Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Wolf is in the Details

Stock market soars on surprising jump in jobs--236,000 private sector jobs added, and unemployment drops to 7.7 in February.  Celebrate now, because by April, it's unlikely to be the same kind of news.

Despite Washington efforts to downplay the effects of across the board congressional cuts to federal funding that includes state and local projects, Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel at the Huffington Post ( an outlet I don't like to quote because it depends on forcing writers to write for free, although not these two I assume) collected local news reports which showed some of what's starting to go on:

Recovery efforts following a tornado in Atlanta are being drained of federal help because of sequestration related cuts. [WAGA-TV]
The Georgia Department of Labor is figuring out how to reduce unemployment benefits by nearly 11 percent starting on March 31. [WSB-TV]
The Spokane County Meals On Wheels is looking at a $45,000 budget cut. "I'm scared," the program quoted one official with the group saying. "How do we keep serving all the people that need it?" [KREM-TV]
Cleanup efforts following the Hanford nuclear leak in Washington state are complicated by171 million in sequester-related budget cuts. " [KCPQ-TV, KPTV-TV]

The San Diego Housing Commission is staring at $7.5 million in cuts. [KSWB-TV]  Housing and social programs in San Antonio and Austin, Texas are also looking at cuts.
Little Rock, Ark., faces potential losses in funding for domestic violence prevention services. [KARK-TV]
Mississippi food pantries are likely to take a hit with officials expecting "to see more people in line." [WAPT-TV]
Advocates in Kansas City, Mo., are going to Washington to try and prevent expended cuts to scientific research into disease control and prevention. [KCTV-TV]

They also found that airports in Detroit, San Francisco and St. Petersburg are closing airport towers, and six air traffic control towers are closing in Oklahoma.  As for economic impacts:

One official near a military base in St. Louis estimates that there could be a $28 million economic impact in the region. [KSDK-TV]  Approximately 8,500 civilian defense employees at Fort Bragg are facing furloughs, and "officials and business owners say that could have a trickle down effect on the local economy" and that "the sequester will also impact schools at Fort Bragg and its five thousand students." [WRAL-TV]

The writers conclude:

"Not every station was convinced that sequestration would spell doom for their communities, and a more thorough search of local television programs beyond the major markets could of course be done. But the coverage was pretty consistent at the local level, revealing that viewers of these channels are getting a different story about the ramifications of the budget cuts than those simply consuming their news from cable television."

Where the Brains Are in Congress

"By ending his filibuster only when he finally had to take a leak, [Senator Rand] Paul made a powerful case for the proposition that our government might function far more smoothly if our elected representatives’ bladders rather than their brains called the shots."
--Frank Rich, New York Magazine online

Friday, March 08, 2013

Hey Ho

Here's the good news from peer-reviewed research results just published in the journal Science on the last 11,300 years of the Earth's climate:

“We have, through human emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, indefinitely delayed the onset of the next ice age" said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University.

So no ice age to worry about.  And now back to reality. The study also found:

The decade of 1900 to 1910 was one of the coolest in the past 11,300 years — cooler than 95 percent of the other years, the marine fossil data suggest. Yet 100 years later, the decade of 2000 to 2010 was one of the warmest, said study lead author Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University. Global thermometer records only go back to 1880, and those show the last decade was the hottest for this more recent time period.

“In 100 years, we’ve gone from the cold end of the spectrum to the warm end of the spectrum,” Marcott said. “We’ve never seen something this rapid. Even in the ice age the global temperature never changed this quickly.”

When he says "we" he means "we the species that calls itself human beings." This 11,000 years pretty much constitutes the known history of human civilization, beginning with organized agriculture.

The speed of the change tells the story:  "Scientists say it is further evidence that modern-day global warming isn’t natural, but the result of rising carbon dioxide emissions that have rapidly grown since the Industrial Revolution began roughly 250 years ago."

  Or in more scientific language"What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand," he said. "In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we've seen in the whole Holocene," referring to the current geologic time period, which began around 11,500 years ago.

In more other words, for those hoping that today's global heating is part of a natural long term trend that would be discernible with a longer timeline, sorry, no can do.

