Saturday, July 28, 2007

Conflict heats up

The effects of global warming, some now say, can already be seen - in Darfur. But the reference in this case is not to the environmental effects, but to the social and cultural ones, to the potential for conflict. The Christian Science Monitor discussed it on Friday:
Competition for water - in refugee camps, between farmers and herders, and between countries - has long sparked conflict in the arid region and forms one of the main causes of the war in Sudan's Darfur region. But the trouble is only beginning, as it becomes clear that dramatic climate change will have its sharpest effects in Africa, leading to rising hardship, massive population displacement, and, in some cases, all-out war.
Decades of drought marked by rainfall that has dropped by 40% over the past 50 years and has left Lake Chad a mere one-tenth its original size have forced Arab nomads to range further south ahead of advancing desertification in search of water for their stocks. The inevitable result has been bloodshed amid increasing competition for decreasing resources. Some point directly to global warming as a cause.
British Home Secretary John Reid pointed to global warming as a key factor behind the conflict in Darfur. "The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur," he said. "We should see this as a warning sign."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also joined the climate-change bandwagon, writing in a Washington Post opinion page column, "The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change."
"Bandwagon" is a rather pejorative term, especially considering that he had good cause for his statement: An 18-month study of Sudan by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), released a month ago, confirmed that
[t]he conflict in Darfur has been driven by climate change and environmental degradation, which threaten to trigger a succession of new wars across Africa unless more is done to contain the damage,
The Guardian (UK) reported at the time.

Still, not all are convinced: CSM says that activists in the Save Darfur Coalition say that the climate-change argument is just an attempt to absolve Sudan's government of its role in supplying and directing janjaweed militias in their murderous attacks against black villages.

But frankly, as much as I support the work of the Coalition, I don't buy the accusation. I have to say that I see no contradiction whatsoever between noting that climate factors played a role in initiating the conflict and denouncing the viciousness and cruelty that have been shown by the janjaweed and their Sudanese backers. Ignoring issues of resource depletion and competition in starting wars only condemns us to even more of them than we would see otherwise.

Stargeek: Atlantis

AP reported on Thursday that
[r]esearchers in northern Greece have uncovered two massive tusks of a prehistoric mastodon that roamed Europe more than 2 million years ago — tusks that could be the largest of their kind ever found.

The remains of the mastodon, which was similar to the woolly mammoth but had straighter tusks as well as different teeth and eating habits, were found in an area about 250 miles north of Athens where excavations have uncovered several prehistoric animals over the past decade.

One of the tusks measured 16-feet-4-inches long and the other was more than 15 feet long, the research team said. They were found with the animal's upper and lower jaws - still bearing teeth - and leg bones.... ...

Mastodons, an ancestor of the elephant, roamed Europe, Asia and North America, but how they became extinct remains a mystery. They are thought to have disappeared in Europe and Asia some 2 million years ago, but survived in North America until 10,000 years ago.
One of the things about such finds - besides the inherent coolness - is that they carry more information than just about the animal itself. Plants in the same vicinity and strata can tell scientists more about the environment in which the animal lived and analyzing growth rings in the tusks can yield information about the climate at the time. That notion of "everything teaches" is one of the reasons I am drawn to science.

It could be worse

Last week I finished reading a book I would recommend to others: From the Palmer Raids to the PATRIOT Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan. While reading it, I kept thinking about our current plight of "free speech zones," blocking and criminalization of dissent, and police misconduct and thinking to myself "It could be worse. In fact, it has been worse." The fact that it's not worse than it is, is largely due to that history of protest, lawsuit, and defiance.

But could it get worse? Damn straight it could. And for some in the UK it might, and soon. This lengthy quote is from The Independent (UK) for Friday.
Five million people in peaceful environmental organisations such as the National Trust and the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] have become the subject of an extraordinary legal attempt to limit their right to protest.

In legal documents seen by The Independent, the British Airports Authority has begun moves that would allow police to arrest members of 15 environmental groups to prevent them taking part in demonstrations against airport expansion. ...

Next week, in response to a demonstration due to be held outside Heathrow airport, BAA will go to the High Court to seek judicial approval for an anti-environmentalist injunction, the terms of which are so wide they have provoked astonishment among the green movement. Any one of five million people in groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England could be arrested for travelling on the London Underground or possessing a kite.

Anyone failing to give 24 hours' notice of a protest could be arrested for travelling on sections of the motorway or from standing on platforms 6 and 7 at Paddington station to catch the Heathrow Express. ...

BAA insisted it had a duty to protect the travelling public from disruption during the holiday season and was not seeking to prevent legal protest. As part of the second annual Camp for Climate Action, up to 5,000 protesters were to pitch tents for a week at or near Heathrow from 14 August in protest at plans for a third runway that would increase flights by 50 per cent. A day of peaceful direct action, such as occupying an airline office, was planned but organisers have promised not to compromise safety or inconvenience passengers.
Of course, just what constitutes a "legal protest" is left rather vague while the restrictions are clear, a rather standard method of intimidating protest: Declaring loudly you can't do this that or the other while making it equally clear there could be other ways to get in legal trouble about which you won't be told until you do it.
The protesters would be allowed to gather at three protest points on the outskirts of the airport providing they did not exceed an as yet unspecified number, and gave their names, car registration plates and advance notice. They would not be allowed to use any megaphones, klaxons or sirens or go within 100 metres of any airport operation. [Emphasis added.]
Injunctions served Monday on four protest leaders representing groups ranging from the No Third Runway Action Group to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - totaling more than five million members - would ban all members of all the groups
from setting up a camp at or in the vicinity of Heathrow and from carrying items including spades, saws, ropes, cables, aerosol cans, balloons, whistles and loudhailers [i.e., bullhorns].
In short, if the injunction gets approved, they can't demonstrate except in some small, ineffective way officials deign to allow and they can be arrested not even for demonstrating but just for being on their way to a demonstration. So yes, indeed, it could be worse.

By the way, the protests are against the plans to expand Heathrow with a third runway and increased use of the other two, raising the limit on flights per year from 480,000 to 800,000. Towns concerned about noise and villagers who would see their homes demolished by the expansion have joined with environmentalists concerned about the global warming implications of the plans to expand airports across the country.
The Government argues airport expansion is necessary to ensure continued economic growth. According to a study by Oxford Economic Forecasting last month, the planned airport expansion will increase GDP by £13bn by 2030, outweighing "climate change costs".
It would be interesting to know just how that outfit calculated "climate change costs" and just what was included within it. And whether or not the "costs" to other nations of greenhouse gases produced in or by the UK were taken into account. And if Oxford Economic Forecasting or the BAA ever asked themselves what is the logical or ethical foundation for making the future of the climate just another market commodity to be balanced against the potential for someone's economic benefit.

Actually, never mind on that last one. I expect I already know the answer.

Remember: All you have to do is elect Democrats!

And everything will be fine. Yup.

McClatchy news said on Thursday that the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources is considering revamping the 1872 law that governs mining on public lands.
The law elevates mining's significance above other use of public land, which makes it difficult for federal land management agencies to turn down applications for new mining projects. ...

Some of the proposed changes would make it easier for the government to deny mining applications. Other suggested changes include forcing mining companies to put up substantially more money to ensure that if there is environmental fallout from their work, there's a cleanup fund to tap into.

The proposed changes also include allowing the federal government to recoup royalties off mining operations, much like oil and gas exploration.
Sounds fair. Sounds reasonable. Sounds - and damn well is - long overdue.

It hasn't got a chance.
[O]pponents of changing the mining law have a firm ally in Senate Majority Harry Reid, a gold miner's son. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said Thursday that he had spoken with Reid and that the Nevada Democrat was unlikely to even consider giving the proposed changes a hearing in the Senate.
Just how bought and paid for by mining interests are the opponents? Consider that
western political leaders told [House Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Nick] Rahall and the other committee members that the economies in many western states are heavily dependent on mining, and that too many restrictions would make it too expensive for investors to consider those states.
And just where else are these mining investors going to go? First, the law covers all public lands in the whole country and according to Environmental Frontlines, "a high percentage of hardrock mining occurs on federal public lands." ("Hardrock" refers to metallic ores, including such as copper, iron, lead, zinc, gold, or silver.)

