Archive for February, 2008

Big time biking

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

The Guardian reports that the British government is moving aggressively to promote bicycling.

The government today launched a £47m [US $92m] quest to establish a British “cycling city” that would get more people on to two wheels, and cut congestion and pollution.

The winning metropolis will join London, which has already announced a £400m [US $783m] cycling and walking programme, in launching a series of initiatives including new cycle routes and training schemes.

Six new “cycling towns” will also be selected to share the £47m [US $92m] fund with the chosen city. Local authorities interested in becoming a cycling city or town have until March 31 to make their application.


Cool! I know there are some North American cities and towns that promote biking, but I haven’t heard of any that are quite so gung-ho about it. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, what we can do for now is agitate our local and upwards governments and just get out there and start biking to work (and the store, and school, and to friends’ places, and everywhere) ourselves. Even in winter, yes, it can be done.

US Gov on natural resources: corporate secrets more important than informed citizenry

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I saw this morning on BusinessWeek‘s GreenBiz blog that the first Tesla “bat out of hell” electric roadster has rolled off the production line. That got me thinking about what it would take to convert the entire US auto fleet to all electric, and what that would mean in terms of natural resource supplies: In particular, supplies of lithium, the key ingredient in Tesla’s batteries. What I wonder is, is there enough lithium to do the trick? At what point will we reach “peak lithium” and run into a Limits-to-Growth type limit? Well, according to the good folks at Wikipedia, “Lithium availability is a concern for a fleet of Li-ion battery using cars but world reserves are estimated as adequate for at least 50 years.” Wiki’s source gives more detail, of course:

The Li-ion battery, LiC[6]/Li[x]NiO[2], is taken as the basis for the analysis presented here. It is shown that economically recoverable Li world reserves are sufficient to meet the demands of current new passenger car world production and its anticipated growth in the next 50 years. Currently identified world reserves can power 2 billion cars with Li-ion batteries, that is four times the number of cars presently registered in the world. World annual Li production of 10 000 metric tons would have to be increased 13-fold to power current new car world production with Li batteries. Such increase of the production capacity is seen as principally feasible…. A battery life of 1000 cycles, already demonstrated in laboratory cells, results in a total vehicle mileage of approximately 126 000 miles when based on a 24 kWh battery. The cost of battery ownership and ‘electric fuel’ combined is 11 [cents]/mile, that of car ownership and fuel combined 27 [cents]/mile, if based on a vehicle price of US$ 23 000.

Note that this report was published in 1996, before the explosion in lithium-battery based consumer electronics and laptop computers, etc., so that 50-year estimate might not hold so well anymore. There are a lot of economic assumptions necessary in any estimate like this, so it should be taken only as a very rough estimate, but there you have it. I’m in no position to offer an alternative estimate. And, of course, there are surely other forms of battery besides lithium that might come into heavy usage for electric cars.

Anyhow, before I came across Wiki’s mention I tried looking up historical lithium production data on the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) website. They’ve got some data, but curiously, it is intentionally incomplete: “After 1954, world production does not include U.S. production.” Huh? A government agency, one of whose primary responsibilities is providing information to the citizenry and leadership on important issues of natural resource availability, intentionally hiding data? Here’s their excuse from another related document [pdf]: “Because only one company produced lithium compounds from domestic resources, reported production and value of production data cannot be published” and elsewhere in a footnote “Withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data.” Proprietary data my arse. In my mind, the need for publicly available information trumps any one company’s desire for secrecy about its product. You want to have a monopoly, you owe something back for the privilege. Harumph.

Stern und Drang: two different ways of using economics to deal with climate change

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

For some very good reasons, many people are wary of “economic” arguments as part of debating what should be done in the face of global warming. George Monbiot takes the wary approach in his latest column in The Guardian.

This is a column about how good intentions can run amok. It tells the story of how an honourable, intelligent man set out to avert environmental disaster and ended up accidentally promoting the economics of the slave trade. It shows how human lives can be priced and exchanged for goods and services…

When Sir Nicholas Stern published his study of the economics of climate change, environmentalists – myself included – lined up to applaud him: he had given us the answer we wanted. He showed that stopping runaway climate change would cost less than failing to prevent it. But because his report was so long, few people bothered to find out how he had achieved this result. It took me a while, but by the time I reached the end I was horrified.

…Stern’s unit (a reduction in consumption) incorporates everything from the price of baked beans to the pain of bereavement. He then translates it into a “social cost of carbon”, measured in dollars. He has, in other words, put a price on human life…

Stern’s methodology has a disastrous consequence, unintended but surely obvious. His report shows that the dollar losses of failing to prevent a high degree of global warming outweigh the dollar savings arising from not taking action. It therefore makes economic sense to try to stop runaway climate change. But what if the result had been different? What if he had discovered that the profits to be made from burning more fossil fuels exceeded the social cost of carbon? We would then find that it makes economic sense to kill people.


