Friday, April 11, 2014

Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change is a Risk Management Problem

The following video of the late Stephen Schneider speaking before the Commonwealth Club is from Schneider's web site, Understanding and Solving the Climate Change Problem, Stanford University.

Schneider talks about the intersection of science and politics, and the difficulty of tackling a complex scientific subject like climate change in the charged atmosphere of today’s ideologically divided nation. He discusses such difficult questions as how uncertainty comes with the territory, what risks the changing climate poses to the global economy, and ways to approach solving the problem, especially in light of the well-funded disinformation campaign being waged by special interests.

Schneider says that policymakers should fund more research to invent our way to a cleaner future rather than betting so much on a cap-and-trade or carbon tax regime for carbon pollution. He believes the price of carbon should ultimately reflect the impact of spewing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, but recommends a realistic sequence for enacting climate policy. Schneider stresses that policy formulation is a risk management problem in which value judgements play a key role. As always, Schneider’s talk is alive with clarity and humor.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

The FEC loses 5 to 4, and so does government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Justice Breyer, summarized dissent for himself and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“Today the Court overrules Buckley and strikes down a similar ceiling [on overall contributions] as unconstitutional,” Breyer says. “The Court substitutes for the current two-year overall contribution ceiling of $123,000, the number infinity.”

“If the Court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate,” he says.
“Taken together with Citizens United, today’s holding, we fear, eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to support.”
Quid pro quo corruption is not the only danger, Breyer says. “The appearance of corruption accompanying multi-million dollar contributions can make matters worse. The public may come to believe that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose. And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.”

“We believe,” Breyer concludes, “that today’s decision substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress, fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone, overturns key precedent, creates serious loophole in the law, and undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

“With respect, we dissent,” he adds.


And so do we, but without the qualifier.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Who do you trust?

A former Halliburton manager pleaded guilty Tuesday October 15, 2013, to destroying evidence in the aftermath of the deadly rig explosion that spawned BP's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I was more than a little interested in the story. The manager's name was Anthony Badalamenti, similar to my surname, Badalamente. The name is of Sicilian origin, and in the south-eastern part of the island of Sicily, it is a name associated with the mafia.

But the main reason for my interest was Halliburton's association with the devastating spill, and its record of making sizable campaign contributions to congressional Republicans, such as Joe "Smokey Joe" Barton of Texas, known for their opposition to legislation to combat climate change.
Halliburton is, you may remember, the company that Dick Cheney ran before becoming George W. Bush's vice president. And it is the company that under Cheney, mislead investors about the company's asbestos liabilities. And the company that, when Cheney was VP, profited mightily from contracts it had with the Pentagon to supply services to the Iraq war effort -- no-bid contracts.

Halliburton was up to its waist in the corruption that plagued the BP oil spill. Another employee of Halliburton also deleted data from a separate round of simulations at the direction of Badalamenti, who, according to Halliburton, was acting without company authorization. Halliburton told prosecutors that efforts to recover the data weren't successful

Badalamenti wasn't the first individual charged with a crime stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but he is the first to plead guilty. A federal jury found former BP engineer Kurt Mix guilty on December 18 of obstruction of justice after prosecutors said he destroyed text and voice messages over oil spillage.

BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine are still awaiting trial on manslaughter charges stemming from the rig workers' deaths. Prosecutors claim Kaluza and Vidrine botched a key safety test and disregarded abnormally high pressure readings that were glaring signs of trouble before the April 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well. The blowout triggered an explosion that killed the 11 workers and led to millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

Former BP executive David Rainey is charged with concealing information from Congress about the amount of oil that was spewing from the blown-out well in 2010.
It was Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who famously apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for what he called a "White House shakedown" of BP when they were asked to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate the residents of the gulf for the devastation the sill caused.

But Barton's most shameless act came five years earlier, when on June 23, 2005, he sent a letter to the IPCC Chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement, and to the three scientists responsible for publishing climate reconstructions supporting the so-called Hockey Stick graph showing global warming, Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes, demanding that they provide not just data and methods, but also personal information about their finances and careers, information about grants provided to the institutions they had worked for, and the exact computer codes used to generate their results. The ensuing controversy enveloped the whole of the scientific community -- quick to rise to the defense not just of their colleagues, but to science itself. In fact, Barton's own congressional colleagues took him to task.

Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee, told his fellow Republican Joe Barton it was a "misguided and illegitimate investigation" into something that should properly be under the jurisdiction of the Science Committee, and wrote and Barton saying, "your investigation is that its purpose seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than to learn from them, and to substitute congressional political review for scientific review."

Democrat Henry A. Waxman's demanded Barton to withdraw his letter and saying Barton's letter might be "interpreted as a transparent effort to bully and harass climate change experts who have reached conclusions with which you disagree."

Nevertheless, Republican members of congress continue to stonewall efforts to address climate change, and have even taken to challenging the EPA's authority to address the issue by regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

A well-funded campaign has been underway for two decades aimed at casting doubt on the science of global warming. You just have to ask yourself, who do you trust, British Petroleum, Halliburton, America's fossil fuel industry and their congressional lapdogs, or the scientific community?