Second, this isn't like some manufacturer threatening to close a plant and build a new one somewhere else; mining operations have to take place where the stuff is in the ground. Mining companies really can't just pick up and move in search of a more favorable regulatory environment. The argument is basically bogus.

Just how bad is the law they are defending? In an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a couple of years ago, Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group was quoted as saying
"[u]nder our current regulatory system, companies can get billions of dollars of gold and other precious metals for just a fraction of [what they pay for the rights]. ... It shortchanges the public."

She cited as an example the 1994 purchase of Nevada gold-mining land worth an estimated $10 billion by Barrick Gold Corp., a Canadian company, for less than $10,000.

In another instance, an U.S. company, Phelps Dodge, last month paid $875 for 155 acres in Crested Butte, Colo., where real estate sells for up to $1 million an acre.
Earlier this month, the environmental group Earthworks noted that under the law,
individuals or corporations can stake an unlimited number of mining claims on federal public lands, and hold those claims indefinitely for as little as sixty-two cents an acre per year. As of the first quarter of 2007, mining claims cover more than 7.2 million acres of federal land. Fueled by sky-high prices for gold and the increased demands from China, claim-staking on public lands is on the rise. Over 89,000 mining claims were staked in 2006 alone, a six-fold increase over the number of claims filed in 2001. Because the 1872 Mining Law was written for a different era, claims can be staked in areas that are unsuitable for mining and in areas that provide other essential land values. [Emphasis in original.]
In short, the law is an open invitation for corporations to rip off the public with impunity, obtaining rights to public lands at prices that were considered reasonable 135 years ago.

And that's just fine with Harry Reid.

Ve are ein people

Unity'08 is this outfit that wants to nominate a "non-partisan" presidential ticket. Their website says all the standard things about bipartisanship and getting things done and the extreme badness of gridlock and political division all the rest. Sounded good to some people. But.

On Thursday, Atrios posted the text of a message he'd gotten from Unity08 inviting him to join in "studying cultural opinions at a series of unique research sessions." In order to take part, participants had to agree to six criteria. The first three were agreeing to participate as a volunteer, promising to stay for the full session, and stating that neither you nor "anyone in my household or immediate family" has "worked in advertising or market research."

Okay, that last one sounds a little odd, but I suppose fair enough so far. But catch the next three:
My mother was born in the United States;
I was born in the United States and lived in the US until at least the age of 15; and,
Both my mother and I spoke in American English when I was growing up.
What the hell? This is "unity?" This blatant, anti-immigrant, paranoid bigotry represents "unity?" To be a participant, you not only have to be a citizen, you have to be a native-born citizen. You can't be an immigrant. In fact, you can't even be a second-generation immigrant because that likely means that your mother was not born here. You are by definition excluded from these sessions.

Seems to me that Unity'08 has some curious notions about just which Americans need to be "unified."

Hell, why not limit it to Mayflower descendants? 'Course, they were immigrants too, but, well, you know....

The email continued:
As this research is unique and attendance limited we will provide details, times and places only to those we confirm for each location on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Well, of course - we can't take a chance on any of them furriners trying to crash the place.

Footnote: I expect you see why I included no link for Unity'08. You can google it if you want.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Jee-bus kay-ryst

Updated Just on Friday I noted the Congressional hearing about the unsafe levels of formaldehyde in trailers supplied by FEMA to refugees from Katrina.

Okay, also on Friday KOTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma reported this:
FEMA trailers arrive for flood victims in Miami, Oklahoma. They're intended as shelter. But are they safe? ...

We talked to Miami city officials and the FEMA spokesman in Miami. Neither of them can tell us if these trailers in Miami are the same ones that are suspect from Hurricane Katrina. ...

Miami city officials appeared to be aware of the formaldehyde concern, but flatly refused to comment until they say, they learn more from FEMA.

The FEMA spokesman stationed in Miami said he didn't know anything about the formaldehyde issue and said there was no one he could call to find out about it. He did say that none of the trailers in Miami had been given to anyone yet. ...

The people we talked to in Miami did not indicate whether the Miami trailers will be checked for unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
After the complaints, after the urgings from field staff, after the illness, and in the face of Congressional hearings, they don't even know if they're going to check the trailers. My god.

When I first wrote about Katrina, I raged about the cruel indifference that marked the response. Apparently I was wrong: It wasn't indifference, it was considered policy, one still being pursued.

Oh, wait, no, I've got it all wrong. After all, KOTV said that
David Paulison said all trailer occupants would be notified about possible dangers.
Ah. They're going to tell a family which has nowhere else to go what its members already know: The "temporary" homes in which they and 65,000 other families have been stuck for nearly two years are making them sick. Well, that's all right then.

Updated with the information that on Thursday the Centers for Disease Control issued a Health Advisory to its Health Alert Network about the problems with the trailers and stating that if anyone living in one of those trailers "presents with respiratory symptoms, formaldehyde exposure should be considered as a contributing factor." Which makes FEMA's reluctance to even check for the problem all the more outrageous. (Thanks, Donna.)

Duchamp would be proud

Today's Washington Post carried an article on a newly-released RAND study on how the US military can use Madison Avenue techniques to "market" its operations to Iraqis to create a "brand identity" that puts it in the best light.

If that in itself isn't enough to trigger a Dada alert, add the fact that the corporation got paid $400,000 for the study. Still not high enough on the bizarro-meter? Well, okay, look. If there was a world-wide competition for the Biggest "Duh!" Award, this surely would take top honors:
In an urban insurgency, for example, civilians can help identify enemy infiltrators and otherwise assist U.S. forces. They are less likely to help, the study says, when they become "collateral damage" in U.S. attacks, have their doors broken down or are shot at checkpoints because they do not speak English.
Wait. In fact, take back the "duh!" part and go back to the Dada. Because, it appears, it was necessary for the US military to be told that. It was not something the big brains at the Pentagon could figure out for themselves. But don't worry, they'll get the message - and surely apply it at the first opportunity. In, say, Iran.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Brief side trip

I don't normally get into media analysis; there are plenty of sources out there that do it, several of them at least more or less full time.

But I had to take a moment out to say in what will come as a shock to none of you, John Gibson is a bold-faced liar. (No, I am not just now discovering this.) In his column at FauxNews on Thursday, he gleefully referred to the dismissal of Valerie Plame's lawsuit against "The Big" Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Richard Armitage, and Karl Rove, describing the judge as saying "you've got no case" and "forget it."
Judge John Bates said:

"There can be no serious dispute that the act of rebutting public criticism, such as that levied by Mr. Wilson against the Bush administration's handling of prewar foreign intelligence, by speaking with members of the press is within the scope of defendants' duties as high-level executive branch officials."

In other words, the judge said to Wilson, hey, you took on the president and the vice president; they have a right to fight back. And one of the ways they are allowed to legally respond is to inform the public that the vice president of the United States did not send Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate Saddam Hussein's nuke bomb quest. It was Wilson's CIA agent wife who did it. Case closed.
Now, first off, there are of course multiple lies in that last paragraph. Actually, no make this first off: Notice that Gibson has the judge addressing Wilson, not Plame. In Gibson's fetid little world, this has nothing to do with Plame, no, not even the lawsuit; it's all about assailing Wilson, who has been "huffing and puffing for years," who "crowed" about the Libby conviction, who's "windy" and "love[s] to hear himself spew."

