Archive for January, 2010

Obama Forgot The Golden Rules

OK, perhaps not the originals. But, in fact, Obama has failed me personally so badly that I have decided to give up on him, and in fact have to ADD a golden rule, which nearly violates a golden rule, so you know it must be serious.

Let’s reiterate the Golden Rules for those who might not have been paying attention until recently, along with some explanation, and to add the necessary:
Use your head for more than hatrack. Most issues can be sorted out easily if you just use your head and have a think about things as you are moving along. It’s a scalable rule, so if you have a brain that allows you to snort a line of coke off the back of a credit card while doing 140 down the autobahn while reciting Proust to your mistress, and you can think at light speed, then it wont take you any time at all. If your brain moves a bit slower, like most of us, take a short bit of time to come up with something. Long enough that you can make a difference, but not so long that it makes no difference.
Be an adult. There is a reason for child labour laws, so if you are working with me, please don’t fail this expectation.
Do something positive and productive. The positive and productive doesn’t necessarily have to look positive and productive in process, but it should be designed and operated with that end.
Get some balls even if you are a chick. And here we have where Obama has unfortunately required me to make an addition. I didn’t think this needed stating in the beginning, so I left it out. But clearly it needs to be in here, and I will explain below why it means a huge amount to climate change, with a sniff of the world as we know it to boot.
If you need more rules, be patient and persistent. These start out more as guidance really, but become rules to pass on to speed up development of those who come behind us. Feel free to skip on from here if you are young and impatient. But recognise that change of things, if you are set out to do that, is only achieved in a lasting manner through application of this rule.
Don’t have too many rules. You really don’t need that many, so if you think you have too many, or no one will live with you anymore, you probably do have too many. Revise as required, but remember, we are here to live life, not waste time making rules for it.

Now, the explanation of what this has to do with climate change. Unfortunately, I have to let you know that I can sometimes predict the future, but pretty much only when it is going to be bad, due to my examination of human nature. Back in August I wrote, “. . . but let’s face it the Democrats are in power there, and they are likely to be too big of pussies to move anything like that through, despite their filibuster-proof majorities. So don’t even expect the US to even get to the climate change issue, and get a bill through both houses and signed into law.” See, there is one thing that is certain about politics in America that many have recognised through the ages: Democrats, when in power, insist on playing by the rules and being fair or even “bipartisan” during their stint running things, despite any previous example set by the other side of politics there. And unfortunately despite all his supposed brilliance and rhetorical gift, Obama appears to have made the mistake of letting the severely compromised leaders in both houses of congress in the US bring him something on all of his legislative agenda rather than leading on anything himself, as if he were elected arbiter in chief instead of commander in chief. His failure to lead on health care, civil rights, economic stimulus, troop withdrawal, closing Guantanamo (shall I go on) etc., means that we certainly will not now see any action out of the US on climate change legislation this year, and I would suggest not even in the single term of this democratic president if trends continue. And this term leads to forever, due to another unfortunate occurance that has occurred synchronistically in the US while they were all looking at which sex clinic Tiger got caught humping Brangelina’s secret love child with John Edwards in.

Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations have exactly equivalent the same constitutional right to free speech as Joe Sixpack. In this case, that right will specifically manifest itself as each and every person (real or legal) being able to spend whatever amount they choose on the candidate of their choice. That’s right, the next time a big bank gets a bug up its arse about a politician and his voting record on the The Banks Don’t Get Absolutely Everything They Want Legislation, they will just heavily sponsor his opponent in the next primary or general election, or probably both. Better if said politician is from a small state politically, like Max Baucus of Montana. He currently whores himself out for about $2 million to the insurance industry, and look what it did for them in the health care debate. He nearly never got it started at all. Unfortunately, too many Americans were looking, so they actually had to get a health care bill out of the Senate Finance Committee that he heads, so waiting in the wings were several other stooges to stall or add unpalatable elements to the bill to make it basically not worth saving, and the real reason why the voters of Massachusetts rejected it and its progenitors by proxy in the election there last week.

So, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that big coal, big oil and even those making cars, road construction, and the electric utilities themselves, will all be going out to buy their own representatives for the next election. Or perhaps just getting off by threatening to oppose politicians in places where they can get them cheap. Imagine rural ignorant Appalachia, where cutting the tops off mountains for coal and dumping the waste downhill still seems like a good idea. The senator from there gets an equal vote with the one that represents the electorates of Harvard or Berkeley at the federal level. And as observed this year like many others, it only takes a couple federal senators to scuttle the efforts of a large majority, especially over an issue as complicated climate change legislation.

Left unchecked, this Supreme Court decision, that I unfortunately have to agree with given this narrow case upon which it is based, could lead to corporatocracy there very easy logical progression. And yes it is a word. I didn’t know it was real either until the other day, so do your reading. I read a few elections ago that the average US senate seat cost $40 million to win. Expect to see that go up an order of magnitude in 10 years.

Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. But can we expect the US government led by this president to make significant modification to the fundament issues of the definition of a person as applied to a corporation, or the donation transparency rules, or public financing of campaigns, that would be required to be enforced to allow the population there to have a true and functioning democracy? What do you expect from a democracy that cannot even provide affordable, universal preventative health care to its entire population?

I expect nothing if any congress is left to its own devices. Congress has always needed leadership from someone with balls. Balls to actually lead, by setting a direction and an objective, and herding, coercing and twisting arms to get the congress to move in that direction. W may have been and intellectual philistine and led by weird voices in his head, but he had the balls to say “This is where we are going”. And the moron got most everything he wanted with a congress not from his own party. Leading begins at the beginning, not by arriving like a superhero at the end to save the day. We read about leaders in history books and superheros in comics for a reason.

So, I guess I am not sure this guy has any balls to go with his intellect and oratory skills. Pity, as he looked like the real deal 18 months ago before all his goals went under the bus so he could get along with everybody in Washington.

Caveat Emptor Also Applies to Carbon

I have also recently been asked by our resident lurker to comment on dodgy providers of carbon dioxide offsets and the pursuit of those making false claims or making fraudulent deals by the consumer watchdog, the ACCC. In reading the summary’s of the cases being made by the ACCC, they seem to be of a couple varieties, including those making false or misleading claims about their offset credits, to those engaged in actual fraud by taking money from clients to buy carbon offset credits and then not doing so.

Whether or not the ACCC will prevail in its cases is uncertain, but my gut feel is that if they take a claim to court, they usually have a pretty good case. However, proving that case in court is another matter, as evidenced by the judgments against the securities watchdog (ASIC) in cases that were widely considered to be very good. One of these cases is a not-for-profit that is apparently making unsupported claims about the superior value of its credits and services. This may be difficult to prove, and more difficult to prove as malicious, given the fairly confusing landscape with regard to environmental claims. The more easy case to prove (the fraud case) is probably already moot as the company is not longer operating and a court has ordered the former directors to buy the credits it failed to previously.

Another colleague asked me a week ago about how her organisation could buy offset credits. I explained to her the process of getting an inventory of emissions certified, and also buying certified credits. She didn’t quite understand why both the emitter and the seller of the credits required independent verification, and that got me to thinking that maybe it isn’t all as simple as I think it is. So I backed up, and started over on the basis of the concept of trust. To be truly greenhouse neutral means that I have to trust what your emissions are, and I have to trust that you bought real offsets. That helped clarify it for her. The introduction of the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) may improve things somewhat by further clarifying what is and what is not genuine reduction in greenhouse gases that can be traded, and doing away with some types of credits that are of debatable validity. But it won’t make things crystal clear in all situations, and the purchase of credits will always require a well informed buyer.

My rule of thumb is to first see if you can tie the credits you want to buy to a clear standard (like the NCOS) with independent verification and oversight by a government accredited program. Then, do a bit more research on the company offering the credits, particularly if they are sourced internationally. A relatively simple internet search can usually tell you a lot. Reputable companies probably have a background and history in some type of environmental work. If you cannot find anything about the company, I would worry a bit. If you can find some information, and it tells you that the head of the company offering the credits was a disqualified horse trainer in Australia that now lives in PNG and once ran Philippine cockfighting ring, I would probably move on to the next one.

