December 31, 2009

Goodbye to All That

I'm not the only one, no doubt, who's glad to be done with this awful, soul-sucking decade. For Americans, at any rate, watching our country lurch from the horror of 9/11, to the sadistic imperialism that followed, to the economic miasma we currently inhabit, has been one ordeal after another. (Let me associate myself with the sentiments in Spencer Ackerman's Guantánamo retrospective.) The emergence of a new progressive movement, as well as Barack Obama's presidency, have been heartening, but the recent fight over health care reform shows how difficult it still is to move the country in a more equitable and just direction.

For myself, I am grateful to be ending the year employed and putting my education and talents to their intended use. Spending much of the last 18 months either underemployed or unemployed was one of the hardest experiences of my life, in part because of the disparity between the effort and expense of amassing degrees and the mostly paltry reward I got from actually working. Not that I'm owed a living based on my education, or that being unemployed would any less bad if I only had a high school diploma; but there were certainly multiple times when I wondered if I should have done something other than go to grad school. Indeed, thinking back over the last decade has been an exercise in thinking, "Should I have done this? Should I have not done that?" Your 20s, after all, are supposed to be the time when you can do anything and everything. But of course, life's not a video game, and you don't need to rack up a certain amount of points to go to the next level.

I suppose I should fill this space with some sort of list or Best Of for the decade, so I'll oblige. My song of the decade, which has helped me cope with a lot of bad shit, both political and personal, is "Me and Mia" by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists:

Ted Leo put out some great stuff this decade -- Hearts of Oak belongs in the pantheon of anti-war, anti-Bush music -- and this song, released just after the 2004 election, is one of his better ones.

Speaking of music, I'm playing around with Tumblr, which seems to be 90% music blogging. My mood is more off-the-cuff nowadays, anyway; perhaps I'll do my blogging there from now on. Happy new year, everyone!

December 22, 2009

After Copenhagen

On the recently concluded Copenhagen climate change agreement -- such as it is -- you can look at it three ways:

1. It's kicking the can down the road. The agreement, with all its placeholders and blank spaces -- most egregiously, the appendix meant to list individual country commitments -- will only have meaning once further negotiations try to breath life into it. It's good that we now have some hard numbers for mitigation/adaptation aid for poor countries ($30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020), but there's still the niggling questions of who exactly is raising the money, how the money will be distributed, and how to assure that the money is spent properly. Then there's the whole question of verifying emissions goals, especially in China; as John Lee argues, it's an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese government, which has little interest in reporting accurate statistics for anything, much less carbon emissions.1

2. It's a game changer. The folks at the Center for American Progress have been eternal optimists when it comes to climate negotiations, and they've been quick to point out the upside to the Copenhagen agreement. Andrew Light, for example, points out that with the agreement, President Obama has begun to chart a new path for climate negotiations away from the UN process, which has become something of a farce -- seeing noted human rights champion Sudan, for example, withhold its support for the Copenhagen agreement while comparing it to the Holocaust was especially galling. And indeed, a lot of smart people (e.g., Michael Levi) have been pronouncing the UN process dead; from now on, the action on climate change will be at the G-20 or other small venues. It won't be as conceptually neat at the UN process, but it could get things going much quicker.

3. It's a disaster. This is, essentially, the Bill McKibben response. Not only has Obama signed off on a patently inadequate agreement, but it has jettisoned the UN process to boot (see above). Most of the countries at most risk of climate-induced disaster aren't major emitters, and now they are being excluded from negotiations that could, in some cases, determine their future survival. What China and the US work out may be acceptable for them, in terms of limiting climate change; but it may not be acceptable for, say, the Marshall Islands. Moreover, given that global temperature increases could become irreversible unless we begin to reduce emissions soon, does it really make sense to dick around with half measures?

I've listed these outlooks in the order in which I adhere to them: That is, I see the Copenhagen agreement as a potential way to make real progress in climate change negotiations, but it needs to be elaborated on substantially, and it needs to be done soon. Other people, of course, may order these outlooks differently, or add new ones.

1 Case in point: The last time China did a greenhouse gas inventory -- its only inventory, in fact -- was in 1994.

December 3, 2009

Conservatives for Industrial Policy

John Quiggin has a good commentary on Australia's embattled Liberal Party. They have gone all out in opposition to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposed cap-and-trade system -- even to the point of ousting their leader, Malcolm Turnbull, for his accommodationist stance -- but also seem to recognize that denialism on climate change will make them even more unpopular than they are already. Thus, they seem to be embracing policies that, whatever their merits, have little to do with free market ideology:
Rather, [Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey] suggests 'To respond to these problems the Government should take an up front role investing in and developing Australia's only significant and predictable renewable energy resource which is to be found in the tides of the Kimberley.'

Tuckey also proposes extensive public investment in High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, noting that 'China will not have an ETS. It will invest in Hydro, Nuclear and other renewable energy. Its Government is already building an extensive HVDC network.'


Having denounced the government's emissions trading scheme as a massive new tax, [Tony Abbott, the new Liberal leader] can scarcely embrace the main alternative, a carbon tax. On the other hand, he has committed himself to achieving the emissions reductions promised by Labor.

In these circumstances, the Chinese approach endorsed by Wilson Tuckey is probably the only feasible option. It is, perhaps, surprising that, having elected its most conservative leader ever, the Liberal Party may have to turn to the Communist Party of China for policy guidance. But politics makes strange bedfellows.
The dynamic reminds me of American conservatives who denounce cap-and-trade as being overly intrusive, but think nothing of calling for massive government investment in clean energy, with the money coming from... well, it's never specified, but it's presumably not as awful as taxing pollution, which any economist will tell you is the most cost-effective and least intrusive (in terms of regulations) way to reduce emissions. Some Democrats, too, seem to have adopted this attitude.

In any case, I think a green industrial policy isn't such a bad idea -- not my first choice, but acceptable -- but it's odd to see right-leaning folks embrace this type of government intervention as the more market-friendly alternative.

UPDATE: TPM has a good primer for Americans on the Australian climate change debate.

Cutting Through the Climate Fog

Chris Hayes makes the case for focusing the climate change debate on -- wait for it -- climate change:
But overall, the public opinion data on climate point to a deeper problem with the way the capping of carbon has been sold, both by Democratic lawmakers and progressive activists--that is, as a bill that seems to have nothing to do with catastrophic climate change. "Make no mistake: this is a jobs bill," President Obama said about the House-passed version of cap and trade (the name of which--American Clean Energy and Security Act--manages to avoid mentioning climate).


This is all true, of course, so far as it goes: cap and trade will create strong incentives for innovation in an economy that badly needs them and will begin re-engineering the fossil fuel economy in a way that will surely create net job benefits. Over time, if we stick to it, it will also delink our foreign and military policies from the pursuit of oil. But those aren't the main reasons to pass the bill. Stopping the planet from melting is.
Fundamentally, keeping climate change from getting out of control is a moral imperative, not only for our sake, but for the sake of our descendants and those who live in poorer and more vulnerable parts of the world. But making moral appeals for public policy, especially where the benefits are diffuse and the costs are often direct, isn't done much by our elites anymore, even those on the left. Tony Judt's recent lecture on social democracy touches on this:
For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.
I'd also add that emphasizing the moral dimensions of climate change could help focus public opinion on the matter. It's well known, for example, that while Americans are generally supportive of doing something about climate change, their views are heavily influenced by all manner of factors, including partisanship, the economy, and even the weather. And it's not just America, either: this graph (via Kate MacKenzie) shows that people in England have a muddled view of the problem too:From a policymaker's perspective, both the things that people think the government is not doing enough of and the things they're doing too much of are necessary -- as is carbon trading, which barely registers with most people. But of course most people aren't thinking of these things as parts of an overall policy, and we shouldn't expect them to. We can, however, make the case that we have a responsibility to do something about climate change; and that, while some shared sacrifice may be involved (though not as much as the doomsayer right believes), it would be wrong for us to shirk this responsibility. That, I think, most people can understand intuitively.

