Tuesday, April 29, 2008

There's no intelligence in this ID business, either

May I see your passport, please?
This picture doesn't look at all like you, sir.
Well, it's an old picture.
(Heh heh) Precisely.

So the Supreme Court has once again disgraced itself on a matter relating to voting rights and free elections.

On Monday, the Court ruled in favor of Indiana's notorious voter ID law that requires people to produce a government-issued photo ID at the time of voting in order to be able to vote.

I suppose I should feel a touch vindicated, since in the wake of oral arguments I not only predicted the 6-3 split, I pretty much predicted who the six and the three would be. But all I can feel is depressed, frustrated, and angry.

I am angry at the Injustices who knew, who knew, who openly acknowledged that their decision was based on bullshit.
In what the court described as the “lead opinion,” which was written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court acknowledged that the record of the case contained “no evidence” of the type of voter fraud the law was ostensibly devised to detect and deter, the effort by a voter to cast a ballot in another person’s name.
No evidence, indeed:
Advocacy groups, including the Brennan Center [for Justice], say they know of no voter fraud case ever being prosecuted against someone who impersonated another voter at the polls. Indiana's Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita acknowledged there were no prosecutions in his state for impersonating voters....
Moreover, the Brennan Center's statement on the decision noted that its own amicus brief
demonstrated that each instance of purported voter fraud used to justify Indiana's law was discredited or could not have been prevented by voter ID.
Bluntly, the fact is that the law was based on lies and vapor, claiming to address a problem that doesn't exist. But that didn't matter to Stevens, not at all.
The “risk of voter fraud” was “real,” he said, and there was “no question about the legitimacy or importance of the state’s interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters.”
So because there supposedly is a "real risk" of some sort of voter fraud, a law against one type for which there is no evidence becomes proper. This is not a reason, this is an excuse (the difference being that reasons come before a decision and excuses come after), a cheap sham foisted off as legal reasoning by someone apparently determined to find a way, any way, to justify what they had decided from the beginning.

What's worse,
Justice Stevens said that neither was there “any concrete evidence of the burden imposed on voters who now lack photo identification,”
a statement that can only be described as a flagrant lie.
Across the country, as many as 20 million people lack such identification, most of them minorities and the elderly who don't have drivers' licenses or passports and are unable to afford the cost of obtaining documentation to apply for such identification, advocacy groups say.

In Indiana, more than 20 percent of black voters do not have access to a valid photo ID, according to an October 2007 study by the University of Washington.
This law will disenfranchise voters, there simply is no rational doubt. David Souter knew it, writing in a dissent joined by Ruth Bader Ginsberg that
Indiana's "Voter ID Law" threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting right of tens of thousands of the state's citizens and a significant percentage of those individuals are likely to be deterred from voting.
He called the burden "serious" and, tellingly, that
[l]ike the Virginia poll tax the court struck down 42 years ago, he said, “the onus of the Indiana law is illegitimate just because it correlates with no state interest so well as it does with the object of deterring poorer residents from exercising the franchise.”
(Stephen Breyer filed a separate dissent.)

I do not accept, I do not believe for one single instant, that the majority of the Supreme Court did not know this and yet that majority chose to ignore that effect or perhaps even welcome it if not at the least thinking it unimportant. (Stevens wrote that "the interest in orderly administration and accurate record-keeping provides a sufficient justification for carefully identifying all voters participating in the election process," effectively declaring "orderly administraion" of higher value than the right to vote.) This was a disgraceful and corrupt decision by a disgraced and corrupt Court that deserves only condemnation.

And yet, to my deep frustration, there are people in comments at various sites who are defending the decision, who don't see what the big deal is. Many of those people display an astonishing ignorance of what the issue actually is and what the law actually covers - either that or they are engaging in distraction by deliberately conflating the overall issue of some manner of hypothetical voter fraud with the issue of demanding certain very specific forms of photo ID that will have a clear and undeniable impact on the most vulnerable members of the voting public.

Impact? What impact? their argument goes, casually denying the undeniable being SOP for such folks. Because some poor people either have or can obtain the required ID, they say, because some disabled folks and some housebound elderly can meet the requirements, therefore every one of them can and so if they don't, in the words of one, "they don't deserve to vote." I strongly suspect these are the same sort of people who used to say - and, I suppose, still do - that people on public assistance (or, sometimes, unemployment compensation) were just lazy good-for-nothings "laughing" at the rest of us; the "logic" being that anybody can get a job - just look at all the listings in the want ads!

Ultimately their thinking comes down to that of the Court majority: They already have government-issued photo IDs such as a driver's license or a passport, they already live in a world where everyone around them has such an ID, it seems so common an experience that they simply can't imagine anyone not having one except by just not having gotten around to it - so they don't care about the effect of the law because it doesn't affect them, "what's in it for me?" being their only standard of measurement.

And that's the kind interpretation. Because the alternative is that their real purpose - and in some cases I'm sure it is - is to recite GOPper talking points in order to push for even greater restrictions on access to the ballot box among those most disposed to vote Democratic (or at least to refuse to vote Republican). As anyone who has spent any time here will know, I plead no briefs for Democrats - but I will plead briefs against any hindrance of democratic freedoms and rights and I will plead briefs against disgusting, deceitful, dirtbag attempts to advance the disgusting, deceitful, dirtbag right-wing agenda. And make no mistake: Advancing that agenda by silencing those most likely to vote against it is what this is all about. That is the ultimate intent of these laws. And there will be more such laws. And that is what is so depressing.
Project Vote, a liberal-leaning voter registration group, said 59 voter ID bills have been introduced in 24 states — nearly all of them by Republicans — during the 2008 legislative session. Forty are pending. Republican legislators in 11 states also are pushing bills to require proof of citizenship to register to vote.
It wasn't all that long ago that the focus of the courts and of our national political conversation was on how to encourage people to vote, how to enable the disenfranchised to vote. Now, it seems, the focus is on how many roadblocks we can throw in the path of those same people. Times have indeed changed.

There is much work to be done and still more dark times to be survived.

Footnote: The only upside - actually, I should say less downside - in all this is that the fractured nature of the majority, which had two separate opinions each supported by three Justices, means that the issue is not yet completely closed. What was rejected was a "facial" challenge, which sought to have to law blocked from going into effect on the grounds that it was unconstitutional "on its face" and that relief could not wait until after the election because at that point the damage is already done.

Stevens' opinion left open the possibility of a later challenge on the grounds that when put into practice the law actually proves to place nontrivial burdens on a number of voters, making it subject to challenge by people effectively disenfranchised. That doesn't give me a lot of hope because in their opinions the members of the majority seemed determined to downplay both the burdens of the law and the number of people affected, but - especially these days - I find any hope better than none.

By the way, in addition to the post linked up top, I also posted about the case on January 3 and January 8.

Letters, we send letters....

This is the text of a letter I just send to the New York Times regarding an article in today's paper.


Alessandra Stanley's Tuesday article about Rev. Jeremiah Wright would best be described as "slimy."

She begins by saying he "wriggled out," a phrase usually used only in connection with snakes and illegal escapes. In the course of one 1,000 word article, she adds the following:

He's a "slightly wacky" monomaniac who "just craves attention."

He's "vain," Stanley says (twice), so vain that "I bet you think this campaign is about you." He "loves the sound of his own voice" and just wants "15 minutes of fame." He's an "egghead," she adds, seemingly amused that Wright would use the word “hermeneutics,” although why it would seem odd for a preacher to use the term escapes me.

Wright was "on a tear," as self-centeredly "pleased" with his answers to questions "as a contestant in a high school spelling bee who has just correctly spelled the final word."

So before, he was bombastic, threatening, hostile. And now, after taking on the media directly and showing them neither deference nor fear, he instantly becomes an immature, self-centered brat not worth taking seriously. Stanley's reaction tells us more about the media than it does about Wright.

Footnote: I previously wrote about the "controversial" Wright on March 16.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An apology

It occurs to me that since a number of the links in the previous several posts are from articles I've collected over the past few months, some of the links may not be valid. In fact, I'm sure some of them aren't.

I apologize for that - but at the same time, I guess it's a good thing that I very rarely just throw up a link without including enough of the article for readers to know what it's about - so even if the link is invalid you'll still have at least the gist of the story.

Every dark cloud and all that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cool your jets

Updated Twice So is anybody in this country actually doing anything about all this? Well, of course they are. Lots of folks are. Some are doing the lifestyle thing, trying to change their own habits; others are focusing on political or anti-corporate work. (And I will say here for the record that just as I have no patience with those who say things like "if only everyone bought organic" or "if only everyone drove a hybrid," I have just as little patience with those "don't-bother-me" "radicals" who use corporate guilt as a means to excuse themselves from having to make any changes at all.)