But getting away from the ad hominems and back to the lies, they are mostly by insinuation but no less false for that. Wilson never claimed Cheney sent him to Niger; he claimed the CIA sent him as a means of answering a question Cheney had asked - which is true. Saddam Hussein not only did not attempt to get yellowcake from Niger, he was no longer even attempting to get nuclear weapons. Valerie Plame did not send Wilson; she had no authority to do any such thing and the most she might have done was suggest his name once the issue was raised - and since he had experience and contacts in the region, he was a natural choice. It was not known that Plame was CIA, particularly that she was covert; that's why revealing her name prompted the CIA to refer the matter to the DOJ in the first place. And the case is not closed; it is likely to be appealed.

But the real distortion lies in the quote from the judge, which completely and I say deliberately twists the basis of the decision. In fact, as AP reported,
Bates dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds and said he would not express an opinion on the constitutional arguments.
Bates based his decision on federal laws such as the Privacy Act that make it very difficult to sue federal officials for damages for actions undertaken in connection with their official duties. Once he accepted the Bush-leaguers' argument that leaking Plame's identity was "within the scope of defendants' duties," the outcome was certain. Significantly, in doing so he did not address Plame's contention that the leak was illegal and so not part of their duties. Putting the most sympathetic interpretation on that, perhaps because that leak not been declared illegal by any court (due to Libby's and others' obstruction of justice), he felt he could not find that it was, leaving Plame with no way to obtain damages.

Even so, he did say that if the claims in the suit are true, Cheney and the rest committed "highly unsavory" acts and that the suit raised “important questions relating to the propriety of actions taken by our highest government officials.” Which means that, when you come right down to it, Judge Bates was saying, as has happened so distressingly often these past years, "we know they fucked you over but we just can't prove it."

There is, or at least there should be, a difference between "getting away with it" and vindication. But whether there is or not, Shrub and his lying camp followers like Gibson are satisfied with the former.

Footnote: BuzzFlash notes that Bates is a Bush appointee who as a District Court judge dismissed the GAO's effort to learn who The Big's energy task force met with. He also was on the FISA Court and was a Deputy Independent Counsel for the (Ken) Starr Chamber for 18 months. I don't know that that is necessarily significant, but I thought it was worth noting.

Retrieved from the memory hole

In February I wrote about the health problems afflicting New Orleans refugees who, 22 months later, are now still living in "temporary" trailers provided by FEMA.

It seems that finally, finally, someone is paying attention. From Friday's New York Times:
The chairman of the House oversight committee on Thursday accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of refusing to acknowledge high levels of formaldehyde in trailers it provided to hurricane evacuees on the Gulf Coast. ...

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said 5,000 pages of documents released Thursday revealed a battle between the FEMA field staff and officials at the agency’s headquarters. ...

Mr. Waxman said that after news reports in March 2006 about formaldehyde in the trailers, members of the field staff urged immediate action. He quoted a response in an e-mail message from a FEMA lawyer who said: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the O.K. Once you get results, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
Waxman said agency officials "wanted to ignore the problem," but that doesn't go far enough. This wasn't "ignoring" the situation, this was a conscious, criminal, cover-up that put the health of tens of thousands of people at risk, a cover-up undertaken because FEMA was too incompetent and too cheap to act and even more because it just didn't give a flipping damn, because bureaucratic CYA was more important than human lives. Oh, no, but wait, there was actually a perfectly good reason:
The administrator of FEMA, R. David Paulison, told the subcommittee he was not “100 percent sure that it was the trailers” that caused residents’ health problems.
Really. Well, here's a question for your, Mr. Paulison: Just how sure would you have to be before you got off your ass and did something?

On the other hand, FEMA did do something:
On the eve of the hearing, the agency announced it that it had asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test air quality in occupied trailers. The study will begin next week.
Timing is everything.

Footnote: GOPper Mark Souder of Indiana, a state which is home to many mobile home manufacturers, complained that
"[t]o just uniformly, without research, make the assertions that I’ve been hearing today about an industry is irresponsible.”
Now, it is true that these trailers were never intended for long-term occupancy and so they are being used in ways for which they were not designed. So it's gratifying that someone on the committee is standing up for the reputation of mobile home manufacturers - because that, after all, is what's really important here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

You mean I have to think?

I'm a little flustered: I've been tagged by James at Left End of the Dial with a Thinking Blogger Award. First time I've ever been tagged with one of these memes and here it is, a flattering one. Wow.

The idea of this one is, as James explains it, to "name five blogs that I find inspiring, perhaps sharing some reasoning behind the choices." It was apparently started at The Thinking Blog, which called it "5 Blogs That Make Me Think."

Well, that's all well and good and all, but speaking of think, now I have to think of five blogs to name. Erk. I'm afraid I'm going to have to make an adjustment in the usual meaning of "inspiring" - because most of the time these days, when I read things I wind up getting pissed off at some inanity or stupidity rather than inspired. That's my own fault, I expect, since most of time I read blogs not for their inspiring prose or their philosophical insights (and I don't mean that sarcastically as there are a number of blogs out there that provide one or both) but for the information they supply, such as news stories I've overlooked (with links to original sources) or informed analysis of some legal or scientific matter. And there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of good news out there about which I get told. (I do call this "a dark time," after all.)

With that in mind, and choosing to leave out any of the Top Dog Blogs that don't need any additional attention, I'll offer these five as lesser-known but valuable ones I check on a daily basis:

Orcinus: I suppose David Neiwert's blog isn't exactly in the "Who? What?" category, but no progressive interested in issues of racial justice, hate crimes, and immigration can afford to not have this one on their blogroll.

This Modern World: Again, I guess this might be considered one of the bigger blogs, I don't know - but I'm a big Tom Tomorrow fan and this was the first blog I read on a regular basis and it was the one that got me into blogging in the first place, so what the heck, I feel obligated.

Past Peak: Jonathan offers extensive coverage of global warming and energy-related issues, with enough outrage left over to denounce our dreams of empire. The "Gumpagraphs" and "Today's Bush Joke" are added value.

The American Street: A true group blog with a variety of voices and styles sufficiently different that you can usually tell who wrote a particular post without looking for the author's name. And at least some of them are as fed up with the "Democrats will save us" crap as I am.

The Left End of the Dial V2.0: Used the full name this time. I don't know if this is somehow against the rules or the spirit to tag back the one who tagged you, and I expect James will get a swelled head having been tagged twice, but the fact is I do read him every day and find much to ponder. Do I agree with him all the time? Hell no - but if I did, how would that make me think? Besides, being a radical leftie in Oklahoma is reason enough to list him.

I have three Honorable Mentions - actually, I could have several but I'm going to limit it to these three. Yes, I know that this is technically cheating on what's supposed to be a list of five. I don't care. So there.

Lean Left: A three-person blog with easily-seen differences in interests, styles, and even convictions among the three. The comments are often enough full of good exchanges, which is another plus (although it does have its resident trolls). This actually would have been a candidate for the top 5 but for some reason I've drifted away from reading it daily, which I set as a standard to cut down the choices.

Jon Swift: Again, likely a reasonably-well known blog but the fact is, no one I've come across on the Web does satire better. It is truly amazing how often in comments you will see people taking him at face value.

Green Left Infoasis: Tim presents excerpts of articles of interest to folks on the progressive/radical left with links to the original sources, which often are ones - and this is the important part - you normally would not come across unless you searched them out. I don't read every article, but I do look every day to see what he's got. And no, I'm not just including him because he interviewed me last year.

As a final footnote, I want to say that another reason for these blogs being listed here is that for most of them - and no, I won't say which are the others - I'm confident that my judgments about their worth will not have to change after January 2009 (or perhaps November 2008) and "Whew! We have a Democrat as a president!" as now seems reasonably likely will not instantly change them from attack dogs into lap dogs, as I'm sure will happen with a number of more or less progressive blogs we could all name.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Recent privacy issue #4

New York City's proposed joining of public and private snooping is, of course, not the first example of such cooperative intrusions, as I've noted before. But the effort keeps expanding, even into areas where the cops, in this case the federal cops, weren't supposed to go. ABC News earlier in the week reported on a
$5 million project [that] would apparently pay private firms to store at least two years' worth of telephone and Internet activity by millions of Americans, few of whom would ever be considered a suspect in any terrorism, intelligence or criminal matter. ...