November 29, 2009

The Chimera That Is Chimerica

I'm currently reading Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It. It's interesting, in that it starts out as a fairly standard history of post-Maoist China, then abruptly turns into a disquisition on the inadequacy of traditional economic statistics in an age of transnational capitalism and production chains that span continents. Think of it as a gearshift book.

It's also interesting as a kind of non-fiction prequel to Firefly/Serenity, which posits a world in which Chinese and American cultures have intermingled: White characters curse in Mandarin, and so forth. But of course China and America haven't even arrived yet at a consensus about the nature of their relationship, much less begun cross-breeding their civilizations. You could argue, as Karabell does, that Chimerica as a bi-national self-conception is not so different than the sense of continental identity that animates the EU, which was also far-fetched when first proposed. Yet the physical and linguistic proximity, &c. of most European nations makes agglomeration a much more feasible task than in the case of Chimerica -- and even the EU is still disturbingly fragile, as the case of Greece demonstrates.

For the present, Chimerica is mainly the partnership of Chinese labor and American capital, as well as that of Chinese savers and American borrowers. As the late unpleasantness has shown, this isn't a very sustainable dynamic.1 The question is, how do we build on the current relationship in order to find more mutually beneficial terms of cooperation? In part, it's a matter of how the Chinese and the Americans conceive of themselves, and of each other. The current trade imbalance is viewed by many as a bad thing, not least because many Americans find it distasteful that any foreign country, let alone China, has so much potential influence over the US. (And the feeling seems to be mutual, if Chris Hayes is correct.) Getting past that discomfort means viewing interdependence as something to be desired rather than to be avoided, if only as a steppingstone to better things. America will be a better country for allowing China (and India, Brazil, et al) to assume a more prominent role in world affairs, rather than trying to maintain a stranglehold on hegemony.

But it's also worth asking how this interdependence -- which certainly has benefited the Chinese -- benefits Americans, especially those who aren't members of the investor class. It's hard to see, for example, a world in which American labor competes with Chinese labor on an apples-to-apples basis; at the least, the dollar would need to depreciate by a lot and the renminbi would need to appreciate by a lot. But how do we get there with the minimal amount of dislocation? It doesn't seem like anyone has a good answer for that.

1 See, for example, Tyler Cowen's column on a possible bubble in Chinese manufacturing, and what its bursting could mean for the US.

Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral Tower. Chimeras and Man originally uploaded to Flickr by Cornell University Library.

November 25, 2009

Notes on a Scandal

The controversy (see also here and here) over the stolen1 emails of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia has been tragically amusing: Amusing because of the way denialists have been huffing and puffing over something which, even in the most generous interpretation, doesn't alter the overwhelming nature of the evidence for climate change2; and tragic because that same huffing and puffing will likely further muddy the discourse on climate change in this country, which is saying something.

If you want a real scandal, however, check this out:
Large sums promised to developing countries to help them tackle climate change cannot be accounted for, a BBC investigation has found.

Rich countries pledged $410m (£247m) a year in a 2001 declaration - but it is now unclear whether the money was paid.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has accused industrialised countries of failing to keep their promise.

The EU says the money was paid out in bilateral deals, but admits it cannot provide data to prove it.
This could be really damaging -- trust between rich and poor countries is strained as it is, and the failure of the rich countries to account for the money pledged could potentially blow things up at Copenhagen, where establishing rich country aid for poor countries is a major point of contention. This is also why having a legally binding climate change treaty of some kind is so important: When you're dealing with financial transfers on the order of €100 billion a year (as the EU proposed recently), you need to have mechanisms in place to ensure that the money is going where it's intended.

1 Let's not lend to the people who broke into the CRU's email system any of the lovable moxie associated with the term "hacker," shall we? This was theft, pure and simple.
2 Though the underlying science is not affected, I agree with George Monbiot that CRU officials haven't been handling the controversy all that well.

November 14, 2009

Statistics as a Liberal Art

I recently came across this 11-year-old lecture (PDF) by David Moore which argues that statistics, as a mode of thinking, should be considered as a liberal art: That is, something that all educated people should understand, even if they never become professional statisticians:
That statistics is so often a guide to policy is testimony to the unusual prevalence of statistical issues in policy discussions. It is easy to think of policy questions to which (say) chemistry is relevant, and also easy to think of issues to which chemistry has nothing to contribute. I find it hard to think of policy questions, at least in domestic policy, that have no statistical component. The reason is of course that reasoning about data, variation, and chance is a flexible and broadly applicable mode of thinking. That is just what we most often mean by a liberal art.
Moore then goes on to discuss the nature of the liberal arts, which he divides into "philosophical" and "oratorical" traditions (one seeks the truth come what may, the other seeks to instill virtues that are valuable for citizenship); and he suggests that the liberal arts should be thought of as a sort of add-on to our evolutionary heritage. We can instinctively make out the features of a darkened room, say, but we need training to determine if the data in a scatterplot is strongly or weakly correlated.

I thought this was an interesting thesis, in that it's a kind of modern update of the medieval quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Paired with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), it helped prepare students for the more difficult studies of philosophy and theology. (A style of education that, in turn, seems to derive from Socrates' curriculum for the guardians in the Republic.) We live in a post-metaphysical age, of course, so studying mathematical subjects is no longer about training the mind for understanding God, the Good, or Being. But having at least some background in quantitative methods is essential for understanding the modern world: To be able to answer questions about crime, health care, global warming, etc., means, in part, pulling oneself out of the realm of the anecdotal and personal, and knowing how to manipulate data responsibly. Perhaps a modern version of Plato's Academy would have inscribed on its gate, not "ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω" (Let no one ignorant of geometry enter), but "ἀστατίστικος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω" (Let no one ignorant of statistics enter).

November 12, 2009

Top Chef 6.11: Ham and Jam and Spamalot

To nearly everyone's relief, Robin was eliminated last night (which the AV Club celebrated with the immortal phrase from the Simpsons, "Poochie's dead!"). It was past time for her to go; at the same time, her tearful exit made me feel for her, as she clearly wanted to prove she could compete with all the young upstarts there. But alas, it was not to be.

Jennifer's continuing on-air burnout is even more heartbreaking, given how high she was flying at the beginning. But badly cooked meat is unaccountable at this stage, and if she's eliminated next week, it may well be an act of mercy. I don't know what Eli was thinking -- maybe something along the lines of Hung's notorious cereal diorama from Season Three -- but his offering looked absolutely dreadful, straining even Nigella Lawson's preternatural poise and equanimity. Having won the Quickfire, however, he's still got some life in him.

It'll be interesting to see Kevin's traditionalism square off against Mike's more avant-garde (or "effeminate," (?!) as Toby Young put it) style in the next few weeks. Bryan seems to split the difference, so perhaps he'll pull through in the end.

November 10, 2009

Health Care for All Everyone but Working-Class Women!