So I won't even try to make an extensive list. But I did want to mention just a couple of things you might not have noticed. One was the report a couple of months ago that
Americans are trading in the keys to their Hummers for a bus pass. USA Today reports that “[m]ass-transit systems across the USA are accelerating orders for diesel-electric hybrid buses, despite an extra cost of more than $100,000 per bus.”

In fact, according to General Motors - one of the two manufacturers for hybrid buses - four U.S. cities have already ordered 1,700 hybrid buses. The orders include 950 for Washington, D.C., 480 for Philadelphia and 300 for Minneapolis and St. Paul.
New York has ordered 850 hybrid buses - and smaller areas like Ashville, North Carolina, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Evansville, Indiana are either buying or looking into buying hybrids.
While hybrids accounted for just 2-3 percent of buses in APTA’s [American Public Transportation Association] 2007 survey of its mostly North American members, about 22% of buses on order at that point were hybrids.
More recently, just last week a conference of 10 state governors and global warming experts at Yale was intended to
develop a strategy to combat global climate change.

"I think we have high hope this will mark a significant turning point in a commitment to action on climate change," said Dan Esty, a Yale environmental law professor and director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. ...

Governors who plan to attend the conference include M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Christine Gregoire of Washington and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. Quebec Premier Jean Charest will also be there.
Some 28 states and 600 cities have pledged to address global warming, but their biggest adversary may not be ecological but political. Governor Terminator could speak about the bitter experience of trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars only to have the program shot down by the most politicized EPA administration in the agency's history, which thereby also blocked the efforts of 16 other states to institute similar controls.

Esty predicted the decision would be overturned on appeal, but he's more optimistic about our increasingly-politicized court system than I am. Personally, I suspect the chances on appeal will depend to a fair degree on if oral arguments take place before or after January 2009.

What's really so frustrating about all this is how narrow-minded, how small-minded, how trapped in convention it all is. How with a little national investment, a little national leadership, a little national commitment such a big difference could be made. How little for how big? How's this:
The United States could shave as much as 28 percent off the amount of greenhouse gases it emits at fairly modest cost and with only small technology innovations, according to a new report.
The report, prepared by energy experts at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company,
said the country was brimming with “negative cost opportunities” - potential changes in the lighting, heating and cooling of buildings, for example, that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels even as they save money. “These types of savings have been around for 20 years,” said Jack Stephenson, a director of the study. But he said they still face tremendous barriers.
Those barriers consisting mostly of the fact that manufacturers and other businesses see no profit in investing in efficiency when they can go for a lower cost and pass the expense of the inefficiency on to the consumer.

What I found particularly interesting was that the report found that
[i]n contrast to improved efficiency, measures like capturing carbon dioxide from coal power plants and storing it would be relatively costly, and they account for less than 10 percent of the potential to cut emissions, the study said. The potential contributions from new nuclear plants and renewable energy supplies from wind or solar sources are also relatively modest, the report said.
It's the low-tech path that shows the way. Ain't it (almost) always the truth.

Updated with a Footnote: Hard on the heels of my description of the EPA as more politicized than at any other point in its history (Remember when it was possible for Republicans to be environmentalists, at least to some degree?) comes this from AP (via Raw Story):
The Union of Concerned Scientists said that more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work. ...

"The investigation shows researchers are generally continuing to do their work, but their scientific findings are tossed aside when it comes time to write regulations," said [Francesca] Grifo[, director of the UCS's Scientific Integrity Program]. ...

The report said that 60 percent of those responding, or 889 scientists, reported personally experiencing what they viewed as political interference in their work over the last five years. Four in 10 scientists who have worked at the agency for more than a decade said they believe such interference has been more prevalent in the last five years than the previous five years.
The reports of interference, again all based on personal experience, included agency officials misrepresenting scientific findings, the "selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome," and directing scientists to "inappropriately exclude or alter technical information" in an EPA document. Significantly, the highest number of complaints came from scientists involved in writing regulations and making risk assessments.

The response rate, about 29%, was reasonable but not great for an unsolicited survey, and it might have been higher but for the fact that initially, some managers ordered their staff to not take part. The agency's general counsel later sent a message saying anyone could participate on their own time, but I suspect some damage to the response rate was already done.

Update to the Update: The UCS survey is attracting some notice. TPM Muckraker is reporting that both Rep. Henry Waxman, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, say their committees will be looking into the matter. Based on past experience that doesn't mean a whole lot since these investigations never seem to be followed by any action, but any unwelcome attention directed at the Shrub gang's activities is fine by me.

Another hot topic

Just in case you're wondering, biofuels are not the answer. Or, more exactly, the biofuels that are getting heavily promoted are not the answer.

Two different studies announced earlier this year - one co-authored by Joe Fargione, founder of the Nature Conservancy, the other by Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama - concluded that biofuels made from corn, sugar cane, and soy do more harm than good.
Although the fuels themselves emit fewer greenhouse gases, they all have higher costs in terms of biodiversity loss and destruction of farmland. ...

"Regardless of how effective sugar cane is for producing ethanol, its benefits quickly diminish if carbon-rich tropical forests are being razed to make the sugar cane fields, thereby causing vast greenhouse-gas emission increases," [Scharlemann and Laurance said].

"Such comparisons become even more lopsided if the full environmental benefits of tropical forests - for example, for biodiversity conservation, hydrological functioning, and soil protection - are included." ...

In a study of 26 biofuels the Swiss method showed that 21 fuels reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30% compared with gasoline when burned. But almost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel.
Fargione, for his part, declared that the biofuels "we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly." He said it "simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production" in an attempt to combat global warming because
[c]onverting land to grow corn, sugar cane or soy beans - crops used in the production of biofuels - creates a "biofuel carbon debt" by releasing 17 to 420 times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas reductions which the biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.
However, both studies stressed that not all biofuels were bad. Fargione cited biomass waste or forestry waste products such as wood chips as sources for biofuels, a position echoed by Scharlemann and Laurance, who add recycled cooking oil to the list. So don't give up on the idea yet.

More hotheads

Two more groups of scaremongers out to undermine our way of life.

- On January 24, the American Geophysical Union declared that "the Earth's climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming." It said that
[m]any components of the climate system - including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons - are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.
- And on February 5, The Independent (UK) reported that a group of 36 leading climate scientists (who also obtained the informed comment of 52 more) had determined
[n]ine ways in which the Earth could be tipped into a potentially dangerous state that could last for many centuries....

Most and probably all of the nine scenarios are likely to be irreversible on a human timescale once they pass a certain threshold of change, and the widespread effects of the transition to the new state will be felt for generations to come, the scientists said. ...

The nine elements range from the melting of polar ice sheets to the collapse of the Indian and West African monsoons.
Some, like the complete melt of Greenland's ice, could take centuries to complete. But the critical point is that for each one of the nine scenarios, the tipping point - the point at which the effects become self-perpetuating and may no longer be reversible - could be reached before the end of the century. And in some cases, such as the disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic or the collapse of the Indian monsoon, it could come within a few years.

There'll be a hot time in the old town

Responding to the human implications of sea level rise, Dr. Simon Holgate of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, said a rise of even a meter could have "major implications" for low-lying countries.
"Eighty to 90% of Bangladesh is within a metre or so of sea level," he said, "so if you live in the Ganges delta you're in a lot of trouble; and that's an awful lot of people."
And that's just the beginning. Because after all, Bangladesh would not be the only place so affected. For just one other example, last Thursday, GMA News (Philippines) reported on a scientific study by Dr. Rafael Guerrero III, executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, which concluded that sea level rise generated by unmitigated global warming, along with increased temperatures, would be "calamitous" for the nation.

The purpose of his council is to aid the country's fishing industry with adapting to changes driven by global warming, but he noted that what affects that industry affects the nation not only because of the number of people who depend on fishing for income but the number of people who depend on fish for food. Already, he said, the effects of warming are visible in that
Philippine sea surface temperature had been increasing, causing "bleaching in corals and deleterious effects on reef accretion, exterminating sea biodiversity."
The loss of that biodiversity, with attendant threat to fishing stocks, would be more than a calamity if repeated worldwide: The UN estimates that 2.6 billion people depend on fish as a staple food source.

Meanwhile, what floods there, dries out somewhere else. This is also from GMA News, this time for April 11:
Scientists predicted Thursday that climate change in coming decades will cause more flooding in the Northern Hemisphere and droughts in some southern and arid zones.

In addition, they said that some areas around the Mediterranean, parts of southern Africa, northeastern Brazil and the western U.S. region will likely suffer water shortages.

Rajendra Pachauri, the chief UN climate scientist, said at the end of a meeting in Budapest that the rising frequency and intensity of floods and droughts could lead to a food crisis.

"We may see a decline in agriculture production," said Pachauri, who is also chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change....

Millions of Africans could be afflicted by such water problems by 2020, unless action is taken to mitigate climate change, experts said.
So innundation by sea water, floods, droughts, lack of drinking water, declining agricultural production, disrupted fishing stocks, is that all? Well, not quite. Add loss of your home to that list.
At a conference [in February] on climate change and migration[, Reuters reported,] United Nations officials said rising sea levels and intense storms, droughts and floods could force scores of people from their homes and off their lands - some permanently.