I know my answer.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Lesson in How Corporate Greed and Collusion Impacts Quality of Life in Our Cities

In the early 1920s, Los Angeles had the largest and most effective trolley car system in the United States, the Pacific City Lines. I rode the electric “red cars” as a kid growing up in LA during the late Thirties and the Forties. The demise of this popular system had little to do with consumer preference for buses, or even automobiles (which few people could afford). It was the result of collusion between the producers of oil, rubber, buses, and, ultimately, automobiles.
Pacific Electric Red Cars on Terminal Island awaiting destruction
With financing from these special interests, over 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities including Baltimore, Newark, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland and San Diego were purchased and converted into bus operation. Several of the companies involved were convicted in 1949 of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce. For this conspiracy, each of the companies was fined $5,000. The bargain gained Los Angeles and other cities victimized by the scheme choking smog and other forms of air pollution. Today, America’s dismal record on implementing mass transit and controlling air pollution can be traced directly back to collusion on the part of Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber, General Motors, and other business operations interested in putting the "rubber to the road."
Los Angeles From the air

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Hiatus in Global Warming Has Deniers in Paroxyms of Joy; It is However, Unwarranted

From The Economist, March 8, 2014

BETWEEN 1998 and 2013, the Earth’s surface temperature rose at a rate of 0.04°C a decade, far slower than the 0.18°C increase in the 1990s. Meanwhile, emissions of carbon dioxide (which would be expected to push temperatures up) rose uninterruptedly. This pause in warming has raised doubts in the public mind about climate change. A few sceptics say flatly that global warming has stopped. Others argue that scientists’ understanding of the climate is so flawed that their judgments about it cannot be accepted with any confidence. A convincing explanation of the pause therefore matters both to a proper understanding of the climate and to the credibility of climate science—and papers published over the past few weeks do their best to provide one. Indeed, they do almost too good a job. If all were correct, the pause would now be explained twice over.

This is the opposite of what happened at first. As evidence piled up that temperatures were not rising much, some scientists dismissed it as a blip. The temperature, they pointed out, had fallen for much longer periods twice in the past century or so, in 1880-1910 and again in 1945-75 (see chart), even though the general trend was up. Variability is part of the climate system and a 15-year hiatus, they suggested, was not worth getting excited about.

An alternative way of looking at the pause’s significance was to say that there had been a slowdown but not a big one. Most records, including one of the best known (kept by Britain’s Meteorological Office), do not include measurements from the Arctic, which has been warming faster than anywhere else in the world. Using satellite data to fill in the missing Arctic numbers, Kevin Cowtan of the University of York, in Britain, and Robert Way of the University of Ottawa, in Canada, put the overall rate of global warming at 0.12°C a decade between 1998 and 2012—not far from the 1990s rate. A study by NASA puts the “Arctic effect” over the same period somewhat lower, at 0.07°C a decade, but that is still not negligible.

It is also worth remembering that average warming is not the only measure of climate change. According to a study just published by Sonia Seneviratne of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, in Zurich, the number of hot days, the number of extremely hot days and the length of warm periods all increased during the pause (1998-2012). A more stable average temperature hides wider extremes.

Still, attempts to explain away that stable average have not been convincing, partly because of the conflict between flat temperatures and rising CO2 emissions, and partly because observed temperatures are now falling outside the range climate models predict. The models embody the state of climate knowledge. If they are wrong, the knowledge is probably faulty, too. Hence attempts to explain the pause.

In September 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did so in terms of fluctuating solar output, atmospheric pollution and volcanoes. All three, it thought, were unusually influential.
The sun’s power output fluctuates slightly over a cycle that lasts about 11 years. The current cycle seems to have gone on longer than normal and may have started from a lower base, so for the past decade less heat has been reaching Earth than usual. Pollution throws aerosols (particles such as soot, and suspended droplets of things like sulphuric acid) into the air, where they reflect sunlight back into space. The more there are, the greater their cooling effect—and pollution from Chinese coal-fired power plants, in particular, has been rising. Volcanoes do the same thing, so increased volcanic activity tends to reduce temperatures.

Gavin Schmidt and two colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Institute quantify the effects of these trends in Nature Geoscience. They argue that climate models underplay the delayed and subdued solar cycle. They think the models do not fully account for the effects of pollution (specifically, nitrate pollution and indirect effects like interactions between aerosols and clouds). And they claim that the impact of volcanic activity since 2000 has been greater than previously thought. Adjusting for all this, they find that the difference between actual temperature readings and computer-generated ones largely disappears. The implication is that the solar cycle and aerosols explain much of the pause.

There is, however, another type of explanation. Much of the incoming heat is absorbed by oceans, especially the largest, the Pacific. Several new studies link the pause with changes in the Pacific and in the trade winds that influence the circulation of water within it.

