh at tornados (and hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and fires and mudslides and droughts and the pretty good chance that rising sea levels will move the Florida coast to somewhere in Georgia), people who actually administer governments are remarkably fond of the programs -- just ask Gov. Rick Perry, who's been begging for more federal relief for Texas's droughts and fires.
Quite some time ago -- well before Katrina -- it occurred to me that disaster response would be the basic litmus test of competency in government. Clinton was very big on it, raising it to a cabinet level position, while Bush was utterly cavalier, treating it as just another way of dispensing crony patronage. (Of course, Jeb Bush, as governor of disaster-prone Florida, was on the ball and made out as well as could reasonably be expected -- a far different story from the Democrats in Louisiana.) Moreover, between global warming and relentless development especially in risky areas, disasters are becoming increasingly common, and increasingly expensive. So why do Republicans like Cantor want to hamstring government's ability to deal with disasters that affect potentially massive numbers of our own people, on our own land, dependent on our own infrastructure? Stupid doesn't begin to cover it. They are slaves to the fixed ideas they call principles. Next thing you know they'll look at something like Katrina and insist that charities can handle it, or speculate that if only you cut taxes further the private sector would swoop in and fix everything.
Steve Benen: Cantor's Callousness Turns Preemptive: Another link on Cantor and disaster -- an association that even God may have trouble rivaling:
Wednesday, July 28. 2010
Something I meant to add to yesterday's "The Raw and the Cooked" post but ran out of time and/or patience. One point there is that I recognize that where one stands on global warming is more often than not consistent with one's political stance. Leftists of most stripes not only see the need for aggressive state intervention to mitigate (or even better to reverse) the global warming trend, they tend to insist that the dire threat of global warming commands us to adopt their policy directions. One reason I'm especially cognizant of this is that I've recently read two books that do just that.
One is Bill McKibben: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet; the other is Juliet B. Schor: Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. Neither book has much to say about global warming, other than to assert that the global warming crisis makes their economic schemes all that more urgent.
McKibben, whose first book, The End of Nature was one of the first books on the subject back in 1989, does have an introductory chapter which reads like a catalog of horrors, but he's more interested in reprising his 2007 book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future -- you wouldn't be wrong to think of the new book as a mash-up of the two previous books -- which is to say he's primarily concerned with promoting the ideal of small scale local economies. McKibben builds on a lot of recent work, especially regarding food, but his basic ideas have been kicking around for decades now, developed by people like Murray Bookchin and Paul Goodman who developed them without the slightest concern for global warming.
Schor is a sociologist who at least as far back as the early 1990s decided that the rat race isn't all it's cracked up to be. She's expressed that in at least two previous books: The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want Want We Don't Need (1998). The new book goes further toward sketching out a more satisfying economy based on less overwork and overspending. And while global warming and peak oil play into her rationales, there's no reason to think she'd think differently if they weren't factors at all. Again, her ideas aren't terribly original -- Goodman and Bookchin have been there, as well as Marxists like Paul Sweezy and Andre Gorz, and for that matter the notion even shows up in John Maynard Keynes, who -- see John Skidelsky: Keynes: The Return of the Master -- saw capitalism as a path to "the good life" rather than an end in itself.
You can click on the links, including the cover images, to pick up a fair sampling of quotes from each book.
The economic visions of McKibben and Schor are only two of many possible programs that can be hitched to global warming, but all but the most dystopian involve taking deliberate and systematic direction to mitigate (or better still to reverse) the consequences. The proposals of someone like Al Gore or the various thinkers in the Obama administration hardly seem to me to be leftist, but conservatives are stuck in such a rut of denial they can't even warm up to market-oriented approaches like cap-and-trade or tax credits to stimulate investment in non-carbon-based energy sources -- ideas that used to come out of conservative think tanks when thinking was still permitted.
There is, of course, something disingenuous about hoisting one's pet ideas (or nonsense) up whatever flag pole seems to be getting attention, but that doesn't invalidate them -- best to try to sort out each problem and each proposal on its own terms. McKibben and Schor (and for that matter Skidelsky/Keynes) offer attractive notions of how to re-engineer the economy to make is more satisfying, and that seems like something worth thinking about -- at least on the left, where we believe that how we run the world is at least largely a matter of choice.
