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 Ourblogtemplates.com, 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 b├ęchamel 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.

September 9, 2009

The Political Tipping Point for Cap-and-Trade

So a recent poll found that about 60% of Americans support a cap-and-trade program to reduce global warming, even if it meant that their monthly electric bills went up by $10; but if they went up by $25, then about 60% of Americans would oppose cap-and-trade. This naturally raises the question: What would the price of carbon emissions have to be in order to raise the average American's electric bill by those amounts -- that is, what is the effective ceiling for the price of carbon emissions, after which support collapses?

First, let's lay out some facts. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 the average American household consumed 936 kWh (3.19 million BTU) of electricity per month, which, at an average retail price of ¢10.65/kWh, translates to an average monthly bill of $99.70. Now, of the sources of electricity that come from fossil fuels, about 49.9% comes from coal, 20.3% from natural gas, 1.2% from petroleum liquids (e.g., fuel oil and kerosene), 0.4% from petroleum coke, and 0.1% from other sources (e.g., propane).1 Let's assume, for the sake of this exercise, that our average American household receives electricity from all possible sources, and in exactly the proportions listed here. (I'm not listing other sources like nuclear and hydro, as they obviously have no carbon emissions.)

We also have to consider the specific carbon content of each of these fuels; some are dirtier than others. EIA provides a handy table for this, from which I present the emission coefficients for the five types of fossil fuels just mentioned:
Coal:2 215.2 lbsCO2/MBTU
Natural Gas: 117.08
Petroleum Liquids:3 162.77
Petroleum Coke: 225.13
Other Gases:4 132.98
Now, with all that laid out, let's do some number crunching. Factoring the consumption proportions above into our hypothetical average American's monthly electricity consumption, we get this:
Coal: 0.499 * 3.19 = 1.59 MBTU
Natural Gas: 0.203 * 3.19 = 0.65
Petroleum Liquids: 0.012 * 3.19 = 0.04
Petroleum Coke: 0.004 * 3.19 = 0.013
Other Gases: 0.001 * 3.19 = 0.003
That divvies up the fossil fuel portion of our hypothetical average American's electricity consumption. Now we find out how many carbon emissions that produces:
Coal: 215.2 * 1.55 = 342.17 lbs
Natural Gas: 117.08 * 0.65 = 76.1
Petroleum Liquids: 162.77 * 0.04 = 6.51
Petroleum Coke: 225.13 * 0.013 = 2.93
Other Gases: 132.98 * 0.001 = 0.13
All told, that's about 428 lbs of CO2. Next, we do the same thing we did before with consumption, only now with the money spent on electricity:
Coal: 0.499 * $99.70 = $49.75
Natural Gas: 0.203 * $99.70 = $20.24
Petroleum Liquids: 0.012 * $99.70 = $1.20
Petroleum Coke: 0.004 * $99.70 = $0.40
Other Gases: 0.001 * $99.70 = $0.10
That totals $71.69. If we divide this set of numbers by the last set, we get ratios which, when multiplied by 2,000 lbs, gives us the price per ton of CO2 for each of these fuels. Now we can attempt to answer our original question, so let us ask what would happen if we set a surcharge on carbon emissions in the following amounts (note that these figures are the portions of our hypothetical average American household's bill spent on the various fuels):

$25/tCO2$50$75$100$125
Coal$54.03$58.30$62.58$66.86$71.14
Natural Gas$21.19$22.14$23.09$24.05$25.00
Petroleum Liquids$1.28$1.36$1.44$1.53$1.61
Petroleum Coke$0.44$0.51$0.47$0.55$0.58
Other Gases$0.10$0.10$0.10$0.11$0.11
Total$77.04$82.39$87.73$93.08$98.43
Addition to Bill$5.35$10.70$16.04$21.39$26.74

I'll have to go back to get the exact prices that correspond with the increases cited in the poll, but the results seem pretty clear: It seems the price of carbon emissions could go up to $50/tCO2, and a strong majority of Americans, according to the poll, would still support a cap-and-trade plan; it would have to go over $75/tCO2 to raise bills by $17.50, where we might expect opinion to flip from support to opposition; and it would have to go well over $100/tCO2 in order for Americans to turn firmly against cap-and-trade. To put things in perspective, the initial price of carbon emissions under the Waxman-Markey bill is expected to be around $15/tCO2.

Keep in mind, however, that there are a lot of heroic assumptions being made here: For one, the proportions for fossil fuel consumption are going to vary significantly for actual households, rather than hypothetical ones, based on where one lives; some places are going to be more carbon-intensive than others. I'm also assuming that the introduction of a price on carbon emissions will result in no transition from fossil fuels to alternatives: Were the price to go permanently from $0 to $25/tCO2, say, or $25 to $50, it would be ridiculous to believe that that wouldn't spur more investment in nuclear, hydro, efficiency measures, or renewables, or fuel-switching from coal to natural gas. And of course, one should never invest too much in a single poll.

I welcome any comments or corrections to my analysis here; I'm pretty sure someone has done this already for an older version of this poll, but I couldn't find it on the web.

1 Sources: here and here, data from 2007 -- I'm basically subtracting out the commercial and industrial sectors in calculating these proportions.
2 Average of carbon content for Anthracite, Bituminous, Sub-Bituminous, and Lignite.
3 Average of carbon content for kerosene, distillate fuel oil, residual fuel oil, and jet fuel. Not sure how the latter is used to make electricity, though. It may just be the way EIA classifies it: Jet fuel may be a petroleum liquid, and petroleum liquids are used to make electricity, but that doesn't mean jet fuel is used to make electricity -- not to my knowledge, anyway. I considered leaving it out, but I doubt doing that would change the final analysis much.
4 Average of propane, flare gas, and LPG. Again, I may have screwed up here in calculating an average carbon content -- this is the Other category, after all. But again, any adjustments would likely have no effect on the final analysis.

September 2, 2009

The Course of Climate Legislation, in Graphs

Generally, it's wise to take prediction markets with a few grains of salt. But I think the Intrade graph of the probability of a cap-and-trade program being enacted by the end of 2010 tracks fairly well how climate legislation has fared thus far:


As you can see, it dips sharply in May, when it looked like Waxman-Markey might not get out of Energy and Commerce, then gets better and better, until it passes in late June and briefly crosses 50. Then nothing for a while, then the Senate delays until September, and just recently delays indefinitely -- and it tumbles.

For comparison's sake, here's the graph for the contract saying cap-and-trade will be enacted by the end of 2009:


Its activity isn't terribly different from the 2010 contract, though note that it starts to decline in mid-July, rather than mid-August. A sign, perhaps, that the health care debate was crowding out any chance of climate change legislation being acted upon this year?