This actually should be good news.  Because if it were a natural trend, there might be little we could do. But if it's caused by greenhouse gas pollution, stopping it could eventually at least level off the upward trend in time to save that human civilization.

But maybe that is the scariest part.  It could be the rest of Katharine Heyhoe's quote: "...and we are now heading into an unknown future where humans control the thermostat of the planet."

Hey, ho.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

But Not Forgotten

Congressional Republicans pushed back today against critics of their effort to de-fund ACORN in the current budget, a voting registration organization that has not existed since 2010.

"Whether or not ACORN exists is not the point," declared House Subcommittee on Pandering to Useful Illusions chair Flushlord Tuber.  "Some 49% of Republicans surveyed recently agreed that ACORN had stolen the 2012 election for Barack Hussein Obama, and that's good enough for me."

Tuber will now lead an effort to take the passenger pigeon off the endangered species list.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Ancient Remains

"You don't believe in that climate change stuff."
"Nah.  Does it feel colder to you?"

Giant Ancient Camel Remains Found in Canadian Arctic

The Future Faces Us

Here are two not just inconvenient but inescapable facts: For the foreseeable future, dealing with the effects of global heating will take up an ever-increasing proportion of human attention and resources. These are the effects of causes in the past.  But in terms of causing more havoc in the future: if human civilization and most of the larger animal species now on this planet are to have any future beyond this century, the spewing of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will have to slow significantly and then pretty quickly stop.

Scientists once settled on a rise in 2 degrees C as the upper limit, not for any damaging change, but for survivable change.  If the planet goes on as it has, we will blow by that and double it to 4C by the end of the century.  At which point this will likely become another planet, with few if any humans on it by, say, 2200.

There is much that can be done with energy efficiency and the already robust course of developing clean energy.  But most observers believe that to have any chance, the use of carbon must be discouraged through some financial mechanism that will raise its price.

Cap and trade is one such system.  The state of California is currently getting a cap and trade program up and running, so far successfully.  But the last national attempt was rejected by Congress.

  Another is a tax on carbon.  Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker wrote persuasively that the carbon tax is attracting support among conservatives as well as others---including fossil fuel behemoths:

"Perhaps because a carbon tax makes so much sense—researchers at M.I.T. recently described it as a possible “win-win-win” response to several of the country’s most pressing problems—economists on both ends of the political spectrum have championed it. Liberals like Robert Frank, of Cornell, and Paul Krugman, of Princeton, support the idea, as do conservatives like Gary Becker, at the University of Chicago, and Greg Mankiw, of Harvard. (Mankiw, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush and as an adviser to Mitt Romney, is the founding member of what he calls the Pigou Club.) A few weeks ago, more than a hundred major corporations, including Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, issued a joint statement calling on lawmakers around the globe to impose a “clear, transparent and unambiguous price on carbon emissions,” which, while not an explicit endorsement of a carbon tax, certainly comes close. Even ExxonMobil, once a leading sponsor of climate-change denial, has expressed support for a carbon tax. “A well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions,” a spokeswoman for the company said recently in an e-mail to Bloomberg News."

A carbon tax makes the price of carbon-based energy higher, which discourages carbon-based energy and encourages the development and use of clean alternatives. It makes financial sense, not only in reducing carbon in the air but in revenue available to help the efforts to deal with the effects of global heating already in the cards, due to the time lag between cause and effect.  At first that might just be to lessen budget deficits, but even that strengthens the ability to respond when needed.

There's another wrinkle to these systems, called "cap and dividend" or in the tax system "fee and dividend."  In the most recent formulation of fee and dividend, introduced as a bill in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a fee is imposed on the 3,000 largest carbon polluters, and most of the money collected is paid out to American citizens to help defray their higher energy costs, with some of the rest going to weatherization and other energy efficiency programs.  And the money is substantial: $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

Any mechanism that helps slash carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions begins to pay off immediately by lessening bad health effects of air and water pollution, but it may well help lessen climate effects even within this century, according to a new study.  Though it's no escape clause:  this relatively conservative study suggests it forestalls 20% to 65% of the bad effects.  The greater payoff is if it forestalls runaway climate apocalypse thereafter.