Exuberance and Scientific Credibility

I have been asked by one of the lurkers that is to shy to post to comment on the effects that a one-half page section of an 838 page report issued in 2007 by the IPCC will have on the credibility of all the predictions of the IPCC with regard to climate change. In reality, virtually none. In the world of spin being generated by climate change skeptics about the issue, probably also none. But they are once again attempting to use this one-half page as an attempt to discredit all of the work done by the IPCC. As in the case of the email scandal that was the subject of my November 30 posting, the skeptics are claiming that this is the smoking gun that discredits all the work of the IPCC. But does it?

First let’s list out the errors that were found by an expert on glaciers in the half-page section about glaciers in the Himalayas:
• The rate of glacier receding was stated as being faster than the rest of the world – when in fact it is the same as the rest of the world;
• The date by which the glaciers will disappear from the Himalayas was transposed from 2350 to 2035;
• The amount of shrinkage stated exceeds the total amount of glacier coverage by a factor of ten – whopper of an error that should be seen by even a casual observer;
• The section is attributed to popular science press (via the WWF) rather than a peer reviewed science journal – as the IPCC always tries to stress its scientific basis; and,
• A math error is obvious in the shrinkage rate of a particular glacier (the Pindari Glacier) – once again a simple error that could be picked up by anyone that can read and has a calculator handy.

So all up, I’d have to agree with the scientist (and IPCC glaciologist) that identified the problem for all the skeptics to crow about – the half page is doo doo, it doesn’t belong in the report, and most of the above errors could be easily found through some simple copy-editor doing their job properly before publication. But does it invalidate all of the climate change science, or even the portion on the loss of glaciers – uh no. More likely it was someone rushing to meet a publishing deadline that got sloppy in their exuberance do do some good in the world.

But it sure makes for some good controversy, and we all know that the media loves that, so it gets a lot of coverage over several days. A lot of coverage in comparison to something that came out the same day, for instance, with the GM executive Bob Lutz telling reporters at an auto show: “It [climate change] has got nothing to do with CO2, it’s got everything to do with solar activity, and when the solar flares stopped and the sun has been unusually quiet almost to the point of worrying people, then global temperatures go down.”

That’s great Bob, but see, here’s the thing. Actual scientist write shit down. Not just summary reports for public consumption, like the problematic half-page above, but things like their assumptions, data sources, methodologies , calculations and a lot of other boring crap that we can comb through, analyse endlessly and critique. On the other hand, dickheads like Bob Lutz never have to prove anything. Now, I don’t doubt that solar flares do have some effect on the earth, but where’s the proof that they are the only driver of climate change as opposed to all of the otherwise scientifically proven effects that industrialization have had since 1900? And where is the date showing that solar flare activity correlates with the land, water and air temperature variations, rather than ajust a few years of air temperatures in isolation? It isn’t anywhere is the fact. But Bob gets away with whatever he wants to say and then the journalist move on the next controversy that might actually have some legs since there is some actual factual record to debate. But Bob gets to make his point and skeptics get to point and say, “see, that proves it”, rather than be held to account as the actual scientist are. So we talk about the science for a few days or a few weeks and the public is left with the impression that maybe the science is dubious.

This report further supports my conclusion of 30 November that scientists need to remain diligent and punish bad science harshly. But in doing so, scientists should feel good about science, because in treating bad science harshly, they are further supporting the scientific method.

And the final truth is this: anyone who believes this half-page of errors invalidates climate change research in full is never going to be convinced of anything on the subject anyway. That’s why they will keep buying crappy cars from Bob Lutz as long as the government wants to keep it from going bankrupt as it would in a just world. Let’s also hope they own property near the water line.

Simplicity for Simpletons

After a significant hiatus to take some holidays, see a cricket test match and do some billable work, I have returned and want to announce that I am now fully against the implementation of the CPRS in favour of a straight input tax on carbon in fossil fuels. This is not to say that I have become a climate skeptic, nor have I decided that an emissions trading system would not work. However, having examined both the process and results of the Copenhagen summit on climate change, I have now joined the ranks of those who believe that an emissions trading system (ETS) will be too little, too late.

