March 06, 2007

Highway Bias

A few weeks ago, Ben Adler wrote a piece for The American Prospect about how both the White House and Congress are under-funding mass transit. Now I agree, more money for transit could cut down on automobile use and carbon emissions, and reduce urban sprawl. Worthy goals all around. But it's also worth wading a bit deeper in the weeds to see how perverse federal funding for transportation really is.

A Brookings Institution report on the subject from 2003 compared the funding process for highway and mass transit projects, and discovered some rather stark differences. The federal government will usually cover about 80-90 percent of the costs for a new highway project, and only about 50 percent of the costs for a transit system, under new rules. Local communities have to pick up most of the rest of the tab, with state governments chipping in some. Since that bill often requires new property taxes, people generally prefer to build highways. (Indeed, thirty states restrict their gas tax revenues to highway purposes only.)

And it gets worse. Under federal rules, transit projects have to undergo far more scrutiny. Before Congress hands out money for transit, they demand a cost-benefit analysis of the system, an analysis of its effects on land use, an environmental analysis, and often a comparison among various alternatives. Now, that all sounds perfectly reasonable, except that highway projects don't have to undergo most of these procedures—except for a looser environmental analysis. Federal oversight is rather minimal. Highway money is basically a gift to states and local communities.

Not surprisingly, many of those communities find it far easier to build new highways than to set up, say, a light-rail system, no matter how popular the latter may be. (The report gives an example of this happening in Milwaukee.) So yes, more money for mass transit. Fantastic. But it also looks like the funding rules need to be changed, so that transit and highway projects can compete on an even playing field.
-- Brad Plumer 12:39 PM || ||
The Impact of Climate Change

Der Spiegel got its greasy mitts on an unpublished draft of the second part of the IPCC's fourth assessment report--the section dealing with the effects of manmade climate change, due out in April. Some of the language will still need to be hammered into shape, but the findings are worth going through. Spiegel's headline, "Climate Change Impact More Extensive Than Thought," seems apt. Let's roll with the bullet points:
Scientists are observing a lot of changes--an increase in glacial lakes, warming permafrost, rivers and lakes that are heating, early springs, weird animal migrations--that are very likely due to manmade climate change.

Some 20 to 30 percent of all species face a "high risk of extinction" if global temperatures rise another 1.5 to 2.5 degrees C above 1990 levels.

Coral reefs are "likely to undergo strong declines," salt marshes and mangrove forests could disappear as sea levels rise, and tropical rainforests could be replaced by savanna.

As far as humans are concerned, the panel expects "increasing deaths, injuries and illness from heat waves, floods, storms, forest fires, and droughts."
Most of these forecasts are backed with either "strong certainty" (which, I assume, means 67-90 percent likely) or "very strong certainty" (over 90 percent likely). For the most part, global warming will have negative effects for both humans and the environment, outweighing the positive effects. The regions that will suffer most include Africa south of the Sahel, due to droughts, and densely populated river delta regions in Asia, due to flooding.

Interestingly, parts of Northern Europe and the United States may benefit thanks to better agriculture and forestry yields. But those yields will sink once temperatures rise more than 3 degrees (which, according to the first part of the AR4, would likely happen if carbon concentrations in the atmosphere doubled). Moreover, if temperatures keep rising unabated, oceans will eventually begin releasing greenhouse gases rather than absorbing them, accelerating the change. Eventually, no one will escape.

I'll add one note. The scientists working on the IPCC report are very good. But they tend to concentrate largely on the first- and second-order effects of climate change. There are also potential third-order effects--famines, refugee crises, changes in disease vectors--that are less certain, and so don't get as much play in the IPCC report. Even fewer people really speculate on how political and social systems may be affected by global warming. So in that vein, I found this report, linked to by David Ignatius, extremely interesting.

