Saturday, August 27, 2016

258.8 - TPP headed for lame-duck showdown

TPP headed for lame-duck showdown

I have talked a number of times about this proposed, massive, 12-nation trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP for short.

There's a great deal to dislike about it, from further empowering and entrenching transnational corporations to weak environmental and food safety rules, not to mention that, like NAFTA before it, it likely would cost the US hundreds of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs, replacing them with a roughly equal number of low-paying, benefit-poor, service jobs.

It's unpopular enough not only that Bernie Sanders was able to make it a centerpiece of his campaign to a degree that ultimately forced Hillary Clinton to come out in opposition to it but that grassroots Dems are making life difficult for the relatively small number of Congressional Dems who still try to defend it.

So why do I bring this up again, now?

Because Barack Obama is all-out for it, regarding it as a major part of his legacy. And so he has put Congress on notice that he will be sending lawmakers a bill to implement the agreement. The action establishes a 30-day minimum before the bill can be presented, but that's irrelevant because there is no way the White House is going to introduce it in the middle of a campaign where both major party candidates along with Jill Stein of the Green Party oppose it and few Dems will aggressively support it.

What this means instead is that he has in this way telegraphed his intention to try to jam the pact through Congress during the lame-duck session after the election, when political pressure from the public is at its lowest because it is the furthest point from an election and public attention will be distracted by the shiny penny of the transition to a new president.

Now, Clinton, the likely winner in the fall, has declared she is against the TPP and against voting on it both before the election and during the lame-duck session, and liberal and progressive groups are gearing up for a lame-duck fight. So there is a good chance, at least a decent chance, that a move to pass TPP then will fail, particularly since a good number of GOPpers in the House are pledged against it if only to block something just because Obama wants to pass it. A clear case of right thing, wrong reason.

But that doesn't mean the fight will be over, even then. There remain troubling questions about Hillary Clinton's true stand on TPP.

There was, for example, the statement back in January by Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue that once elected, Clinton would flip back to supporting the TPP.

More recently, there was the statement last month from Clinton bestie Terry McAuliffe that once in office, a few tweaks would enable Clinton to support the pact, a position also taken by some academic experts on international trade.

Her VP pick, Tim Kaine, is a "free trade" zealot who has been the Senate's most fanatical supporter of the TPP.

And most recently, she has picked former Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a big fan of both the TPP and fracking, to be the chair of her presidential transition team.

So gear up, folks, we are in this for the long haul. Even given Clinton every benefit of the doubt, even assuming the absolute sincerity of her current statements, the corporations and their allies, those with the inside track for access, will not stop pushing. Neither can we.

Sources cited in links:

258.7 - Colombia and FARC sign peace deal

Colombia and FARC sign peace deal

One of the terrors of doing a weekly show is that something truly worth noting will appear just barely too late to make it before deadline and by the time another week has passed the news seems too old to dwell on.

It happened twice this week. Earlier in the show I talked about the Turkish incursion into Syria, the news of which I learned as I was preparing the show.

Now, literally as I was wrapping up and preparing my notes to record the show in the morning, comes the news that after four years of negotiations, Colombia and the rebel group called FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, that is, in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have reached a final peace deal to end an internal war that has gone on for more than 50 years, killed more than 220,000 people, and driven 5 million more from their homes.

The deal still has to be approved in a plebiscite scheduled for October 2, so it's not a done deal for certain, but it's hard to imagine why anyone other than a bitter dead-ender would say no.

This was one of the world's longest-running and bloodiest armed conflicts. And now it looks like it's ending. And I was damned if I was going to wait a week to say that and maybe not have the chance.

Sources cited in links:

258.6 - Clown Award: Jan Brewer

Clown Award: Jan Brewer

Now for one of our regular features; this is the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer for an attempt at being clever that was so lame that it should be one one of those YouTube "fail" compilations.

On August 16, during an interview with Phoenix radio station KTAR, Brewer said that
"People want a fighter. They're tired of the lying killer, uh Hillary Clinton and Bill Clintons of the world."
When she was called out about this, about the "lying killer," she said "I was trying to say Hillary Clinton. It was a stumble of the tongue. Good grief."

An available audio clip of the quote proves that to be a lie. There is no slur, no eliding, no hesitation, the words are crisp and clear and even the "uh" shows only the slightest hesitation. This was no stumble, this was intentional. This was planned.

Jan Brewer
Now, you know I don't think a whole lot of Hillary Clinton's dedication to total honesty, particularly when it comes to things affecting her political ambitions, and you know that I have noted that her record and her words mark her as more of a militarist who will be quicker to go to war than Obama ever was, and his drone wars in multiple nations and boots on the ground that aren't boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria are bad enough. But she is not the issue here, Jan Brewer is.

And the question is, just how stupid, just how lame, do you have to be to think that saying "lying killer, uh Hillary Clinton" is in any way clever and how much stupider, how much lamer, do you have to be to think that anyone is going to believe it was "a stumble of the tongue?"

Apparently, you have to be as stupid and lame as a typical right-winger, snickering over Brewer's bon mot because you know it was no "stumble" and hopelessly devoid of anything that could be called wit or a sense of humor that isn't based on cruelty and sneering.

That is, you would have to be like Jan Brewer: a clown.

Sources cited in links:

258.5 - Why Turkey sent tanks into Syria

Why Turkey sent tanks into Syria

Let's get to this quickly. No way am I going to try to do an in-depth commentary on what's going on in Syria; that would take an entire book and I expect in the future it will be the subject of several.

But I did want to make a quick comment on news which I expect you heard and came as I was preparing this show: On August 24, Turkey sent tanks and troops into northern Syria. The purpose, or at least the claimed purpose, which was surely a good part of the purpose but just as surely not all of it, was to support a Syrian rebel force in pushing Daesh - that is, ISIS - out of the town of Jarablus, which was the last stronghold ISIS had on the Syrian-Turkish border.