The FBI is barred by law from collecting and storing such data if it has no connection to a specific investigation or intelligence matter.
The Bureau wants that information available just in case it wants to look at it later. Having failed both to convince the telcoms to keep it voluntarily and to get Congress to pass a law forcing them to do so, it now wants to buy the companies off
by offering to pay millions of dollars to three firms if they will keep the records themselves and allow the FBI instantaneous access to the information if it asks.

"It's a public-private partnership that puts civil liberties to the test," said the ACLU's [Mike] German[, a policy expert on national security and privacy issues].
The three firms, the FBI confirmed in March, are Verizon, MCI and AT&T; in the interim, MCI has merged into Verizon.
The proposed program would apparently build on existing cooperation between the FBI and the phone companies, which has been faulted for violating laws and internal FBI policies.

In March, the Department of Justice's internal watchdog was harshly critical of the FBI's partnership effort with Verizon, MCI and AT&T, because FBI agents appeared to routinely ignore laws and policies when accessing Americans' phone records.

Even the bureau's own top lawyer said she found the unit's behavior "disturbing," noting that when requesting access to phone company records, it repeatedly referenced "emergency" situations that did not exist, falsely claimed grand juries had subpoenaed information and failed to keep records on much of its own activity.
But don't worry, there's no need to worry, you're a law-abiding person, so why worry? Besides, the Supreme Court already said you should know you lost claims to privacy as soon as you let your telcom company know what number you wanted to call or what ISP you wanted to reach. So why are you worried? What are you hiding?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Recent privacy issue #3

London has its so-called Ring of Steel, an extensive web of cameras observing everyone and everything on public streets in the central part of the city. First put in place in 1990, it's designed to detect, track, and thereby deter terrorists. And now New York City intends to follow suit, the New York Times said this past Monday:
By the end of this year, police officials say, more than 100 cameras will have begun monitoring cars moving through Lower Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system that would be the first in the United States. ...

If the program is fully financed, it will include not only license plate readers but also 3,000 public and private security cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police and private security officers, and movable roadblocks.
The city has obtained $25 million of the estimated $90 million cost: $15 million from the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland and $10 million from the city,
more than enough to install 116 license plate readers in fixed and mobile locations, including cars and helicopters, in the coming months. ...

But the downtown security plan involves much more than keeping track of license plates. Three thousand surveillance cameras would be installed below Canal Street by the end of 2008, about two-thirds of them owned by downtown companies. Some of those are already in place. Pivoting gates would be installed at critical intersections; they would swing out to block traffic or a suspect car at the push of a button.
Under this "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative," live video from the cameras would be transmitted to a security center staffed by both police and corporate security agents, according to cop rep Paul Browne, who claims the plan does not need City Council approval.

So let's make sure we understand: Thousands of cameras are to be used to monitor everyone and everything going on in a whole section of Manhattan which would be subject to an instant lockdown. As part of this, private companies are being turned into extensions of the police and the police force is being turned into an extension of corporate security firms, with corporate records (i.e., their videos) that previously should have been available to police only upon issuance of a subpoena and police records (again, their videos) which previously should not have been available to private corporations at all being freely and immediately combined. And this can all be done, supposedly, with no public input, no oversight, and no need for the approval of any elected officials. The cops can just do this on their own authority.

Christopher Dunn, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the program "a whole new level of police monitoring" and noted the lack of privacy protections "for the hundreds of thousands of people who will end up in N.Y.P.D. computers."
He said he worried about what would happen to the images once they were archived, how they would be used by the police and who else would have access to them.

Already, according to a report last year by the civil liberties group, there are nearly 4,200 public and private surveillance cameras below 14th Street, a fivefold increase since 1998, with virtually no oversight over what becomes of the recordings.
But Browne had a ready answer, one that, if you've been paying attention, you knew was coming: The camera would be recording in “areas where there’s no expectation of privacy.” (Emphasis added.)

Nice job imitating a parrot, Mr. Browne.

Oh, but he wasn't done: He actually said, actually said, that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.

Well, of course they don't! And why should they? Just like in Hitler's Germany, in Stalin's Russia, in Saddam's Iraq, so long as you just keep your mouth shut, do as you're told, and obey the law, everything will be fine! Can you, can anyone, name any government down through history (with the possible exception of Caligula's Rome and Idi Amin's Uganda), no matter how free or how repressive, under which it could not be said that "if you shut up and just obey the law you have nothing to fear?"

But again of course, that is not the issue here. The issue isn't whether "law-abiding citizens" have something to fear but if the government (and now private corporations) are collecting and storing information that is none of their goddam business. It should not be for us to prove that the government and corporations shouldn't be able to watch every public thing we say and do, it should be for them to prove what they need to observe - and why. Because as former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedoms."

The pernicious doctrine that in matters of personal privacy the default position should be that police can know unless you can give a good reason why they shouldn't rather than police can't know unless they can give good reason why they should plus in today's information-saturated world there is no such thing as "insignificant" personal data, is one that over time will strip, is stripping, away any concept of privacy.

On top of all this, it's not even clear that such extensive, privacy-stomping, personally-inhibiting surveillance as envisioned for lower Manhattan actually accomplishes anything other than make police and security agents feel powerful.
There is little evidence to suggest that security cameras deter crime or terrorists, said James J. Carafano, a senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington. ...

While having 3,000 cameras whirring at the same time means loads of information will be captured, it also means there will be a lot of useless data to sift through.

“The more hay you have, the harder it is to find the needle,” said Mr. Carafano.
Because let's not forget, London’s oh so impressive Ring of Steel utterly failed to prevent the 2005 subway bombings or the two attempted car bombings last month. British authorities did say the cameras were useful in the case of last month's failed attacks in retracing the paths of the cars, leading to several arrests. But arresting people after the bombs go off is not what the surveillance is for, is it? It's supposed to deter, to prevent, such attacks. And very clearly, it doesn't.

So not only are we to be under constant observation, not only is our privacy to be increasingly dismissed as something in which we can have "no expectation," but doing so doesn't even do us a damn bit of good.

Footnote: Something else Douglas said was that "As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."

Recent privacy issue #2

This is from an AP report from July 3.
Fidelity National Information Services, a financial processing company, said Tuesday a worker at one of its subsidiaries stole 2.3 million consumer records containing credit card, bank account and other personal information.

The employee sold the information to an unidentified data broker. The broker then sold it to several direct marketing companies....

About 2.2 million records stolen from Certegy[, the Fidelity subsidiary,] contained bank account information and 99,000 contained credit card information, company officials said.
The company says that the information was not used for any nefarious purpose such as fraud or identify theft, but somehow I don't find that very reassuring. For one thing, the information is now out there. Fidelity says the marketing companies have been asked to return it but will they and even if they do how many people have had access to it in the meantime? Fidelity also insists that the marketing companies didn't know the information was stolen, which makes me wonder what sort of "see no evil" standards are followed in the industry: Somebody shows up offering to sell 2 million records and no one asks how they came by them?

Another issue is just how much of the personal information stored was actually necessary for Certegy to do its job. Maybe it all was. But did anyone think about that, did anyone ever think "Do we really need to keep this on file?" And how about "Do we still need to keep this on file and if not why hasn't it been deleted?"

And one last thing this raises: There has, of course, been a great deal of corporate and government worrying, hand-wringing, and posturing over identify theft. But have you noticed that most of what we get told is how to recover from identity theft and most of the rest is how to discover identity theft and almost nothing is about how to prevent identity theft, while those same companies and government agencies keep demanding we turn over to them the very sorts of information that make identity theft possible?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Recent privacy issue #1

In a ruling that undoubtedly will not get the rightwing bloviators in a foaming tizzy about the "wacko" Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of that court ruled last week that
[f]ederal agents do not need a search warrant to monitor a suspect's computer use and determine the e-mail addresses and Web pages the suspect is contacting....