The report's author, Peter Schwartz, tries to look at social and political dynamics that are already under stress and could be one day be altered dramatically by climate change. An example: Say the Yucatan peninsula is devastated by alternating floods and droughts, the Mexican government fails to respond adequately, and so Zapatistas start causing havoc and destabilize the central government, creating a massive rush of refugees to the United States. That's not the sort of thing the IPCC is in the business of predicting, but it's not overly far-fetched, either. So Schwartz wants to find a way to measure what parts of the world are at risk of being destabilized by global warming. My guess is we'll need it.
-- Brad Plumer 10:46 AM || ||

March 05, 2007

Card Check: The New Ethanol?

As a follow-up to Jon Chait's great piece on card-check legislation, I see Mickey Kaus is suggesting that card-check will "cripple American capitalism." Kevin Drum mocks the argument, and I'd just add that card check isn't some brand new idea here. The practice was quite common during the late 1930s and 1940s, before Congress passed Taft-Hartley, and the United States did okay for itself. Our neighbors up north, meanwhile, have had card check for a long while--in fact, most provinces still do--and they've survived just fine.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. Kaus is wondering why Barack Obama decided to support the Employee Free Choice Act in the first place:
I don't think this is an endorsement Obama had to make for political reasons. As Dick Morris says, he's sitting pretty--he can be anything he wants to be. He could be a lot more Gary Hartish! He must want to be an old-fashioned unionizer. [But he has to win the Iowa caucuses, dominated by unions—ed Teachers' unions! They're already organized. They don't need no stinking card-check. As for New Hampshire--look what the unions did for Mondale in 1984.]
Now, I don't see what's so bad about wanting to be "an old-fashioned unionizer," especially at a time when workers have little bargaining power, median wages are stagnating, and there are few other viable remedies available. In all likelihood, Obama, a former community organizer, agrees with this view on the merits. But it's worth noting that Kaus is wrong on the politics here--there's plenty of pressure on Democratic candidates to take union-friendly stances. Nevada, for one, has become an early primary state, and the SEIU and UNITE HERE have a lot of influence there. Moreover, even the DLC supports card-check these days. I wouldn't be surprised if labor-friendly legislation becomes this year's version of the ethanol subsidy--something every Democrat has to rally behind to have a shot at the nomination.
-- Brad Plumer 2:42 PM || ||

March 04, 2007

Varieties of Denialists

Obnoxious. That's the word that comes to mind here. Via Chris Mooney, I see that the Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by Kay Bailey Hutchinson, has put out a new "paper" on global warming. They start off on a promising note, steering clear of outright global warming denial and admitting three basic truths:
1. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm over the last century due in large part to fossil fuel consumption.

2. The Earth's average temperature has risen approximately 1.3 degrees F over the last century.

3. Carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other trace gases exert a warming influence on the climate.
So far, so good. But that's about as far as the paper gets before it starts with the obfuscation. For starters, there's this line: "[I]t is difficult to determine how much of the past warming is due to human activities." Well, no. The summary of the IPCC's fourth assessment report (AR4) is perfectly clear about this—stating with "very high confidence" that human activity has caused the bulk of this warming. Check out pages 4, 5, and 16.

There's also a lot of confusion over climate sensitivity. The IPCC's AR4 estimates that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will lead to a warming of anywhere from 2 to 4.5 degrees C—with a best guess of about 3 degrees. This estimate has much to do with the idea that water vapor acts as a feedback mechanism, enhancing the effect of warming caused by greenhouse gases. The only credible scientist who's really challenged this theory is MIT's Richard Lindzen, who has disputed the role that water vapor plays and has estimated that the climate sensitivity is actually only about 0.5 degrees. (That'd be good news if true.)

But his paper, written in 2001, has come under attack from on all sides, and is generally discredited. Lindzen has never produced a model to explain the current warming, and is more likely than not simply wrong. (Indeed, he appears to have edged away from his "iris" theory.) Nonetheless, the RPC paper leans heavily on Lindzen's work, and rather than admit that the guy's suffered severe criticism, they simply note that "these scientific debates illustrate the uncertainties that still exist." Ah, yes. It's just like the "debate" over intelligent design. They can't figure out who's right, so we should just "teach the controversy". What crap.

