RSSCategory: Environment

Global warming as a market failure

June 9, 2010 | By | Reply More
Global warming as a market failure

At CNN, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway portray climate change as another victim of free market fundamentalism:

Since the early 1990s, there has been a sustained history of attempts to undermine any science that suggested that contemporary industrial society might be doing irreparable harm to human health and the natural environment. This included the science that demonstrated the harms of DDT, the dangers to children of second-hand smoke, the causes of acid rain, and the reality of the ozone hole. Often the same people were involved in several or even all of these attacks. The common feature in all these cases was a link to think tanks promoting free markets and opposing government regulations.

One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the pattern: People are loath to admit that our free market system has created problems that the free market has proved ineffectual to solve. Nicolas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, has called global warming “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

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Is Science Different?

June 7, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Is Science Different?

I read another article about why not to have public debates on socially contended scientific issues. This time, it was about Global Warming: Climate Science on Trial.

It brings up an issue that gets little press. There is a qualitative difference between science (as a type of investigation) and other philosophical filters such as law, religion, and so forth. Science was developed because we cannot trust our senses, our feelings, or our memories outside of now-known ranges of perception. That is, too big, too small, too fast, too slow, or too complex.Even within normal ranges, much of what we think we perceive is colored by habit and expectations.

The democratic ideal is that everyone is equal. But methods of understanding are not equal. Without the methods of science, we still would be living on a flat, stationary, unchanging world under a moving canopy of the heavens just beyond our reach, where the smallest thing is a mustard seed, and the widest realm is a few weeks walk. Where the universe was created during the era of early Sumerian urbanization, and will end some lesser time in the future. The Bible says so. The best minds in the world agreed, until Galileo and his ilk

The problem of public debate is that it takes some training to understand why science is the best filter for making judgments on big issues. It doesn’t care about the personalities, preferences, and prejudices of scientists. The method weeds out false answers, however many people believe them or how authoritatively they are stated. If a scientist turns out to be wrong, because he (as a human) has the limitations listed above, those who disagree with his position herald his failure as proof that the method is flawed. Those who agreed with him claim conspiracy among those who proved him wrong. Pick a position; everyone is equal.

It is easy to make a convincing argument that persuades the majority who don’t actually have the grounding to really understand the issue. It is harder to make people understand that what so obviously feels right is actually wrong, and to understand the proof and its validity. It feels right to say that Man is unique and superior and is the purpose of the universe. But examination by the scientific method that shows that there really are few things that distinguish our kind in any way, and that we are a tiny part of the ecosystem, much less the universe. We have risen (thanks to technology and industrialism) to a level of might wherein we have the ability to make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. But we don’t have the ability to deflect or escape the next extinction event, whether a nearby quasar, nova, asteroid collision, or massive ice age of yet-undetermined cause.

The current hot issue is whether we need to act fast to reverse the current unprecedented rise in global temperatures. It is easier to ignore the issue. Much like the proverbial frog in a pot who entered comfortable water, and doesn’t notice it slowly warming till he dies of the heat. We’re in the pot, and the temperature is rising. But denialists (supported by the fossil fuel trade) use tried and true methods of persuasion to keep the public from acting on it.

All the climate scientists agree: It is happening, it is partially (if not entirely) our doing, and we can do something about it. By now, the warming cannot be completely stopped or reversed. But slowing it down may be the difference between the collapse of our civilization, and a unifying cause to move world civilization forward.

But most people still don’t see that science, as a practice, is actually a distinct and more reliable way of figuring out what is going on. Public debate primarily publicizes the anti-science position. How can this be fixed?

I suggest that, in this age of ubiquitous information, that primary and secondary education lean less on packing facts into kids, and spend more time teaching how to deal with information: How we know what we know, how to judge fact from fallacy, information from disinformation, and knowledge from counterknowledge.

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The rot at the core of American conservatism

May 29, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
The rot at the core of American conservatism

Peter Daou argues that the anti-environmentalism espoused by the political right wing is not only wrong-headed; it is dangerous:

Of all the wrongheaded ideas proudly trumpeted by America’s right, anti-environmentalism occupies a unique position: it is at once the most devoid of a rational or moral foundation and the most dangerous. It is selfish, crass, illogical, willfully blind, a denial of the undeniable reality that humans are pillaging irreplaceable natural resources and spewing filth into the air and water and soil at unsustainable rates. Green-bashers stubbornly negate what is directly before them. There is no moral imperative underlying their belief (or lack thereof). It’s about unbridled hostility at the suggestion that we must all make shared sacrifices. It’s about refusing to acknowledge that the environmental movement has been right to sound the alarm. It’s about laziness. And greed. And irresponsibility. And colossal shortsightedness. Green-bashing exposes the rot at the core of modern conservatism.