In lieu of a proper response to the news of the anti-choice Stupak amendment being tacked on to the House health care bill -- I would suggest Michelle Goldberg's latest in the American Prospect as a place to start -- I want to note that the idea of an otherwise good bill being derailed by a bad amendment reminded me of this classic scene:
Kent: With our utter annihilation imminent, our federal government has snapped into action. We go live now via satellite to the floor of the United States congress.
Speaker: Then it is unanimous, we are going to approve the bill to evacuate the town of Springfield in the great state of --
Congressman: Wait a minute, I want to tack on a rider to that bill: $30 million of taxpayer money to support the perverted arts.
Speaker: All in favor of the amended Springfield-slash-pervert bill? [everyone boos]
Speaker: Bill defeated. [bangs gavel]
Kent: I've said it before and I'll say it again: democracy simply doesn't work.
A little unfair to the anti-abortion crowd, perhaps, but I get the sense that the Stupak amendment has less to do with preventing public dollars from funding abortions -- which is already prohibited under the Hyde Amendment -- and more to do with conservative Democrats trying to make the larger Democratic Party pay homage to them. After all, it's highly unlikely that the Stupak amendment will survive conference and make it in the final bill. I'd also note how bizarre it is for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to have intervened so strongly in support of the Stupak amendment, something you seldom see them do on other matters of social justice.

November 4, 2009

(Some) Progress in Macedonia

Some good news in Greco-Macedonian relations:
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov Wednesday sent an invitation to his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias to visit Macedonia, a move seen as a positive step towards resolution of the long standing name spat between the two neighbors.
The rapprochement gets a boost from the fact that the European Commission recently recommended that Macedonia begin the process of applying for EU membership, though no start date has been given. I was worried that the nationalist government in Skopje would continue to be intransigent after the last election, but perhaps the obvious benefits of joining the EU are trumping other priorities. Of course, it's not clear at all that there's been any progress on the name dispute with Greece -- short of changing the name from "Republic of Macedonia," I don't know what else Skopje could offer the Greeks to mollify them.

"Beckons you, to enter his web of sin..."

Does anyone seriously think Al Gore is going to become some kind of "Greenfinger" character -- that is, use his wealth to turn the world into some kind of eco-dystopia? One could be forgiven for thinking that after reading this terrible NYT piece about Gore's investments in clean energy. As Dave Roberts ably observed, the article can be boiled down to two propositions, each of which contradicts the other:
  1. Some people (read: A right-wing congresswoman and a former aide to James Inhofe) say that Gore is hyping up the threat of climate change in order to profit from his investments in green technology.
  2. Gore says that he donates all profits from his investments to his nonprofit group, the Alliance for Climate Protection.
That's a thin frame, needless to say, on which to hang a story. (Unless Gore is lying, but the NYT article gives no indication that he is -- probably because he's not.)

In fact, Gore's investments aren't even the most interesting thing about Al Gore. For that, you'll have to look at the latest Newsweek, which has a fascinating profile of Gore and how his views on climate change have evolved over the years. In particular, he seems to be coming to the position that reforming agricultural practices so that more carbon is sequestered and fewer methane emissions are released could be the most profitable near-term strategy for tackling climate change, moreso even than cutting carbon emissions in the commercial and industrial sectors. Of course, since most of the worst offenders in agriculture (and also forestry), in terms of GHG emissions, are in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia, convincing them to change their ways will require some buy-in on our part: Carbon pricing, obviously, but also a re-evaluation of our own practices that contribute to the problem. Cutting down on, say, meat consumption, as Nicolas Stern recently suggested, would be one place to start.

October 31, 2009

Top Chef 6.10: Meat Is Murder

Like other viewers, I'm getting worried about Jennifer. She started out so strong, but in the last few challenges has been getting overwhelmed by the stress of the competition. She wouldn't be the first contestant on the show to break down under pressure, but it would be a shame if she went home before the remaining also-rans (hint: rhymes with Schmeli and Schmobin) did.

Speaking of going home, Mike Isabella's leek dish looked awful on the plate, and apparently tasted awful too, so it was no surprise that he was sent packing. Of all the contestants this season, however, it seems like he got the worst rap: Yes, he made a bunch of sexist comments and his cockiness was off-putting at times, but there seemed to be an underlying decency to him (note how he got everyone to wear red neckerchiefs after Mattin was eliminated) that got obscured. Of course, that may have been of his own volition. And in any case, his dishes seemed good, but not great, at least by Top Chef standards: The show rewards hot-shot, experimental cooking, even though a lot of great food is neither.

The range of vegetarian meals offered was pretty disappointing: Like others, I was puzzled that no one thought to use things like cheese or risotto to make a more satisfying meal. Kevin, the winner, actually got closest to the mark with his mushroom/kale duo: if you're looking for meaty, umami flavor without meat, mushrooms fit the bill quite well. I'd also have liked to have tried Mike Voltaggio's banana polenta; now if he can just keep his player-hater tendencies in check.

So next week is something called Top Chef All-Stars Dinner, which appears to be the usual assortment of petty rivalries, but without the reverence for the craft of cooking that makes Top Chef proper such a good show. In other words, it'll be like all the other reality shows out there.

October 29, 2009

Varieties of Vaccine Skepticism (Updated)

Let me get one thing clear at the outset: I have no truck with those who scaremonger over the potential risks from vaccines. Whether you're Jenny McCarthy or (sigh) Billy Corgan, if you're hyping up unproven links between vaccines and autism or intimating some vaccine-related government conspiracy, you will not get a sympathetic ear from me. All you're doing is putting people at risk of disease and death.

Having said all that, I do recommend Sharon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer's piece in the latest Atlantic, which makes a serious case that the seasonal flu vaccine, and the swine flu vaccine that is modeled after it, may not be as effective as public health officials believe:
When Lisa Jackson, a physician and senior investigator with the Group Health Research Center, in Seattle, began wondering aloud to colleagues if maybe something was amiss with the estimate of 50 percent mortality reduction for people who get flu vaccine, the response she got sounded more like doctrine than science. “People told me, ‘No good can come of [asking] this,’” she says. “‘Potentially a lot of bad could happen’ for me professionally by raising any criticism that might dissuade people from getting vaccinated, because of course, ‘We know that vaccine works.’ This was the prevailing wisdom.”

Nonetheless, in 2004, Jackson and three colleagues set out to determine whether the mortality difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated might be caused by a phenomenon known as the “healthy user effect.” They hypothesized that on average, people who get vaccinated are simply healthier than those who don’t, and thus less liable to die over the short term. People who don’t get vaccinated may be bedridden or otherwise too sick to go get a shot. They may also be more likely to succumb to flu or any other illness, because they are generally older and sicker. To test their thesis, Jackson and her colleagues combed through eight years of medical data on more than 72,000 people 65 and older. They looked at who got flu shots and who didn’t. Then they examined which group’s members were more likely to die of any cause when it was not flu season.

Jackson’s findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the “frail elderly” didn’t or couldn’t. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all.
I was surprised to learn that the flu vaccine, as well as antiviral flu drugs like Tamiflu, haven't been subjected to placebo-controlled trials, on the grounds that it would be "unethical" to use dummy shots on populations at risk of the flu. If that were true, wouldn't it always be unethical to do placebo-controlled studies, regardless of the drug or treatment in question? I'm not a public health expert, but it seems bizarre to draw such a line around just the flu vaccine.

On the other hand, even after having read Brownlee and Lenzer's article and coming away fairly convinced of its main argument, I still plan to get the seasonal flu vaccine, and the swine flu vaccine if it becomes available to me. And why not? At the least, it does me no harm, and may well do much good. But the more effective things I could do to avoid getting or spreading the flu -- e.g., hand-washing and so-called social distancing from places where flu outbreaks are occurring -- aren't being promoted by the government. Fortunately, the current swine flu pandemic appears to be milder than had been feared; but if a more virulent strain comes along, this over-reliance on vaccination could make things worse for us than would be necessary.