Therein lies a very sensitive rub. To do a cost-benefit type of analysis, you must convert your different variables so that they all share the same unit of measure. It doesn’t have to be dollars, but in practice that’s what happens. (Not that it would be any easier to convert to another unit of measure. How would you convert the dollar value of a television into years of healthy life?*)

Understandably, many of us react badly to this kind of reductive thinking. (To be sure, there are decent–though not necessarily completely persuasive–arguments in favor of this kind of reductive thinking.) And so, understandably, many of us are inclined to distrust almost any use of economic analysis in dealing with an environmental or social problem like global warming. If you are so inclined, please think twice.

Your second thought should be more favorable towards the economics that are used in Peter Barnes’ Climate Solutions. Though Barnes’ proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relies on an economic approach that commodifies the atmosphere, in a certain way, his overarching structure avoids the pitfalls that Monbiot identifies in Sir Nicholas Stern’s approach. That’s because Barnes’ “cap-and-dividend” plan–unlike many proposals for a carbon tax–is built first and foremost on a defined level of emissions that are allowed, a level that is gradually reduced over time. The economic system of auctioning off permits within that level, and of allowing the buying, selling, and trading of permits, is embedded within a larger system that relies on scientific determination of what the emission levels must be changed to in order to reduce the harm of global warming. In that way, it is in the spirit of 20th century economist/anthropologist Karl Polanyi, who described the risks to society when the economic system is allowed to overtake the larger social and cultural (and environmental) systems within which it has traditionally been embedded. (See his classic book, The Great Transformation.) In other words, while so many economists (official and wannabe) use economic analysis to encompass their understanding of the entire world, Barnes uses economic thinking as one of several tools and keeps it contained within his larger view of the world as a whole.

* Keep this in mind should you ever be confronted by an economist who has conducted a cost-benefit analysis, for example at a town hall meeting to inform debate over some new regulation, like the expansion of an industrial park. In addition to asking them to explain how they converted non-monetary measures (like the value of open space, or estimates of years of life lost due to increases in pollution) into monetary numbers for their cost-benefit comparison, go on to ask them how they might do the reverse: convert monetary measures (for example estimates of increased payroll) to non-monetary units (like years of healthy life gained). My guess is that they’ll be unable to conceive of how to do the exercise in reverse, and if that is true, ask them why this “asymmetry” is acceptable? Why doesn’t it invalidate their initial attempt at conversions? Why they express any confidence that their conversion to monetary measures actually captures anything real about the situation? Or, of they do come up with a way to convert monetary measures into non-monetary measures, ask them why they didn’t do that in the first place. After all, at the heart of neoclassical economics is the idea that what we are trying to have the most of is “utility,” not money. Satisfaction, happiness, contentedness, those sorts of things–those are the things that are supposed to be at the heart of economic thinking. So why won’t the hired-gun economist do his or her measurements in terms of happiness? And if they say they can’t, ask why money is a trustworthy stand in for utility/satisfaction/happiness. The answer is: it rarely is.

Popular vote update Feb 20

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

The previous: Feb 13, Feb 11, Feb 6. [UPDATE: March 5]

The latest, including a new table for additional analysis (and gloating on the part of Democrats):

Democratic primary popular vote totals (as of Feb 20)

Republican primary popular vote totals (as of Feb 20)

Both party leading candidates primary popular vote totals (as of Feb 20)

Comparing 2nd-place Democrat to 1st-place Republican and all Republicans combined (as of Feb 20)

Some new notables:

  • So far in the primary season, turnout for Democrats was over 1,000,000 voters in 8 states. For Republicans, that has happened in only 2 states.
  • Despite being in a somewhat distant second-place, Senator Clinton still received more than twice as many votes as McCain in Wisconsin.
  • In the 25 states where both Republicans and Democrats have held primaries (rather than caucuses) so far, the second-place Democrat has outpolled the first-place Republican 19 times. Wow.
  • In the 25 states where both Republicans and Democrats have held primaries so far, the second-place Democrat has outpolled all Republicans combined 5 times. Double wow.*

Previous observations which mostly still stand:

  • The results in Michigan for the Democrats are heavily skewed in favor of Senator Clinton since Senator Obama wasn’t listed on that ballot. Notice that the “other” category there is so high. So for bean counters in the race between Clinton and Obama, that’s something to be aware of.
  • Overall voting for Democratic candidates is nearly 50 percent higher than overall voting for Republican candidates; or, reversing the math, overall Republican voting was nearly 33 percent lower than overall Democratic voting. Whichever version floats your spin boat.
  • Ron Paul has received more votes than Rudy Giuliani. And this guy saved the world from terrorism? What a joke!
  • Clinton and Obama each have received nearly twice as many votes as the leading Republican, Senator McCain.
  • In his home state of Arizona, McCain failed to garner even 50 percent of the Republican vote. That must be a little disappointing. They know something the rest of us don’t?
  • Total votes for McCain=4.9million, Romney=4.1million, Huckabee=2.5million. And yet Romney is the one who got squeezed out of the race while Huckabee threatens a Giants-over-Patriots upset? Weird.