The push was also supported by the US-led coalition - which means by the US - which conducted eight airstrikes as part of the operation, signaling US support for the Turkish incursion.

Within hours, the so-called Free Syrian Army, one of the many Syrian rebel groups and one backed by Turkey, had captured the town.

But why did Turkey act now? Writing at Foreign Policy magazine, Faysal Itani of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council noted that Turkey's war on ISIS has been "inconsistent" and suggests that something more than striking a blow against ISIS is involved.

That "something more" is why I wanted to raise this now, even before the dust has settled.

A senior US official told CNN that the US's assessment is that Turkey's cross-border action is not so much about stopping ISIS as it is about stopping the Kurds. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, which is backed by the US, played a major role in driving ISIS out of the northern Syrian town of Manbij in mid-August. From there, the YPG, the military arm of the Democratic Union Party, looked to move on Jarablus, about 40km, or 25 miles, north.

And that, the US official said, is when Turkey got interested. "The Turks never cared about Jarablus until the Kurds wanted to get there," the official said.

The thing is, the PYD and the Turks share a common enemy in ISIS - but Turkey regards the PYD as a terrorist group and says it is linked to Turkey's own Kurdish insurgents, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, against which Turkey is now pursuing a scorched-earth policy in southeastern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will never allow a Kurdish-held area along its border.

So sum up: The US, Turkey, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, are all fighting ISIS in Syria. The US supports the PYD, which some have called the single most effective force against ISIS in the conflict. However, Turkey, which is also a US ally, regards the PYD as a terrorist group linked to an internal group in Turkey which Ankara also labels as terrorist.

Looking at those sorts of conflicting alignments, Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent, calls the Turkish incursion "a gamble in a dangerous game."

Turkey can act against ISIS, he wrote, "but if this is a mask for an assault on Syrian Kurds then it will be opposed by both the US and Russia," because not only does the US support the PYD, Russia has been appreciative of the Kurds' cooperation with the Russian air campaign in Syria. So an assault on Syrian Kurds could well have unknowable effects on the region.

And indeed, even while Turkey fired artillery at ISIS in Jarablus in preparation for the ground attack, it also shelled Kurdish fighters north of Manbij to hinder or block their movement toward Jarablus.

The Turkish foreign minister says his country wants the PYD to return to the east side of Syria's Euphrates River, which would mean not only forgetting about Jarablus, which lies on the west bank of the river, but leaving Manbij. "Otherwise," he said, "we will do what is necessary."

It is indeed a gamble in a place where, as Cockburn says, things are so complex that participants have great difficulty in telling who their friends are or even where their own best interests lie.

And that is always a dangerous place to be.

Sources cited in links:

258.4 - Footnote: The US is the only nation to imprison children for life without parole

Footnote: The US is the only nation to imprison children for life without parole

I mentioned that the US imprisons more children than any other nation. It goes beyond that: The US is the only nation in the entire world that will sentence children to life in prison without parole.

As of 2012, there were over 2500 people in prison sentenced to, in effect, ;live and die in prison for crimes they committed as children. In several states, that sentence was mandatory for certain crimes.

But in that year, ,in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that that was unconstitutional, that sentencing rules had to take account of the fact that these are children.

As a result, some states dropped the practice entirely but some others still allowed for it as an option and some said the decision only applied to future cases, not past ones, so those already under such death-in-prison sentences were stuck.

So there were still about 2300 such cases when in January of this year the Supreme Court ruled that the earlier decision is indeed retroactive and do requires new sentencing hearings for everyone serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for an offense committed when they were under 18.

Which is good, obviously, but remember this does not mean that life without parole sentences for children have been banned, only that they can't be mandatory and so some states still have it as an option.

Which means in turn that the US remains the only nation in the world that has laws on the books that would lock up a child in prison for the rest of their life.

Sources cited in links:

258.3 - Not Good News: phaseout does not apply to "immigrant detention centers"

Not Good News: phaseout does not apply to "immigrant detention centers"

What, however, is not good news is that the DOJ's directive has a massive, a truly giant, loophole.

The announcement does not apply to the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland because it and the DOJ are separate departments.

And it is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which I think is a remarkably appropriate acronym and which is part of the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, which oversees the nation's network of immigrant detention centers. Which means, then, that those centers are beyond the reach of the DOJ.

But is is those centers that along with the war on drugs are responsible for the dramatic growth of the private prison industry in the United States, immigrant detention centers - prisons because hey, if you can't leave, it's prison no matter what they call it - detention centers that are holding immigrants, migrants, refugees; families, parents, children, babies; people who for the most part have committed no crime except, perhaps, crossing the border without all the required paperwork; people too often held in deplorable conditions.

In fact, the agency has 46 privately-run, profit-seeking, immigrant detention centers accounting for more than 70 percent of all ICE beds. That was an increase from 62 percent just last year and from 49 percent in 2009.

Imprisoning immigrants has become so central to the profits of the private prison companies involved that they have directly lobbied for harsher immigration policies involving more prison for more immigrants, including one of the more shocking requirements I bet you have never heard of: the congressional immigrant detention quota, under which ICE is required to hold an average 34,000 people in detention every day, need or cause apparently not being deciding factors. Just numbers.

Just as in the federal system, the problems with and conditions at these centers were no secret, having been reported on numerous times and having lead to repeated hunger strikes. But unlike in the federal system, the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland has made no move to improve or change things, despite promises to do so.

Then again, why should it? The people affected are, after all, just a bunch of foreigners.

Sources cited in links:

258.2 - Good News: federal private prisons to be phased out

Good News: federal private prisons to be phased out

Another bit of good news; actually it's pretty tepid good news for reasons which will become clear. It's something you may have heard about but to understand both why it's good and why it's really not so much takes a bit of background.

One of the issues that has sort of percolated in the background and that even bubbled up a bit during the primaries is that of mass incarceration in the US, the fact that we imprison a greater part of our population than any other nation. And I note here once for all that in this case I am not going to get into the racial and racist aspects of the move to mass imprisonment. For now, I'm just going to be dealing with the numbers.