PS: It finally occurs to me that one defense of Schor and McKibben is that if one adopted their economic ideas, there would be an immediate and substantial reduction in the forces driving global warming. Again, if you choose an economy meant to satisfy the needs and desires of its inhabitants, you'd come up with something that doesn't just drown us in destabilizing pollutants, like we have gotten from laissez faire approaches.
One might also add that the cap-and-trade people are the real conservatives, since they're basically trying to stabilize the existing system using levers that are consistent with its current operation. Again, the right fails to conserve anything; they're happy to let the economy flail itself to death in contradictions they're too ignorant and/or uncaring to even recognize.
Tuesday, July 27. 2010
Paul Krugman: Who Cooked the Planet? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threw in the towel on trying to pass any climate-change legislation this year, so Krugman tries to pin down responsibility for inaction:
He then lashes in to "climate cowards" like Sen. John McCain. Fair enough. But as a card-carrying Keynesian, shouldn't Krugman suspect that ideology ("bad ideas") is more to blame than mere interest? For a better explanation, turn to: Ross Douthat: The Right and the Climate:
The fundamental political issue of our times is whether government should act as a counterbalance against the various problems kicked up by capitalism, or whether government should be limited to support of the capitalist order. The latter position, which had been gaining ground from the 1970s up to the current Great Recession, seeks to do three things: 1) to concentrate wealth in private hands; 2) to make the regulation of business private and discretionary, not subject to public policy; 3) to make government as unattractive as possible to anyone without significant money, and thereby keep them from looking to government for any kind of support. The latter isn't easy: we live in a putative democracy, where government is supposed to belong to and serve the people, and the people actually served by deregulation and wealth concentration are inevitably a tiny minority. That they have any chance of ruling at all is due to their skill at spinning a story line -- an ideology -- that seems to back their case.
They're good at spinning that story -- indeed, they should be, given that they have most of the money and practically all of the media -- but sometimes they run into trouble, like when the economy crashes, and then their spiel loses credibility. That happened big time in 1929-32 when many people concluded that capitalism had broken beyond repair. That led to desperate efforts at reform, all of which involved deliberate massive government intervention: communism (which was too anti-capitalist), fascism (which was too anti-worker), and Keynesian liberalism, which sought to save capitalism by rebalancing productive forces, and by using public spending to make up for shortfalls in demand. And it happened on a smaller scale in 2008 -- the mitigating factor is that we've kept relatively high levels of government spending all these years even though the ideology disparages it.
So conservatives reject doing anything about global warming because only government can do anything about -- worst still, only most world governments acting in concert -- and they've been trained to see any government effort at solving any problem as an existential attack on the privileges of the rich (err, on conservative principles, God and country, family values, all that we hold near and dear). That story about alarmists in the 1970s being proven wrong is just window dressing. Still, that doesn't mean they're right now, or were even right in the 1970s.
Ehrlich is certainly right that persistent population growth will eventually exceed the feeding capacity of the earth. What caught him unawares was the increase in productive efficiency caused mostly by putting more oil into agriculture. That such an increase happened doesn't mean that further increases will continue to happen, especially if energy inputs get much more expensive. (The other main hope is genetic manipulation, which is harder to predict -- especially side-effects.) The 1970s also saw an oil crunch, in large part politically concocted but also tied to peak oil being passed in the US. This led to a glut in the 1980s partly driven by politics -- the UK tried to drain its North Sea fields in record time -- and in any case unlikely to be reproduced.
In retrospect, Ehrlich's biggest mistake may have been to think that limiting population would conserve resources. The best counterexample is China, where drastic restrictions led to an extraordinary growth spurt and corresponding demand for natural resources (energy and materials, of course, but even food demand increases especially if it involves meat). The same correlation applies throughout the developing world, where economic growth is closely tied to limiting population growth -- which for one thing means that the right's pronatal obsession works to keep the developing world from developing.
Still, the issue is something else: conservatives maintain that concerted government action to mitigate climate change would cause more harm than benefit, at least compared to what unregulated markets may (or may not) accomplish. It's hard to see why that might be the case, unless you believe that even a successful governmental intervention would be a bad thing for your political standing. It's certainly easy to see how government action could go wrong, especially given our system of political influence peddling. On the other hand, if you take the threat seriously, it's even harder to see how an unregulated private sector would solve it except through a painful process of crash and retrenchment -- a cycle that unregulated markets never tire of repeating.