"Global warming and extreme weather conditions may have calamitous consequences for the human rights of millions of people," said Kyung-wha Kang, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights,
even their very right to life, she added.

But hey, who cares? That's way over there! We'll party on! Or, um, at least until places like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles start to run out of water.

You're as cold as ice

In its 2007 report, the IPCC predicted a sea level rise of 28 to 43 centimeters (about 11 to 17 inches) by the end of the century. The figure was that low because the group included only expansion via heating in calculating the rise, excluding the effects of ice sheet and glacial melt on the grounds that their dynamics were not well enough understood to make good estimates.

There was a fair amount of criticism of that decision, which in fairness was undertaken to create a very scientifically conservative report, the better, it was thought, to convince doubters since the conservative findings were dire enough.

Be that as it may, it still seems that the more we look, the more the critics are, you'll pardon the expressions, on solid ground and the IPCC report on thin ice.

For one thing, it was known almost a year ago that the Antarctic Peninsula was experiencing dramatic warming and its glaciers were accelerating. But by January, it seemed clear the effects were not limited to that one area. The Washington Post reported that
[c]limatic changes appear to be destabilizing vast ice sheets of western Antarctica that had previously seemed relatively protected from global warming, researchers reported yesterday, raising the prospect of faster sea-level rise than current estimates. ...

"Without doubt, Antarctica as a whole is now losing ice yearly, and each year it's losing more," said Eric Rignot, lead author of a paper published online in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The Antarctic ice sheet is shrinking despite land temperatures for the continent remaining essentially unchanged, except for the fast-warming peninsula.
The reason, Rignot said, is believed to be global warming, causing the warmer waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to come closer to the land in some area and so melt the edges of glaciers underwater.
In all, snowfall and ice loss in East Antarctica have about equaled out over the past 10 years, leaving that part of the continent unchanged in terms of total ice. But in West Antarctica, the ice loss has increased by 59 percent over the past decade to about 132 billion metric tons a year, while the yearly loss along the peninsula has increased by 140 percent to 60 billion metric tons. ...

The new findings come as the Arctic is losing ice at a dramatic rate and glaciers are in retreat across the planet. ....

"The information from Antarctica is consistent with what we are seeing in all other areas with glaciers - a melting or retreat that is occurring faster than predicted," [Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University told the American Geophysical Union recently]. "Glaciers, and especially the high-elevation tropical glaciers, are a real canary in the coal mine. They're telling us that major climatic changes are occurring."
The thing is, when you take into account what has been learned more recently and apply that knowledge to a successful computer model, you find that
[s]ea levels could rise by up to one-and-a-half metres by the end of this century, according to a new scientific analysis. ...

The new analysis comes from a UK/Finnish team which has built a computer model linking temperatures to sea levels for the last two millennia.

"For the past 2,000 years, the [global average] sea level was very stable, it only varied by about 20cm," said Svetlana Jevrejeva from the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), near Liverpool, UK.

"But by the end of the century, we predict it will rise by between 0.8m and 1.5m."
That is anywhere from double to six times the increase predicted by the IPCC.

When I said "a successful model," I was referring to the fact that Jevrejeva said their model
is able to mimic accurately sea levels reliably observed by tide gauges over the last 300 years.
For earlier years, the best evidence comes from archaeology, where the sill heights on fish enclosures used by he Romans indicate there hasn't been any significant change in sea level since that time. Which makes the changes seen recently even more significant and a real break from the past.

Not cooling off

Updated One of the cheapest arguments raised against global warming is to point to some place somewhere where it is unusually cold at that moment and sneer something like "oh, yeah, global warming, sure, tell it to" whoever is cold just then. The argument is, naturally, bogus, as the warming is an overall average, not something that applies to every single place every single day. Even year-to-year comparisons are really too short-term to be truly revealing. But when there is an overall pattern over a longer term, it tells you something. Here are a few data points to add to that pattern.

- January 5: AFP reported that Australia had just had one of its hottest years ever
and climate experts have warned that the higher temperatures are likely a taste of things to come as weather patterns change.

The country has already kicked off 2008 with a spate of extreme weather - several cities, including Perth and Melbourne, have suffered summer heatwaves, while bushfires have raged on the east and west coasts,
along with flooding and heavy rains in areas. While overall, it was the sixth warmest year on record in Australia,
[i]n the southern states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, as well as the major agricultural zone, the Murray Darling Basin, the effect was more pronounced.

These areas, which account for the majority of Australia's 21 million people and 75 percent of the country's irrigated farmland, experienced their hottest year since records began in 1910.
- February 7, again via AFP, comes news that 2007 was the hottest year on record for Shanghai, where the records go back to 1873. The average temperature of 17.8C (64F) was a full two degrees above the long-term average.
Temperatures in China in 2006 were the warmest in 55 years, according to official data, while large swathes of the country last year endured devastating droughts and floods that Chinese scientists linked to global warming.
- March 20, the first day of spring, was observed by The Independent (UK) by describing how spring
is starting to dissolve as a distinct season as climate change takes hold.

According to documented observations throughout 2007 and 2008, events in the natural world that used to be key spring indicators, from the blooming of flowers to the appearance of insects, are now increasingly happening in what used to be thought of as mid-winter, as Britain's temperatures steadily rise.
The increase in winter temperatures has been "startling," the paper says, and is
clearly visible when current monthly means are compared to the average for 1961 to 1990.

To take the figures for last winter from the Central England Temperature Record, the world's oldest, which dates back to 1659: January 2007 was 3.2C warmer than the 1961-90 average, February was 2.0C warmer, March was 1.5C warmer, and April was 3.3C warmer. So far this year, January has been 2.8C above the 1961-90 average for the month, and February, 1.6C.

Those are substantial rises.
They are indeed and they are already contributing to shifts in natural patterns of nature, mostly in southern England, affecting when flowers and trees bloom, insects appear, birds lay their eggs; they're even changing the migratory habits of some butterflies. It may seem quaint to hear spring birds all winter long, but the fact is that if some cycles - say, the life cycle of some insect - get out of sync with some others - say, birds that feed on those insects - the results could be very serious. Say, farm fields innundated with insects. Or starving birds. Or both.

Like the commercial used to say, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

- April 17 saw the release of a report from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center that March 2008
was the warmest March on record over land surfaces of the world and the second warmest overall worldwide.
Land temperature was 1.8C (3.2F) warmer than the 20th century average.
Overall land and sea surface temperatures for the world were second highest in 129 years of record keeping, trailing only 2002, the agency said.
Of course, one hot year does not prove global warming any more than one cold year disproves it. But again, these are just more data points on top of a mountain of other data points.

Footnote the Oneth: The nanny-nanny naysayers might insist on pointing out with their familiar snicker that after completing its hottest year on record, in January Shanghai and the rest of southeast China suffered snow and ice storms that crippled power and transport networks. What they likely won't point out is that because of a warm March, snow cover on Asia was at a record low.

Footnote the Twoth: This doesn't really relate to current temperature data, but it's the most appropriate spot for it.

- February 1 brought news via UPI that
[i]ce cores from Greenland and Antarctica show that Earth warmed faster in the 20th century than at any other time in the past 22 millennia, researchers said.
What's more, the concentration of greenhouse gases is increasing much faster than in times past. The fastest growth in CO2 concentration before the industrial era was an increase of 31 parts per million over some 1,600 years - an increase matched over the last 20.

Updated with links to NOAA and to its National Climatic Data Center, which I forgot to include originally.

Getting warmed up

In the fall of 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank and an adviser to the British chancellor Gordon Brown, produced a 600-page report calling for global investment in new technologies to head off the worst of global warming. The alternative, he said, was a global recession by the end of the century that would cut the world's wealth by as much as 20%.
He forecast huge disruption to African economies in particular as drought hits food production; up to a billion people losing water supplies as mountain glaciers disappear; hundreds of millions losing their homes and land to sea level rise; and potentially big increases in damage from hurricanes. The economic cost of failing to act could approach $4 trillion by the end of the century, he [said].
Last week, he declared that his assessment had been too rosy.
“We underestimated the risks ... we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases ... and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases,” Lord Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

In retrospect, he said, he would have taken a much stronger view in the report on the drastic changes that would come about if greenhouse gas emissions were not abated.
The costs, he said, should have been much higher.

At the same time,
he defended his estimates of the cost of taking action on emissions, which he put in the report at about 1 per cent of global GDP.

“Subsequent reports, [from] McKinsey, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have pointed to the [Stern report’s] costs of action being roughly in the right ball park. Nothing [since] has led me to revise the cost of action,” he said.
The costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of action. Then again, they often do.

Burning Bush

In a desperate attempt to avoid complete irrelevancy without actually having to do anything, President George Shrub last week presented what according to the BBC he claimed is
an "ambitious" new target of halting growth in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. ...