UPDATE: A commenter on Facebook informs me that the flu vaccine and Tamiflu have been subjected to placebo-controlled trials, as all drugs are; rather the controversy revolves around whether it would be proper to do a large-scale study to answer the question of whether they're effective for the populations that are at highest risk for the flu. Since they have been shown to work, at least in some cases, there could be ethical problems in giving a placebo to someone instead of a drug with at least some proven effectiveness. If there were no difference whatsoever in performance between the flu vaccine and a placebo, that would be one thing; but if there's at least some chance that the flu vaccine is more effective, then doing a placebo-controlled trial now could be morally problematic. I apologize for the error.

Even so, I think the question going forward is less about the science behind the flu vaccine and more about the policy response of dealing with flu pandemics. While the efficacy of the flu vaccine may be in question, it does have the advantage of being relatively non-intrusive -- just tell people to get vaccinated, and all is well. Other methods, like social distancing, may be more effective, but they entail the government getting much more involved in how people conduct their daily routines, and could even set off a public panic. So it's a tricky problem in either case.

Getting Biophysical

I studied ecological economics with Herman Daly in grad school; indeed, in addition to my master's degree, I have a little certificate from the University of Maryland in ecological economics, based on some courses I took. Generally, I find ecological economics to be pretty influential on my thinking. Despite that, I typically hold at arm's length arguments from ecological economics explaining current events. Why is that? A commenter at Matt Yglesias' blog summarizes it pretty well:
The [il]logic of the argument is that all criticisms of economic orthodoxy are equally valid.
That is, attempts to, say, explain the financial crisis as a consequence of humanity running up against natural limits to growth don't ring true to me. Yes, in general terms we should be concerned about the expansion of money and debt beyond the ability of the real economy (including the natural resources on which the real economy depends) to service it, but that line of argument doesn't offer much explanatory power, compared to more conventional accounts (e.g., Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's placement of the current mess in the long history of financial crises, dating back even to pre-industrial times).

So the NYT's profile of the "biophysical economics" school, which is essentially ecological economics by another name, was interesting to read, no doubt; but I find myself agreeing with Ryan Avent (or whomever is the Washington blogger for Free Exchange) that the biophysicals' focus on energy return on investment (EROI), or the amount of energy gained minus the energy used to extract it, can be misleading. At the risk of overgeneralizing, we're a long way from wringing out all the inefficiencies in our energy regime. Moreover, even in a world in which oil and coal are harder and harder to produce, a prosperous economy is still possible, even if certain avenues for achieving that are closed off (e.g., auto-centric transportation).

This isn't to say, however, that there isn't some truth to the argument from EROI. Entropy is an unavoidable fact of this world, and while Avent is right that there is an abundance of energy available to humanity, harnessing that energy in ways that are useful to us isn't so easy. (David McKay's excellent book on clean energy is a great place to start on this subject.) One advantage of oil, coal, and (to an extent) natural gas is that they're fairly convenient: They can be easily transported and stored for when we need it. At present, renewable sources like wind and solar don't offer quite the same convenience -- though if we get a more intelligent grid up and running and some advances in battery technology, that may no longer be an issue.

The ecological economic outlook, I think, has more value when looking at the whole range of ecological problems, in particular degradation of ecosystems, for which finding substitutes is harder than with energy. If we lose all of the earth's fish populations in the next 50 years, as has been predicted, it's not as if we can pay to get them back or develop some technological workaround. And in general, I find understanding the value of the natural capital that the earth provides us gives us a much better sense of why we need to preserve it.

October 25, 2009

Unemployment Blogging: The End (Again!)

A quick programming note: I've accepted a position at Garten Rothkopf, "an international advisory firm serving corporations, governments and financial institutions".1 I'll be doing research and analysis -- blogging, in a sense -- on the politics and policy of climate change and energy. Needless to say, I'm very happy: after some five months in the doldrums, it feels great to be on the move again. I'm also happy to have beaten the average for time spent unemployed. On the other hand, the fact that five months spent unemployed is now below average should be seen as rather horrifying.

1 Some of you might recognize the name David Rothkopf, who was a member of the Clinton administration and, more recently, wrote the book Superclass. Some of you may also recognize the name Jeffrey Garten, who was also in the Clinton adminstration and whose wife is the incomparable Ina Garten.

October 22, 2009

Top Chef 6.9: Purple Monkey Dishwasher

The Quickfire challenge was rather clever: Essentially a game of Telephone with food (hence the title of this post). It wasn't really something that tells you much about what makes for a good chef, but it was a fun exercise.

Restaurant Wars was surprising for a few reasons: The Blue team got away with naming their restaurant Revolt, Robin actually made a good dish, and both Jennifer and Kevin were at serious risk of elimination. It was strange how all the members of the Red team seemed to have been dragged down together. In part, no doubt, that's due to how the workload was distributed, with Kevin and Jennifer taking on much more than they could handle. I also imagine that Laurine's handling of front of the house duties impacted the performance of the group as a whole as well: If the front had been handled by, say, Jennifer -- who has demonstrated excellent executive abilities -- things might have turned out very differently. On the other hand, the pressure of the competition seems to be getting to her, moreso than any of the other contestants.

The bickering between the Voltaggio brothers was typical reality show fare, but what does it tell us about their cooking styles? Michael clearly feels confident and comfortable in his skin, and rightly so, but I could easily see his brassy tendencies getting the better of him down the road. Bryan, on the other hand, is pretty consistent in his execution, but I wonder if he'll more fully demonstrate his creativity when the stakes get really high. Like most people, I'll be surprised if both brothers aren't in the finale.

One other thing: Was I the only one incredulous about the use of the word "sustainable" to describe the meals being prepared -- given that the competition is in Las Vegas, a city that is, almost by definition, unsustainable?

October 16, 2009

Green Power and Deregulation

Speaking of responsible conservatives, E.D. Kain of David Frum's New Majority website makes several good points about electricity deregulation and clean energy:
Obviously the government will have its role to pay in the green revolution, but we should limit that role to laying pipes and power lines, and ensuring that when laws are broken, the perpetrators are punished. The government needs to establish fair-play rules and create a grid, but beyond that they need to let markets work, and allow competition to flourish. A lasting green revolution needs to benefit not only the earth, but the people who live on it as well. Too often the economic costs of environmentalism are overlooked, and too often it is the poorest among us who bear the brunt of those costs. Real cost-saving competition can help change that.
Stated that way, the case for deregulated energy markets seems quite strong. The problem with deregulation, however, has less to do with the desirability of moving away from closed markets (Brad Plumer's article on the roadblocks to distributed generation provides a wealth of examples in that vein), but with how we get to open ones -- and the record in the US has been pretty poor on that mark. California's troubles with deregulation have become legendary, with massive price spikes and Enron-driven market manipulation. In my own state of Maryland, deregulation wasn't quite so dramatic a process, but the problems were similar in many respects: Price caps largely prevented competition from emerging, and ultimately didn't prevent massive price spikes for Baltimore Gas & Electric customers from happening once the caps were removed -- though Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly did manage to delay, then dampen, the effect of the rate hike. There were also some shady dealings between Constellation Energy, which owns BGE, and the then-Republican-controlled Public Service Commission; but even so, deregulation in Maryland, like in many other states, was not well designed.1

What's baffling about all this is that even the more successful examples of a deregulated electricity market have been running into problems. For example, the UK, which deregulated in the early 1990s, is now finding that generators may not be able to keep up with demand -- possibly even leading to blackouts. Moreover, pace Kain's hope of open markets and green power going hand in hand, these generators have been skimping on renewable energy development. Back in 2000, Severin Borenstein co-authored a paper (ungated version here) on deregulation which essentially argued that, until we get up and running a smarter grid, including real-time pricing for consumers, the electricity market will remain vulnerable to volatility and manipulation. In other words, to get free markets in electricity, there'll need to be a great deal more government-directed investment. Carbon pricing will likely also be essential to giving renewable energy a leg up among generators.