With just 5 percent of the world's population, the US holds 25 percent of its inmates. Between local, state, and federal jails and prisons, there are over 2.3 million people in cages in the US, many of them for nonviolent offenses and many of those in local jails are people who have not been convicted of anything and are "guilty" only of being too poor to make bail.

We imprison more men, more women, and more children than any other nation on the planet.

During the "get tough on crime" days of the 1980s and '90s, the rate of incarceration in the US more than tripled: Between 1980 and 2010, the prison population went from 220 per 100,000 people to 731 per 100,000, with the rate continuing to rise even as crime rates declined, as they have since the early 1990s. Much of that increase was driven by the so-called "war on drugs," which Nixon-aid John Ehrlichman admitted was actually started as a war on the antiwar left and the black community, but that is, again, a discussion for another time.

That explosion in the prison population lead to an explosion of something else: private, profit-oriented prisons, making contracts with state and federal agencies to build and staff prisons at, they swore, lower cost per prisoner because of course private profit is going to do a better job than any government agency could, another idea running rampant in the period.

By the end of 2015, roughly 12 percent of the federal inmate population, about 22,000 prisoners, was being housed in these private facilities, run by just just three different contractors who had received a total of $639 million in federal contracts.

There have been questions about using profit-based prisons all along, with various prison-reform and civil rights groups calling for an end to them, a position which got more attention when during the primaries Bernie Sanders made enough noise about abolishing them that he embarrassed Hillary Clinton into saying first that she would no longer accept campaign donations from private prison lobbyists and then later that, quoting her, "we should end private prisons and private detention centers."

The good news here is that we have taken one small step in that direction.

In a blistering report earlier this month, the Department of Justice's inspector general states that the Bureau of Prisons has failed in its core mission to incarcerate individuals in facilities "that are safe, humane, cost-efficient and secure."

In its wake, department officials have concluded that, in the words of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the private, profit-making facilities "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and they do not maintain the same level of safety and security" as compared to those run by the government.

In fact, assaults by inmates on other inmates, by inmates on staff, and by staff on inmates were all significantly higher in the private prisons than in the government-run ones.

So the DOJ has announced that department officials are either to decline to renew or "substantially reduce" the contracts for private prison operators when they expire. The goal, according to Yates, is "reducing - and ultimately ending - our use of privately operated prisons."

The problems at private facilities were hardly a secret, and Yates said officials had been talking for months about discontinuing their use. But until now, the DOJ had failed to act.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, called the move "a huge deal," both "historic and groundbreaking" because it is "a startling and major reversal" of the trend over the last 35 years toward more and more private prisons. It is a move, he said, "we hope will be followed by others."

But it's the reference to "others" that reveals why this is just tepid good news: Only a small portion of the people in prison in the US are in the federal prison system, which is the only one affected by the newly-issued order. Most inmates are in state prisons, and those prisons are unaffected by the new policy and so private prisons in those states continue to operate with those states' blessings - often at the behest of and to the benefit of lobbyists carrying campaign donations in their bags.

Still, experts said the new DOJ directive is significant and the hope is that once the dam of resistance to the end of prison-for-profit is broken, more such significant moves on other levels of the criminal justice system will follow.

It could be - and has been - noted that this actually does nothing, at least directly, about mass incarceration. But if we can do away with or at the least sharply limit the notion of prisons as a profit center for corporations looking to cut costs to increase profits, and we can decide as a people that if we want to confine people in cages as a punishment then we should be prepared to bear the cost of doing it and so start making a cost-benefit analysis of imprisonment, we will quickly realize both that in the vast majority of cases prison is not the best answer and that our "war on drugs" which has sparked much of the increase in the prison population has been a total failure - and so, it is to be hoped, we can start making better decisions about matters of crime and punishment.

And that possibility surely is good news.

Sources cited in links:

258.1 - Good News: Being good to employees pays off

Good News: Being good to employees pays off

Let's tart off with some good news in the form of an update; consider it a dose of feel-good news.

Back in April 2015, Dan Price, the founder and owner of a credit card processing company called Gravity Systems, and I talked about this at the time, shocked his employees by announcing that over the course of the next three years he was going to raise the minimum pay at his company to $70,000 a year - an amount at least $22,000 above the current average at the company.
He would pay for this, he said, by cutting his own yearly salary from about $1 million to $70,000 and using 75-80% of anticipated profits.

The right wing of course hated the idea, called it nothing but a publicity stunt, labeled it "pure, unadulterated, socialism," and predicted the 130 employees of the company would soon be on welfare. It'll never work, they said, instead it would wind up serving as a case study in how socialism is doomed to eternal failure.

So as you might have guessed, the update is on how the company is doing.

Pretty good, in fact.

Business volume is up 30%. Profits are up 85%. Client retention is up. About the only thing down is employee turnover.

In fact, things are good enough this summer, the employees pitched in and bought Dan Price a car - not just any car, but a Tesla battery-operated car, the average sale price of which, perhaps significantly, is $70,000.

Remember, of course, that this is still a business. It still aims to make a profit. But what Dan Price has shown is that consciously and deliberately being good to your employees - in fact, being very good to them - is not the losing proposition we're usually told either directly or by implication that it must be and that it is possible to run a successful, profit-making business without turning into an amoral, soul-dead greed hog or a smirking little prig. It's just that is usually does.

Dan Prince's success is good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #258

Left Side of the Aisle
for the weeks of August 25 to September 7, 2016

This week:

Good News: Being good to employees pays off

Good News: federal private prisons to be phased out

Not Good News: phaseout does not apply to "immigrant detention centers"

Footnote: The US is the only nation to imprison children for life without parole

Why Turkey sent tanks into Syria

Clown Award: Jan Brewer

Colombia and FARC sign peace deal

TPP headed for lame-duck showdown

Saturday, August 20, 2016

257.4 - Some reasons for hope about climate change

Some reasons for hope about climate change

Okay. Last week I gave you a pretty bleak view about global warming, both how bad effects have become and how those effects will get worse in the not-distant future. I also promised you that this week I would offer some reasons for hope. So let's set about doing that and lift the gloom at least part way.