I don't have much to say about the threats posed by global warming. It should by now be obvious that we tend to take some threats more seriously than warranted and others less. Climate change splits both ways, probably because it's been reduced to a right-left litmus test, but also because climate seems so basic it must matter greatly while at the same time it is so changeable day-to-day that the projected ranges don't stray much from our experience. (I've followed many paleontological debates about climate change vs. other causes for extinction events, and have never found climate change to be convincing as an explanation, so I tend to be skeptical about disaster models. On the other hand, we are dreadful at evaluating rare but extremely dire prospects, which certainly are possible here.)
Douthat does say one more thing of special interest here, about "global-warming heretics" like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson:
In one sense I don't see the assumption. A warmer world will be one where a lot of resources will be dislocated, which will favor some people while disfavoring others, but at least in the short run such shifts are most likely to destroy more wealth quicker than they will allow new wealth to be created. Maybe in the long term that balances out, but I don't see how you can count on that. Moreover, the change will disproportionately take its toll on those who own wealth now, simply because they have the most to lose. It is, therefore, easy to see why Europe and the US should be more worried about global warming than the developing world -- even aside from fairness issues, or the suspicion that we are trying to lock in a permanent advantage. For the developing world -- especially the part that really is growing its economy -- the tables are reversed. For countries like China, India, and Brazil there is virtually no reason to sacrifice growth now for climate stability later. (Research shows that more money does make you happier, but only to a point: once you've broken out of poverty it makes less and less difference.) Douthat concludes:
Indeed, if you're a developing country that is growing fast enough that it's not just the rich who are getting richer, that sounds like good advice. On the other hand, that doesn't sound like America, where government inaction and irresponsibility over the last 30 years has eroded everyone's wealth except for the upper crust's. For most people in America the time to act is now -- if not on climate change, at least on the more basic political dispute.
Saturday, June 19. 2010
I haven't had much to say about BP's deepwater oil gusher. I knew all along that deepwater oil would be expensive and risky and in the end of marginal value. I expected they'd have lots of trouble trying to plug it, but I hadn't been aware of the 1979 Ixtoc I spill, which took over nine months to plug in a mere 160 feet of water: the long list of failed gambits on Deepwater Horizon recapitulate the list at Ixtoc I. (Indeed, the explosion, the sinking of the platform, and the failure of systems intended to prevent spills are uncannily similar.)
I knew that Washington was awash in oil company money, and that the regulatory agencies had long ago been captured by the companies. And I knew about BP, which in its former guise as Anglo-Iranian Oil Company is the main reason the US and UK have been hated in the Middle East for the last 57 years -- the CIA's Iran coup was done to save AIOC's bacon. So I've been pretty much tempted to treat this as business as usual, but the feature quotes in Tim Dickinson's Rolling Stone piece, The Spill, the Scandal, and the President, finally hit home:
Originals were all caps. Some quotes from the article:
Andrew Leonard has some more quotes from the article here. He calls it "the most damning account of the Obama administration's reaction to and responsibility for the BP disaster I've seen so far." I haven't felt like piling onto Obama over this, but it shows several faults that we've seen repeatedly since he took office. For starters, his refusal to expose the Bush administration and make a thorough housecleaning -- Robert Gates and Ben Bernanke are merely the most famous Bush apparatchiki to hang on to their jobs and perpetuate Bush policies. Another is his willingness to kowtow to a "collective wisdom" that exists for no real reason that the media keeps repeating it over and over -- the nonsense about running deficits in a depression, the idea that a public option for health insurance is politically toxic, the incessant chant of "drill baby drill" -- often directly contradicting what he himself said when running for the nomination. Someone with more conviction and backbone would use his office's "bully pulpit" to discredit myths and push programs that would actually work rather than constantly compromise.
I'm beginning to think the characterization of the BP oil disaster as "Obama's Katrina" isn't so far off. Like Obama's recession, Obama's Iraq, Obama's Israel, even Obama's Afghanistan, everything he touches pales in comparison to Bush's originals, and has the mitigating excuse of being something he inherited rather than started from scratch, but nowhere has he managed to clear himself from the entangling traps Bush stuck him with. BP has done a breathtaking job of cutting corners, but so has Obama.