1 Ironically, competition for generators is finally starting to emerge -- particularly in renewable energy -- yet Gov. O'Malley is now said to be considering re-regulating the industry.

October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009: Lindsay Graham and the Climate Football

I want to believe that Lindsay Graham, per his recent op-ed, is going to come through on supporting the Kerry-Boxer climate bill in the Senate. Indeed, Joe Romm and David Roberts, both of whom no one could accuse of being naïve about politics, are hailing Graham's stance as an important step in moving climate legislation forward, and could potentially net as many as six other Republican votes. That could be enough to bring in moderate Democrats from farm and coal states leery about voting for Kerry-Boxer as well.

Even so, I can't shake the fear that Graham is going to pull the football away at the last minute. Like John McCain, Graham is a conservative with a reputation for heterodoxy that is vastly out of step with his actual voting record. Perhaps the definitive profile of Graham is this 2005 Washington Monthly article by Geoff Earle, which argued that, during the height of the George W. Bush era, Graham often strayed from the Republican Party line on certain high-profile issues, but in a way that ultimately served the purposes of the Bush administration and the GOP:
Consider his role in the Abu Ghraib hearings. With his tough questioning of Rumsfeld, Graham earned a rare Washington commodity: credibility. In the end, however, he put that credibility to use in bolstering the position of the secretary of defense. On "Meet the Press," Graham pointedly refused to say Rumsfeld should step down, a position he has maintained ever since. During those crucial early days, Rumsfeld's ability to maintain unified GOP support in the Senate was essential to his political survival. Had Graham flipped, the White House's continued loyalty to Rumsfeld would have been made far more difficult, if not impossible. Graham's even-handed posture "did a lot to end a period that was corrosive and dangerous for the administration," says Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).
This was certainly the case in 2006, during the fight over the Military Commissions Act. Graham, along with McCain and John Warner, were the lead negotiators with the Bush administration over the bill -- ostensibly to prevent it from giving the President carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with detainees in Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. In the end, however, Graham and company gave the administration the bulk of what it desired, then helped defeat Democratic amendments that would have prohibited torture, upheld habeas corpus, and provided other protections. Since then, Graham's record in the minority has been indistinguishable from that of his fellow Republicans, up to and including his conduct during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

Now, It's certainly possible that Graham has seen the light on climate change and will become a support of climate legislation, not only in words, but deeds. Romm quotes an E&E News article which indicates that he has, and he will -- the only sticking point he, and other potential Republican votes, seem to have with Kerry-Boxer is increased support for nuclear power and offshore oil drilling. If that's the case, it'd be a small price to pay for ensuring that the framework for a clean energy economy gets up and running. (Let's also note here that Lisa Murkowski of Alaska now also appears to be on board with Kerry-Boxer, so Graham's support might actually be paying off.)

I'm still skeptical, however, for the reasons stated above. But there shouldn't be any reason why conservative political philosophy, as I understand it, would prevent Graham, et al from taking action on climate change. Certainly right-wing politicians in other countries, Europe in particular, see no contradiction between belief in small government and preventing the devastation of the Earth's climate. Only the ignorance and moral cowardice that characterizes much of the American right today prevents the Republican Party from being responsible partners in addressing perhaps the most important issue of our time. Indeed, already the conservative movement is trying to browbeat Graham into submission; hopefully, they won't succeed.

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day, and this year's topic is climate change; though honestly, if hadn't told you that, would you have noticed?

October 12, 2009

Are There Free Market Solutions to Climate Change?

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias both recently asked whether conservatives' professed belief in free markets hobbles their ability to take climate change seriously. Yglesias points out that there are plenty of free market climate change policies (e.g., eliminating fossil fuels subsidies, green tax shifts, etc.), but conservatives often denounce even these as socialist:
Now of course in the real world it’s going to be impossible to legislate a pure free market “tax shift” policy... But if people started from the premise that emissions need to be reduced, and then debated the extent to which this needs to be done in a free market way versus some other kind of way, then compromise would be easy to reach.... But that’s not what we have. Not because market-oriented approaches are inadequate to the challenge but because too many of the key institutions that espouse market-oriented approaches are run by people who are too corrupt, incompetent, immoral, stupid, or cowardly to get their side to take the problem seriously.
Drum agrees, but argues that even free market policies aren't equal to the scale of the problem:
Conservatives know that if they actually fess up to the full scope of the global warming problem, they're eventually going to have to accept some pretty serious government intervention to halt it. Things like fuel economy standards, green research and development programs, moratoriums on coal-fired plants, tax incentives for conservation, new building efficiency standards, and much, much more. There's nothing wrong with any of this stuff, but there's no question that it's a considerable amount of interference in the market.
I think the question that needs to be asked here is, "Compared to what?" To take one item from Drum's list, for example, building efficiency standards are a subset of land use regulations, which are going to exist whether there's a public interest in environmental protection or not. That is, I don't see much of a difference between a regulation that says that a building's insulation have must an R-value of X and a regulation that says only single-family detached homes can be built in such-and-such parts of town. One can argue about the wisdom of land use being regulated in certain ways (witness the recent liberal-libertarian exchange on urban planning -- see here and here for highlights), but once it's granted that governments can regulate how buildings are constructed in a given community (and I think most people would agree with that), it's not a big leap -- still less a leap into socialism -- to include energy consumption in those regulations as well.

That being said, it's not necessarily the case that more regulation is better when it comes to climate change, or any other issue, for that matter. Yglesias, for one, has argued repeatedly that the greatest infringement of economic liberty today is not marginal income tax rates or product safety regulations, but local restrictions on land use that prohibit dense, mixed-use development. And all things being equal, I want regulations that maximize individual choice and minimize transaction costs or perverse incentives -- in other words, a green tax shift is preferable to, say, an alternative fuel tax credit. Not that I necessarily oppose such programs, but policymakers should be cognizant not to let the regulations they do enact become more trouble than they're worth.

So perhaps we can say that there are no laissez-faire solutions to climate change -- no one expects private industry to, on its own, care about the effects of their fossil fuel consumption on future generations; moreover, a large portion of our carbon footprint is bound up in our infrastructure (e.g., transportation and electricity), which was never in the private sector's hands to begin with. But we can definitely say that policies that take what is best about free markets (in not dictating every little action, for example) have a major role to play in our response to climate change.

October 8, 2009

Top Chef 6.7: Stressed Umami Asian

I liked the idea of the Quickfire challenge: It reminded me of the Second City challenge in Season Four in which Richard Blais and Dale Talde had to make "green perplexed tofu," and famously came up with tofu marinated in beef fat and seared with grill marks. That kind of invention is, at least for the TV viewer who can't taste the food the contestants are serving, really appealing.

The rest of the episode? Not so much. I agree with Scott Tobias that we're now waiting for the lesser competitors to be knocked off -- though it was surprising to see Mike Voltaggio in the bottom bracket this week. I suspect, however, that it'll be a fluke.

I think a Restaurant Wars episode is in order, don't you?

October 7, 2009

A Global Environmental Organization?