Start with the fact that there are some relatively recent technological advances that offer some promise in at least slowing the advance of climate change - and for reasons I'll get into a bit later, slowing the advance could be a very important achievement.

I'm going to start, however, by running down a list of some ideas for addressing climate change that actually are very bad ideas but the fact that they are being discussed indicates how serious some researchers and engineers are aware the situation is.

- Shoot sulfur into the air to reflect incoming solar radiation back to space - in other words, fake a volcanic eruption.
- Construct a "sun shade" by creating an artificial ring of small particles or spacecraft that would block some of the sun's rays from hitting the Earth, thereby reducing heating.
- Make airplane flights longer by requiring planes to fly at lower altitudes, which could reduce the formation of heat-trapping contrails - while the planes use even more fuel.
- Make clouds brighter with injections of seawater - which would reflect back more of the sun's heat but for the same reason would reduce evaporation, so when those clouds move to other areas, they will not produce the rain they would otherwise, potentially causing or worsening drought.
- Scrub the air of CO2, which makes sense if you're talking about something like the smoke stack of a coal plant. Otherwise, remember that CO2 makes up about 1/2 of 1% of the air, so scrubbing the air at a level to be effective against global warming would cost an amount equal to a good chunk of the US GDP.
- Dump iron into the ocean to stimulate the growth of algae, in the hopes the blooms will act as a major carbon sink - which won't work because as the phytoplankton sinks, other small ocean organisms consume and excrete them, recirculating the carbon back up to the ocean surface.

An idea related to that last one comes from James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which views Earth as one huge organism. He suggests artificially ramping up ocean mixing, which would stimulate the growth of carbon-munching algae, thereby sinking more carbon dioxide into the ocean. Unhappily, it runs into the same problems as the idea of dumping iron, not only that the carbon tends to get recycled back into the ocean and then to atmosphere, but adding carbon to the oceans increases their acidification.

And all of these notion share one fundamental flaw: None of them involve reducing our output of carbon, our use of fossil fuels. Rather, they aim at allowing us to continue doing so.

So how about some more serious ideas.

One is what's known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS or short. It involves physical and chemical processes to capture CO2 from emissions from industrial operations, separate it out, turn it into a liquid form, and inject it into cavities in the Earth, often depleted oil wells or formations of sandstone that containing briny groundwater. The process is difficult and expensive and there are always worries about the gas escaping from the underground rock where it is supposed to be contained.

But now, researchers working in Iceland say they have discovered a new way to trap the CO2 deep underground: by changing it into rock. Results published this week in the journal "Science" show that injecting CO2 into volcanic rocks triggers a reaction that rapidly forms new carbonate minerals - potentially locking up the carbon forever with no fear of it leaking because there is no longer a gas.

What they did was instead of injecting the CO2 into sandstone, they injected it into basalt. They thought the reactions involved to turn the CO2 into carbonate minerals such as calcite would take a long time, but were startled to discover that by their best estimates about 95% of the CO2 had been mineralized in just a year and a-half.

There are still real problems with making this economically feasible on a scale large enough to impact climate change: First is that the source of the CO2 in this case is a geothermal plant - and coal plants emit 20 times as much carbon as do geothermal plants, which means you'd need 20 times the storage capacity. Second, coal plant emissions are dirtier and no one knows if they will have the same sort of quick conversion to mineral form.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that there aren't many places in the world with basalt formations easily available from the surface: Most of the basalt is at the bottom on the ocean. Iceland is one of the exceptions.

Still, none of that takes away from the fact that scientists say the project, dubbed CarbFix, offers a ray of hope.

Meanwhile, still on the topic of CCS, a new study is showing that a material made from biomass could be 65% more effective in carbon capture, that is, in pulling carbon out of the emissions from industrial operations, than our current methods.

The material, which has been around for 10 years, is called Starbons and it is made from waste biomass including stuff like food peelings and seaweed. It has a mesoporous structure, which means it contains pores between 2 and 50 nanometers across. For comparison, the average pore on your skin is around 50,000 nanometers across, so we are talking truly tiny here. That extremely fine but still porous structure makes it excellent for the purpose of CO2 scrubbing, the first step in CCS.

It's other advantage is that while the process is expensive, it is less expensive than other methods of CCS. On the other hand, this is still CCS, remember, so it is another stop gap - but again, such stop gaps could mean more than we realize, as again, I will get to in a minute.

Because it's important to bear in mind that even without such technological advances we already have the tools to address global warming. The website Skeptical Science, which refutes the arguments used by the nanny-nanny naysayers on global warming, calls the idea that we do not today have the technology to address climate change a "myth."

That can be seen in developments around the world. Here are just a couple:

In May, Portugal did something truly significant: a combination of solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels, geothermal heat, and hydroelectric power came together and for four consecutive days, the entire country's electricity needs were supplied using nothing but renewable energy.

Three US cities - Aspen, Colorado, Burlington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas - are now powered by 100% renewable energy and 96 cities around the world have pledged to reach the same goal.

The entire nation of Denmark is aiming to have half its energy from wind by 2020 and all of its energy from renewables by 2050.

By 2018, Dutch trains will run on electricity generated by wind power.

More than 200 of the 523 coal-fired power plants in the US, just under 40%, have closed since 2009.
China is now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, but even there a change is taking place, and coal usage in China has declined by 21% since 2007.

More recently, as part of its pledge to continue to reduce its carbon emissions, China plans to include carmakers in a national carbon trading scheme to encourage the manufacture of more electric vehicles.