Mr Bush said the new target should require emissions "well below" projections given in the 2002 climate strategy.

"There are a number of ways to achieve these reductions, but all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies." ...

The new technology would combine with nuclear power and "clean coal" to help meet the targets, Mr Bush said.
Right. Unspecified "new technologies" plus nukes and the mythological "clean coal," the latter of which was offered up, presumably with a straight face, just over two months after the DOE canceled plans to build a prototype "clean coal" power plant. What's the line about old wine in new bottles?* Newsday quoted Edmund Chang, a professor of marine and atmospheric sciences and a member of the IPCC, as saying this was a step in the right direction but added the program is vague and contains "no concrete steps."
Other experts were equally critical.

"In his eighth year, the president has just proposed a path on global warming weaker than the campaign pledge he made in September of 2000 and broke three months into office," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In fact, even allowing for full implementation of all the pledges about energy efficiency and the like, under Bush's program in 2025 the US's output of greenhouse gases will be nearly one-quarter above the level it produced in the UN benchmark year of 1990.
"With current policies, the greenhouse-gas emissions of the US will increase by 18 percent between 2005 and 2025," [International Energy Agency] chief economist Fathi Birol told AFP.

"If you compare this with 1990 levels, by 2025 there will be plus 38 percent.

He added: "If the (newly announced) policies and measures - energy efficency, renewables, all the policies - are implemented, you can take off about 15 percent from this."

"So it means an increase of about 23 percent between 1990 and 2025, but only if the policies are implemented and respected."
Meanwhile, the European Union has promised that by 2020 it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below its 1990 level and has offered to make it a 30% cut if the US and other rich nations follow suit. (Even at that, it's at the lower end of the cuts the IPCC has called for.) Some, in fact, have done better than just promise: The UK, which apparently is serious about addressing climate change, has a level of greenhouse gas emissions that is already 16.4% below 1990 levels.

But instead and despite that, we have before us in this country an "ambitious" and "responsible" proposal from the Shrub gang that will leave us pumping out 23% more climate-screwing pollution than we did 35 years earlier, an "ambitious" and "responsible" program that was coupled with a warning to Congress to go no further on regulating emissions.
Asked in Paris on Thursday as to the likely figure for 2025, the head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, Jim Connaughton, said: "It will be slightly above where we are now and significantly below where the analysts have projected where we would otherwise be."
Where we are now is 16% over 1990 levels and even Bush's own people are openly admitting that under his "ambitious, responsible" program, emissions will actually increase. No wonder the Beeb was able to quote Carl Pope of the Sierra Club as saying "Under the president's plan we'll need a real miracle to save us from global warming."

And so, following are a few post-its about global climate change. All guaranteed Earth Day-friendly.

Footnote: Something the articles didn't cover and about which I still have to wonder is how the WHS** intend to count "reductions." The 2002 plan to which Bushie referred used a measure of "greenhouse gas intensity," which was a ratio of greenhouse gas emissions per million dollars of GDP. I wrote a couple of years ago:
Get it? As long as GDP increases faster than the output of greenhouse gases, you get to say that you are cutting emissions even as they continue to grow. It's like saying that if one year I make $30,000 and have $5,000 in debts and the next year I make $33,000 (an increase of 10%) and my debts are $5,250 (an increase of 5%), I owe less money than I did before. Unfortunately, nature doesn't count it that way. Just like my debtors are concerned with how many dollars I owe them, not with what portion of my income it represents, so, too, nature is only concerned with how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases are being produced, not with the size of the economy that produced them.
Perhaps this newer-than-new, grander-than-grand, "ambitious, responsible" program counts actual emissions, not some bogus and meaningless ratio. But until I see it confirmed, I'll have my doubts.

Another Footnote: Clinton, McCain, and Obama have all called for tougher policies, including caps on emissions. Which is good. Then again, Shrub made a lot of similar promises in 2000. So don't count on it.

*Actually, the original saying was about new wine in old bottles, but it works this way, too.

**WHS = White House Sociopaths

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stargeek Atlantis, Episode Five

John Wheeler, one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, has died of pneumonia at the age of 96.

You may never have heard of him, but you've heard of the term he famously coined: black hole.

Stargeek Atlantis, Episode Four

It's so cool it's hot. Except it's not hot, which is why it's cool. Well, it is hot but it's not hot by what's actually hot, so it's actually cool, which is what makes it cool. Or so SpaceRef.com told us a few days ago.
An international team of astronomers has discovered the coldest brown dwarf star ever observed. This finding is a new step toward filling the gap between stars and planets. ...

The brown dwarf is named CFBDS J005910.83-011401.3 (it will be called CFBDS0059 in the following). Its temperature is about 350 degrees C and its mass about 15-30 times the mass of Jupiter, the largest planet of our solar system. Located about 40 light-years from our solar system, it is an isolated object, meaning that it doesn't orbit another star.
To give you an idea of how small and cool that is for a star, the Sun is well over 30 times as massive and its surface temperature is more than 17 times hotter. Indeed, the dwarf's surface temperature is only moderately above the ignition temperature of a safety match and is about one-fifth of that of a blast furnace.
Brown dwarfs are intermediate bodies between stars and giant planets (like Jupiter). The mass of brown dwarfs is usually less than 70 Jupiter masses. Because of their low mass, their central temperature is not high enough to maintain thermonuclear fusion reactions over a long time. In contrast to a star like our Sun, which spends most of its lifetime burning hydrogen hence keeping a constant internal temperature, a brown dwarf spends its lifetime getting colder and colder after having been formed. ...

To date, two classes of brown dwarfs have been known: the L dwarfs (temperature of 1200-2000 degrees C), which have clouds of dust and aerosols in their high atmosphere, and the T dwarfs (temperature lower than 1200 degrees C), which have a very different spectrum because of methane forming in their atmosphere. Because it contains ammonia and has a much lower temperature than do L and T dwarfs, CFBDS0059 might be the protoype of a new class of brown dwarfs to be called the Y dwarfs. This new class would become the coldest stellar objects, hence the missing link toward giant planets. Astronomers could then fill in the domain from the hottest stars to the giant planets of less than -100 degrees C.
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." There is a whole lotta crap out there still to be discovered. I just said it but I'll say it again: That's what makes science so cool.

Stargeek Atlantis, Episode Three

Spirit and Opportunity, meet Cassini-Huygens. This via Space.com:
The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft's mission at Saturn has been extended by two years, NASA announced today, allowing the plucky probe to continue scouting the planet and its exotic medley of moons.

Launched in October 1997, the nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft spent seven years journeying to Saturn and has orbited the ringed planet since June 2004. The mission's end was originally set for July 2008.
The extended mission will include a number of additional close looks at Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus - both of which are thought to have liquid oceans beneath their surfaces - including one pass planned to come within 15 miles of the crust of Enceladus.
Scientists think Titan and Enceladus may help construct a picture of what Earth was like before life appeared here, as both moons have been shown to harbor precursors of life. ...

Aside from a few instrument glitches, mission managers said the probe is in good shape. ...

If mission managers decide to extend Cassini's journey yet again in 2010, the craft should have enough propellant to handle a third mission phase.

Since arriving at Saturn, Cassini has beamed back nearly 140,000 images during 62 revolutions around the planet and more than 50 flybys of its moons.
There are a whole bunch of those images available at the JPL link above.

Footnote: You might have heard the news that JPL was going to have to shut down one of the Mars rovers in light of a $4 million, or 40%, budget cut imposed on the program by NASA. However, NASA rescinded the cut when it became obvious that shutting down a rover, which was never an option, was the only way to achieve a reduction of that magnitude. Both rovers are aging, getting creaky, and having software problems and will have to be shut down at some point, but when you've been going 16 times longer than was expected and can still be productive, well, you can be creaky and gripey, too.

Stargeek Atlantis, Episode Two

Here's a discovery that is quite literally full of shit. From the Washington Post for April 4:
Using radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis, an international team concluded that fossilized feces found five feet below the surface of an arid cave [in Oregon] are significantly older than any previous human remains unearthed in the Americas.
About 1,000 years older, in fact, placing people genetically similar to Native Americans in North America more than 14,000 years ago.
The discovery ... is a blow to the widely held theory that the Clovis culture - named after a site in New Mexico where its distinct artifacts and fluted spearheads were first identified in the 1930s - was the first human presence in North America. [Dennis] Jenkins [of the University of Oregon, who oversaw the dig.] said that while the human DNA found in Oregon could be from ancestors of the Clovis culture, none of the distinctive Clovis technology has been found in the region.

The "Clovis first" theory has been challenged by almost a decade of discoveries from Canada to the southern tip of South America that indicate that humans were present before the time of the Clovis civilization, generally dated at about 13,000 years ago. But yesterday's report is considered key because it is the first to involve datable human DNA.
Some criticize the finding, suggesting the human DNA may be the result of later contamination of earlier animal feces, but the team says there is too much human protein to be explained that way.