Sunday, April 11. 2010
Reading Richard Heinberg's Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (paperback, 2009, New Society) is quite the bummer. Heinberg has written a number of gloomy books about a near future where oil production has peaked and is in permanent decline (e.g., The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines). His most profound insight has been the upslope correlation between energy use and population, with the implication that once energy use peaks -- we draw so much energy from petroleum that the two are close to inextricably linked -- population too will be forced into decline. In previous books he has been similarly pessimistic about coal and nuclear. Here he addresses coal in much more details, and comes up with a triple whammy: peak oil is imminent (if it hasn't already peaked) with a fairly steep decline over the next 30-40 years; estimates of hundreds of years worth of coal reserves are shriveling as declining quality and increasing extraction and transportation costs marginalize coal fields; plus any coal that we do manage to burn just adds to a near apocalyptic climate problem. In short, he has combined three worst case scenarios into a massive economic decline in short order -- well within the expected lifetimes of today's youngsters.
Heinberg posits three hypothetical scenarios: a "do nothing" which actually allows for a lot of wind, solar, and nuclear, with disastrous results; a major "clean coal" push, which does little better (it does slow down coal depletion a bit); and a presumably recommended solution that involves a lot of government-managed rationing -- in some ways that's even more of a bummer than the "do nothing" trainwreck. I'm sympathetic to each of the arguments, and the long thrust of my thinking is to come up with ways not so much to solve these problem as to live within resource limits, but I always figured we have more time to work it all out. For instance, the way the world works now means that post-peak oil scarcity will be rationed through higher prices which will in turn reduce demand, first by wringing most of the unnecessary consumption out of the system, then eventually by imposing all sorts of hardships. This will mean that the world 30 years after peak will be much different than now, and it probably means that the economy will be somewhat smaller. There are things we can do about it to make the transition less painful, and most likely we will not do many of them, but even so it won't be for lack of understanding or ideas -- it's more because so many people only learn things the hard way.
Climate change is trickier for lots of reasons: it's less clear what's happening, and it's less clear how hard it will be to adapt to whatever does happen, but most of all because some climate change functions are catastrophic -- minor changes can push past thresholds where the results radically change. My impression is that thus far we've been pretty lucky that greenhouse gas warming hasn't disrupted the climate more than it has, but that happens sometimes when you're gambling, and there's no guarantee that luck won't change. (In fact, if luck is the right word, it will change.)
Paul Krugman: Building a Green Economy: Straightforward survey of most of the serious thinking on the economics of doing something about anthropogenic climate change. Sure, that means he ignores the people who deny that there's a problem or who deny that there is a solution, which leaves several arguments: command or market (cap-and-trade) approaches to limiting greenhouse gases, differences in urgency (gradual ramping or "big bang"; I would have named the latter "shock treatment," drawing an analogy to the forced privatization that wrecked post-Soviet Russia). One thing of note viz. Heinberg above is that Krugman cites various studies concluding that the costs of doing nothing, resulting in a global temperature rise of up to 9 degrees F, are on the order of 5% of GDP, while the costs of limiting emissions is more like 2% of GDP. Both of these numbers seem small, not things that would radically alter our way of life -- pace Heinberg. They are, however, far from certain. One key paragraph:
Andrew Leonard: Paging Paul Krugman: More apocalypse, please: A brief comment on the above piece, mostly dealing with the issue of whether Krugman was forceful enough in describing the dire consequences of unchecked global warming. More relevant to my concerns viz. Heinberg:
Krugman's stock-in-trade is explaining things with simple models. His models can be simple because they assume everything else remains essentially the same. That works all right most of the time, but almost by its very nature doesn't work so well here. In fact, we don't know what works. And the problem isn't doubting the science. It's our ability to understand what it all means. I suspect Krugman understands this well enough: that's why he cites Weitzman. Think of it as a hedge against a really bad possible scenario -- the sort of thing the banking industry didn't do because their models didn't admit the possibility of risk on the level that actually occurred, let alone factor in the cascading failures that ensued. Moreover, the sort of risk we are running on the climate isn't something we can easily fix just by inventing more liquidity. It impacts things like whether land is above or below sea level, whether we can grow food on it and what kind of food, whether we will have adequate water where we want it, at the same time as the fossil fuel energy we have depended on is certain to go into decline.