As proposed by Edward Gresser in the latest issue of Democracy:
Rather than require each country to be the arbiter of all the others’ compliance by default, the solution must be to create an institution to do the job. The goal should be to ensure that the Copenhagen negotiations generate not only an effective and fair emissions-reduction agreement, but also an institutional structure that can make sure it is implemented—and in doing so bring environmental policy into line with security, trade, labor, and finance, as a field in which institutions and rules ease policymaking and improve its enforcement. In other words, we need a global institution modeled on the sort of organizations that have served the world for the last 65 years: The UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.
It's an excellent idea, especially given the myriad enforcement problems associated with any future climate change treaty, including the ones I mentioned yesterday. Gresser is wise, however, not to assume that a GEO will solve every international environmental problem, but it could ease the process by which countries deal with them.

One other virtue of a GEO, separate from the other major international institutions, is that it could help win some legitimacy in the eyes of developing countries for vigorously reducing carbon emissions on their part. Consider a second-best alternative to a GEO, namely adding environmental policy to the portfolio of existing successful institutions -- the WTO would handle climate-related trade policy, the World Bank would help with financing clean energy technology and adaptation programs (moreso than it already does, at least), etc. Developing countries, however, tend to have a strong distrust of those bodies, which they consider to be disposed against their interests; would they accept WTO rulings upholding carbon tariffs, say? This is already playing out in the negotiations in Bangkok over a new climate fund for developing countries: The US had wanted, among other things, for the fund to be administered by the World Bank, which was flatly opposed by the developing country bloc. The US seems to be softening its position on this, however, but the debate shows how important it is for developing countries to feel that international institutions are on their side.

Of course, Gresser's GEO applies not only to climate change, but to all the existing environmental treaties, where enforcement has been, for the most part, abysmal. Even apart from climate change, I think it would be worthwhile to get some proper enforcement mechanisms in place for those treaties.

October 6, 2009

Feed the Tree

Recently, I've blogged about climate change (I know!), the rise of organized crime around the world, and the need for better governance, both in this country and abroad. So why not have a post that combines them all together?

From the Guardian:
Interpol, the world's leading policing agency, said this week that the chances were very high that criminal gangs would seek to take advantage of Redd [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation] schemes, which will be largely be based in corruption-prone African and Asian countries.

"Alarm bells are ringing. It is simply too big to monitor. The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up," said Peter Younger, Interpol environment crimes specialist and author of a new report for the World Bank on illegal forestry.

"Organised crime syndicates are eyeing the nascent forest carbon market. I will report to the bank that Redd schemes are open to wide abuse," he said.
I'm not as knowledgeable about the details of REDD as I am about other aspects of carbon markets, but as with other carbon offset programs, there are serious questions about how to monitor and verify that reforestation and anti-deforestation projects are resulting in actual, permanent emissions reductions. That said, it's important to separate the question of the value of REDD in itself from the question of corruption and organized crime in countries where REDD projects are likely to be concentrated. It should go without saying that stable governance that is free from corruption is a good thing in itself; but it also has the side benefit of making it easier for developed and developing countries to cooperate on matters of global import, like climate change. This is one instance where it's helpful to break out of the policy silo mindset, which is all too easy to slip into.

At the same time, we in the West can't wave a magic wand and wipe out all the criminality and corruption in places like, say, Indonesia (which cleared 28.1 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2005 and in 2008 was rated 126 on Transparency International's Corruption Index). We can, however, insist on high standards of quality for international offsets of all types, including REDD, thereby creating incentives for countries generating offset credits to root out fraud. Let us hope, then, that the offset provisions in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill in the Senate are preserved.

October 3, 2009

The Genealogy of Netiquette

Trolling through the public waves on Google Wave is a fascinating experience; there's a freewheeling atmosphere to it reminiscent of the early days of the Web. It won't last, I fear, once it's opened up to the public: Right now the community of Wave users is small enough and homogeneous enough (i.e., conscientious tech-savvy folk) that one could drop in on any of the public waves, like a BBS or chat room, and participate meaningfully in the conversation. When the spammers, the trolls, the flamewar-mongers, and all the other riffraff of the Net are allowed in, public waves won't be nearly as fun.

That's why I'm transfixed by the discussions attempting to outline what the rules of etiquette for Google Wave should be. (As it turns out, the main topic of discussion on Google Wave is... how to use Google Wave.) Some have suggested importing rules of behavior from other venues, including BBS, chat rooms, wikis, etc.; but I suspect that, though Google Wave incorporates a lot of other web media, its users will have to evolve new forms of etiquette to make it a worthwhile experience. For example, what does it mean to have personal or colloquial forms of communication (e.g., IM or blog comments) subject to editing by other users, as in wikis? Who can be said to be the owner or person in control of a wave, if those terms have any meaning in this case at all? What is the rule for deciding if a person should be included in a wave, given that one can anyone can add any of their contacts to a wave without their permission? The process by which these questions are answered will no doubt be messy, but I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

October 2, 2009

Friday Video

This got a lot of play last week, but it's worth viewing often: Time-lapse photography of glaciers melting at rates much faster than models from even a few years ago were predicting:

First Impressions of Google Wave

I got an invite from my brother, who was one of the elect 100,000 who got the first round of invites from Google. At first, it was exciting -- I get to be one of the first to experience the next revolution in technology! -- but the first question I had, once I got a look at all the features, was: So what am I supposed to do with it?

To be sure, I can certainly see how Wave could become huge: It really does integrate email, IM, online collaboration à la Google Docs, and no doubt many other things into a seamless whole. (I especially like how it devises a viable alternative to Evite.) The proof, however, will come when many other people -- and especially those whom you work with and socialize with -- start using it as well. Right now it's merely a curiosity, not an email or IM killer.

It's also buggy as hell: I tried using the Bloggy Wave robot to write this post and wound up losing the whole thing. It's just as well: Turns out Bloggy only sends waves to a special wave blog, not existing ones. Nevertheless, Wave shows a lot of promise, as the folks at Lifehacker demonstrate.

September 30, 2009

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

If I trafficked in Grand Unified Theories of anything, I'd probably start with the argument that the tobacco industry is the true cause of all that is wrong with America. It's been established, for example, that Big Tobacco created the myth that Rachel Carson's advocacy against overuse of DDT was directly responsible for millions of malaria-related deaths in Africa and Asia. In turn, the intellectual infrastructure it developed -- both for the DDT myth and for defending tobacco itself -- became an essential part of the campaign to obfuscate the evidence for global warming, and indeed, an essential part of the right-wing think tank universe.

Now it appears that the tobacco industry had a hand in deep-sixing health care reform in the early 1990s, in part through collaborating with Betsy McCaughey on her infamous smear job of President Clinton's plan. There appears to be some ambiguity about the exact nature of the collaboration, but at the least it seems that McCaughey, while writing "No Exit", was receiving input from tobacco lobbyists -- who were helping to orchestrate a right-wing media blitz against the Clinton plan.

Now obviously there's a lot more to recent political history than just Big Tobacco, but it is rather surprising how much influence the industry has had on the growth of sophistry and bullshit in Washington in the last few decades.

September 25, 2009

Friday Video

Misha Glenny discusses the rise of organized crime in the post-Cold War era:

September 24, 2009

More on China

1. Joe Romm tracks down what appears to be the basis for Lord Stern's argument about China and its per capita emissions: A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Sharing Global CO2 Emission Reductions Among One Billion High Emitters":
We present a framework for allocating a global carbon reduction target among nations, in which the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” refers to the emissions of individuals instead of nations. We use the income distribution of a country to estimate how its fossil fuel CO2 emissions are distributed among its citizens, from which we build up a global CO2 distribution. We then propose a simple rule to derive a universal cap on global individual emissions and find corresponding limits on national aggregate emissions from this cap. All of the world’s high CO2-emitting individuals are treated the same, regardless of where they live. Any future global emission goal (target and time frame) can be converted into national reduction targets, which are determined by “Business as Usual” projections of national carbon emissions and in-country income distributions. For example, reducing projected global emissions in 2030 by 13 GtCO2 would require the engagement of 1.13 billion high emitters, roughly equally distributed in 4 regions: the U.S., the OECD minus the U.S., China, and the non-OECD minus China. We also modify our methodology to place a floor on emissions of the world’s lowest CO2 emitters and demonstrate that climate mitigation and alleviation of extreme poverty are largely decoupled.
We tend to see the idea of per capita emissions used by developing countries as a way of showing how much more carbon-intensive is the lifestyle of the average Westerner, but this paper turns that on its head: if per capita emissions are what matters, then we should target the highest-polluting populations, regardless of where in the world they live.