Besides the sheer coolness of the find, there is another interesting aspect.
If the discovery is ultimately confirmed and accepted by anthropologists, it will also challenge the prevailing theory about how humans spread across the Americas.

Most experts agree that the first American inhabitants came from Siberia, traveling over what was then a land and ice bridge across the Bering Strait to what is now Alaska, probably before 15,000 years ago. Much of Canada was then covered by an ice sheet that would have made it impossible to migrate southward.

Using geological and climate information, researchers have concluded that a corridor of ice-free land opened in inland Canada between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago, and that the earliest inhabitants could have made their way to the high plains of the United States by that path. Humans are believed to have then spread quickly across North America and then South America - doing so in hundreds, rather than thousands, of years.

But if very early humans lived in Oregon, that suggests they either came directly from Asia by boat or traveled down the Pacific coastline after crossing the land bridge.
Of those two, I find the idea of skimming the coast in small craft a more likely scenario than a direct transit from Asia, but either way, it requires a re-think of how early people lived and traveled. Which is what is so cool about science, including the so-called "soft" sciences like archaeology and anthropology: There is always more to learn.

Stargeek Atlantis, Episode One

Have you seen the ads for "Expelled?" The movie is a creationist's wet dream, a so-called and I emphasize both the description so-called and the quotation marks "documentary" that attempts to disprove evolution in favor of the farcical "intelligent design." As is typical, it does not make that attempt by presenting some kind of evidence for ID, oh no. (I started to say they've given up on that, but that's wrong: They never started on it. There is not and never has been any evidence for ID; the entire fantasy is based on attacks against evolution, in fact specifically Darwinian evolution, as if there have been no developments in the field since the publication of The Origin of Species.)

Instead, the film takes the "oppressed truth-seeker" tack, insisting that creationists have been cruelly and viciously repressed and silenced by some conspiracy by "Big Science" (a term the movie actually uses), as well as claiming that, in the words of one reviewer quoted at the film's official website, "Evolution leads to atheism leads to eugenics leads to Holocaust and Nazi Germany."

Yes, it's manipulative, deceitful, inane, over the top bullshit. But it still may find an audience, since it's opening in 1000 theaters and is even running TV ads.

Which brings me to the first part of what I wanted to say here, which is that the one ad I've seen shows a classroom with an instructor saying something about evolution. He is extremely disturbed when he is interrupted by a "student," film narrator Ben Stein, who asks "where did life come from?" The final scene shows Stein sitting outside the principal's office where, we are supposed to think, he has been sent for daring to ask a question.

But the fact is, evolution says nothing about the origin of life! It's not about the origin of life. It's about how life changes over time (evolves, get it?) in interaction with environment. The study of the origin of life is a separate field called abiogenesis - which, of course, the instructor in the ad would have explained to our dimwitted narrator and which the producers of the film actually know since the film itself acknowledges it. Which only goes to prove that the ad, like the movie it pushes, is a manipulative lie that depends on people not knowing the basics of evolutionary theory; it exploits ignorance in other to increase it further.

Which is unsurprising since deception about the science and bluster about non-existent "oppression" are the only weapons the creationists have. Especially when - and here's the second part of what I wanted to say - yet another unique form has been discovered, an animal with unusual characteristics driven by its environment and which thereby stands as a further confirmation of evolution. From AP for April 10 via Talking Points Memo:
A frog has been found in a remote part of Indonesia that has no lungs and breathes through its skin, a discovery that researchers said Thursday could provide insight into what drives evolution in certain species.

The aquatic frog Barbourula kalimantanensis was found in a remote part of Indonesia's Kalimantan province on Borneo island during an expedition in August 2007, said David Bickford, an evolutionary biologist at the National University of Singapore. ...

Bickford said the species is the first frog known to science without lungs and joins a short list of amphibians with this unusual trait, including a few species of salamanders and a wormlike creature known as a caecilian.

"These are about the most ancient and bizarre frogs you can get on the planet," Bickford said of the brown amphibian with bulging eyes and a tendency to flatten itself as it glides across the water.

"They are like a squished version of Jabba the Hutt," he said....

Bickford surmised that the frog had evolved to adapt to its difficult surroundings, in which it has to navigate cold, rapidly moving streams that are rich in oxygen.

"It's an extreme adaptation that was probably brought about by these fast-moving streams," Bickford said, adding that it probably needed to reduce its buoyancy in order to keep from being swept down the mountainous rivers.

He said the frog could help scientists understand the environmental factors that contribute to "extreme evolutionary change" since its closest relative in the Philippines and other frogs have lungs.
That last bit being one of extreme importance because it sums up the difference between evolutionists and creationists: Evolutionists want to understand more; creationists don't even want to understand what we already know.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reading about that lead me to this

There may be a development in the case of Mordechai Vanunu. He was the Israeli nuclear technician and whistleblower who in 1986 confirmed to a British newspaper what all politically-sentient beings already knew: Israel had nuclear weapons. For that, Israeli agents lured him from the UK to Italy, where he was drugged, kidnapped, taken back to Israel, labeled a traitor, and charged with revealing state secrets. He was convicted and spent 18 years in prison, a dozen of them in solitary confinement. He was finally released in April 2004.

If you can call it released. He was placed under a variety of restrictions limiting his movements, his contacts, and his ability to speak with any non-Israeli. He was not allowed to leave Israel. Over the intervening years, the restrictions have been repeatedly renewed.

Vanunu, for his own part, has been defiant about the restrictions on contacts with foreigners and has been sentenced to house arrest several times and, last July, to six months in jail. A hearing to appeal an additional six month sentence is scheduled for May 13.

The breaking news involves the fact that back in 2004, Vanunu had requested asylum in Norway. Aftenposten (Norway) reported last Wednesday that
news emerged that the Norwegian government stepped in to reject an appeal for asylum from long-imprisoned Israeli physicist Mordechai Vanunu.

Newspaper Bergens Tidende reported Wednesday that Vanunu's application for asylum in Norway had in fact been approved by the country's immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) back in 2004.

UDI was overruled, however, by Norway's center-right government at the time. Political considerations, not least Norway's efforts to remain on good terms with Israel and the US, were more important than Vanunu's human rights, critics now charge.
UDI officials are supposed to be free to make decisions without political interference. But like a lot of other "spoz-ta"s, political expedience overruled both policy and justice.

In the wake of the revelation, Vanunu renewed his request for asylum. However, Reuters reported on Friday, Norwegian officals "held out no hope that he would be accepted." One reason why:
Norwegian daily Dagsavisen on Friday cited an Israeli diplomat as saying that giving Vanunu asylum would be considered interference in Israel's internal affairs and a "sign of the generally anti-Israeli sentiment in Norway."
That is, pulling out the same sort of bullying tactics that always get pulled out: Any action, any statement, anything of which the Israeli government disapproves is proof of "anti-Israel" - and by inferred and sometimes explicit extension, anti-Semitic - "sentiment."

However, and this is the real breaking news part, a group called We Are Wide Awake quotes a statement from Fredrik Heffermehl of the International Vanunu Committee, saying that on Sunday night the Socialist Left Party, one of the parties in Norway's three-party ruling coalition, decided to invite Vanunu to come to Norway in May.

That of course is not the end of his problems; first and foremost, Israel has to be willing to let him go, which it has shown no inclination to do. But the existence of a formal invitation, in essence an offer of asylum (and a standing offer of a job, removing another potential snag), does serve to increase pressure on Israel to at the very, very least, explain just what it is that this man, who has served his sentence, could possibly know and reveal after more than 20 years that justifies the continued attempts to gag him - or is it, as I suspect, a combination of simple spite at their inability to intimidate him into complete silence and a desire to send a message to other would-be whistleblowers of the consequences of disobedience?

The meaning of the phrase has changed since 2004, but its significance hasn't: Free Mordechai Vanunu!

Footnote: Haaretz (Israel) reported on Monday that
Israel and the United States signed an agreement several days ago to step up cooperation in the field of nuclear safety.

The new agreement broadens and upgrades previous accords between the two countries in this field, which were signed over the past two decades. It will enable the Israel Atomic Energy Commission to access most of the latest nuclear safety data, procedures and technology available in the U.S. ...

Even though the agreement is essentially technical in nature, it has much greater significance, as many countries, including the U.S., are inclined not to cooperate with Israel on any aspects related to the nuclear field, because Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Apparently, this is another area where Israel gets special treatment.

He should eat lead and die

Or so, it would seem, is the official Israeli attitude toward Jimmy Carter. Reuters reported on Monday that
Israel's secret service has declined to assist U.S. agents guarding former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a visit in which Israeli leaders have shunned him....

American sources close to the matter said the Shin Bet security service, which helps protect visiting dignitaries and is overseen by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's office, declined to meet the head of Carter's Secret Service security detail or provide his team with assistance as is customary during such visits.