The basic premise of all of the ETS that are currently functioning in the world (and yes they are in fact proven to function) as well as that proposed for Australia under the CPRS legislation, is that you can harness economic market forces to drive emissions down more quickly and efficiently than mandated emissions cuts, or a straight input tax on carbon in fossil fuels. Essentially, all of the ETS are based on the concept of “cap-and-trade” where the government sets an overall emissions cap, and individual entities under the cap can trade amongst themselves in an independently verifiable manner, allowing some to emit more from their operations, if they pay others (through buying excess emissions credits) for the emissions reductions made at the sellers facilities. These ETS, as I have said above do work in fact, but they don’t work in reality, for a number of reasons:

• People Lie – Everywhere that I have seen the attempted introduction of an ETS, I have seen people with a vested interest in not seeing anything done about the basic issue lie about the details of the ETS, its purpose, its effect, or all three. The lies pretty much start on day one of the introduction of the legislation, as they did in my home state of Montana, where the US Congressman Reberg ( a wholly owned subsidiary of the energy lobby) penned an editorial in his local newspaper calling the legislation “Cap and Tax”, and hyping it as a new tax on everything to his base of libertarian minded constituents. That’s how the discussion started from day one. No thoughtful, logical evaluation of the pros and cons of the design, the fairness of the implementation or even the economics and outcome. Nope, it was straight to the third grade name calling, and then downhill from there. A similar welcome accompanied the introduction in Australia, albeit with less juvenile but no less significant misrepresentation from the likes of Senators, Joyce, Minchin or Fielding.

• People are lazy – People get away with the lying identified above primarily because the masses are arses and are typically either too lazy or too stupid to seek out some basic information on the subject and decide for themselves whether they are in favour of an ETS (or even doing something about climate change or not). So, they are swayed by whoever has the most money, the loudest voice, or the sexiest celebrity in forming their opinion.

• Complexity leads to corruption – Any ETS legislation gets a bit complicated, often in an effort to create fairness in implementation, but just as often to buy off enough support of moneyed constituencies, or put in loopholes for those same constituencies. Because of the complexity of these systems, they are even harder for the lazy and uninformed to support, and they often take forever to get through the legislative process and into function. Then after they do get into action, the loopholes and payoffs get exposed by the press who feed on controversy, and their support is further eroded.

Given these truths about the realities of an ETS, I believe it is far more favourable to just go with a simple carbon input tax on all fossil fuels. This will blunt the criticism of the liars who will just want to call it a tax anyway, it is real simple so we should be more easily be able to sell it to the punters who donít want to know too much (and will like the straightforward payback they will be able to see), and wit will be nearly impossible to cheat or get loopholes into the legislation since I could write it in a couple of pages.

Here’s how a simple carbon tax would work. First we figure out how much we need to tax our dirtiest fuel (coal) in order to make it the same price as the cleanest fuel (solar). Then, on that basis, we set a carbon tax for all hydrocarbon based fuels on the basis of an assay of how much carbon they contain in relation to coal. The tax on coal will be very high, oil less, gas significantly less, hydro, wind and solar nothing. All of the tax will be applied at the first point of sale of the fuel so there will be no chance to escape the tax man, and there will be no double taxing. All of the money will come in to the federal government that already has the infrastructure and resources to collect the taxes (it’s one of the only things governments are really good at, after all) so administrative costs will be low. All of the tax revenue generated will be redistributed evenly on a per-household basis (not a per person basis, so we don’t encourage overpopulation). Heavy users of energy will pay the most, and everyone will benefit on an egalitarian basis. Want to drive a Hummer and feel good about it? Go ahead, you will have paid for the fuel tax. Want to feel great about the purchase of that solar panel? You can too!

The price of virtually everything will go up, it’s true, since everything is pretty much manufactured and transported now with one fossil fuel or other. But that’s OK, since every household will also be getting a big payment every year as their portion of the return on the tax, and eventually less carbon intensive energy sources will be the norm. This will also allow every household to budget (if they want to) each year and directly see what their energy inputs are, and compare that to the amount they get back from the carbon tax. With people being able to examine the data more directly for their own household (if they choose to look), there will be great incentives for the smart to become more fuel efficient. And I always like incentivising the smart.