One of the reasons these sorts of changes can be happening is that the cost of clean, renewable energy is dropping and dropping faster than most anyone predicted, largely due, bluntly, to government support for such energy and mandates about energy efficiency. Not just in the US, but in a number of other countries, including China and Germany.

How dramatic has been the drop? In March 2011, computer scientist Ramez Naam looked at the fact that the cost of solar energy had dropped from nearly $10 a watt to about $3 a watt over two decades to predict it could drop to just 50 cents a watt by 2030. Last year, he admitted he was wrong: The cost of solar had already dropped to just over 50 cents a watt. Fifteen years early.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a company that invests in renewable energy, in 2015 solar power per unit of output cost 2/3 of 1% of it cost in 1975. Meanwhile, the number of solar installations is now 115,000 times what it was then.

That company predicts that even as coal and natural gas prices stay low, within 15 years wind and solar will be cheaper than them in many countries and cheaper in most of the world not long after. In some places where solar energy is most easily available, it is already clearly cheaper: Dubai has received a bid to supply 800 megawatts of solar power at a rate equivalent to "US 2.99 cents per kilowatt hour."

It's not just the Middle East, either: Austin, Texas, and Palo Alto, California, have signed contracts for solar-generated power at under four cents/kwh. Even if you take out the federal investment tax credit, it still comes out at seven cents/kwh, which is still well below the national average residential price for electricity, which is 12 cents/kwh.

The bottom line of all this can be found in two recent studies:

Researchers and engineers from Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley have developed a state-by-state plan to convert the entire US to 100% renewable energy by 2050, that is, in 34 years.

Even more significantly, a Greenpeace report from last fall says that it is possible for the entire world to be powered 100% by renewable energy by 2050 - including providing electricity access to the third of the world's population that now lacks it.

The prediction sounds incredible, but in the past equally dramatic Greenpeace predictions have proven accurate. In fact, the US-based Meister Consultants Group said last year that "the world's biggest energy agencies, financial institutions and fossil fuel companies for the most part seriously under-estimated just how fast the clean power sector could and would grow." But Greenpeace hasn't, which is why it's predictions have been much closer to the mark.

The plan would take a considerable investment - about $1 trillion a year - but it would also reduce fuel costs by just over $1 trillion a year, meaning the transition would essentially pay for itself.

A renewable energy future for the whole world is not a pipe dream. It is possible.

Which is why those technological advances I cited at the top about improving carbon capture and sequestration are so important. They in themselves do not reduce our use of fossil fuels or aid a transition to a renewable future - but what they and other advances can do is to help delay the onset of the worst effects of climate change.

Remember that these renewable futures, based on detailed analysis and existing technologies, have target dates of around 2050 - and last week I was telling you about major effects of climate change in the 2030s. That renewable future is, must be, our goal, but it will not arrive soon enough to avoid serious climate impacts around the world. But if new technologies about things like CCS can push those timelines for trouble back, so that, for example, instead of talking about the 2030s we're talking about the 2040s, and if we can find the will to pursue that renewable energy future, then maybe, just maybe, our children and our grandchildren won't wind up hating us for our selfishness and shortsightedness.

One last thing: The US stands nearly alone in the degree to which global climate change is controversial. Other nations might argue about the best way to respond, but I don't know of another major nation where you have significant numbers of people doubting the importance or dismissing the whole idea of global warming out of hand as a "hoax."

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication says the issue is "more politically polarizing than abortion; more politically polarizing than gay marriage."

But even here there is reason for some hope: surveys by Jon Krosnick of Stanford University show that nearly 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans believe the increase in world's temperature over the past century was mostly or partly caused by humans. What's more, 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and even half - barely half, but half - of Republicans believe global warming will be a serious or very serious problem for the United States.

And according surveys to by Yale and George Mason University, the fastest-growing segment of the population is the one that is alarmed by climate change and wants action now.

So I will end by asking you again the question I asked last week: Even allowing that blocking the worst of global warming will require some moderation in our standard of living, was the way you lived say 20 years ago so bad that you would sacrifice a world to avoid living that way again?

Because that world can be saved. We have the means, we have the technology, we have the money. The only question is if we have the will.

Sources cited in links:

Friday, August 19, 2016

257.3 - Milwaukee: learning the wrong lessons

Milwaukee: learning the wrong lessons

On Saturday, August 13, a black man named Sylville Smith was shot and killed by a cop in Milwaukee.

The anger that erupted in response lead to two days of violence in the streets of the city, with businesses and cars trashed, rocks and bricks thrown, guns fired in what's become known as the "Milwaukee uprising."

I'm not here to pass judgement on the cop: According to various sources, his body cam - the recording has not been released at the time I write this - shows that Smith was carrying a gun in his hand and that he aimed it at the cop. In those circumstances, you really can't blame the cop for firing and I don't.

What I am concerned about is the reaction to the reaction, the reaction, that is, to the anger in the streets. I fear that - as happens all too often - we will learn all the wrong lessons from this, draw all the comforting but deeply wrong conclusions.

This explosion of anger and frustration - which is what riots are - was decades in the making. It reflects deep-seeded and long-standing ills and pain.

But I fear we won't say that. We won't say this is a call to justice, a call to repair the social fabric, a call to alleviate suffering, a call to challenge bigotry.

I fear that instead of blaming racism and injustice and poverty and desperation, we will blame - as some already have - the "underclass" and its "behaviors." We will blame "tribal behavior." We will blame "outside agitators" - one official even specifically named the Revolutionary Communist Party from Chicago.

We will hear about "cop haters" and people who just "want to riot, to steal and loot."

We will be told over and over in statements full of tut-tuts and clicking tongues how "violence solves nothing" as if hunger, unemployment, and police brutality were not themselves violent and by implication how passive acquiescence - that is, "don't bother me" with your troubles - solves everything because it allows us to ignore those problems.

I fear, that is, that even as the roots of the anger are getting some notice in the media, even as some attention is being paid to the long-standing pain in Milwaukee, that it will be just another blip on our social and political radar and we will at the end of the day chalk it up to how "those people don't know how to behave."

