Guilford Harbor

Post-election reality and what that might mean for our common future

November 3rd, 2010

Lots of interesting analysis in the wake of yesterday’s elections, including some surveying the dynamic political landscape and what this means for the country’s ability to deal with crises including jobs, energy, and climate.

Some have suggested that the large Republican shift in 2010 is a (over)correction of the large Democratic (over)correction in 2008.  Like a water hose flailing wildly back and forth out of control, does this portend increasingly variable election cycles going forward as people become more-and-more frustrated with the inability of the federal government to confront problems?

John Judis at The New Republic offers this:

Does losing over 60 House seats and as many as eight Senate seats simply make this a below average outcome, or did something much more serious and significant happen in yesterday’s election?

Republicans might say it’s the re-emergence of a conservative Republican majority, but that’s not really what happened. What this election suggests to me is that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced. America emerged from the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, World War I, and the Great Depression and World War II stronger than ever—with a more buoyant economy and greater international standing. A large part of the reason was the political system’s ability to provide the leadership the country needed. But what this election suggests to me is that this may no longer be the case.

…Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America’s challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that can produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries require government coordination and subsidies. But the new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of industrial policy. They even oppose Obama’s obviously successful auto bailout.

Instead, when America finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country in trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public; boarded-up factories; and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These continuing trade deficits, combined with budget deficits, will finally reduce confidence in the dollar to the point where it ceases to be a viable international currency.

The election results will also put an end to the Obama administration’s attempt to reach an international climate accord. It will cripple its ability to adopt domestic limits on carbon emissions. The election could also doom Obama’s one substantial foreign policy achievement—the arms treaty it signed with Russia that still awaits Senate confirmation.

…[I]f I am right about the fundamental problems that this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician’s or political party’s victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan.

Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate. From 1950 to 1970, Japan had six prime ministers. It has had 14 from 1990 to the present, and six from 2005 to the present. That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.

[L]ike Japan, we’ve had a succession of false dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an “unstable equilibrium.” That’s not good for party loyalists, but it’s also not good for the country. America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us out of the impasse we are in, but if this election says anything, it’s that we’re not going to get it over the next two or maybe even ten years.

Just add water…

November 1st, 2010

An amazing night-time photo from the International Space Station showing how human settlement along the Nile River and Delta stand out against the Sahara Desert (shot by Astronaut Doug Wheelock). Click here for a larger image.

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Courtesy of EMP via Gizmodo via Astro_Wheels via defcon_5

The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…

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Is “humanely slaughtered” the next best thing in industrial meat production?

October 21st, 2010

William Neuman’s article in today’s NY Times, Helping chickens go calmly to slaughter, raises interesting questions about how we produce poultry in the U.S. and the shift to more humane practices of meat production:

Two premium chicken producers, Bell & Evans in Pennsylvania and Mary’s Chickens in California, are preparing to switch to a system of killing their birds that they consider more humane. The new system uses carbon dioxide gas to gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.

…Anglia Autoflow, the company that is building the knock-out systems for the two processors, calls the process “controlled atmosphere stunning” but Mr. Pitman said his company is considering the phrase “sedation stunning” for use on its packages. Also on the short-list: “humanely slaughtered,” “humanely processed” or “humanely handled.”

…Mr. Sechler said the system he chose, after years of research, was better than similar gas-stunning systems currently used in Europe. Those systems, he says, often deprive birds of oxygen too quickly, which may cause them to suffer. They are also designed to kill the birds rather than simply knock them out, something that Mr. Sechler is not comfortable with.

“I don’t want the public to say we gas our chickens,” he said.

Animal suffering during slaughter has long been a criticism of animal welfare ethicists and activists.  So does this new approach help allay some of those concerns?

…The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been pushing chicken processors for years to switch to gas stunning systems, in part because it doesn’t believe that [commonly used method of] electrical stunning works.

How big of an impact will these two companies have on total poultry production?

Bell & Evans said it would begin selling chickens slaughtered using the new technology in April. The company, which processes about 840,000 birds a week, distributes its chickens nationwide.

Mary’s, which distributes in several Western states, expects to install the technology in June. The company processes about 200,000 birds a week.

By comparison, a single plant run by a large processor like Tyson Foods may handle more than 1 million birds a week.

As Michael Pollan and others have demonstrated in earlier essays, maximizing food production at a minimal cost is a primary reason why the current mode of industrial agriculture evolved.  Farmers will tell you that humane treatment adds cost to their products, making them more difficult to sell if customers only care about cheap food.  What’s the prospect of winning hearts, minds, and stomachs here?

The gas technology is expensive. Each company said it would cost about $3 million to convert their operations and more over time to run the systems. That makes it a hard sell in a commodity-oriented industry that relies on huge volumes and low costs to turn narrow margins into profits.