[The court] likened computer surveillance to the "pen register" devices that officers use to pinpoint the phone numbers a suspect dials, without listening to the phone calls themselves. ...

Federal law requires court approval for a pen register. But because it is not considered a search, authorities do not need a search warrant, which would require them to show that the surveillance is likely to produce evidence of a crime.

They also do not need a wiretap order, which would require them to show that less intrusive methods of surveillance have failed or would be futile.
In other words, the "court approval" is a technical formality and they essentially are undertaken with no oversight worthy of the term.

And what's the legal basis for pen registers? A 1979 Supreme Court ruling that
callers have no right to conceal from the government the numbers they communicate electronically to the phone companies that carry their calls.
The "logic," if I can disgrace the word enough to call it that, was that because you willingly let the phone company know what numbers you called (without which it would be impossible to place the calls in the first place), you have surrendered all privacy rights to that information. That is, if anybody does know, everybody can know and you have no basis to object. You have "no expectation of privacy."

From the first moment I heard about that decision, I have regarded it as one of the most blindingly stupid (and dangerous) rulings I have ever come across. It has been argued in numerous ways over the years, albeit not always successfully: Passengers in cars, it has been argued, can be searched without probable cause because the car is not their "possession" and so they have "no expectation of privacy" in it. In fact, in 1999, the Supreme Court found that police can search the personal possessions of a passenger in a car as part of a search of the car even if the passenger was not suspected of any crime because "passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars," in the words of Injustice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion.

Police have been specifically allowed to perform warrantless searches of people's trash based on "no expectation of privacy." They have examined people's bank records on the same "logic" as the pen registers: Give anyone the information (in that case by putting your checking account number on the back of a check) and you are saying everybody can know it.

In one case in which the argument ultimately proved unsuccessful, police used thermal detectors to observe a house where they suspected marijuana plants were being grown. They claimed this was not a search because what they were measuring was "waste heat" in which the occupant of the house had "no expectation of privacy."

(In fairness, I must note that in a decision rendered in June, the Supreme Court ruled that when a car is stopped by police, passengers are "seized" along with the driver, which actually can give passengers some minimal protection: The case involved a passenger charged with making speed. He argued the evidence should be suppressed because it arose out of an illegal stop of the car in which he was riding. Lower courts ruled that he wasn't seized at the time of the stop but rather at the time of his arrest and was free to leave before that, so the legality of the original stop was not relevant. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and said the defendant could argue his motion for suppression. The case was sent back for arguments on the motion.

In fairness to the fairness, I have to note as well that this may not have been from a burst of civil liberties concern: Some analysts are saying this "loss" was actually a practical victory for police - for if the Court had ruled otherwise, police would have no legal control over passengers at any traffic stop.)

In Friday's ruling, the Appeals court echoed Scalia's earlier bullshit and said computer users should know that they lose privacy protections over e-mail and Web site addresses because they are sent to the ISP which carries and transmits the information. Again, anybody does know equals everybody can know.

In another one of those cases that prove our political (including judicial) representatives don't have a flipping clue about computers and the internet, the Appeals Court also declared that while the government learns what websites the targeted person visited, "it does not find out the contents of the messages or the particular pages on the Web sites the person viewed." But if you know the URL, you know the flipping content of the site! Just go and look at it. Despite the contention of the ignoramuses on the Appeals Court, knowing a URL is far more revealing than "a list of phone numbers or the outside of a mailed package."

When the Traitor Act allowed the federal goons to obtain the names of the library books a person had checked out, it caused justifiable screams of outrage at the unwarranted intrusion into what people read and think. If someone had tried to claim that it was "only a list of titles, just like only a list of phone numbers," they would have been laughed off the public stage even in these desperate times - because with the title, you just go look at the book to see the content. I'm unable to find any difference between that and recording the URLs someone visits.

This was a terrible, terrible decision better suited to 1984 than to - well, than to any time.

Thanks to Cosmici at Cosmic Iguana for altering me to the decision.

And now that you're really depressed

It's long been speculated, even predicted that disruptions in food and water supplies and loss of habitable land caused by global warming could result in conflict and even wars as people struggle for the resouces to survive.

Now, according to a new study in the journal Human Ecology and reported by, history may bear out the idea.
The authors reviewed 899 wars fought in China between 1000 and 1911 and found a correlation between the frequency of warfare and records of temperature changes.

“It was the oscillations of agricultural production brought by long-term climate change that drove China’s historical war-peace cycles,” wrote lead author David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong.
William Easterling, a co-author of the IPCC's most recent report on the potential impacts of climate change,
said that the correlation cited by the authors of the new study did not necessarily prove that temperature changes caused increased warfare, but that there could certainly be a relationship between the two.
He minimized the risk of all-out war as a result of resource disruption, which I can agree with if by all-out war he means the big boys going to strategic nukes. But the idea that we could experience the kinds of effects that are being predicted for global warming - especially when you add in resource depletion, the end of peak oil, and the very likely prospect of resource control being used as a political weapon - without a string of the deadliest sort of regional wars, I think is preposterous.

If by some chance that made you feel any better

The same The Independent (UK) article that carried the warning from Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing about the state of Mount Everest also said
[t]he warning came as a survey revealed that most Britons remain unconvinced about the extent of climate change and that terrorism, crime, graffiti and even dog mess are more pressing issues for the UK. The Ipsos-Mori poll found that 56 per cent of people believe scientists are still debating whether human activity is contributing to climate change. In reality, there is virtual consensus that it is.

Just over half of people, 51 per cent, believe climate change will have little or no effect and more than one-third admitted they were taking no action to reduce their carbon emissions.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: We're doomed.

Just in case you've heard this excuse

The BBC reported on Tuesday that
[a] new scientific study concludes that changes in the Sun's output cannot be causing modern-day climate change.

It shows that for the last 20 years, the Sun's output has declined, yet temperatures on Earth have risen.

It also shows that modern temperatures are not determined by the Sun's effect on cosmic rays, as has been claimed.
In other words, the "oh, it's all natural, it's all the sun, nothing to do with us, don't worry be happy" crowd have just been shot down in flames.
"This should settle the debate," said Mike Lockwood, from the UK's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, who carried out the new analysis together with Claus Froehlich from the World Radiation Center in Switzerland.

Dr Lockwood initiated the study partially in response to the TV documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, broadcast on Britain's Channel Four earlier this year, which featured the cosmic ray hypothesis.

"All the graphs they showed stopped in about 1980, and I knew why, because things diverged after that," he told the BBC News website.
In other words, the mockumentary lied. It actually already had been dismantled by people who actually had some notion of what they were talking about, but this should put a stop to the nonsense.

Except it probably won't. The cosmic ray claim, in a simple form, runs like this: Cosmic rays help clouds form. But increased solar activity interferes with the amount of cosmic rays reaching the atmosphere. Thus, less cloud cover, thus, more warming. The idea is championed by Dr. Eigil Friis-Christensen of the Danish National Space Center. However, I should not only say simple form, but latest form: It is the fifth version of an argument for solar-driven global warming Friis-Christensen or a colleague has come up with over the last 16 years.

In 1991 he claimed that recent temperature variations on Earth are in "strikingly good agreement" with the length of the cycle of sunspots. In 2004 it turned out he was wrong, the result of "incorrect handling of the physical data."

He published a new paper, claiming similar results. He was wrong: There were errors in his math.

So he came up with a new idea, claiming to have discovered a remarkable agreement between solar-influenced cosmic radiation and global cloud cover. Wrong again: The satellite data he used did not measure global cloud cover.