Thursday, February 18. 2010
Steve Benen: Georgia Senators Forget the President's Name: This is a good example of how Obama can't get any credit even when he does something wrong -- and wrong not in the sense of carrying on a discredited Bush policy like Guantanamo or military tribunals or free money for banker bonuses or bombing Pakistan with drones trying to provoke a civil war or carrying Netanyahu's water in his diversionary campaign to stir up trouble with Iran. More like wrong as in something he did completely on his own, trying to jump start nuclear power plant building by guaranteeing massive loans, saddling the public with all the risk while private companies reap the profits. Needless to say, Georgia's Republican senators are into that sort of thing, but not to the point of acknowledging that it wouldn't have happened but for Obama:
I can see the political logic, but usually when you can get the other party to do your bidding, you're at least civil about it -- if only to claim that even-so-and-so sees the wisdom of your policy. I suppose one can come up with several theories why the Republicans are behaving this way. One is that they're really worried that Obama will consolidate a center-right that effectively stifles the left while avoiding the pitfalls of the far right, thereby rendering the Republican Party useless to the ruling class: in this scenario, anything they can do to delegitimize Obama, even if it's just a rude slight, is necessary. Another is that they're just racists, pretending (as their forefathers did) that blacks are (or should be) nothing more than invisible servants. Of course, you'd think Georgia Republicans would know better.
As for Obama's pro-nuclear power stance, I can't say I approve, nor that it's one of his biggest mistakes. My UK missile defense correspondent wrote back that he was surprised and disappointed that I oppose nuclear power. That's not exactly what I think, but it is an approximation. I think the US nuclear power industry has a huge problem with waste management, and that until someone does something to get that under control it's irresponsible to build more power plants. I also think that proliferation hasn't been adequately thought through. In the beginning nuclear power plants were a front for nuclear arms production, and that aspect has never been cleanly separated out -- in large part because the demand for nuclear arms has never been extinguished. One major consequence of this is that the industry has never had anything resembling transparency, which has meant that it has never been possible to accurately assess risks. (One of the few assessments we have is that private capital has been unwilling to invest in nuclear power plants since the 1970s, or really forever given the role the AEC played.) More generally, there are lots of externalities associated with nuclear power plants, which have historically been ignored but really need to be reckoned. (On the other hand, one can argue that coal-fired power plants have greater externalities, but it's hard to compare without having full transparency.)
Moreover, there are political issues. In particular, we had the spectacle of George Bush running around the world promoting nuclear power yet recoiling when Iran bought into the argument. I am, quite frankly, more worried that an Iranian nuclear power plant might melt down than that Iran would be able to blackmail the world with nuclear bombs. This in turn gets wrapped up in the global geopolitics of energy use. I've read various things about how much usable uranium exists, which make it more or less attractive, but either way it poses a race to see who can use it all up first. And that gets to my deeper misgivings: I expect that we are headed into a period of energy use contraction, and expect that to have profound effects on how we live -- maybe for the worse, or possibly, if we get smart about it, for the better. I don't see a lot of value in throwing more energy investments at the problem just to avoid the day of reckoning -- although I don't mind relatively safe investments to soften the blow. It may well be that in the long run we need to figure out how to do nuclear power right, and make use of that. But we're not there yet, and I don't see a lot of evidence that we're headed in the direction of getting smarter. Indeed, judging from the Georgia Republicans in the Senate, I'd say the opposite is the case.
Friday, July 20. 2007
New York City had an explosion yesterday, demonstrating once again that stupidity and incompetence can do things that terrorists can only dream of. David Caruso, writing for AP, picked up in the Wichita Eagle today, writes:
$1.6 trillion is, like, double what Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US since 2001. It is a number that is both prohbitively huge and more/less manageable. The only real difference is that nobody selling the Iraq war in 2002-03 came out and stated that the war would cost us a trillion dollars or more but would be worth it. Rather, we were told that the war would practically pay for itself -- mostly because no one would believe that anything over there would be worth spending trillions of dollars. For the warmongers, myopia was a necessity. But facing up to the infrastructure deficit requires exactly the opposite condition: it's easy to see that the investment is worth it in the long run, but hard to work it into the budget just now. Of course, as things do break, budgeting will get easier -- cf. the levies of New Orleans.