2. To clarify my last post on this subject, I certainly think China deserves more credit for its efforts on clean energy than it's received thus far. But I agree with Christina Larson that China is benefiting on the world stage from the US being mostly MIA on the climate crisis for the last decade; getting a climate bill through the Senate will, if nothing else, remove the US as the big villain and force all countries to look more seriously at they are doing to address climate change.

3. It would be interesting to compare different regions or cities around the world by their per capita emissions, but the data doesn't seem to be readily available. Anybody know where to look?

Top Chef 6.6: Deconstructing Ron

Some random points:

1. I'm not sure I totally get the deconstruction trend in haute cuisine; even chefs, on this last episode and in previous episodes of Top Chef, often mess up when trying to do a deconstruction of a dish. (Ron, who was sent home last night, seemed particularly clueless.) I think this is one of those instances where simply seeing the food and watching people react isn't enough; you have to actually taste it for yourself to see how the deconstruction works.

2. Toby Young's return was not particularly welcome; who would ever pronounce "paella" like it rhymes with "Stella"? That said, he seems be less snide than he was last season. Also: Where did Gail run off to?

3. The gap between the front-runners and the rest is becoming enormous, more so than in any other season. Ash, Laurine, and Robin don't look like they'll be around much longer. Ashley and Mike I. have some talent, but have had some serious execution problems. Even so, the general level of talent seems to be vastly above that of last season; there's no way someone like Hosea would still be in contention by now, much less win it all.

September 23, 2009

China and Per Capita Emissions

Nicholas Stern recently made waves by arguing that, while China as a country has a low level of per capita carbon emissions, the picture changes when you look at emissions at the provincial level:
[T]he British author of an acclaimed review on climate change told students in Beijing’s People’s University that 13 Chinese provinces, regions and cities had higher per capita emissions than France. Six also overtook Britain.

“There are many parts of China where emissions intensity and emissions per capita are looking much like some of the richer countries in Europe,” he said in a speech that laid out his predictions on global warming.
I had that in mind as I was reading the speeches that President Obama and President Hu Jintao of China gave at the UN climate change summit yesterday. While neither one gave many specifics about how their respective countries plan to address climate change, they were clearly staking opposite points on the question of developing countries and carbon emissions. Obama, while acknowledging that developed countries must take the lead on climate change, no doubt ruffled some Chinese feathers by including the PRC in that group.

Here's the key graf:
We must also energize our efforts to put other developing nations – especially the poorest and most vulnerable – on a path to sustainable growth. These nations do not have the same resources to combat climate change as countries like the United States or China do, but they have the most immediate stake in a solution. For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet – famine and drought; disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources. Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both. It will do little good to alleviate poverty if you can no longer harvest your crops or find drinkable water.
Hu, for his part, reiterated the standard Chinese position of aggressively pursuing clean energy development and reducing energy intensity, while refusing to agree to mandatory reductions in carbon emissions. Once again, we see the Chinese appeal to common but differentiated responsibility in defining the terms of the climate debate -- with the implication that China rightfully belongs in the group of countries with fewer responsibilities.

Lord Stern's argument about per capita emissions in China, however, reminds us that a country-level perspective on responsibility for mitigating climate change may give an inaccurate picture of where things stand. That is, China wants to present itself as a developing country, free from obligations to reduce carbon emissions and deserving of aid from developed countries to develop cleaner sources of energy. But the parts of China that have been growing the most are the parts that now have per capita carbon emissions that match those of developed countries.

On the other hand, it's not clear how much value that insight has, at least as far as international negotiations on climate change are concerned. I actually wrote about sub-national climate change policies in grad school, and one thing I took away from that experience was that there's good reason sub-national political units (states, provinces, cities, etc.) are excluded from conducting foreign policy: Focusing on them tends to be a distraction. How far could the US get, say, by pointing out that parts of China have higher per capita emissions than Britain or France? Not very, I would think. There are currently multi-state climate agreements covering nearly half of the country, yet that doesn't get the US off the hook for developing a national climate change policy.

Ultimately, how one takes Lord Stern's argument depends on whether one favors a carrots approach or a sticks approach to dealing with China. The former will appreciate China's continued need for economic development, praise its fairly considerable efforts so far on developing a clean energy economy, and encourage it to move further in that direction; the latter will try to cajole China into taking more seriously its contribution to the climate crisis, and maybe even do something drastic, like impose a carbon tariff, to bring them into line. At the moment, I admit I find myself torn between the two approaches.

September 21, 2009

Waxman-Markey and Cost-Benefit Analysis

I just got around to reading the Institute for Policy Integrity's new report (PDF) that does a cost-benefit analysis of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, with an eye toward emphasizing the benefits of the legislation as much as the costs. To date, the major studies of W-M, including those from the CBO, EPA, and EIA, have shown that the costs of reducing carbon emissions under the bill would be eminently affordable, with the average cost per household being in the range of less than a hundred to a couple hundred dollars per year. Even so, those studies haven't included the benefits of reducing carbon emissions -- that is, the value that less global warming would have for Americans and for the world. This is what the IPI report does include, working from a federal interagency task force's estimate that the social cost of carbon (SCC), or the marginal benefit to reducing emissions, is about $19/tCO2. From this, the IPI report shows that W-M would produce about $1.5 trillion in benefits from 2012 to 2050, while costing about $660 billion over the same period; in other words, it would produce $2.27 in benefits for every dollar spent.

It's an excellent report, one that addresses a critical, and much under-discussed, aspect of dealing with climate change. At the same time, as I was reading it, I was reminded that cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is an incredibly difficult task, as one's choice of assumptions can produce vastly different results. For example, simply changing the discount rate used in IPI's analysis can change the benefits of W-M from as low as $400 billion to as high as $5.5 trillion.1 The SCC, meanwhile, is based on a global estimate of the benefits of carbon emissions reductions, while the costs of W-M are strictly national in scope. There are also several benefits not counted, including improved health and energy security. Each of these elements is, suffice to say, controversial, and CBA doesn't provide us with a tool for figuring out where to come down on these controversies: Often it's simply a matter of what can measured in monetary terms, regardless of its importance to the problem at hand.

In one sense, though, the debate over climate legislation boils down to dueling cost-benefit analyses: We must believe that decarbonizing our economy will make us better off than any other alternative; else why would we bother about climate change? And although CBA tends to be disparaged by environmentalists (often with good reason), it's an essential tool to making the case that climate legislation will be good for all of us; as Mark Kleiman recently said, all policy analysis is a kind of cost-benefit analysis.

If nothing else, knowing CBA will be useful in smacking down dishonest numbers from right-wing ideologues. Case in point: Declan McCullagh's breathless assertion that the Obama administration has "privately concluded" that cap-and-trade would cost each American household $1,761 a year. In reality, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (the folks who brought you "They call it pollution. We call it life") got hold of a US Treasury document that mentioned that the administration's proposed cap-and-trade plan would net $100-$200 billion a year in revenue from auctioning off all of its pollution permits. You'll recall that the administration also proposed rebating most of that revenue to taxpayers, in the form of the Making Work Pay tax credit. More importantly, you'll also recall that the Obama administration's plan isn't on the table anymore; Waxman-Markey is, and it only auctions off a small percentage of permits.