The reason this conservative attitude toward the environment is dangerous is that it would leave us unprepared for the quickly approaching transition from oil to post-oil. It would be an economically and socially dangerous transition even if we planned well for it.

I’ve argued before, and I still maintain, that the right wing uses its anti-environmentalism as a badge of group identification (among other things). In short, I don’t believe that most right-wingers are truly against the green positions that they publicly disparage. I’m not convinced that most right-wingers have actually thought their positions through (e.g., most conservatives don’t realize that there’s only enough oil in Alaska to run the U.S. for six months, which makes “Drill Baby, Drill palpably absurd). I believe that when conservatives shout down green positions, they are actually shouting up their membership in the right-wing herd.

But how can someone take a policy position contrary to the facts without a straight face? See the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias, which refers to the fact that “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” Thus, many people are ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant, thus freeing them up to pontificate to others and to run for Congress in good conscience. We’re surrounded by this, and we’re fed “news” media stories that flout this conflict pornography (featuring know-nothings shouting at people who do know something) in order to sell commercials. Note that self-critical fact-finding and careful analysis is not treasured anywhere in this process. See also, this earlier post on tortucanism.

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How to use and save electricity

May 26, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
How to use and save electricity

Mr. Electricity has assembled a straight-forward website full of great ideas and useful links–everything you’ll need to understand, use and save electricity.

Here’s what the site covers, in the words of “Mr. Electricity”:

I explain exactly what a kilowatt hour is and how much you pay for one. And I show you how to calculate exactly how much electricity your household appliances use, so you know which items are guzzling the most juice (and which ones are the best targets for savings). You’ll also learn exactly how to read your electric meter, if you like. . . . And I not only give you meaningful tips for slashing your electricity consumption, I give you the tools to figure out exactly how much you’re saving as well. Finally, I’ve answered countless questions from readers about saving electricity. If you have a question, it’s probably answered here already.

The site offers dozens of illustrations. Oh, and one more time, this is a site geared toward saving electricity. For example, check out this page on “vampire power” demonstrating that many appliances burn more electricity to “run the clock” than to provide the function for which you bought them (e.g., VCRs and microwave ovens).

“Mr. Electricity’s” real name is Michael Bluejay.

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Deepwater horizon: an event horizon for the oil age?

May 26, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More
Deepwater horizon: an event horizon for the oil age?

In a speech given earlier this year, the Chief Economist for BP made his case that fears about peak oil were overblown.

“One factor is resources. They are limited, and a barrel can only be produced once. But ideas of peak oil supply are not true. Doomsayers have exaggerated the issue. The bell-shaped curve of production over time does not apply to the world’s oil resources,” he told the seminar in Alkhobar city.

“Those who believe in peak oil tend to believe that technology and economics don’t matter, and I think this is false.The application of technology, the innovation of new technology and economic forces especially mean that recoverable oil resources can increase. If there is a peak in oil, it will come from the demand side. There are always fears, but these remain overstated and exaggerated.”

A barrel can only be produced once, this is true. And technology has allowed us to tap into oil reservoirs that were unthinkable a few decades ago. Yet as the catastrophic ongoing oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico shows us, technology is not the savior the oil majors would have us believe. Advanced technology may allow us to drill for oil a mile under water, but it obviously does not offer any easy solutions when things go horribly awry as they have on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which has been spewing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for over a month.

[More . . . ]

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Who elected British Petroleum to be our government?

May 24, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Who elected British Petroleum to be our government?

No one elected BP to run any level of American government. But we are a government by the money, not the People, so that is a big invitation to British Petroleum to control entire beaches to prevent the news media from from reporting the full extent of the damage resulting from the Gulf of Mexico oil leakage. Mother Jones reports.

In the meantime, most Americans passively sit and watch, along with our politicians, giving a well-documented irresponsible company endless opportunity to operate in relative secrecy while 65 miles of delicate Gulf Coast ecosystem has been ruined by oil. If a “terrorist” with brown skin from the Middle East had caused all of this immense damage, we would have declared yet another “war.” But it’s a bunch of Caucasian men wearing suits who crapped up the Gulf waters and beaches, and they have given huge amounts of money to Congress, so it’s all so very very different . . .