* Personally, that makes me think that the supposedly less electable Senator Clinton would still have a rather good chance of defeating McCain in the general election. (Though, of course, the disgusting Electoral College makes this kind of simplistic number analysis much less reliable.)

Teens aim to green the beauty industry

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

With constantly alarming news about the toxins contained in lipstick, and other beauty products, one group of teens continues to set its sights on banning such ingredients from personal care products.

The annual Teens for Safe Cosmetics conference was held recently, and according to an article in The San Francisco Chronicle, the group ended its weekend summit with a “plan for 2008: Continue working with lawmakers to ban lead in lipstick as well as phthalates, and create a manual to help others start chapters of Teens for Safe Cosmetics in their communities and online.”

At the conference, Chelsea Green author Mark Schapiro (Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, 2007), told the group that although these are big goals to achieve, that they shouldn’t let that deter their effort.

According to the Chronicle article, Schapiro said:

“The cosmetics industry is 10 times more scared of teens (than adult purchasers). They can’t arrest you if you show up at the front door of L’Oreal, and they can’t call you a bunch of crazy environmentalists. You are their future customers. You are a fountain of enormous energy for change.”

One attendee at the conference had this to say about why she joined the campaign, and the impact it has had on her life:

“When I realized I couldn’t even pronounce the ingredients in these (beauty) products, I became really scared,” said Kate Smith, a sophomore at San Domenico Upper School in San Anselmo. “When I joined the group, I would learn new facts and share them with my mom and my friends. I felt empowered sharing my knowledge.”

For more information about Teens for Safe Cosmetics, go to their website.

A $1.5 trillion voter for climate solutions

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Our friends at The Guardian report that

Some of the largest institutional investors in the world yesterday called on the US Congress to introduce a mandatory national policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% below 1990 levels by 2050.

It is the latest move that underlines the way business leaders have dramatically seized the environmental agenda and are now pushing politicians to tackle global warming.

The group of 40 investors, which includes F&C Asset Management in London and controls $1.5tr (£760bn) worth of funds, also wants the financial regulator, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to insist that companies listed in New York and elsewhere disclose their exposure to climate change risk.

The investment houses are demanding that equity analysts and ratings agencies calculate the potential carbon costs for companies such as Shell, BP and electricity utilities which are involved in polluting activities such as producing oil from tar sands and operating coal-fired power stations.


Okay, so it’s not an election that results in direct action, but in the world of opinion (I hesitate to say “popular opinion” since institutional investors are quite a bit removed from the great unwashed masses), these folks have a tendency of getting their way–usually for the worse, but sometimes, perhaps this time, for the best.

….Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, made clear that the move was partly self-serving. “This action plan reflects the many investment opportunities that exist today to dent global warming pollution, build profits and benefit the global economy. Leveraging the vast energy efficiency opportunities at home and abroad holds especially great promise for investors.”

Speaking of investment opportunities, may I suggest trading in emissions permits issued as part of a cap-and-dividend program?

Director of National Intelligence incomprehensible illogic on NPR

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Mitch McConnell was interviewed on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, talking about why it is so important to the Bush administration that Congress pass an electronic surveillance bill that includes retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that seem clearly to have broken the law by aiding and abetting clearly illegal wiretapping of Americans by US intelligence agencies.

He said the main issue is liability protection for the private sector.

“We can’t do this mission without their help,” he said. “Currently there is no retroactive liability protection for them. They’re being sued for billions of dollars.”

He said the lawsuits are causing them to be less cooperative.

The issue at hand is whether the Telcos should get retroactive immunity for crimes committed in the past.  It is not whether Telco cooperation with intelligence agencies is currently being conducted in a legal fashion. Why would current cooperation be affected by lawsuits over past cooperation? The reason, of course, is that the Telcos are resisting cooperation (if, in fact, they are resisting at all, which I rather doubt) only in order to hold the system of law hostage so as to extract retroactive immunity.

Between their desire to act with total impunity, and their willingness to shamelessly shill for corporations, the Bush administration reveals once again that it is nothing more than organized rank hunger for power for the sake of power, Constitution and interests of the country be damned.

Dems hold Bush aides in contempt!

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Just when we thought the Dems would cave like they are on immunity for telecoms who share our private data with the government, the House goes and votes—overwhelmingly—to hold two top aides to Pres. George W. Bush in contempt of Congress.