"They're not getting support from local security," an American source said.

Another source described the snub as an "unprecedented" breach between the Israeli Shin Bet and the U.S. Secret Service, which protects all current and former U.S. presidents, as well as Israeli leaders when they visit the United States.
(Link via Raw Story.)

Carter aroused the anger of the Israelis by referring to its policies in the occupied territories - quite accurately - as "apartheid" and by including in his plans for his current Mideast trip a meeting with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, in Syria. Carter remarked that
I think there's no doubt in anyone's mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process....
But Israel has no interest in meeting with Hamas or even in reaching any sort of agreement. I charged last October that
it has been some time since Israel showed a genuine interest in peace - provided we assume that "peace" can be differentiated from "dominance."
For one egregious example (beyond the several at the above link), just over a year ago, I observed that Olmert had shortly before told Time magazine that Israel "could not accept the return of even a single Palestinian refugee to Israel." That is, his government rejected the "right of return" in toto. As I said at the time, that is a deal breaker: The "right of return" is as deeply emotional an issue among Palestinians as the nature of Israel is among Israelis, and a demand that Palestinians give up on even a limited, symbolic right of return has the same impact on them as a demand that Israel cease being a Jewish state would have on Israelis. The point here is that there is no way in hell Olmert does not know that. His government's policy makes a real settlement impossible.

(Yes, I am aware that Hamas's founding charter called for destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. I also know that the existence of that 1988 document has been used to reject as lies any less-radical statements in the years since. So if you either feel as many Israelis do about what that document says or understand how they feel, you should be able to understand how Palestinians feel about a rejection of the right of return and understand, then, why an outright rejection of it is a major roadblock to long-term peace.)

So Israeli authorities, who shunned Carter except for a pro forma meeting with President Shimon Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, decided further to show their displeasure with the man who brokered the first Arab-Israeli peace agreement by denying him the usual security assistance shown to foreign dignitaries. They thereby knowingly increased the risk to his life - especially as his itinerary took him to a southern Israeli town with "problematic" security. The actual risk to Carter's safety was doubtless small and the difference made by the lack of cooperation smaller still, but it did not make zero difference. Being a critic of Israel apparently makes your life less worthy of protection.

It's a lesson about which Rachael Corrie could have taught him.

Footnote: The Israeli government's stand was not universally approved. The Israeli daily Haaretz praised Carter in an editorial, saying
[t]he boycott will not be remembered as a glorious moment in this government's history. ...

Carter's method, which says that it is necessary to talk with every one, has still not proven to be any less successful than the method that calls for boycotts and air strikes. In terms of results, at the end of the day, Carter beats out any of those who ostracize him. For the peace agreement with Egypt, he deserves the respect reserved for royalty for the rest of his life.
There are rejectionists and realists, the cruel and the compassionate, on both sides of the Isreali-Palestinian divide. We must never forget that.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

There is some justice

Think Progress reports that Earblot Slagzone has been unable to find work.

A long introduction to make a relatively short point

I expect most of you have heard about the flap that developed earlier this week surrounding Illinois State Representative Monique Davis. In case you didn't, here's the rundown. Local atheist activist Rob Sherman was testifying before the Government Administration Committee of the Illinois House against the constitutionality of a proposal to provide $1 million in state support to help rebuild a church after a fire.

(Sidebar: The justification for the aid was apparently that the church was regarded as a landmark. However, things got a little sticky when it turned out that instead of going to the church, Gov. Rod Blagojevich did some fancy dancing to redirect the money to a private school that rented space from the church. That, however, does not directly impact the story here, to which we now return.)

Davis interrupted Sherman's testimony to deliver an increasingly-angry, anti-atheist diatribe (audio here), declaring (edited):
This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. ... What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! ... Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! ... You believe in destroying!
Chicago Tribune reporter/blogger Eric Zorn described the exchange, adding later that other than his own report, it "received no attention whatsoever." Which was true; even the Tribune's own story on the hearing didn't mention it. This despite the fact, Zorn argued, that had similar sentiments been directed against a person of any religious faith, it would "be considered scandalously out of bounds in contemporary society." (Another sidebar: Sherman continued his testimony; however, the Committee chair denied him an opportunity to respond to Davis.)

One rarely really knows why one incident sparks a response and others don't. But after initially being ignored, for some reason, this one did catch some people's attention. It became something of a story; Davis even made Keith Olbermann's Worst Person in the World list on Wednesday.

Subsequently, Sherman reported that Davis had called him to apologize and that he considered the matter closed.

Personally, I think she should have apologized publicly; after all, the denunciation was quite public. It could be cogently argued that since Sherman was the one assailed, it should be entirely his call, but the fact remains that the clear meaning of Davis's statements were not that Sherman is "dangerous" and has "no right" to be taking part in civic affairs, but that atheists are dangerous and have no such right. It was, that is, more than an attack on just Sherman personally, with a meaning to more people than just him. So I remain unsure that a private apology is adequate.

Still, leave that aside and with the news of the apology, private though it may have been, I'll accept that it was a one-time outburst and withdraw any support I might have offered to calls for her resignation, such as that from the Council for Secular Humanism. I did, however, want to offer a comment on another aspect, one that is at least a little encouraging.

In initially discussing Davis's blowout, Zorn said "I know from experience that many of you will side with Davis." Sherman, it seems, is something of a gadfly and has sued or threatened to sue some towns around Chicago to force them to remove religious symbols from city property or in some cases from official city insignia, leading him to be regarded as an "outsider" and a "pest" by those more concerned with the possible cost of changing stationery than with upholding the principle of church-state separation.

However, to Zorn's (and my, I admit) surprise, the comments in response to his post were overwhelmingly critical of Davis and there were even some people who said they didn't like Sherman but still he shouldn't have been treated that way and (more importantly) that he has as much right to be there as anyone else.

Now, it's an illustration of the kind of hostility that atheists have routinely met (I still remember being told to my face that I could not have any morals because I don't believe in God) that Zorn had felt it necessary to say in raising the issue,
I ask you to consider what the outcry would have been if a lawmaker had launched a similar attack on the beliefs of a religious person.
It's an indication of the continued existence of that bias that I was able to say last year that
[b]ack in the first part of February [2007], USA Today/Gallup did a poll about American attitudes towards certain groups of people as possible presidents. The question was "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [fill in the blank], would you vote for that person?"
There were 10 characteristics mentioned, touching on race, gender, age, religion, marital status, and sexual orientation. Of those, there was one, just one single case
in which a majority of Americans were willing to say they would refuse to vote for a candidate based solely on that one characteristic: if he or she was an atheist.

There may be a constitutional separation of church and state, but the idea that there is a practical separation between being churched and state is a fantasy.
However, and this is the entire point of this discussion, is that it is also a measure of true progress that Zorn's expectation was wrong and his caveat, unnecessary. Perhaps the recent string of books and the discussion they've generated - despite the wildly varying quality of both - has had some impact, if only by making "atheism" something that real people actually believe in and other real people actually talk about rather than something creepily alien you've sort of heard of somewhere. I don't expect to see a time when atheism is the common fare of society - and frankly, I really don't even care if it ever is. I do care about an understanding - and about people reaching an understanding - of the difference between faith and knowledge, between the physical laws of nature and the moral laws of humans, and on a very practical level between church and state. I do care about people breaking out of the trap that morality = religion = morality, particularly because so tragically often that shifts to morality = my religion = morality.

And I do care about the statement "I am an atheist" ultimately turning no more heads than "I am a Lutheran" or "I am a Jew" or "I am a Buddhist." It's nice to know that just maybe we're a half-step closer to that than I thought.

A Veritable Plethora of Footnotes: Start with the observation by some that Davis's reference to "the Land of Lincoln" has at least a degree of irony, as it is very unlikely Lincoln held anything like the beliefs Davis imagines that he did. Despite the attempts of some to ascribe the modern understanding of "atheist" to Lincoln, he would more properly be a Deist, a believer in some vaguely-defined form of providence. But he was by no means a Christian.

Next, a commenter on Zorn's post mentioned that
[e]ven Mother Teresa, it turns out, spent the greater part of her life with huge doubt about her religious faith. Most people who are believers spend their lives without really much examining closely what it is they think they believe. When they do examine it closely, the doubts begin.
The latter part of that may be true; indeed examining my own early faith is part of what lead me to be an atheist. But the first part gives me cause to regain some of the respect I used to have for Mother Teresa (before I learned how her help for the poor often resulted in if not involved keeping them that way). It was not quite 40 years ago (!) that I said on my college radio show that
[m]aybe I'm one of those playing at his beliefs, who can't hold to them when the chips are down - or maybe I'm one of those who's trying to believe things he can't live by. I hope not, but these are doubts - self-doubts - that I have had. And maybe it's better than I have such doubts, for the one who's lying to himself can't afford the luxury of self-doubt. [Emphasis added.]
Even as I reject the policies she pursued as misguided, often arrogant and condescending, and ultimately ineffective, knowing that she struggled with her faith gives me some respect for the determination she showed in trying to live that faith as best as she understood it.