Mr. Sechler predicted that consumers would come to demand birds slaughtered in the new way, which would force the industry to gradually switch over.

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Photo credit: antiguan_life

Civic education and climate change

October 20th, 2010

Matt Nisbet has an excellent new post, Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?, highlighting some of the next-generation approaches to helping people engage climate change.

Related posts:

Why don’t people engage climate change?

Lessons learned on energy and the oil spill?

October 20th, 2010

In his latest blog post in Time Magazine, Bryan Walsh laments the fact that—6 months after the Gulf Oil Spill— it appears no lessons have been learned:

…We all wanted to find the “lessons of the spill”—even while the oil was still flowing. (Look back at that first story I did—it was written during the first week of May, more than 2 months before BP’s blown well was capped.) But we haven’t gotten smarter since the spill. We’ve gotten stupider.

…It’s now six months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and it’s safe to say that the BP spill will not be remembered as the modern green movement’s march on Washington. Climate legislation is dead in the Senate, and if the midterm polls are accurate, next year’s Congress will be even less inclined to act on global warming—or even believe it. President Obama—under constant pressure from the same Gulf Coast states that were drenched in oil—lifted his moratorium on deepwater drilling earlier this month, before the initial deadline of Nov. 30 and before investigations into the true cause of the accident were complete. The government response to the disaster, while heroic at times, was deeply problematic, with evidence that Washington kept the public in the dark for weeks about the true size of the spill. The response on the ground was marred by obstructionism on the part of BP, to the point where off-duty cops in Louisiana seemed to be acting as hired muscle for the oil company that—let’s not forget—was chiefly responsible for spill in the first place. The legacy is a climate of distrust and paranoia in the Gulf—academic researchers and government scientists quarreling over underwater oil, conspiracy theories about BP burning sea animals, and anger along the Gulf coast among those who feel they’ve been left behind, as the rest of the country has moved on.

Forget energy reform—the biggest change in the Gulf seems to be the flood of money from BP, as part of its $20 billion promise to “make this right,” as former CEO Tony Hayward put it.

…It’s not exactly a clean energy revolution.

None of this is surprising.  It’s what I predicted at the beginning:

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CO2 is the biggest climate control knob

October 14th, 2010

At the 2009 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, renowned climate scientist Richard Alley (Penn State) gave a keynote address, The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon dioxide in Earth’s Climate History, in which he used a variety of paleoclimatological proxy data to show how CO2 changes over much of Earth history have exerted a strong influence on global temperatures.

In this week’s issue of Science, Andrew Lacis and colleagues published an article, Atmospheric CO2: Principal control knob governing Earth’s temperature (abstract only; subscription required), following up on this theme.  Unlike Alley’s talk, which mainly focused on the role of CO2, this team starts by going after water vapor and confronting a widely held perception that it is the dominant greenhouse gas:

It often is stated that water vapor is the chief greenhouse gas (GHG) in the atmosphere. For example, it has been asserted that “about 98% of the natural greenhouse effect is due to water vapour and stratiform clouds with CO2 contributing less than 2%”. If true, this would imply that changes in atmospheric CO2 are not important influences on the natural greenhouse capacity of Earth, and that the continuing increase in CO2 due to human activity is therefore not relevant to climate change. This misunderstanding is resolved through simple examination of the terrestrial greenhouse.

Water vapor is a main reason why the world has a pleasant and life-sustaining average temperature of 16 degrees C.  Based on the distance of Earth from the Sun, physics tells us that Earth should be about 0 degrees C—a giant snowball hurling through space.  The reason why we are warmer than this is because of the natural envelope of greenhouse gases, including water and CO2 that absorb longwave heat radiating from the surface.  This warms the surface of the planet just like a thick blanket keeps your body heat near your skin on a cold night.

In round numbers, water vapor accounts for about 50% of Earth’s greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing 25%, CO2 20%, and the minor GHGs and aerosols accounting for the remaining 5%.

So water vapor and clouds make up about 75% of the greenhouse effect, which sounds like the definition of “the dominant greenhouse gas” to most of us.  How does one show that CO2 really is more important than water vapor as a primary greenhouse gas driving temperature change when it looks like water is so important?

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The ultimate cause of social disparity in preventative health behavior may be rooted in environmental harm

October 13th, 2010

In a fascinating new article in PLOS One (open access), Daniel Nettle asks why we see social gradients in preventative health behaviors:

People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to smoke more, exercise less, have poorer diets, comply less well with therapy, use medical services less, adopt fewer safety measures, ignore health advice more, and be less health-conscious overall, than their more affluent peers. Some of these behaviors can simply be put down to financial constraints, as healthy diets, for example, cost more than unhealthy ones, but socioeconomic gradients are found even where the health behaviors in question would cost nothing, ruling out income differences as the explanation.