There are people who argue that government should be run like a business, which is scary given how notoriously short-term businesses think. The exact opposite is more like it: anything that a business can do most likely will be done by a business, unless government flat out obstructs it -- some businesses, like recreational drugs, even survive prohibition. The private sector responds to immediate demand, at least within frameworks where supply can be metered. On the other hand, government can act deliberately, subject only to politics. So government can do things that businesses cannot, like plan for the long term, or create public goods that need not be metered. The big problem is getting to where we can make sound political decisions. Politicians and government bureaucrats have notoriously poor reputations in that regard, in large part because government is relatively immune to the market corrections businesses respond to -- cf. the Iraq war. Getting better at political decision making requires that we get smarter about what we need government for, clearer about how we conceive of a public interest to counter against overly powerful private interests, more transparent and honest. It may even mean that we need to be willing to sacrifice some private interests to a broader, deeper good. That in turn requires trust and faith that most of our experience under unregulated power and greed turns us against.
Needless to say, this is going to get worse before it gets better. That much is clear from the people in power now and the trendline they represent and do so much to further.
Saturday, May 26. 2007
Elizabeth Kolbert has a note in The New Yorker (May 28, 2007) about Rachel Carson, on the 100th anniversary of her birth. The piece starts with a discussion of the USDA's efforts to eradicate red imported fire ants, using pesticides that caused major ecological damage, while denying or ignoring scientific reports. This inevitably segues into a survey of the the home front in Bush's long war:
This kind of thing doesn't get reported much, mostly because with all of Bush's malfeasances the media's triage operations never seem to get past the most acute disasters. But Bush (or Cheney or Rove or whoever pulls the strings behind Incurious George) made sure from inauguration day that every nook and cranny of the federal government was staffed with operatives enforcing the party line. The old knock on Ronald Reagan was that he talked a good game, but didn't actually deliver much. You can't say that about Bush and Cheney: they've made damn sure that their sponsors got their money's worth.
The true costs of Bush's rollback on environmental protections may be impossible to tally up. Degradation is often incremental, its costs only becoming apparent when some "tipping point" is crossed. But one thing that is clearly lost is time. Some problems may be easy enough to recover from, but others, like oil depletion and global warming, look suspiciously like ticking bombs, and things like extinction are by definition permanent, irrecoverable losses. Every bit as troubling is how Bush and company have convinced many that politics trumps everything else, including science and for that matter fact. I don't doubt that overvaluation of science has gotten us into trouble, but swinging to the other extreme leaves us bewildered and helpless. That in general seems to play into the right's political agenda, as long as the accumulation of disaster doesn't shake the faith of the ignorant following the blind. The other side of that equation is that the more Bush succeeds, the worse disasters it will take to steer us back to reality.
Thursday, February 8. 2007
Tony Judt wrote a piece in The New York Review of Books called "Is the UN Doomed?" It covers a screed by Eric Shawn called The UN Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World, a more positive book by Paul Kennedy, and a cautionary one by James Traub on Kofi Annan. Pretty much everyone has reasons to be disappointed by the UN, while few acknowledge that it does do some good work when given a chance. That's neither here nor there, but the following bit of gloom got my attention:
One thing I want to draw your attention to is the quotes Judt puts around "natural" qualifying disasters. One euphemism we have for such events is "acts of God" -- things we ascribe to nature or unseen forces not because we didn't cause them but because we refuse to take responsibility for them. That refusal is above all a political bias. Indeed, the better we understand the science, the more it becomes a matter of political choice, as opposed to mere ignorance.
The problems Judt mentions, and there are more where they came from, are not just unintended consequences of foolish choices, like global warming. Most of them have to do with testing the limits of earth's tolerance for human saturation -- what's known as the planet's "carrying capacity." We've dodged more than a few potential crises along the way, which has swayed too many of us to deny any such threats. The result is that necessary skills -- not just science but the art of cooperation and willingness to make prudent sacrifices -- are being beat to death by the closed minds of the political right.
Wednesday, September 6. 2006
The following appeared in the Wichita Eagle back on Aug. 29, one year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It's titled "New Orleans Today" -- really just a list of numbers:
There are lots of interesting things you can unpack from those statistics, although there is certainly more to the story. For one thing, the federal government has spent quite a bit of money in the area. That money has stimulated the economy, which would otherwise be even worse off. But that money has mostly been spent on major infrastructure projects, like rebuilding the levees. That's not so unreasonable, but it's clear that the short-term construction boom isn't reinvigorating the city. That's one reason for the discrepancy between getting back to 2/3 of the pre-storm workforce but only 1/3 of the various service metrics.