And so relearn all the wrong lessons.

Sources cited in links:

257.2 - Clown Award: Rudy Giuliani

Clown Award: Rudy Giuliani

Now for one of our regular features; this is the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

Okay, picking this week's clown was ... interesting. I had a couple of candidates but one stood out so clearly that days before doing the show I was sure I had my clown. But at almost the last minute he was outclassed by a pro.

So our wannabe clown is one Ken Taylor, mayor of a rural town in the southeast corner of Arizona. He received an invitation to a meeting of the US-Mexico Border Mayors Association to take place on August 24 in Laredo, Texas. The organization aims to have mayors on both side of the border "speak in one voice in Washington, DC and Mexico City," as one put it, on issues affecting them.

Taylor answered in no uncertain terms that he would NOT - in all caps - be attending because he was deeply, deeply offended by the fact that the invitation was written in both English and, quotng him, "Spanish/Mexican."

"One nation means one language," he declared, "and I am insulted by the division caused by language."

Of course, there are two nations involved here, but it seems he couldn't be bothered reading far enough to realize that, being much too busy being outraged by the fact that anyone would or would want to be able to speak a language other than English.

His defense, no surprise, was to blame the media for taking things "out of context."

Okay, so what was the context that he says was ignored? Taylor said his greatest objection is that the by trying to arrange cooperation among mayors on both sides of the border, the organization is "giving away US sovereignty and making America subservient to Mexico."

Oh yeah, well, that's much different.

By the way, Taylor is mayor of Huachuca City, "huachuca" being an Apache word meaning "thunder mountain." And Huachuca City is in Cochise County. Just what is the "one language" Taylor thinks we should all be speaking?

Okay, given that, how in heaven's name could he not be this week's clown? Because it came in the same week as a true gem.

So the Big Red Nose this week goes to perpetual loudmouth Rudy Giuliani.

On August 15, introducing TheRump at a campaign event in Youngstown, Ohio, Giuliani declared that "Under those eight years before Obama came along, we didn't have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States. They all started when Clinton and Obama got into office."

Let's recall first that Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City on September 11, 2001. Let's recall next that he tried to run for president in 2008 with a campaign that consisted mostly statements that, as Joe Biden famously put it, "contain a noun, a verb, and '9/11.'"

So whose fault was this latest bit of numbskullery? You know already: it was the media, for failing to realize he was using "abbreviated language," that he meant "the eight years since 9/11" even though that's not what he said. And in fact, several outlets actually jumped to his support over the next day, noting that yes, he had mentioned 9/11 in his speech before he had his senior moment.

Rudy Giuliani
So yeah, okay, the years since 9/11, those were the "eight years before Obama came along." Except, of course, Obama was elected in November 2008, just over seven years after 9/11, not eight, and became president two months later. So maybe it's not his memory that is failing Rudy, it's his skills at basic arithmetic.

But no, a likelier explanation is that he did not forget 9/11, he forgot when it happened - because, like all good right-wing jackasses, it's part of his religion that George Bush could not have been responsible for 9/11. It had to be somebody else's fault.

But even granting all of that, even cutting him all that slack, he is still a doofus.

After 9/11 but before Obama became president, there were at least four attacks on US soil that were declared by the FBI to be Islamist terrorist attacks or were carried out by people who said they were driven by such an ideology. And there are others from the same period which may have been driven by an extreme Islamist ideology.

On top of all of that there is the fact that Rudy the G deliberately limited his oh-so-deep concern about terrorism to "radical Islamic" terrorism because as we all know, no other sort of terrorism counts, no other sort is worthy of attention, no other sort has victims important enough to be recognized - at least by Rudy Giuliani.

So no matter how you look at it, Rudy Giuliani, who earlier this month found TheRump's statement that Obama is the "founder of ISIS" to be "legitimate political commentary," is exactly what he has proved himself to be over these last nearly 15 years: a total clown.

Sources cited in links:

257.1 - Good News: Belize court knocks down anti-gay law

Good News: Belize court knocks down anti-gay law

We've got some Good News to start the week on a topic we haven't touched on much recently and while this actually doesn't affect the US, at least directly, it is evidence of a continuing change in attitudes in a number of places and I think it's good enough or at least happy enough to be worthy of mention.

On August 10, the chief justice of Belize, one Kenneth Benjamin, ruled that a section of the Belize criminal code which barred "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" contravenes the guarantees in the Belize constitution that every citizen has the right to dignity, privacy, and equal treatment under the law.

Technically, the law does not single out gay men, but that's how it has been understood and that is how it has been applied.

Under Belize's system, Justice Benjamin does not have the power to repeal the law, but he can - and did - make it essentially unenforceable.

Which yeah, I think is good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #257

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of August 18-24, 2016

This week:

Good News: Belize court knocks down anti-gay law

Clown Award: Rudy Giuliani

Milwaukee: learning the wrong lessons

Some reasons for hope about climate change

Sunday, August 14, 2016

256.4 - A dark overview of the effects of climate change: the future

A dark overview of the effects of climate change: the future

It's time to take this out of discussions of numbers and years and talk about what global climate change means and more importantly will mean to the environment and to people around the world.

In fact, global warming is already wreaking havoc with ecosystems around the world. It has, for one thing, triggered the third recorded global coral bleaching, and in Australia 93% of the reefs along the 2,300km Great Barrier Reef have been affected by bleaching. In the northern parts of the reef, it's believed the majority of coral is dead, and on some reefs over 90% of the coral is dying.

For another, the National Center for Atmospheric Research says that climate change has caused a drop in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans. (The warmer the water, the less oxygen it can hold.) The effect is already discernible in some parts of the world and should become evident across large parts of the ocean during the 2030s, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other types of marine life struggling to breathe.