Reading through the RPC paper, they also manage to cite Chris Essex, a mathematician whose book on global warming, written with famed "skeptic" Ross McCritick, was riddled with errors. Nice! And in order to argue that there's a lot of uncertainty about climate models, they cite Hendrik Tennekes, who has not published anything in a peer-reviewed journal since 1990, and collaborates frequently with Dr. Fred Singer's "Science and Environmental Policy Project," a major denier group.

The whole thing's a clever bit of hackery. And to be honest, I find the RPC paper—which does make at least a half-hearted attempt to understand the science—far more infuriating than many of the outright deniers. I mean, sure, it seems that 87 percent of Republicans in Congress, along with a bunch of right-wing bloggers, refuse to believe that human activity is the primary cause of global warming. They're easy to deal with, though. We just call them idiots and ignore them entirely.

But the thing is, there really are legitimate debates about how to handle global warming. Even the folks at RealClimate will tell you that uncertainties exist over, for instance, many of the effects of climate change—how high the sea levels will rise, how many species will die off, what sorts of droughts or hurricanes we can expect. Moreover, there are debates to be had about what sorts of risks and costs are acceptable when formulating policy. Personally, I think the evidence strongly favors James Hansen's view that if the earth's temperature rises 1-2 degrees C above year-2000 levels, we're entering an era of unprecedented warming that carries extremely severe risks. A lot of scientists agree with that view, but it's not out of bounds to criticize it, or quibble over the details.

So the Republican Policy Committee could have just accepted the IPCC consensus and gone on to ask perfectly reasonable questions. Instead, they're merely conceding the bare minimum necessary to avoid getting laughed off the stage (i.e., "okay, global warming's happening and humans play some role"), and then kicking up a flurry of disinformation to confuse people. Hutchinson's oil patrons must be thrilled. There's no indication that these "sensible" Republicans really care about trying to understand the issue. The whole thing's a joke. Maybe "obnoxious" isn't the right word after all.
-- Brad Plumer 4:47 PM || ||

March 03, 2007

Vulture Funds

Let me see if I understand this whole "vulture fund" story correctly. Zambia owes Romania $42 million, but Zambia's broke and can't afford to pay up. Plus, Third World-debt relief has become a major issue, and Romania's under a lot of pressure to just forgive the damn thing. So Romania strikes a deal: It will liquidate the debt for $3 million. But before Zambia can pay that amount, a U.S.-based fund named Donegal International "swoops in" and buys up the debt. Donegal then turns around and sues in court, forcing Zambia to pay the full $42 million and turning a tidy profit. Zambia, it seems, gets screwed.

The whole situation's horrible. Obviously it defeats the whole purpose of debt relief—which is supposed to help developing countries get back on their feet—if vulture funds can come in, buy up debt that's about to be forgiven, and then ask a judge to force the Third World country to repay in full. Gordon Brown has called these vulture funds perverse and immoral. Fair enough But here's a question: Isn't the other bad actor here the Romanian government? Why did they sell the debt off in the first place? Didn't they know that this would happen? Maybe it's hard to blame them for wanting to sell Zambia's debt for something rather than nothing.

Meanwhile, check out this Democracy Now! segment on the subject. Greg Palast argues that President Bush has the power to stop many of these funds from collecting their money from poor countries. I don't understand the rationale here, but even if the president could stop it, he probably wouldn't. As it turns out, one of the biggest vulture funds in the United States, Elliott Associates, is run by billionaire Paul Singer, who was Bush's biggest contributor in New York City. So he's safe. In the case of Zambia, Donegal is owned by Debt Advisory International, which has spent a lot of money to lobby the White House over this issue. Hey, they even hired Jack Abramoff's old firm! Gangster capitalism at its finest?

MORE: Felix Salmon mounts a lo-o-o-ong defense of vulture funds (both in the Zambia case and in general) over at his blog. He and Brad Setser go back and forth in comments over a few points. And Salon's Andrew Leonard responds to Salmon here.
-- Brad Plumer 9:40 PM || ||

Pat Mooney has a fascinating article in Foreign Policy in Focus about the prospects for "geoengineering" as a means of preventing drastic climate change. This isn't just theoretical. According to the Guardian, the United States recently lobbied the IPCC to recommend research into giant space mirrors that could block sunlight and avert global warming. At least 26 countries have conducted experiments on altering the weather. A number of scientists are looking into fertilizing sections of the ocean with iron, so that plants will grow and suck out the carbon from the air. And so on.

