Friday, February 24, 2012

Mitch Dobrowner's Epic Storms

There are few things more majestic and awe inspiring than a good storm. And few people capture storm clouds and the raw power of nature as well as Mitch Dobrowner.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Energy Links

1)  Tom Murphy, over at Do the Math, has a number of interesting energy posts, including a helpful guide to his blog posts. Among my favorites are the following:
  • Galactic scale energy -- in which the annual growth in US energy consumption over the last 350 years is shown to be a fairly stable 2.9% and that, were global power demand to grow at an annual rate of 2.3% for the next 345 years we would reach the point where we were consuming all the suns energy hitting land (and, in about 2500 years would require all the energy in the galaxy!)
  • Peak Oil Perspective -- not surprisingly, talks about peak oil
  • The last few posts have begun to bring together and summarize a number of themes that run through many of the previous posts. Among them are The Alternative Energy Matrix which examines a variety of different alternative energy sources in terms of a diverse set of criteria (abundance, demonstrated feasibility, intermittancy, public acceptance, efficiency, viability for different purposes -- electricity, heat, transport; etc.) and finds that they generally score lower than fossil fuels. Fossil Fuels, I'm Not Dead Yet examines the peak oil problem as a liquid fuels issue -- that is in terms of energy for transportation fuel. This theme carries forward in The Way is Shut which notes:
The good news is that there do exist energy flows and sources that qualify as abundant or at least potent. However, many of the alternatives represent ways to produce electricity, which applies only to about one-third of our current energy demand. The immediate threat is therefore the short term liquid fuels crunch we will see when the global petroleum decline commences within the decade.

2)  The concept of an Energy Return on Investment Threshold suggests that fuels with an EROEI of less than 8 become increasingly problematic as the proportion of energy used to procure energy relative to the proportion that provides net energy for society's use starts to increase dramatically.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Transformation, Vulnerability and Resilience

Emilio Moran poses an interesting question, what makes social ecological systems more vulnerable and less resilient?, in his recent article Transformation of social and ecological systems. The bulk of the article is a rather sweeping history of humanity aimed at emphasizing the unique nature of our current situation. In the conclusion, quoted after the break, Moran identifies the factors he sees as responsible for making current systems more vulnerable and less resilient: Hypercoherence, loss of redundancy, loss of trust and a sense of community, and the misuse of information by decision-makers.  Read on .....

Friday, February 17, 2012

New design, mobile template now available

The title pretty much says it all.

I briefly ventured into the world of dynamic designs, but none of them kept the material on the right hand sidebar. Stupidly, I forgot to back up the old design before giving the dynamic designs a test drive -- so I had to find another one to apply. This is the result. Enjoy!

Heartland gets Desmoged

Desmogblog has an interesting post documenting the climate denial activities of the Heartland Institute, complete with links to a number of original documents at Heartland Institute Exposed: Internal Documents Unmask Heart of Climate Denial Machine. Additional analysis, including a description of plans to convince grade schoolers that climate science is a "major scientific controversy" is available at Thinkprogress.

Feb 19 Update: The Guardian has an interesting follow-up on the consequences of the revealed Hartland documents, including information about a letter from climate scientists to the Institute asking them to "recognise how its attacks on science and scientists have poisoned the debate about climate change policy," and the revelation that the Institute's tax-exempt status is being challenged. There are also claims that one of the released documents is fake. The Toxic Debate Over Climate Science has an interesting take on these developments.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Local Pollution Havens in the US

Building of Fruedenberg's concept of disproportionality -- unequal access to environmental rights and resources observable in the privileges accrued by relatively few actors to create highly uneven levels of polluting emissions per job created -- Matthews develops the concept of a Local Pollution Haven. These are counties that combine three characteristics: 1) high levels of pollution per amount of economic reward, 2) high levels of toxicity per amount of economic reward and 3) low levels of regulatory control. Here's a map showing the distribution of such counties. Not surprisingly, the havens are heavily concentrated in the South (specifically, the states of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi). When compared to non-pollution haven counties, the havens are typically metropolitan or adjacent to metropolitan counties with higher levels of economic inequality, more than twice the proportion of blacks, and little in-migration. Notably missing is the state of Louisiana, often targeted in the environmental justice literature for its predilection to locate refineries and other aspects of the petrochemical industry in poor counties populated by people of color.