Some types of fish off the south coast of California are feeling the effects already. These fish are not considered commercially valuable, so not a lot of attention had been paid to their decline, but they are part of the food chain that supports other species of marine life.

For a third, consider the Solomon Islands, a sparsely populated archipelago of more than 900 islands east of Papua New Guinea. They are low-lying, with the highest points on some of the islands being no more than several feet above sea level.

According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, five of the Solomon Islands have completely disappeared under water since 1947, which was about the time the dramatic warming that marked the latter part of the 20th century got going. The most recent case of losing an island to the sea came in 2011.

Another six islands have lost more than 20% of their surface area, forcing communities to relocate as the shoreline closes in on their homes and islanders now face the likelihood of having to relocate Taro, a provincial capital. That will involve moving major infrastructure in health, education, sewage, and electricity services and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars which the islanders can't afford.

Those and other changes in climate and ecosystems have other, follow-on effects.

Warming temperatures will allow disease-spreading insects to spread to much wider areas. Threats now confined to the tropics will likely become problems at higher latitudes both north and south.

In fact, the American College of Physicians says that climate change is already harming people's health by promoting illnesses linked to warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns. They report that respiratory illnesses, heat stroke, and infectious diseases like Zika virus, dengue fever, and cholera are flourishing as global temperatures rise.

Other researchers point to tick-borne diseases such as babaseosis and Lyme disease or even anthrax, which killed 2000 reindeer in 2016 - along with killing one child and sickening 23 other people - after a 75-year-old carcass thawed. Some even point to the risk of so-called "zombie diseases," bacteria long frozen in the tundra which could still be viable, such as one that was discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2015, still infectious after being frozen for 30,000 years. That particular one is harmless to humans - but it raises the clear possibility that there are others out there which aren't, that we potentially could be facing diseases with which humans have not had to deal for several millennia or longer. Shades of the X-Files.

Rising global temperatures have also been clearly linked to increasing waterborne food poisoning as the bacterium vibrio, which can make people sick from eating undercooked seafood or drinking or just swimming in tainted water, and which needs warm water to live, is spreading into new regions with the warming waters.

And as disease spreads, food shrinks. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford predicts that global warming will decimate nutritious crops, killing as many as half a million people every year by 2050 as the result of reductions in fruit and vegetable supplies.

Here at home in the US, the California drought is probably the best-known local example of the impact of climate change. We've seen the photos of the dried-up marinas and the almost-gone lakebeds. But what's less well-known is the disparate impact on low-income communities as the impacts of drought deepen and the cost of water goes up.

Because of course the poor bear the brunt of the impact. And it - as it shouldn't be necessary to say - of course that is true not only here.

A World Bank report from last fall said that absent aggressive efforts to help the poor, "Climate change could result in an additional 100 million people living in extreme poverty by 2030."

The researchers found that when they asked, people list three major factors in why they fell into poverty: "Agricultural shocks, including an increase in food prices; natural disasters such as floods, droughts, storms; and health issues, including malaria, diarrhea."

All of which come with global warming and in ample supply: The report itself referred to studies showing climate change could result in global crop yield losses as large as 5 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2080 - that is, the world would be producing 30% less food than it does now - and studies showing warming temperatures could increase the number of people at risk for malaria by 150 million.

The report also found that the "hotspots" for climate impacts on poor people were sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

At the same time, Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and a professor at the Cyprus Institute, says the annual number of extremely hot days in Northern Africa and the Middle East, where 500 million people live, has doubled since 1970 and "the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy."

He says that by mid-century, the number of extremely hot days could rise from the current average of 16 to 80 - and if fossil fuel use is not cut back, the number of days of extreme heat, we're talking 122F or 50C, could reach 200 per year.

Such prolonged heat waves coupled with desert dust storms increased by the heat could render parts of the region uninhabitable.

That's the future we are facing, that is the future we are risking with our inaction: a future of disease, hunger, drought here and floods there, 100 million more people in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East uninhabitable from the heat, coastal cities awash with sea water, and millions - tens of millions, scores of millions - of environmental refugees.

We are facing, in short, mass social chaos on an international level.

The United Nations Environment Program has found that over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse, that is, to relapse into violence and blood.

That study, yes, concerned itself with internal conflicts. But are we really going to think that those types of conflicts, conflicts over resources such as access to food, to water, to energy, have stopped or ever will stop at national boundaries? Are we really going to think that the pressure of dealing with a sea of refugees is not going to create a tinderbox of xenophobia even among those nations making at first an honest attempt to deal with them? If you wonder about that, just consider how quickly Europe's welcome for Syrian refugees has worn thin and realize that the numbers involved there would be swamped by those driven from their homes by climate change, by flood, by drought, by hunger, by sheer heat.

And as you contemplate that world of perhaps, just to take a middle figure, 30 to 50 years in the future, that world of both ecological disruption and social disorder on a world scale, that world of conflict, of struggle for the basic resources of life and civilization, remember one other thing:

There are today, right now, over 5,000 nuclear weapons deployed - actually deployed, not in storage or whatever, but deployed - across nine nations.

I have, as I said I would, drawn a very dark picture. But it is not hopeless and next week I promise to discuss some of the reasons for that, some social or political, some technological.

But the truth is, heading off the worst effects of global climate change will require some moderation in the standard of living for those of us in the industrialized world, those of us who have drawn the most benefit from our indifference to the long term.

So for the moment, until next week, I want you to think about where we are headed right now and I want you ask yourself a question: Think about, say 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or heck if you're an old fart like me think back to the '60s, and ask yourself if the way you lived then, if the level of technology and convenience you lived with then, ask yourself if that was so horrible that you would sacrifice a world to avoid living that way again.

Sources cited in links:

Saturday, August 13, 2016

256.3 - A dark overview of the effects of climate change: now

A dark overview of the effects of climate change: now

I promised myself that I would talk some about global warming* this week. It's one of those vital topics that is always percolating in the background but all too often  - usually, even - gets drowned out by the shout of some spiking event or interest. Kind of like (to show how technologically out of touch I am) something that keeps getting posted to Reddit but never gets to the first page.