Trade winds blow east-west at tropical latitudes. In so doing they push warm surface water towards Asia and draw cooler, deep water to the surface in the central and eastern Pacific, which chills the atmosphere. Water movement at the surface also speeds up a giant churn in the ocean. This pulls some warm water downwards, sequestering heat at greater depth. In a study published in Nature in 2013, Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego, argued that much of the difference between climate models and actual temperatures could be accounted for by cooling in the eastern Pacific.

Every few years, as Dr Kosaka and Dr Xie observe, the trade winds slacken and the warm water in the western Pacific sloshes back to replace the cool surface layer of the central and eastern parts of the ocean. This weather pattern is called El Niño and it warms the whole atmosphere. There was an exceptionally strong Niño in 1997-98, an unusually hot year. The opposite pattern, with cooler temperatures and stronger trade winds, is called La Niña. The 1997-98 Niño was followed by a series of Niñas, explaining part of the pause.

Switches between El Niño and La Niña are frequent. But there is also a long-term cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which switches from a warm (or positive) phase to a cool (negative) one every 20 or 30 years. The positive phase encourages more frequent, powerful Niños. According to Kevin Trenberth and John Fasullo of America’s National Centre for Atmospheric Research, the PDO was positive in 1976-98—a period of rising temperatures—and negative in 1943-76 and since 2000, producing a series of cooling Niñas.

But that is not the end of it. Laid on top of these cyclical patterns is what looks like a one-off increase in the strength of trade winds during the past 20 years. According to a study in Nature Climate Change, by Matthew England of the University of New South Wales and others, record trade winds have produced a sort of super-Niña. On average, sea levels have risen by about 3mm a year in the past 30 years. But those in the eastern Pacific have barely budged, whereas those near the Philippines have risen by 20cm since the late 1990s. A wall of warm water, in other words, is being held in place by powerful winds, with cool water rising behind it. According to Dr England, the effect of the trade winds explains most of the temperature pause.

If so, the pause has gone from being not explained to explained twice over—once by aerosols and the solar cycle, and again by ocean winds and currents. These two accounts are not contradictory. The processes at work are understood, but their relative contributions are not.

Nor is the answer to what is, from the human point of view, the biggest question of all, namely what these explanations imply about how long the pause might continue. On the face of it, if some heat is being sucked into the deep ocean, the process could simply carry on: the ocean has a huge capacity to absorb heat as long as the pump sending it to the bottom remains in working order. But that is not all there is to it. Gravity wants the western-Pacific water wall to slosh back; it is held in place only by exceptionally strong trade winds. If those winds slacken, temperatures will start to rise again.

The solar cycle is already turning. And aerosol cooling is likely to be reined in by China’s anti-pollution laws. Most of the circumstances that have put the planet’s temperature rise on “pause” look temporary. Like the Terminator, global warming will be back.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Extreme Weather Events Fuel Climate Change

In an August 14, 2013 paper, Dr. Markus Reichstein, of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, stated that, “...droughts, heat waves and storms weaken the buffer effect exerted by terrestrial ecosystems on the climate system.”

If correct, and if climate change itself is a systemic cause of extreme weather events, then without immediate, substantive, and sustained efforts to decrease and ultimately halt human-caused green house gas emissions, the planet Earth and its inhabitants are likely to experience a climate destabilization event that could lead to global catastrophe.


Extreme weather events fuel climate change
Extreme meteorological events and global warming: a vicious cycle?

Dr. Markus Reichstein

August 14, 2013

When the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere rises, the Earth not only heats up, but extreme weather events, such as lengthy droughts, heat waves, heavy rain and violent storms, may  become more frequent. Whether these extreme climate events result in the release of more CO2 from terrestrial ecosystems and thus reinforce climate change has been one of the major unanswered questions in climate research. It has now been addressed by an international team of researchers working with Markus Reichstein, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena. They have discovered that terrestrial ecosystems absorb approximately 11 billion tons less carbon dioxide every year as the result of the extreme climate events than they could if the events did not occur. That is equivalent to approximately a third of global CO2 emissions per year.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Art of Failure

My son, who is a reference librarian at our local college, responded to my questions about video game design, by bringing home a book for me to read; "The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games," by Jesper Juul.

Juul, who is a video game theorist,  researcher, and lecturer, writes that the best games, the games we are motivated to continue playing, are games designed to cause the player to fail frequently and sometimes, catastrophically, i.e., to die. Well designed games keep us playing by allowing us to improve and avoid past failures, only to experience future failure, followed by opportunities to once again improve and reach advanced levels of expertise.

There are other game designs that simply reward players for the labor they expend, such as FarmVille, in which players gain new powers by planting and harvesting. The new powers increase the players ability to plant and harvest and expand their "farms." The player is rewarded for labor, not skill acquisition.

Juul includes some interesting psychological and philosophical discussions in his essay, especially those dealing with deception, complicity, and guilt.

All in all, a very interesting book, especially for the game player, who wants to understand how he/she is being manipulated by the game designers.