Mooney's skeptical. Very skeptical. For the most part, he says, we're meddling with forces we don't really understand, and points out that a lot of these crazy schemes could easily backfire (dumping a bunch of iron in the ocean, for instance, "could theoretically sterilize portions of the Pacific"). Now, I don't think anyone's suggesting that these scientists should stop looking into this altogether, but some people—like certain Bush administration officials—seem to think that we won't need to reduce emissions at all, because geoengineering will save us. That's sheer insanity.

P.S. I enjoyed this bit on weather control:
Many of the world's military powers remain fascinated with weather control. A U.S. Air Force report entitled "Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025" concluded that the weather "can provide battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined," including the ability to thwart an enemy's operations by enhancing a storm or by inducing drought and making fresh water scarce.

In 2004, two Chinese cities in Henan province—Pingdingshan and Zhoukou—came close to fighting when they both tried to alter local weather patterns by blasting tiny silver iodide particles into the troposphere (the lowest portion of Earth's atmosphere). The city downwind accused the city upwind of stealing its weather. This hasn't deterred the Chinese government from promising the International Olympic Committee that China will use weather modification to guarantee sunny days for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
That second paragraph seems noteworthy. At some point, presumably, countries will develop technology to control the weather. But altering the weather in one part of the world can, obviously, affect things in other parts. So suddenly you have all these potential political conflicts. Cloud-seeding in the United States has already led to lawsuits filed by farmers who claim that the cloud-seeders are stealing their rain. In a great Boston Globe article on weather-control two years ago, one scientist wondered:
''Let's say you have a mirror in space," [Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard's Laboratory for Geochemical Oceanography] goes on. "Think of two summers ago when we were having this awful cold summer and Europe was having this awful heat wave. Who gets to adjust the mirror?"
Presumably these conflicts would be settled in the United Nations or some other forum, but you can see how things would get real thorny, ral fast. But anyway, this is all decades, away. Still, it's interesting to think about.
-- Brad Plumer 8:13 PM || ||

March 01, 2007

Can Nuclear Power Save Us?

Let's take a head count. The number of people who believe that "something should be done" to prevent catastrophic global warming is approaching a critical mass. That, I think, is a good thing. But there's also an increasingly large number of people who have decided that nuclear energy is the way to get there. After all, we're going to need lots of non-carbon power. And nuclear energy offers non-carbon power. So let's go! Sure, the dirty hippies will kick and scream, but who listens to them, anyway?

Well, sometimes I wonder if the dirty hippies have a point, so I've been trying to read up on the matter. Here's a salvo from the "anti" side: David Fleming's short paper, "Why Nuclear Power Cannot Be a Major Energy Source." He relies heavily on work done by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith. Granted, those two hardly have the final say on this matter (and Fleming is well aware of the dangers of leaning too hard on a single source), but their research seems to be respectable and worth taking seriously.

Fleming estimates that there are enough large uranium deposits on this earth to keep the nuclear industry going at its current rate for about 75 years. Obviously, if you ramp up the number of nuclear plants, that uranium's going to last for even less time. If you built, say, enough plants to provide a sixth of the world's electricity, you'd have about 24-48 year's worth of uranium. And, obviously, you'd create a lot of nuclear waste along the way that, if nothing else, would require a lot of additional energy to clean up.

Now hold up. What about getting uranium from the water? What about building fast-breeder reactors? What about all the magical solutions that will give us nuclear power forever? Fleming goes through these various alternatives, and finds them wanting. It would likely take much more energy to suck the uranium out of the water than you'd get from the uranium itself. So that's not worth it. Fast-breeder reactors are not yet commercially viable, and may never be. (In any case, they create serious proliferation headaches.) And so on. Read the paper for details.