But it is something that should have and maintain our interest because of its importance both now and in the future. And contrary to what you would think if you relied on the corporate media's notion of what's important, which now consists mostly of what's the latest dumb thing Donald TheRump said and who's ahead in which poll in which state, and which when they can be bothered to address global climate change it consists mostly of some version of this-one-said-this-and-the-other-one-said-this as if there really was some scientific controversy about this, despite what that would make you think, it is getting worse.

I'm going to talk about that and I warn you in advance I am going to paint a very dark picture.

Start with the simple fact that 2015 was the hottest year by far in the historical record, breaking the record set way, way back in 2014.

Four major agencies in three countries track temperature records, each using their own data sets and their own methodology. They are, in the US, NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which have records dating to 1880; the Met office, which is the UK's national weather and climate service and has records dating to 1850; and the Japan Meteorological Agency, whose records date since 1891. All four said 2015 was the warmest on record and by a long shot.

(For the US in particular, according to NOAA, 2015 was the second-warmest year on record for the lower 48 states, second only to 2012.)

More significantly, according to NOAA's annual State of the Climate Report, released August 2, surface heat was not the only record set: 2015 also showed the highest CO2 levels, the highest sea surface temperatures, the highest level of heat in the upper oceans, the highest ocean levels, and the record low extent of Arctic sea ice.

What's more, the heat levels measured in the first months of 2016 all but guarantee that barring some dramatic turnaround, 2016 will be the hottest year on record and probably will break the 2015 record by a margin even greater than that by which 2015 beat out 2014.

Meanwhile, glacial melt in Greenland is accelerating and new research published in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature says that Antarctica’s vast ice cap is less stable than previously thought.

Glacial melt
Previous forecasts were that the world's seas could rise as much as a meter - about three and a-quarter feet - by the end of the century. But those forecasts did not take into account any melt from Antarctica, where increasing snowfall was expected to keep the ice sheet in balance. That is, any ice lost would be replaced by increasing snowfall so that the net loss of ice from Antarctica would be zero and so have no impact on sea levels.

This new study reveals that that assumption is incorrect and unless there is a major reduction on the use of fossil fuels, the actual rise could be double the previous forecast: around two meters or about 6-1/2 feet, a rise which could swamp many coastal cities.

And now, in what has to be considered an ominous event, a long-predicted and feared feedback loop may be making an appearance. A feedback loop, just in case you don't know even though I expect you do, it one where an effect of a process causes more of that same process. A causes B, but having more B means you get more A, which causes more B, and so on.

Here, the feared feedback loop is that the warming climate would result in the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground - it's not ice, it's ground. As it thaws, soil decomposition accelerates, which releases methane as a natural byproduct.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is 30 times more powerful than is CO2 but because there is so little of it compared to the amount of CO2, it hasn't had nearly the impact. But as more is released as the permafrost thaws, there is more warming, which melts more permafrost, which releases more methane, and so on and so on until a tipping point is reached where a self-reinforcing cycle takes over.

One related fear has been the development of methane "burps" where instead of the slow release from decomposition there is a sudden release of methane that had been trapped below the surface. That fear may be coming to pass.

On the remote Belyy Island in the Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, researchers have found patches of trembling or bubbling grass-covered ground. When the researchers prodded such mounds with their feet, they described them as like "jelly." When the mounds were punctured they released carbon dioxide at a concentration 20 times above the normal level of concentration and methane at 200 times the normal level.

Now to be accurate, we can't say for certain that this is caused by global warming, particularly since there aren't temperature records for the region to see if Belyy Island is warming. But it is what you would expect if a feedback loop of melting permafrost releasing methane which adds to warming was getting under way.

After the Paris Climate Summit last December, much was made over a provision in the final agreement setting a goal of a maximum of a 1.5C increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial times. That's significantly below for former target of 2C, which really was just a guidepost to try to head off the worst effects. This new goal, we were told, indicated how serious the governments of the world were in dealing with climate change.

Unfortunately, it was a meaningless exercise in political feel-good:

- Based on the data gathered by meteorologist Ed Hawkins from the Reading University, the average global temperature as the new limit is declared is already 1C over pre-industrial levels and there were even instances where the temperature reached 1.38C over that level.

- Researcher and professor Chris Field from Stanford University said the 1.5C goal "now looks impossible or at the very least, very, very difficult."

- Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, calls the 1.5C target "wishful thinking," saying "I don't know if you'd get 1.5C if you stopped emissions today" because of the inertia in the climate system. That is, the stuff we've already put out there would keep the planet warming for some years even if we totally stopped using fossil fuels immediately. We are locked in to it getting warmer than it is.

What's even more, the actual pledges nations made to cut their emissions not only are non-binding, they would, according the the UN's own analysis, lead to a temperature increase of 2.7C by the end of the century, a third higher than the old target and 80% higher than the new one.

All we get is talk-talk while the world is sick with fever.

And we are going to talk more about this after the break.

*Okay, it shouldn't be necessary to say this but I suppose from time to time it should be: You will sometimes run into nanny-nanny naysayers who try to make much out of the fact that a fair number of folks now talk about "climate change" rather than "global warming," treating the shift as if they had uncovered some nefarious plot.

So for the record: The two terms are synonyms. They mean the same thing, refer to the same set of effects, are based on the same scientific facts and observations.

Some folks don't like "global warming" because they think it implies that everywhere will get warmer and by the same amount, which is not what will happen: Some areas will gain more heat than others and some may even cool because of changing weather patterns, even as the Earth's overall average surface temperature rises. Others don't like "climate change" because it doesn't say how the climate is changing. If we were experiencing global cooling, it would still be climate change even as the environmental effects would be significantly different.

I use the terms interchangeably. If you do meet one of those nanny-nanny naysayers, don't be distracted.

Sources cited in links:
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