And keep in mind that this disaster does not simply affect the Gulf Coast. Did you see the photos of the oil-soaked pelicans? The “White Pelicans” aren’t simply “Gulf Coast” birds–they migrate all the way from the Gulf Coast up to Minnesota–it has been quite the spectacle to see them passing through St. Louis twice each year. We’ll see how many survive to fly next year. And that’s merely one species.

There is no reason for trusting that BP will do the clean-up job correctly, putting the environment before its profits. From the Mother Jones article (above), we’ve seen that BP will “fix” the problem by hiding information. News is now breaking that the oil has now penetrated 12 miles into the Louisiana marshes. I’m feeling sick about this disaster and sick about the lack of action by our federal government–Why is the Obama Administration continuing to defer to the “government” of British Petroleum? As soon as the first drops of oil escaped into the Gulf waters, this was no longer BP’s disaster; it became an immense American tragedy.

You’ve heard of “too big to fail.” Lots of bank money is making sure that we will continue to have “too big to fail banks.” If these Gulf oil rigs are too dangerous to fail, we shouldn’t have them either (here’s the obvious alternative). But no logic, no evidence and no earnest well-directed passion to preserve the environment will overcome huge corporate election contributions. I’m feeling the frustration of Chris Matthews:

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The stench of secrecy.

May 22, 2010 | By | Reply More
The stench of secrecy.

According to the Environmental Working Group, most perfumes, colognes and body sprays don’t disclose that “many scents are actually a complex cocktail of natural essences and synthetic chemicals – often petrochemicals.”

This is getting to be a predictable story: The manufacturers are keeping these ingredients secret despite the fact that consumers should have access to the dangers and potential dangers of the chemicals.

The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

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What’s In A Label?

May 19, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More
What’s In A Label?

Conservative.

Liberal.

We act as if we know what these labels mean. Conservatives are traditionalists, fiscally opposed to anything that smacks of gambling, private, often religious, and pedantic on what they consider “appropriate” in either government or personal conduct.

Liberals, on the other hand, are often taken for progressive, willing to spend social capital to repair perceived problems, tolerant, agnostic if not atheist, and overly-concerned with a definition of justice that ought to be all-encompassing rather than what they perceive as sinecure for the privileged.

Well. Over on Facebook I posted a brief quote (my own) to boil down the actual underlying distinctions.

Conservatives are those who don’t like what other people are doing, Liberals are those who don’t like what other people are doing to other people.

It was meant to be taken as humorous. But I’m not being entirely flip here. When you look at it, and try to define the common factor in much that passes for conservative posteuring—of any country, any background, anywhere—it always comes down to one group trying to stop another group from Doing Things We Don’t Approve.

I heard a news report this morning (on NPR—I unabashedly don’t pay attention to any other news source, I find them all utterly biased) from Pakistan about the university scene there, and one bit caught my attention—at a campus in Punjabi, conservative students who find men and women sitting too close together interfere and move them apart. At a game of Truth or Dare, conservative students pulled participants out and beat them.

How does this apply here? Well, here’s a clip from P.Z. Meyers’ Pharyngula to illustrate:
Rising Sun School in Maryland has the standard default take-it-for-granted attitude that Christianity is just fine — there’s the usual well-funded and usually teacher-promoted evangelical groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — and when one student tried to form a club for non-religious students…well, you can guess what happened.

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What’s behind the rise in ADHD?

May 18, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More
What’s behind the rise in ADHD?

Now a new study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, links pesticide use with the rise in ADHD disorders among children. The study’s authors examined data on over 1,100 children, and determined that elevated levels of pesticide metabolites in the urine was associated with a diagnosis of ADHD. In fact, children with levels higher than the median of the most commonly detected metabolite (known as dimethyl thiophosphate), were twice as likely to be diagnosed as ADHD compared with children that had undetectable levels of the metabolite. The elevated risk factor remained even after controlling for confounding variables like gender, age, race/ethnicity, poverty/income ratio and others.

The pesticides studied belong to a class of compounds known as organophosphates. Time explains:

[Study author Maryse] Bouchard’s analysis is the first to home in on organophosphate pesticides as a potential contributor to ADHD in young children. But the author stresses that her study uncovers only an association, not a direct causal link between pesticide exposure and the developmental condition. There is evidence, however, that the mechanism of the link may be worth studying further: organophosphates are known to cause damage to the nerve connections in the brain — that’s how they kill agricultural pests, after all. The chemical works by disrupting a specific neurotransmitter, acetylcholinesterase, a defect that has been implicated in children diagnosed with ADHD. In animal models, exposure to the pesticides has resulted in hyperactivity and cognitive deficits as well.

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