As we often assume with environmental or nutritional issues, maybe simply helping to better educate people is all that’s needed? Probably not, as Nettle points out, and with an interesting twist:

Socioeconomic gradients in health behavior are not easily abolished by providing more information. Informational health campaigns tend to lead to greater voluntary behavior change in people of higher socio-economic position, and thus can actually increase socioeconomic inequalities in health, even whilst improving health overall. Thus, we are struck with what we might call the exacerbatory dynamic of poverty: the people in society who face the greatest structural adversity, far from mitigating this by their lifestyles, behave in such ways as to make it worse, even when they are provided with the opportunity to do otherwise.

What are some of the possible explanations for this pattern, and are they sufficient?

Underlying socioeconomic differences in health behavior are differences in attitudinal and psychological variables. People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to be more pessimistic, have stronger beliefs in the influence of chance on health, and give a greater weighting to present over future outcomes, than people of higher socioeconomic position. These explanations seem clear.

However, they immediately raise the deeper question: why should pessimism, belief in chance, and short time perspective be found more in people of low socioeconomic position than those of high socioeconomic position? These deeper questions are at the level which behavioral ecologists call ultimate, as opposed to proximate causation

To develop more of an ultimate explanation, Nettle hypothesized that lower socioeconomic groups are subject to greater hazard or environmental harm or even simply the perception of living a more hazardous life.  This, in turn, discourages healthy behavior.

To test this hypothesis, he developed a mathematical/statistical model predicting the probability of dying in a given year, which is a combination of extrinsic risks that people cannot control as well as intrinsic risks that they can control through modified health behavior.   Thus, people choosing to take the time to engage healthier opportunities reduce their mortality risk.  Now there’s a tradeoff, however, because the more time people choose to undertake healthy behavior, the less time is left over for leisure activities and other life events.

Overall survival is therefore a combination of all of these factors, which can easily be modeled by assuming a range of values for time spent on health vs. other activities to see what kinds of mortality outcomes arise.

Here are the interesting results he found…

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NYTimes: A climate proposal beyond cap and trade

October 13th, 2010

In the wake of Ryan Lizza’s provocative piece, As the World Burns, published in the New Yorker last week comes a renewed call by folks like Shellenberger and Nordhaus emphasizing the need to make clean energy cheap rather than dirty energy expensive.

See the latest in today’s NY Times.

Related posts:

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New analysis of population trends and their impact on global greenhouse gas emissions

October 12th, 2010

In 40 years, there will be about 3 billion additional people living on the Earth (~9.5 billion total).   With all of these new folks, it’s easy to think about the added demands of energy, food, and water required to sustain their lifestyles.  And in terms of climate warming, it’s hard to escape the fact that significantly greater energy consumption will lead to rising rates of carbon emissions, unless there’s a shift to decarbonize the economy.

In this week’s early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Brian O’Neill and colleagues note that emissions are not just controlled by the sheer size of the human population but also by important demographic changes.

For example, how might an aging or more urban population affect emissions?  How about changes in household size?  Modelers of carbon emissions don’t usually ask these kinds of questions, so the conventionally projected emissions might be off if these additional demographic details matter.

The researchers developed a global economic model (Population-Environment-Technology, or PET) in which they specified relationships between demographic factors like houshold size, age, and urban/rural residency and economic factors like the demand for consumer goods, wealth, and the supply of labor.  Here’s a bit more on how this works:

In the PET model, households can affect emissions either directly through their consumption patterns or indirectly through their effects on economic growth in ways that up until now have not been explicitly accounted for in emissions models. The direct effect on emissions is represented by disaggregating household consumption for each household type into four categories of goods (energy, food, transport, and other) so that shifts in the composition of the population by household type produce shifts in the aggregate mix of goods demanded. Because different goods have different energy intensities of production, these shifts can lead to changes in emissions rates. To represent indirect effects on emissions through economic growth, the PET model
explicitly accounts for the effect of (i) population growth rates on economic growth rates, (ii) age structure changes on labor supply, (iii) urbanization on labor productivity, and (iv) anticipated demographic change (and its economic effects) on savings and consumption behavior.

Although there are some exceptions, households that are older, larger, or more rural tend to have lower per capita labor supply than those that are younger, smaller, or more urban. Lower-income households (e.g., rural households in developing countries) spend a larger share of income on food and a smaller share on transportation than higher-income households. Although labor supply and preferences can be influenced by a range of nondemographic factors, our scenarios focus on capturing the effects of shifts in population across types of households.

To project these demographic trends, we use the high, medium, and low scenarios of the United Nations (UN) 2003 Long-Range World Population Projections combined with the UN 2007 Urbanization Prospects extended by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and derive population by age, sex, and rural/urban residence for the period of 2000–2100.

What did they find?

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