He then, without acknowledging the previous paper was wrong, proposed there was a correlation with "low cloud cover." Again, he was wrong and no correlation could be shown.

Finally, last year his co-author on the previous paper, Henrik Svensmark, claimed to show that cosmic rays could form tiny particles in the atmosphere, particles around which molecules of water vapor could cluster, forming clouds - thus trying to reinforce the cloud cover hypothesis for global warming. Unfortunately for him, that still depends on increased solar activity, which is precisely what the new study says wasn't happening.

Bottom line:
"This paper reinforces the fact that the warming in the last 20 to 40 years can't have been caused by solar activity," said Dr Piers Forster from Leeds University, a leading contributor to this year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of climate science.
We are the cause. We are doing it. We are causing global warming. We simply can't escape our responsibility.

Footnote: Professor Carl Wunsch of MIT has been critical of some of what he calls the "over-dramatization" of the threat of global warming, insisting that some of the predictions - such as the possibility of the ocean currents that carry warm tropical ocean water northward, moderating the climate of Europe could shut down, plunging the UK into "an ice age" - are so unlikely as to threaten the credibility of climate scientists. (Full disclosure: I have raised just that possibility, but did not predict an "ice age" but rather that London would start to experience weather more to be expected at its latitude - which is just about the same as the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. That is, much colder, but hardly an "ice age.")

He was shown making such criticisms in The Great Global Warming Swindle - and subsequently wrote that it was made to appear that he thinks
human influence must not be very important - diametrically opposite to the point I was making - which is that global warming is both real and threatening.
He called the result of the film "sad." I can think of more accurate adjectives.

"Glacially slow" has a new meaning

Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing have warned that the mountain first climbed by their fathers in 1953 - Mount Everest - has been so ravaged by climate change that those men would not recognize it, The Independent (UK) reports.
The base camp where Sir Edmund Hillary] and [Tenzing] Norgay began their ascent is 40 metres lower [about 130 feet] than it was in 1953. The glacier on which it stands, and those around it, are melting at such a rate that scientists believe the mountain, whose Nepalese name, Qomolangma, means Mother of the World, could be barren rock by 2050.
And the mountain's appearance is hardly the only issue.
The rapid increase in the rate of glaciers melting - from 42 metres [138 feet] a year in the 40 years to 2001 to 74 metres [243 feet] a year in 2006 - has resulted in the formation of huge lakes in the space of a few years.

A United Nations study of the 9,000 glacial lakes in the Himalayas found that more than 200 are at risk of "outburst floods", unleashing thousands of cubic metres of water per second into an area where 40,000 people live. In 1985, Lake Dig Tsho in the Everest region released 10 million cubic metres [over 21/2 billion gallons] of water in three hours. It caused a 10-metre-high [33 foot-high] wall of water which swept away a power station, bridges, farmland, houses, livestock and people up to 55 miles downstream. Scientists estimate that the most dangerous lakes today are up to 20 times bigger. One of those, Imja Tsho, did not exist 50 years ago and lies directly above the homes of 10,000 people.
And even if that disaster is avoided, there is another:
In the longer term, scientists believe the depletion of the glaciers will drastically reduce the flow of water into the nine major rivers fed by the Himalayan glaciers.
That flow accounts for 40 per cent of the world's fresh water.

What's more, it's not just the Himalayas, it's all over the world, as a new report out of China reminds us. On Thursday, Agencie France Press said that
[m]assive glaciers in northwest China have melted at an alarming rate over the past 40 years, with global warming believed to be the culprit, scientists said in comments published Friday.

China's remote Xinjiang region is home to nearly half of the nation's glaciers that supply the rest of the country and other parts of Asia with water.

However they have shrunk by 20 percent and snow lines there have receded by about 60 metres (200 feet) since 1964, the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a report, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Glaciers in other regions of China and Tibet have already been reported to be shrinking dramatically - threatening floods and landslides in the short term and persistent drought in the longer term.
One of China's top glaciologists, Yao Tangdong, warned last year of an "ecological catastrophe" in Tibet because of global warming.

He said most glaciers in the region could melt away by 2100 if no efficient measures were taken.
Footnote: An odd side effect of global warming is that mountain ranges could rise more quickly without the thousands of tons of ice in glaciers pressing them down. For that and some other less-noticed effects of climate change, try this link.

Driving the point home

Another indication of just how central global warming is to our ecological and economic future is that it now threatens one of the ways that has been proposed to stretch out oil supplies and reduce oil imports to the US: obtaining it from non-conventional sources such as oil sands (also called tar sands), oil shale, and coal-to-oil processes. The price of oil is high enough that it began to look like these other, expensive, sources might be economically feasible. However, the Christian Science Monitor said last week that,
California has enacted new climate-change policies that make energy companies responsible for the carbon emissions not just of their refineries but all phases of oil production, including extraction and transportation. If that notion catches on – at least two Canadian provinces have already signed on to California's plan – then the futures of oil-sand, shale, and coal-to-oil projects may look less attractive.

The reason: Extracting these alternative sources of oil requires so much energy that their "carbon footprint" may outweigh their benefits.
In fact, according to Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, obtaining and refining oil from oil sands, also called tar sands, produces 20%-50% more carbon emissions than doing it with pumped crude. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Western Resources Advocates (WRA) say all three cause more greenhouse gas emissions
with liquid coal posing "disastrous consequences" because its production creates twice as much global-warming emissions as ordinary gasoline.

"Oil-shale development is all talk and no gain," says Bob Randall, an expert with WRA. ...

Even energy-security groups, which want to reduce US dependence on imported oil from world trouble spots, are skeptical of these high-carbon energy sources.

"There is no time for false starts," says Robbie Diamond of Secure America's Future Energy.
You got that right. And it's also no time for half-witted notions that put short-term profit above long-term survival.

Since you're already in a bad mood

One of those non-existent technological quick fixes is biofuels, the idea of growing crops for the purpose of using them as fuel to replace fossil fuels.
Biofuels[, Food First says,] invoke an image of renewable abundance that allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the UN, and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to present fuel from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as a smooth transition from peak oil to a renewable fuel economy. ...

Industrialized countries have unleashed an “agro-fuels boom” by mandating ambitious renewable fuel targets. Renewable fuels are to provide 5.75% of Europe’s transport fuel by 2010, and 10% by 2020. The U.S. goal is 35 billion gallons a year.
But as Food First goes on to show, this is a dangerous course, environmentally wasteful, economically damaging to the nations of the Global South (as Food First calls them), as they would have to bear the burden of the production of crops for fuel, thus increasing hunger there - and at the end of it all, would have at most a minor impact on global warming:
[W]hen the full “life cycle” of agro-fuels is considered—from land clearing to automotive consumption—the moderate emission savings are undone by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation, and soil carbon losses.
The net result, according to new research reported by the Independent (UK) last week, is that
one of the main measures proposed to combat climate change - growing extra crops for to make biofuels - places "massive additional pressures on ecosystems".
And those are ecosystems, that new study shows, that are already being "pushed to the breaking point" as humanity "devours" the Earth's life-support systems.
Even before the feared climate change really begins the bite, the planet is already under intolerable strain. An unprecedented study by top ecologists and climatologists, to be published by the US National Academy of Sciences, shows that a quarter of all plant life in the world is being destroyed each year by the demands of just one species: homo sapiens. ...

[T]he new research in 161 countries - the most extensive study ever made into humanity's impact on the planet's production of life, powered by the Sun - shows that the Earth is already in serious trouble. In some parts of the world humans are using up far more than 25 per cent of plant life for food, fuel and other needs. ...

Dr Nathan Moore of Michigan State University called the results "alarming". Professor Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, said: "With millions of species sharing the leftovers, it is hard to know how many will be squeezed out of the game."
Global warming will, of course, make this worse, put even more pressure on the environment. But contrary to convenient quick-fix myth, biofuels are not an answer, especially not for a world (and for people) already being pressed to the limit.