Okay, fine. So nuclear power can't be a major source of carbon-free energy for all eternity. But, you ask, couldn't it at least work as a 'stopgap' measure, allowing us to reduce carbon emissions in the short term while our brightest scientists figure out how to power the world off solar energy in the meantime? Theoretically, yes. But there are tradeoffs. Opportunity costs. Nuclear energy is, after all, hugely expensive. The government has to subsidize the building of the plants, insure them against accidents, set up a police state to guard them against terrorists, dispose of the waste. It's a fat bill.

So if taxpayers are going to spend billions and billions of dollars in order to reduce the world's carbon emissions, it's not clear that nuclear power is the best place to park that money, especially if it's just a short-term solution. That money might be better spent on research into renewables, or on energy conservation. (One British government study argued as much.) Not to mention the fact that nuclear power depends on centralized power grids, whereas a national energy strategy based on renewables would likely rely on local minigrids. The two approaches may very well be at cross-purposes.

Now, none of this is a decisive argument against nuclear power altogether. Some of these assumptions, I take it, are heavily disputed. But I think there are very valid questions about the whole enterprise and it's not helpful to dismiss nuclear critics as mindless tree-huggers.

Update: Hmmm... not long after writing this, I noticed this post on The Oil Drum by Martin Sevior, a Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne. He argues that "provable uranium resources amount to approximately 85 years supply at the current level of consumption with current technology." That's more or less consistent with the above. But then he also says that there are some 500 years worth of reserves that could be mined profitably. That would obviously change the picture. So is he right? Sevior's post has a lot of good information, although he doesn't address the opportunity-cost point.

Second update: If anyone really wants to get deep in the weeds, here's an old debate between Sevior and Storm van Leeuwen on, among other things, how much usable uranium's lying around.
-- Brad Plumer 9:41 PM || ||
Fed Fed Fed Fed

There's no such thing as too much discussion of the Fed, inflation, and unemployment. Not at all. So in that spirit, check out this debate between Mark Thoma and James Galbraith.

Thoma thinks the Fed's basically doing a fine job. Galbraith, not so much. He says the Fed's much too afraid of the prospect of inflation—which was wrung out of the system in the 1980s thanks to a strong dollar and the decline of industrial unions. "[T]he notion that the economy rests on some fragile knife-edge, always ready to slip over into rising inflation if the Fed becomes incautious, is not only wrong but pathological." Now Galbraith does seem to be one of the few people in the 1990s who thought that we could have full employment without inflation. And he was right, no? Anyway, not being an expert and all, I haven't the first clue how to score this dispute, but it's educational all the same.
-- Brad Plumer 8:57 PM || ||
Compromise Measures

The House is getting ready to pass the Employee Free Choice Act today. Ezra Klein notes that the choice here is between the current NLRB-certified "secret ballot" elections--in which employers have ample time to intimidate workers into voting against unionization--and card-check elections, in which organizers could, theoretically, coerce their co-workers into signing the cards, though this happens far, far less frequently. Neither is a perfect system, but card-check features less in the way of coercion. (It was also a common certification method back in the 1930s, before the Taft-Hartley Act forced unions to hold elections.)

Now, Ezra says "I'd be perfectly happy with a grand compromise that fully leveled the NLRB process while preserving the secret ballot." Obviously businesses aren't interested in striking a deal. But as it happens, such a "compromise" does exist. In 1995, Ontario replaced card-check certification with elections that must take place within five days--rather than the drawn-out union campaign seasons that take place in the United States. That gives employers somewhat less time to make threats, hold employees in captive meetings where they rail against unions, fire organizers, etc.

But does it work? Sara Slinn studied the effects of the rule change and found that the union success rate went down considerably after mandatory elections came into effect. In particular, there was a decline in certification in the service sector and among part-time employees, suggesting that "the mandatory vote has had a disparately negative impact on more vulnerable employees." And overall, the certification rate in Ontario seems to have reached U.S. levels in recent years, suggesting that employers are getting increasingly good at manipulating and winning even "expedited" elections, and the compromise isn't really a good substitute for card check.
-- Brad Plumer 12:35 PM || ||