But the other reason is that the disaster disproportionately drove from the city its numerous poor. The services shortfalls are just one reason the poor will be slow to return. But a deeper reason is that the poor depend on castoffs and hand-me-downs, and that's what the floods destroyed first and foremost. People of little means get by on whatever marginal environments they can find. We're blind to such niches, and when we do notice we seem them in negative terms -- as slums, as blight. So we can't conceive of rebuilding the city as it was, even though it's politically fashionable to assert that the city will rebound.
The rhetoric comes from our steadfast belief in progress. There are many instances where progress has stalled, and indeed where we've lost ground, but the slippage has usually been gradual. What happened to New Orleans was sudden: half a major city was wiped out in a day. Even if no similar storm returns -- not a prognostic to bet on -- New Orleans will never come back, least of all like it was. A big part of this is that we remain very confused about what happened and why, but we're also quite confused about what New Orleans was and how it got that way. Much of this confusion, both before and after the fact, comes from our faith in the free enterprise system. The idea that the invisible hand works to our mutual benefit is comforting myth; what is certain is that the invisible hand does things we don't see let alone comprehend -- like growing and decaying cities.
I went to the Wichita Public Library tonight, for the first time in 3-4 weeks. I saw thirty or so books that looked like they might be worth reading. I won't be able to read more than a couple of those -- I'm stacked up to a ridiculous degree already -- but I'm impressed with how hard so many people are working to try to clear up many of the problems we face. I remember searching through bookstores after 9/11 for anything that might help me to understand that had just happened and finding virtually nothing. Now there are dozens of books covering virtually every aspect of that and the misbegotten War on Terror that followed. On the other hand, all that effort has had little impact either on those in power, on their apologists, on their so-called opposition, or on anything having to do with popular opinion. I'm reminded once again that in my own experience with companies on the brink of failure, no amount of reason could alter their course.
Among those books, half-a-dozen were on Katrina, and another was on a 1969 hurricane that took the same course with much the same devastating effect. That book is Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned From America's Most Violent Hurricane. The gist seems to be that political authorities were unprepared for Camille and botched every aspect of responding to it, much as they did with Katrina. As interesting as that one looked, I figured another book looked more immediately useful. This is by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, called The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist. From the back cover:
Not sure I'll get to it either, but I like the technical emphasis. Still, beyond that is a whole range of political and economic issues, which I don't expect this book to handle. But understanding starts with the technical details, and this book looks to be useful for that.
Looking again at the Eagle article quoted above, I find it curious that the front page major title is "To dream amid decay" and that the main picture has these words spread across the top: "A year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians hope their city isn't squandering its chances for rebirth." Both messages signify confusion.
Monday, September 12. 2005
Here's a rather apocalyptic quote from Bill McKibben, writing for TomDispatch:
McKibben's book, The End of Nature (1987), was one of the first important arguments made about the dangers of global warming caused by humans burning fossil fuels. I read it in the mid-'90s on an August trip to Florida, where the local (if not global) warming was quite a revelation -- a model to make sense of the coming world. McKibben is a writer I don't quite trust, but can't quite dismiss either. The science he writes about has only grown more convincing over the years. The metaphors are something else. Nature may have ended if we view nature as a global system independent from human effects, but if that's the definition it ended long ago -- and by many measure, including human longevity and population levels, one can argue it's a good thing. One can also argue that nature hasn't ended at all: nature continues in ever new forms as we perturb it, its newness upsetting our understanding of how it works. McKibben aludes to this when he talks about once-per-century storms becoming once-per-decade storms. But what happened to New Orleans had more to do with local and national breakdowns in our political and economic system than it had to do with global anthropogenic effects on climate. The real fear is not so much that nature is going to become deadlier as that we might lose our ability to understand and respond to its challenges.
To do so in what stands to be an increasingly perilous world, we're going to have to get smarter -- which includes more mutual support, fairness, justice, and a better understanding of what technology can and cannot do. Otherwise McKibben's prediction stands a good chance of becoming true. The shocking thing about Katrina wasn't the power of the storm so much as the utter breakdown in competency in response to it. That represents a much more urgent problem than global warming, and perhaps more important as well. I don't discount global warming: I think it is real now, and going to get worse, and I really doubt that there's much that can be done to slow it let alone to reverse it. On the other hand, what we can learn to do is to respond better to both the ordinary and catastrophic events it worsens. If we don't, McKibben is sure to be right.