Facts, however, are stupid things, so McCullagh just takes the $200 billion number, divides it by the number of households in the US (roughly 113 million), and voila! A $1,761 a year tax hike, a new scary number to be endlessly repeated by the likes of John Boehner and Glenn Beck. I must say, it's pretty easy to do cost-benefit analysis if you just add up the costs; even easier if you grossly misrepresent one policy proposal in order to smear a completely different policy proposal. In such an environment, it's good to know that several reputable organizations have done more honest assessments, even if they aren't perfect.

Next up on my reading list: the new Congressional Research Service paper on the costs of climate legislation.

1 At some point in the future, I need to write about the philosophical arguments contained in CBA: How what one's choice of discount rate says about one's view of intergenerational justice, that sort of thing. The more I get into the weeds of CBA, the more I realize that there's a stronger connection between my undergraduate education and my graduate education than even I had previously known.

September 18, 2009

This Year's Model

I constantly fiddle with this blog's look (I've probably gone through a few dozen templates, at least). But I think I've settled on a look that I'll be keeping for a while. Blogger tends to be regarded as the red-headed stepchild of blogging platforms, and I have considered jumping to Wordpress or Textpattern; but with some tweaking, you can actually make Blogger do some nice things.

First, perhaps most importantly, is the template: the built-in Blogger templates offer very little in the way of customization, and most of the third-party templates aren't much better -- and tend to be poorly designed and juvenile-looking, to boot. One big exception is, which offers lots of professional-looking templates that can be customized in virtually every respect; the one I'm using, Newspaper, I like for being a simple, two-column, no-images design.

For specific inspiration, I looked to Wilson Miner's website, in particular the way he uses large font sizes to make things more readable, as well as the interplay he achieves between serif and sans-serif fonts. For the color scheme, I found this palette from a color website to be quite striking: blue tones and orange tones, of course, are complementary, and I've always liked the contrast between black (or nearly black), orange, and white. I think I also had in the back of my mind the cover to Penguin's Dictionary of Sociology:

Altogether, I'm pleased with how this blog looks now. Stability is seldom seen on the Internet, but I think this current design is a keeper.

September 16, 2009

Annals of Geoengineering

From io9:
A group of scientists have a radical idea for combating climate change: terraforming the Sahara Desert and replacing it with a lush forest.


The idea is to plant Eucalyptus Grandis, which survives well in heat, which would be watered using drip irrigation. The trio claim the trees would lower the Sahara's temperature by up to 8°C Celsius [sic] in some areas, bring clouds to reflect the sun's rays back into space, and capture eight billion tons of carbon each year.
The cost? $2 trillion a year. That translates to about $68/tCO2.1 So, expensive, but not outrageously so; certainly it would be more cost-effective than the late Cash for Clunkers program. But then, as is often the case with geoengineering, there are the side effects:
[T]he forest would also likely prevent iron-rich dust from the sands from blowing into the Atlantic Ocean, iron that nourishes marine life. And the increased moisture could bring a plague of locusts down on not just the Sahara, but the rest of Africa as well.
This is why I'm often puzzled when geoengineering is proposed as an alternative to reducing carbon emissions, as opposed to an adjunct to it: Most of these schemes have side effects that tend to be as bad as if we just did nothing about climate change. On the other hand, if iron depletion of the oceans does become an issue, we can always dump more in -- which turns out to be another, and equally dubious, geoengineering plan.

1 $2 trillion/(8 billion tC * 3.67) = $68.12/tCO2.

September 14, 2009

The Liberal Arts, Digitized

My alma mater, like other liberal arts schools, is facing falling applications and enrollment this year, due to the recession. More troubling is the apparent difficulty that students, and liberal arts colleges in general, are having in convincing the skeptical that a liberal education is worth pursuing. It's always been tough, but this year especially so: Given the anxiety of both students and parents, it's no surprise gaining "in-demand" training is at the forefront of their minds.

For some reason, I find myself juxtaposing this story with the recent spate of articles contending that the rise of online education will prove as devastating to the university system as the rise of online media has to the journalism business. At the most risk are big public schools that rely on freshmen taking required introductory courses to subsidize the rest of the institution, as well as private colleges that don't have built-in prestige, like the Ivies, or offer some sui generis experience, like St. John's.

Assuming such a state of affairs comes to pass (the accreditation process is a barrier to entry in education unlikely to be brought down anytime soon), is it plausible that there will still be demand for small liberal arts colleges? Or, put differently, what would an all-online liberal education program look like? I have in my mind the image of a really erudite message board, not unlike Ask Metafilter or the xkcd forum. That may just be my nostalgia talking, though: Discussion-based classes are hard to any situation, harder still when working through often difficult material, and especially hard when a group of 18-to-22-year-olds are doing most of the talking.

Still, the process of replicating online the St. John's experience would be rather interesting. Most of the books are available for free online already -- although for the better translations, you'd still need to buy a hard copy or e-book. It'd be pretty easy to do the language tutorials, at least; maybe for the Freshman and Sophomore math tutorials you could post instructions on how to build your own Ptolemy Stone. Students could cut MP3s of their compositions in the Aeolian or Mixolydian modes, or listen to clips of the St. Matthew Passion and offer their commentaries on them.

But while you could probably replicate the course content online, the connective tissue of a liberal education, what makes it unique, would be missing: i.e., the process of discussion and self-examination, what I've heard called the "one long conversation." There's a reason why St. John's and other liberal arts schools are deliberately small: A liberal education isn't merely about reading books or solving equations, but about being part of a community of learners. I want to believe that an online community could do the same thing (see above), but I'm not yet convinced.

One other thing: At St. John's, professors are called tutors and are meant to guide discussions, while letting the students do most of the talking. Would this mean that, in an online version of St. John's, tutors would essentially be glorified forum moderators?

September 11, 2009

September 10, 2009

Top Chef 6.4: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

This season, as with most of the other seasons, a divide is emerging between the contestants who have some sort of background in or affinity for French cuisine, and those who don't -- with the latter usually ending up at the back of the pack. Hector, who packed his knives and went last night, was an obvious example: Latin-American food was essentially all he knew, and he seemed to flounder when asked to do something outside of that milieu. Meanwhile, Jennifer, Kevin, and the Voltaggio brothers, who all appear to have Francophilic tendencies, are consistently at the top. Occasionally you get some outliers (Ilan from Season 2 specialized in Spanish cuisine, and won); and French cooking experience doesn't automatically mean you'll excel (Ron boasted of his French background, and Mattin is actually French, but neither did well in the last challenge); but generally it seems to be the case that knowing and appreciating French cuisine is a prerequisite to doing well on Top Chef.

But why is this? Is it just culinary imperialism, or is it that, as Michael Ruhlman once wrote:
[The fundamentals of cooking] may have been best categorized and explained by French cooks beginning hundreds of years ago, [but] these fundamentals apply to every kind of cooking there is, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Asian, because food behaves the same in one country as it does in another.
That's my sense as well, based on my (admittedly limited) cooking experience. Once you figure out how to make a béchamel sauce, for example, you can do virtually any cream-based dish, from macaroni and cheese to chicken korma. And it may be that being able to see past specific dishes to the forms that they embody (how very Platonic!) is the mark of a great chef. I've noticed that self-taught cooks don't do very well on Top Chef, and it may be that lack of theoretical training that holds them back.