Third, speaking of arrogant and condescending, there are a lot of atheists who display both qualities in reeking abundance. In February, making a comment on an atheist website, I referred to people whose religious faith enabled them to "live lives of justice and courage." In response, a self-described "freethinker" - a term I despise - made some snide remarks about my having embraced superstitions and said I should ask such people as I mentioned to explain how their beliefs could be distinguished from them. I replied
As for the people living lives of justice and courage, it was in reference to people I have known personally, in some cases for many years. You are utterly ignorant of their lives, their convictions, and their actions and so utterly incompetent to judge them - and it is you, not I, who have equated their beliefs with “not stepping on cracks” and “knocking on wood,” neither of which beliefs, to my knowledge, have ever inspired anyone to go to prison rather than violate their consciences or walk into the middle of a riot in an attempt to calm things down.

No, it is by no means necessary to believe in a god to live such a life, nor did I in any way suggest that it is - still, such actions, which I have witnessed, do seem to point to that “difference” about which you proposed I inquire.
There was no further response.

Finally, if for some unfathomable reason you want to know something more of my beliefs, you can look here and here. Be aware that there is, perhaps to be expected, some overlap. Specifically, the quotes in the second half of the first (earlier) post are largely repeated in the second (recent) post.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Just passing through

I want to apologize to anyone who's come by here of late and been disturbed or disappointed by the thin posting. I know that there are at least a few folks who come by maybe twice a week to see what's doin' here and to those friends and colleagues I offer particular apologies.

The truth is, I've been pretty sick of late and literally have not felt up to doing anything constructive. The necessities of such as grocery shopping and the laundry are about all I can handle. The majority of my time at the computer has consisted of mindless game-playing.

But I'm on the mend, so that's good. My spirits remain low - the dark cloud I've referred to a couple of times - but I recently learned that it could be (could be) a side effect of a medication I take for my heart. So I'll be addressing that next doctor visit, which is next month. Keep a good thought for me.

In the meantime, I'll keep on trying if you'll keep on dropping by from time to time. Carry it on.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Battlestar Galactigeek

If back very early on March 19, at about 2:12 AM Eastern Time, in fact, you happened to be outside looking at the night sky, and if you happened to have very good viewing conditions, and if you happened to be looking toward the constellation Boötes, perhaps looking for Arcturus (remember to "arc to Arcturus"), and if you didn't close your eyes at the wrong moment, you might have seen a brief flash of light.

You likely would have been surprised. You likely would have wondered what it was. You likely would not have guessed.

What you would have seen was a gamma ray burst from the most distant object ever to be seen with the naked eye: Some 7.5 billion light years away, more than halfway across the visible universe.
"It was a whopper," says [NASA] Swift [satellite] principal investigator Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "This blows away every gamma ray burst we've seen so far." ...

Most gamma ray bursts occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. Their cores collapse to form black holes or neutron stars, releasing an intense burst of high-energy gamma rays and ejecting particle jets that rip through space at nearly the speed of light. When the jets plow into surrounding interstellar clouds, they heat the gas to incandescent visibility. It is this gaseous "afterglow" which was visible to the human eye on March 19th.

GRB 080319B's afterglow was 2.5 million times more luminous than the most luminous supernova ever recorded, making it the most intrinsically bright object ever observed by humans in the universe. The most distant previous object that could have been seen by the naked eye is the nearby galaxy M33, a relatively short 2.9 million light-years from Earth.
So this was over two and a-half times further away. Scientists aren't sure why this particular event was so bright; it could have been intrinsically brighter or perhaps its energy release was in a narrow stream pointed directly at Earth.

You can see an animated .gif of the flash (from which the picture here, showing the flash as the dot of light in the center, is taken) at the story link and more info about the burst itself (and a larger animated .gif) at this link.

Oh, if you wonder about the name it was given, it's simple:
GRB = gamma ray burst
080319 = March 19, 2008
B = second (of four) gamma ray bursts detected that day

A quick hit on something that irritated me

Several folks have commented on an exchange between Cokie Roberts and Katrina Vanden Heuvel on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, during which Roberts avowed that "Americans would prefer to win" in Iraq. D-day at Hullabaloo slapped Roberts for
blather[ing] on about what Americans would prefer. Not that she's likely to have talked to anyone who's had to serve in this war or felt the burdens of this war, of course, but she just feels it in her very sensible and serious gut.
In a similar vein, Glenn Greenwald described Roberts as being in line with
the bulk of establishment pundits [who] regularly deploy the same method - simultaneously holding themselves out as Spokesmen for the Regular People while showing complete contempt for what they actually think by lying about their views.
He punctuated the last point being by referring to polls showing in one case that 60% of the public supports sticking to a timetable for withdrawal regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time and in another case that 61% say that the next president should withdraw most US troops from Iraq within a few months of entering office.

Which is all good and to the - or at least a - point, but neither of them address what I think is a more basic point about Roberts' assertion: It is a fundamentally idiotic argument. Not because it's wrong (which it is) and not because it's presumptuous (which it is) but because it tells us absolutely nothing.

"Do you want to win or do you want to lose?" Who the hell is going to say they want to lose? Hey, you're taking a vacation in Las Vegas! Play some slots! Do you want to win or do you want to lose? Your favorite team is playing today! Do you want them to win or do you want them to lose? Do you want your preferred candidate to win or to lose? Any question phrased that way about anything, including Iraq, is going to get a heck of a lot of support for "winning."

But particularly in the case of Iraq, unless the question is followed up by asking you what you think constitutes "winning" (which Vanden Heuvel raised, to her credit), what you think are the chances of that happening, what you think it will cost to achieve that end, and if you think the price in blood, treasure, and disruption is worth it, any statement about a "preference" for "winning" is utterly vacuous, devoid of both meaning and useful content. Not that much of what people like Roberts have to say has either, but this one just ticked me off and I wish that instead of replying by asking "What is winning?" Vanden Heuvel had said "Don't be stupid."

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Comment post #3

In response to a post at Lean Left citing a report about new research dismissing the claim that increased solar activity is the cause of global warming, a commenter brought up the speculation that Mars and Pluto have also warmed, which supposedly shows that people aren't involved in global warming because, of course, there are no people on Mars and Pluto. Someone else linked to a story positively refuting that contention, but that of course was not the end of it. The first person came back with:
We also don’t know why the oceans stopped warming this past 4-5 years even though CO2 output continued to increase.
He also linked to a story published in The Australian citing a radio interview with a woman from a think tank arguing that the Earth is actually cooling "if you take 1998 as your point of reference." (Which is a ridiculous argument; of course the Earth is cooling if you take as your stating point the hottest year on record. It's interesting how conservatives always want to get to choose when the clock of history both starts and stops.) The commenter insisted "we really don’t understand how climate works very much at all. It casts doubt on the idea that CO2 causes warming." That's where I came in.
I did just a few minutes of digging to come up with this regarding that linked bit in The Australian, now to be filed under the heading “consider the source.” Working from the inside out:

- The Institute of Public Affairs, where interviewee Jennifer Marohasy (who is a biologist, not a climatologist) works, describes itself as Australia’s “Leading Free Market Think Tank.” It’s a right-wing, corporate funded think tank that is known as a climate change denier.

- Marohasy’s interviewer, Michael Duffy, is a right-winger hired for Counterpoint[, the Australian radio show which broadcast the interview,] specifically for that reason.

- The Australian, where the column [to which the commenter linked] appeared, is part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire.

- Column author Christopher Pearson calls himself a “radical libertarian.”

- His column is cited here by one of our resident deniers.

Kind of a perfect storm of mutually-reinforcing ideology.

As for the other link, about how “the oceans stopped warming,” the article mentions a variety of possibilities, including a “hiatus” in warming, loss of heat to the atmosphere as part of the El Nino cycle, the ocean still warming but at a different depth than being measured, even misinterpretation of the data. None of the possibilities mentioned questions either the overall warming trend or the role of CO2 and it is at best disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Indeed, that last bit - misinterpretation - calls to mind another time the deniers harped on a supposed anomaly to claim climate change was bogus: when one layer of the atmosphere appeared to be cooling when the models said it should be warming. It turned out it was warming; the initial results has failed to make a correction required by changes in the measuring satellites’ orbits. So may it yet prove to be here. We’ll have to see.

In any event, as the article does make clear to anyone who reads it without “Gotcha!” in mind, even if it turns out that the oceans have not warmed over the last few years, it provides no evidence at all against climate change because, contrary to what seems to be the notion, there is no straight-line relationship between CO2 concentrations and global warming in general, much less one aspect (ocean warming) in particular. It is a connection, a pattern, but not one that operates on a precise schedule such that a rise in CO2 levels in a given period must give rise to equivalent warming in that same period.