The New York Times reports, “It is the first time in 25 years that a full chamber of Congress has voted on a contempt of Congress citation.”

All we can say is it’s about time someone started holding this administration accountable. The GOP largely walked out of the chamber in protest of the vote, a stunt that says all we need to know about where their loyalties lie when it comes to the constitutional authority of Congress. All but 34 members of the GOP walked out of the chambers.

The two aides—White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Mier—refused to cooperate with an investigation into whether the firings of US Attorneys was politically motivated.

The American Freedom Campaign,  which had supporters send nearly 19,000 emails to U.S. representatives, urging them to use their power to hold Bolten and Meiers in contempt, was pleased with the vote.

“After months of frustration, we are pleased that the House has finally passed these important resolutions,” said Steve Fox, campaign director for the American Freedom Campaign.  “In order for our system of checks and balances to be effective, Congress must have oversight over the executive branch.  When Bolten and Miers – with the encouragement of the President—refused to comply with the congressional subpoenas last summer, they were tacitly saying that this oversight power no longer existed.  If they are not held in contempt—and prosecuted in the courts – our Constitution will have been defiled.”

The House Judiciary Committee approved the contempt citations, on a party-line vote, more than six months ago, but the resolution has stagnated since—despite efforts by activists to spur Democrats to challenge the Bush administration flouting of the Constitution.

“Those members of Congress who walked out on this vote, have turned their back on the Constitution itself,” Fox added.  “They have violated their oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution’ and do not deserve to represent the American people.  Again, this is not a partisan matter.  We would say the exact same thing if Democrats walked out on a vote to defend the oversight powers of Congress under the Constitution.”

The American Freedom Campaign (AFC) was founded in July 2007 by co-founder Wes Boyd, scientist and social entrepreneur William Haseltine, Fenton Communications CEO David Fenton, and Naomi Wolf, author of The End of America with the goal to create grassroots support to restore checks and balances and reverse abuses of power by the executive branch.

With the passage of this contempt vote, let’s now hope they can not give the telecoms immunity from illegally sharing our information with government spies, and they should not give the government extended powers to secretly listen to our phone calls. Is that too much to ask?

Senate Dems cave, sell out Constitution; petition House Dems to do better

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Firedoglake has an important petition drive going. Happily, for what it’s worth (not much), Chelsea Green’s Senate contingent (Leahy and Sanders) held together more spine than too many of their pathetic brethren and sistren. Fingers are crossed for the House.

Tell House Members to Stand Firm Behind the RESTORE Act!

The FISA bill passed by the Senate is a disgrace. By legalizing warrantless spying on Americans and granting retroactive amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms, the Senate seeks to ensure that the Bush administration’s illegal spying programs are never investigated or subjected to the rule of law. The Senate bill is a profound betrayal of the votes of millions of Americans who voted in 2006 to put Democrats in control of Congress in order to increase, not eliminate, checks and oversight on this administration, and to restore the rule of law to our country. The House’s RESTORE Act is an infinitely superior bill. It provides real safeguards on the President’s spying powers while providing him with the surveillance powers he needs to protect the country. It enables the issue of the legality of the President’s spying programs to be decided where it belongs — in a court of law. And it preserves the crucial balance that has existed for decades between enabiling necessary surveillance on Americans and ensuring that our political leaders do not abuse that power.

In the wake of the discovery of the Watergate crimes and decades of surveillance abuses, the Congress of the mid-1970s acted on a bipartisan basis to put into place safeguards to ensure that even our highest political officials must adhere to the law and can only exercise eavesdropping powers with real safeguards. The RESTORE Act continues that tradition, while the Senate bill eviscerates it. We urge Democratic House members to stand firm behind the bill they passed and not capitulate once again to the bullying, manipulative demands of the Bush administration for ever-greater unchecked power, as embodied by the warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity provisions of the Senate bill.

[Go and sign the petition]

Contempt isn’t just an eight-letter word

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

For all of you out there holding your breath, waiting for the Democratically-led Congress to hold the Bush administration accountable for something, this week just might be the week you get to exhale.

Still, why do I have the nagging feeling this will be another exercise in gulping down more air and turning ever bluer as a result?

Take this line from this morning’s New York Times:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, would not confirm the pending vote on Tuesday night. “One of these days,” Ms. Pelosi said.

Makes you all warm and fuzzy, right? The story explains that Democratic leaders may finally follow through on their pledge to bring a contempt resolution against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to the House floor for a vote. The vote could come as early as tomorrow.

One group, the American Freedom Campaign, has had supporters send nearly 19,000 emails to U.S. representatives, urging them to use their power to hold Bolten and Meiers in contempt for defying congressional subpoenas surrounding the investigation into whether U.S. Attorneys were fired for political reasons. They are hopeful.


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