(Thanks to Tim at Green Left Infoasis for the link to the Food First report.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Footnote to the preceding, The Market Heats Up Div.

This past Friday, the New York Times editorialized about combating global warming and in so doing illustrated much of what is wrong with the debate on the matter among "serious" people.

It started out reasonably enough, praising the Senate for passing higher fuel economy standards (without, however, expressing any thoughts about the fate the measure may suffer once it comes under the baleful glare of Rep. John Dingell [D-GeneralMotors], chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee). But then it started to go wrong, arguing that
for all the talk about warming, leading politicians have yet to educate their constituents (and their colleagues) about an unpleasant and inescapable truth: any serious effort to fight warming will require everyone to pay more for energy. ... [U]nless Americans understand and accept the trade-off - higher prices today to avoid calamity later - the requisite public support for real change is unlikely to build.
The editorial goes on to note two different routes the government can take in dealing with the "market failure" of cheap energy: a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system.

There are two issues here: One is the idea, so commonplace, so routinely accepted that it wasn't even felt necessary to point it out, that the road to conservation is paved with higher prices, that conservation and cost rise and fall in tandem: If you have to pay more, you'll use less. The other is the two proposed means of driving those higher prices. Both have serious, serious problems.

With regard to the first, the idea of an inevitable, direct link between consumption and cost could only be true in the case of a commodity whose consumption is highly elastic and not affected by factors other than price. That's rarely true in a real-world situation and especially unlikely in an area like energy, where people often have baseline needs that are very inflexible and so not responsive to price changes.

In fact, the real world speaks against the Times' notion in at least in one area of significant energy use: private cars. This past November, Cambridge Energy Research Associates tried to pitch the "price drives conservation" argument after its study showed that in 2005 Americans drove less for the first time in 25 years, the result, it said, of high gasoline prices. However, its own figures undercut that claim. First, the "drop" amounted to 0.4% - yes, that's zero point four percent, which hardly deserves the descriptor "drop." Second, the drop was in the average for individual drivers. But as I noted at the time,
[i]ndividuals don’t bear the cost of gasoline, households do. Unless you have a comparison of the average number of drivers per household, the figure for the average individual doesn’t mean much in this context, especially since demand for gasoline actually rose slightly in 2005,
as the study itself noted. (Emphasis added.)

Bear in mind, too, that between 1981 (when gasoline prices hit a then-record high) and 1986, gas prices tumbled. After that, prices at the pump rose an average of 5.2% per year until 1997 and nearly 10% per year since then to hit an all-time high in May. Throughout that time, the Cambridge group itself reported, Americans kept driving more and more each year, directly contrary to what its own argument about prices and consumption declares. The "tipping point," the price for gasoline at which our driving habits were going to dramatically change, has moved over the years from $1 per gallon to $2 per gallon to $3 per gallon and most recently to $3.25 a gallon, and in each case as that price barrier has been broken, the fabled tipping point has risen to the next higher symbolic figure.

The point is that the received wisdom that higher prices equals less consumption doesn't hold up in the face of real world experience, at least in the area of energy, which is of course what's at issue here. Instead, for many of us, again facing baseline needs, higher energy costs just mean higher costs and greater economic stress, not less consumption.

Which brings us to the pair of proposals to drive conservation via prices. Since, as explained above, there is good reason to doubt that either one will work as advertised in promoting conservation, it might seem unnecessary to look at them, which is true enough but there are a few other points to be made.

Taking the two in reverse order, cap-and-trade schemes have become popular among politicians, industry, and even some environmental groups eager to show how "serious" and "responsible" they are. The Times' description of them will serve:
The government would impose a cap on the overall amount of carbon that could be emitted and at the same time allow regulated firms, like utilities and oil refiners, to buy and sell the right to those limited emissions. Firms that could easily reduce their emissions could sell their allowances to firms that could not.

The big plus is that the nation would set an enforceable ceiling on carbon emissions, which would be lowered over time. Such a system has worked well to lower emissions of sulfur dioxide and other power plant pollutants and its proponents believe it can do the same for greenhouse gases.
First, the comparison to SO2 emissions responsible for acid rain is irrelevant to the point of being bogus. For one thing, there were easily-available, well-established technologies to reduce such emissions for any company that cared to invest in them, which is less true today for greenhouse gas emissions. Further, with acid rain, the issue is the local concentration of sulfur dioxide. So cap-and-trade plans, which have the effect of spreading SO2 pollution around, can lower incidence of acid rain. But with global warming, the issue is the total amount of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Just spreading them around won't help; we've got to reduce the actual amount.

Cap-and-trade schemes will not help with that. There is no way the initial ceiling could be significantly below - or perhaps below at all - the current level of emissions. And once that level is set, industries could then buy. Or sell. Or conserve. Or not. Or develop new technologies. Or not. Companies would remain free to do whatever they thought was in their best, short-term, profit-seeking, interest - which is exactly why business interests like the idea.

Even under its proponents' assessment, and accepting the assumption (and it is only that) that new, energy-saving technologies will emerge from the scheme, the idea of cap-and-trade is that emissions ceilings "would be lowered over time." Lowered by how much over how long? No one says. No one can say - because ultimately the feasibility of lowered ceilings depends on what the regulated industries find in their own interest.

But every year we continue to pump massive amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, every year we add stress to the climate system, is a year after which we'd later have to cut back even further in order to try to undo the damage done. Already, according to the EPA, to get our total net greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels, we'd have to cut them by 14% below 2005 levels. For carbon dioxide in particular, the cut would be 17%. Planning to gradually reduce emissions over an unknown period of years in a program that's wholly dependent on market forces for its success is not good enough. Not when the future of wide areas of the planet as places fit for human habitation is potentially at risk. Cap-and-trade does not protect the climate, it protects the corporations. It should be dumped.

Which is why the idea of a carbon tax, which the editorial calls "a nonstarter, at least for now," is preferable, as it is a direct cost to the polluters. (Which, of course, is precisely why it's a nonstarter.) It has its flaws: If the cost is successfully passed on to consumers, it becomes a form of sales tax with all the regressive features associated with such taxes when applied to commodities that lower-income people can't avoid, such as gas, heat, and electricity, i.e., energy. However, producers know they can't successfully pass on all those costs to consumers; that's why businesses are always against business taxes, because they do wind up bearing a good part of the cost. So a carbon tax would present a direct economic incentive to producers to invest in non-greenhouse gas-producing technologies: While consumers may have relatively little choice in how they consume energy, producers have a fair amount of choice in how they produce it.

Again, a carbon tax is not without its drawbacks (not the least of which is the dreaded word "tax") but in terms of actually promising a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, while clearly inferior to a program of strictly-enforced emissions limits combined with large-scale public investment in clean energy technologies, it still beats out nice-sounding but ultimately pointless cap-and-trade schemes.

Footnote: The Times editorial also says that "energy is currently underpriced in part because its cost does not reflect the damage inflicted by fossil fuels." Which makes it, although this was surely not the intention, a good example of why market forces can't be relied on to achieve socially-useful ends: By its nature The Market (Praise Its name) pushes for private profits and socialized costs.

Footnote Two: Some years ago, I ran for Congress. My energy program at the time was called "No One Answer," in response to the arguments of the time, which seemed to revolve around which energy source was going to be "the" answer to our energy supply and which thus rejected renewables because none of them were universally viable. I said that was true, that no renewable energy technology would work everywhere - but that everywhere, some renewable technology would work. So the policy would be to determine which renewable technology or technologies were best suited for a given area - solar here, geothermal there, hydro over there, wind somewhere else - and focus on getting those technologies up and running in those areas. Still seems like a better idea than a lot of what's being tossed around now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

One hot day

So the Concert for the Earth took place. Came off great, by all accounts. Lots of rockin', lots of people watching, in an effort to increase awareness of the issue of, the looming danger of, global warming. MoveOn even organized a whole bunch of local parties around the event, punctuated by a so-called "virtual town hall" where group members got to ask, on camera, questions about global warming to Democratic presidential candidates. The group's description of the parties predicted how everyone would leave energized and encouraged.