(Which, I note in passing, makes it amusing how the nanny-nanny naysayers, who not long ago were saying that 100 years of weather records was “not enough” to argue for climate change are now trying to make flat declarations based on spans of five or ten years.)

Finally, it is true that there is much still to be understood about the incredibly complex fluid dynamics of the Earth’s climate. But some is known - and what is known points in one direction: The planet is warming and if we do not take steps necessary to slow or stop that warming, the consequences will be disastrous for human society.
Which, not surprisingly for anyone who has been through one of these "debates," just generated another, different, set of stale claims, all of them referenced in my next reply. (By the way, I should mention that my quotes of the commenter are only very slightly edited, they are pretty much everything he said.)
It would help if you could obtain a basic grasp of science and scientific method before continuing this conversation.

If we can’t predict things with this scientific theory then how how can it be science? If you can’t make a prediction and test for it you can’t conduct an experiment.

First, stop confusing experiment - which is a scientific method - with the whole of science. Controlled experiment is a way of learning about life, the universe, and everything, but it is not the only way. (If it was, then much of, for example, astronomy, cosmology, and relativity physics would not be science.) Another way is to observe, establish hypotheses, make predictions about what will be seen or found through further observation, then see if you’re right. (Which is why astronomy, etc., are science.)

Second, climatology does make predictions about global climate change and it is another example of disingenuousness to suggest I said anything to the contrary. If you know anything about scientific method, then you are familiar with “error bars” and “confidence levels.” Global warming theory does predict with a very high level of confidence (which is about as certain as scientists ever get about something not already observed under controlled laboratory conditions) that increasing CO2 concentrations will lead to further warming. But there is a range of uncertainty about how much of an increase in the one will lead to how much of an increase in the other and over what time span. In fact, because CO2 is not the only forcing (factor tending to push effects in a certain direction) on global warming, it’s clear that there is, as I already said, no straight-line relationship between the two.

That does not mean there is no connection, it does not mean that there is no general pattern, it does mean that you can’t say that “this much of an increase in CO2 this year will lead to this much warming next year.” Which is why both “the oceans haven’t warmed in a few years” argument and the “we’re not setting records every year” argument are both bogus.

Haven’t ice core samples shown that CO2 increases have followed periods of warming rather than preceded them?

Apparently so, but it’s irrelevant because it has nothing to do with CO2 being a climate forcing. The most it would show is that CO2 concentrations did not initiate those cycles. But they did contribute to them and the facts remain that over the course of history, temperature and CO2 levels have risen and fallen pretty much in tandem and there is a well-established mechanism for CO2 to add to the greenhouse effect and so enhance warming. Higher CO2 levels lead to warming. Period.

[W]hat caused those global warming and cooling periods millions of years ago, certainly not burning fossil fuels?

Again with the ignorance. Large-scale cycles of warming and cooling (with smaller cycles of cooling and warming within them) are old stuff to scientists. Don’t come off like you think you’ve come up with something no one else has noticed; you only make yourself look lame.

The issue here is simple: The Earth has its natural cycles. By pouring unprecedented amounts of CO2 into the environment, we are screwing around with those cycles. Yes, the Earth no doubt could take everything we throw at it and re-establish its own climate equilibrium - but that could easily take millennia. Suppose it took 10,000 years, no, suppose it took just 1000 years. That’s almost nothing to the Earth, the rough equivalent of 15 minutes to someone who’s lived 100 years. But to us, a thousand years of climate disruption could easily be devastating.

Which brings me to this:

How do we know the consequences of warming will be disastrous for human society?

The IPCC has laid it out in necessarily brutal language. Increased droughts. Crop failures. Hunger. Inundated coastlines - which is where most of the human population lives, leading to a dramatic increase in refugees. Disrupted economies. Resource wars. A greater number of more severe storms, as weather events become concentrated - i.e., you may, for example, get the same amount of rain but get it in a small number of destructive, raging storms rather than a large number of ordinary rainstorms. The spread of disease and crop blights as areas previously too cold for certain pests become warmer. The list goes on.

The IPCC does say that certain areas will actually benefit in the short term but even those areas in the longer term will suffer. The idea that some people advance, that all the “bad stuff” will happen “over there” somewhere leaving “us” unaffected, is not only grossly immoral it is shamefully short-sighted and ultimate delusional.

Will all that necessarily happen? Of course not and no scientist worthy of the name will guarantee that all hell will break loose. But is it, based on best current knowledge, best current understanding, a reasonable forecast of what will happen if we don’t act, even more, one that can be made with a high level of confidence? Absolutely. Period.

Final point:

The Global Climate is always changing.

Don’t be childish.
That lead to the denier grousing that I was "belittling" and "insulting" him and suggesting that as a result he was unable to consider to my arguments. Others chided him for being oversensitive but also noted that it is frustrating to hear the same arguments every single time the issue comes up. My own response on that line:
Perhaps my language was somewhat intemperate, but the truth is, your comments made it clear to me that you are criticizing a scientific result without understanding the process by which it was achieved, something like criticizing the route I drove from Redruth to Mousehole without knowing where they both are - which for for the sake of the illustration I’m assuming you don’t.

Note that this was not a matter of understanding the science - you don’t have to be a climatologist to have a sufficient understanding of global warming - but the process. It certainly appeared, that is, that you were simply reciting arguments made by others without understanding either those arguments or their refutations.

And yes, that made me impatient, as did the arguments based on the frankly banal observations that there was climate change before there were humans and that climate is not static. (Parenthetical note on the latter: I continue to assume you’re not confusing climate with weather.)

As others have said, you’re making arguments we have heard over and over again. It’s hard to stay calm and dispassionate when faced yet one more time with the same arguments that have been positively refuted long ago. How would you feel if every time you mentioned, say, space travel someone responded with arguments about crystalline spheres and how the moon landings were faked?

The bottom line here is that the science of global warming is, in an overall, general, sense, settled. Global warming is real, it is happening, it is related to CO2 levels, CO2 is a forcing, we are screwing with the climate. The remaining questions - and there are questions here - revolve around exactly what the effects will be, exactly how bad they will be, exactly when the impacts of various effects will be felt, and exactly how dramatic our response has to be to head off the worst. (That last point bears repeating: It is not if dramatic action is needed, but just how dramatic it needs to be.)

I’ll also second [another commenter's] contention that he and I can both be harsh. In fact, there is one topic I will no longer discuss here because every time we tried we wound up having to apologize to each other a couple of days later. In comparison to some of what we’ve thrown at each other, hell, here I was damned polite.

Finally, a footnote related to your remark about land and growing seasons: A one-meter rise in ocean levels, which is within the range projected for the next 100 years, would inundate one-third of the world’s arable land.
One final argument was raised, a refinement of the "how do we know the warming will be catastrophic" argument. However, it, too was based on incorrect information and a misunderstanding.
Why is it wrong to look at the warming from 1000-1300 and see increased prosperity of human civilization and the population of Europe double in that time period, and then turn around and say, we know that this warming will destroy us?

The so-called “Medieval Warming Period” c. 1000-1300 did not exist.

It was at most a time of some slightly warmer periods in an overall millenium-long (or longer) cooling trend. (Remember how I mentioned small reverse cycles within larger ones?) In particular, what data exists simply does not support the contention made by some of the naysayers that temperatures were as warm or warmer than now; in fact they ranged up to about 1 degree C. (1.8 degrees F.) colder and none were as warm. And even those periods of moderation appear to have been a regional event, unlike the worldwide changes being seen now.

There were various reasons for European growth during the period you mention, including greater political and social stability, improved technology, and the breakdown of the feudal system. A period of global warming such as we’re seeing now was not among them.

And there is one more reason why we shouldn’t use 1000-1300 C.E. for sociological predictions of climate impact: It was, as sometimes it’s necessary to point out these sorts of things, 700-1000 years ago. Politically, socially, culturally, environmentally, scientifically, technologically, we simply do not live in that world. History can be a good teacher - but its wisdom is not limitless and the past remains, as L. P. Hartley famously called it, “a foreign country” with which we must first share a language to obtain what wisdom there is.
Footnote: If you like, you can read the original post and all comments at this link. Most of the links included here were not in my comments at the site and I have corrected a couple of grammatical errors.

Footnote Two: Subsequent to this exchange, I had to retract the assertion that a one-meter rise in sea level would inundate one-third of the world's arable land because while I had seen the figure in more than one place, I could not find any "official" source, that is, one that could cite actual scientific data. I did find figures for certain countries showing a 15% to 20% loss of arable land via inundation, but nothing saying 33% worldwide.

I would, however, note that the actual loss of arable land from sea level rise is more than just what is flooded; salinization of lands, deltas, and water supplies will spread the effects further. Additionally, including all effects of global warming (including such as increased drought) will lead to the loss of far more arable land than sea level rise alone; it could, for example, be a contributing factor to the loss of as much as 75% of Africa's rain-fed cropland.
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