The dimensions and onrushing effects of climate change already underway are beginning to sink in, as in this weekend's USA Today story that signals a commitment to cover climate more systematically.  We are still at the very beginning of understanding its role internationally, as in the turmoil of the Arab Spring.  

According to chaos theory, small changes may lead to very big changes, and very big changes are required.  Sure, another kind of chaos grips politics these days but even though nobody now would bet much that the U.S. Congress is going to pass a carbon tax any time soon, it's still worth talking through the idea and setting the table.  The congressional elections of 2014 loom larger all the time.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Wolf Bites

After a weekend of GOPer pols trying to minimize the impact of their meat cleaver cuts to the money needed to pay for federal employees and federally funded programs, the dimensions are emerging anyway.  Some impacts are being felt now but most will ripple through in the coming weeks.  As the New York Times noted,    those disproportionately and most meaningfully hurt are the poor and the most vulnerable.  This is coming at a time when further evidence emerges that the economic recovery has so far almost exclusively benefited corporations and the wealthy, rather than the middle class or the poor.

And the effects go beyond our shores.  According to the organization One  these cuts result in:
171,900 people would not have AIDS medication, resulting in 39,200 deaths and 77,200 more children becoming orphans
1.2 million fewer insecticide-treated mosquito nets, leading to over 3,200 deaths from malaria
836,800 fewer pentavalent vaccines would be available for children, resulting in 8,900 more deaths from completely preventable diseases
That's the specific background for the cartoon above.

Moreover, according to a new CBS poll, Americans aren't fooled by the GOPer strategy: a majority believe they will feel the pain of the sequester cuts, and they support President Obama's formula of a balanced approach to a deficit deal.  Though in fact such a deal is unlikely to ever be balanced: closing tax loopholes on the uber wealthy will cause them much less pain than any cuts to programs that poor families and children and the elderly depend on.

But maybe the slightly less rich who don't own their own jets or have access to those of their corporate overlord will notice that in the coming weeks the wait time at airports may well double as screeners are laid off.  And that's before we get to air traffic control.

Hot Heads

In the typically deadpan drone, so muted and clotted with quantitative analysis that it comes close to stupidly missing the point way of some scientific research findings, this report on "it's the humidity as well as the heat" study of the effects of global heating dances around what to me is a primary dread about it all, even in the present and very near future.

So these scientists studied people who work outside, and conclude that with more very hot summer days, it will become more dangerous to spend as much time out there as they normally do now.  Well, duh. But at least they factor in the effects of humidity.

My own ahah moment came in a couple of summers at the end of the 1980s in Pittsburgh.  I had experienced searing heat growing up in western Pennsylvania, though it was not as bad as summers in downstate Illinois.  But those weeks of horrendous heat waves changed my life.  They were one big reason I fled at the first opportunity to this strip of very northern California coast, where a heat wave would be more than a few successive afternoons of 75F.  And I haven't experienced one of those yet.

But I'm not talking about the physical effects of being outside.  I'm talking about the effects of heat and humidity on my ability to think straight and feel like myself.  The physical effects as they translate to the band of heat around my head and the humidity taking over my sinuses.

Not everyone is affected to the same degree I suppose, but I'll bet a lot of people are meaningfully affected, and this is something seldom discussed when contemplating the climate crisis and its future. Longer, more frequent and more intense heat waves are already here, and every feature of them will only increase.  So at a time when cooler heads should prevail, we will have more hot heads.  At a time when innovative and systematic thinking will be needed, we will have sloggy brains flailing around in the humid murk.  Not to mention heat prostration, heat exhaustion.

One of those summers I didn't have air conditioning, so I spent as much time as possible in the cold of Eat & Park and other eating and drinking establishments, and movie theatres.  The next summer I had a room air conditioner that I carried from bedroom in the morning to office and back again at night.  That kind of heat and humidity that does not really relent at night cannot be completely blotted out with air conditioning.

These thoughts may seem strange when for example the Midwest is being smashed with another snowstorm.  But that's part of the point.  When it's actually hot you can't actually think straight. I worry about the effects of recurrent persistent high heat and humidity not only on health (something that is itself not taken seriously enough) but on mental health, on the ability to think clearly and make smart decisions.  Especially if we wait until the heat is merciless.