I was at one. I left distressed and frustrated.

Not by the concert, no, not by the fact that it was a lot of hoopla and hype, no: It was, after all, a big PR stunt, an attention-grabber, so all the post-concert commentary from "serious" observers wondering how many of the attendees would carry the message beyond that day and sniping at the performers for their lack of expertise in the central topic didn't really bother me. It's never true that most people leave such an event turned into advocates for the cause, whatever it may be. Some will but most won't; that's just the way it goes. This was not the effort to get the word out and get people moving, it was an effort. A big one, admittedly, but still one.

Nor was it the vapid, uninspiring, say-the-right-things answers the candidates offered to MoveOn's not-very-probing questions that got me down. That was entirely predictable, especially given MoveOn's role as essentially a lobbying arm of the Democratic Party. The idea that any Democrat would be seriously challenged never occurred to me.

What's more, I was only slightly perturbed by the equally predictable "oh, look at all the CO2 they're producing doing this, the hypocrites," carping, since I knew that the organizers at least had thought about that aspect and at least had made the attempt to minimize the event's environmental impact. (And a few of the performers said the event had gotten them thinking about their own touring-generated carbon footprints and about how to reduce them.)

So no, it wasn't any of that. It was, rather, comments at the party I was at. Comments by people supposedly already aware of, already concerned about, the dangers of looming climate change. Comments that asserted how "easy" it would be to best global warming.

We're doomed.

Because dealing with global warming is very decidedly not going to be easy. It is not just a matter of "everybody" using energy-saving fluorescent bulbs instead of incandescent ones. It is not just a matter of "buying local" and driving a hybrid car.

Yes, by all means use energy-saving bulbs. They are better and yes, while they are more expensive and it's nice to know that you can afford bulbs that cost nearly 10 times what standard ones do, they will actually save you money in the long term. Yes, by all means buy local to reduce transportation-generated greenhouse gases and it's nice to know that, unlike many, you can afford the significantly higher price involved in buying fresh local produce. Yes, if you're buying a new car by all means buy a hybrid and it's nice to know that, unlike many, you can afford a brand new car.

By all means do all that. But don't imagine for one second that you're solving global warming or even that you're "doing your share" and even less that "if only everyone" did the same as you that things would be fine because first dammit, there are a hell of a lot of us who can't afford fresh local produce and a new car and second dammit, even if we could it still wouldn't be fine.

(And let's not forget that alternatives are not without their own environmental issues.)

The painful fact is, as the IPCC forcefully pointed out in its April report, the effects of global warming are not only real, they are already visible. And even that report, described by one source as "near-apocalyptic," may have been, in the words of another, "absurdly optimistic," as a new study lead by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute suggests the IPCC failed to pay enough attention to the potential for positive feedback loops in climate change, where each change becomes a new forcing, increasing the pressure for further, faster change. As Jonathan at Past Peak noted last week,
[w]hen major warming has occurred in the past, it has happened quite suddenly - on a scale of centuries or even decades, rather than millenia - because of the accelerating effects of positive feedback loops.
Prevention is no longer an option. We are past the point of avoiding damaging effects of global warming. We are now talking about mitigation. And that's not going to be dealt with by a few feel-good choices only truly available to a relatively few people. Yes, I say again, if you can make those choices, make them, and yes, they will help - but don't think they are an answer or at best more than a stopgap.

Because dealing with global warming, again, is not going to be easy. Reducing our individual and our total social carbon footprint will be difficult. It will be inconvenient. It will be irritating. It will take actual sacrifices. And it will have real impact on our lives - the only question is how much of that impact will be the willing one we take on and how much the unwilling one imposed by the changing climate.

What does that mean, bottom line? It means the idea that we can deal with global warming without a clear impact on our national standard of living is an utter fantasy. A dangerous, destructive fantasy.

We are, quite simply, going to have to learn to do with less. To have less, to want less. It is simply impossible for us to have a hope of any meaningful mitigation of the pain and suffering that global warming will otherwise inflict on the world so long as we cling to a culture and an economy based on the central concept of "More." There is no technological quick fix. There is no chance without a genuine change in the way we live our lives, without a genuine cost. And damn it all, we should be more than ready to pay that cost. The alternative is just too dire.

(It is not, by the way, a cost to be shared equally: Those among us whose "standard of living" would better be described as a standard of surviving can't be expected to take on additional burdens and need to be shielded from those that will arise.)

Paying that cost, I say one yet more time, will not be easy. It will not be convenient. What we have to do to mitigate global warming will not work to our selfish benefit. It will require some moderation in our national standard of living. It will require a change in our economic lives, in how we value things, and will as a necessary consequence result in wider distribution of wealth as those better to bear the costs bear more of them. But I say that’s not a result to be feared but to be welcomed. A cleaner environment, a more stable climate, mitigation of global warming's effects, and a broader distribution of wealth are not threats but benefits. If doing without a few high-tech goodies and accepting, perhaps, a 1990 standard of living instead of a 2010 standard of living can promote both environmental and economic security, I say it’s a damn small price to pay.

But small as that price is, it still means giving up on "more" and accepting "less." And I really, truly wonder if even as we talk tough and make our "commitments" and pass our new laws, we'll be willing to pay that price before it is much too late.

Dipwad of the year award

Apropos of nothing significant in the world except to make the banal observation of the general confluence of bigotry and mind-numbing stupidity, we bring you the case of Stephen Dunne of Boston, Massachusetts, who is suing the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for $9.75 million in damages. Y'see, he
claims he failed the Massachusetts bar exam because he refused to answer a question about gay marriage ... saying the test violated his rights and that his religious beliefs were targeted.
The question, in fact, was not about same-sex marriage, it was a straightforward hypothetical involving property and family rights in a divorce. (It's question #4 at this link, in .pdf format.) But the parties involved were "Mary" and "Jane." That, Dunne says, made the question "morally repugnant and patently offensive" and showed that the Massachusetts state government is "purposely-advancing Secular Humanism's homosexual agenda." (Reminder in case anyone has forgotten: Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts.)

Comments on the article overwhelmingly agree the guy is a real doofus, with a couple of people predicting he'll get hit with sanctions for filing a patently frivolous suit. Good.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Also sprach Zarathustra

Via Kevin Hayden at The American Street comes the distressing but unsurprising news that the FTC
has decided to abandon net neutrality and allow telecoms companies to charge websites for access.

The FTC said in a report that, despite popular support for net neutrality, it was minded to let the market sort out the issue.
What this means, in essence, is that the telcoms can charge different information providers different amounts for access. The usual scenario is that the companies establish multi-tier services, where those who pay the premium prices will get the best and fastest access. Or, to bring it to the user level, websites of big, rich corporations will come up fast and easy, while those of smaller and not-so-rich outfits (which could easily include nonprofits and political groups) will be slower and less reliable - thus giving the already-powerful an added advantage and giving telcoms, in effect, the ability line their pockets by playing favorites, promoting some and stomping others.

Because, of course The Market, praise be its name, rules over us all, its holy beneficence and infinite wisdom to be worshipped and adored. For lo! It must not be questioned:
The report also counsels against net neutrality legislation.

"This report recommends that policy makers proceed with caution in the evolving dynamic industry of broadband internet access, which is generally moving towards more, not less, competition," FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras wrote.
Of course, such competition exists only because of net neutrality, which was specficially intended to promote and protect the existence of a wide range of voices - i.e., competition - on the Internet. Which means that, according to the FTC, net neutrality is unnecessary preceisely because, uh, well, because it works. Which is like saying that, for example, food safety laws are unnecessary because they help keep unsafe foods off the market.

Away, unbeliever! My ears are closed to you!
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