Additional details are in the abstract:
The ‘‘jobs versus the environment’’ dichotomy has been a recurring theme in the United States for decades. It is typically taken to refer to a choice or trade-off between economic growth and development and environmental quality or the lack of environmental degradation. Little resolution has occurred after decades of research because of inconsistent or problematic conceptualization and the use of inappropriate spatial units of analysis. Research on international and domestic pollution havens is reviewed in an effort to introduce the Local Pollution Havens concept. Local pollution havens are conceptualized as counties with high levels of pollution per unit of economic reward, high toxicity per unit of economic reward, and low regulation or other social controls. Traditional and spatial statistical techniques are utilized to construct this measure and determine which counties fit the conceptualization. Descriptive statistics and the results of t-tests and logistic regression analyses are presented to demonstrate how these areas differ from other counties. Implications for the remediation of these areas and also avenues of future research are offered.
Reference: Sociological Spectrum 31: 59–85, 2011; DOI: 10.1080/02732173.2011.525696

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Klinenberg: Going Solo

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the noted and controversial social autopsy of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, has just published Going Solo, a fascinating study of a relatively under-discussed demographic trend -- living alone. A variety of the studies findings are highlighted in his op-ed piece One's a Crowd:

MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. ... The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. ....

The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.

It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.

Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.

In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.
Today five million people in the United States between ages 18 and 34 live alone, 10 times more than in 1950. But the largest number of single people are middle-aged; 15 million people between ages 35 and 64 live alone. Those who decide to live alone following a breakup or a divorce could choose to move in with roommates or family. But many of those I interviewed said they chose to live alone because they had found there was nothing worse than living with the wrong person.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Economics of Peak Oil

James Hamilton, professor of economics at UCSD, runs the useful Econbrowser site providing links to a diverse set of resources dealing with the analysis of current economic conditions and policy.

He is also responsible for OIL PRICES, EXHAUSTIBLE RESOURCES, AND ECONOMIC GROWTH, an analysis of the implications of peak oil. Specifically, the paper analyzes data spanning the life of the oil industry in order to detail the phenomenal increase in global crude oil production over the last century and a half. The analysis demonstrates that a key feature of the growth in production has been exploitation of new geographic areas rather than application of better technology to existing sources, which suggests the end of that era could come soon. The paper then turns to an analysis of the history of temporary supply dislocations in an attempt to come to grips with the potential economic consequences of the peaking of conventional crude oil production.

One of the more interesting sections discusses the price elasticity of demand over the long run and whether or not the reductions in demand that accompanied the run up of oil prices during the 70's and 80's were historically unique.

Here one might take comfort from the observation that, given time, the adjustments of demand to the oil price increases of the 1970s were significant. For example, U.S. petroleum consumption declined 17% between 1978 and 1985 at the same time that U.S. real GDP increased by 21%. However, Dargay and Gately (2010) attributed much of this conservation to one-time effects, such as switching away from using oil for electricity generation and space heating, that would be difficult to repeat on an ongoing basis. Knittel (forthcoming) was more optimistic, noting that there has been ongoing technological improvement in engine and automobile design over time, with most of this historically being devoted to making cars larger and more powerful rather than more fuel-efficient. If the latter were to become everyone’s priority, significant reductions in oil consumption might come from this source.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Should we fear the crackpots?

A recent NYTimes article Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot documents a new twist in a long standing fear among a small segment of the US population; a fear that the UN is plotting to establish a totalitarian world government (see New World Order conspiracy theory). The twist is the comparatively recent fixation on the link with sustainable development as encapsulated in the Agenda 21 document produced at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. According to the article:
Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.
In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.
Fox News has also helped spread the message. In June, after President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Rural Council to "enhance federal engagement with rural communities," Fox programs linked the order to Agenda 21. A Fox commentator, Eric Bolling, said the council sounded "eerily similar to a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one world order."
At a Board of Supervisors meeting in Roanoke in late January, Cher McCoy, a Tea Party member from nearby Lexington, Va., generated sustained applause when she warned: "They get you hooked, and then Agenda 21 takes over. Your rights are stripped one by one."

Echoing other protesters, Ms. McCoy identified smart meters, devices being installed by utility companies to collect information on energy use, as part of the conspiracy. "The real job of smart meters is to spy on you and control you -- when you can and cannot use electrical appliances," she said.

According to Google Insights, searches linking Agenda 21 to the NWO conspiracy emerged in 2009, grew to a peak on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and, following a decline, have seen a significant resurgence during the first few months of 2012.

Here, from 2009, is one of the earliest YouTube posts about the plot claiming, among other things, that sustainable development initiatives under Agenda 21 aim to do away with national sovereignty, abolish private property, restructure the family and undermine the constitution. There is a clear implication that things labeled unsustainable -- such as consumerism, reliance on fossil fuels, pesticides, etc. -- will be regulated out of existence by the global government and that people will be "stacked and packed" into small, densely settled urban areas in order to maximize areas of unspoiled nature.

Grassroots interest in the link between local regulations and Agenda 21 received a substantial boost in February of 2011 when the New American printed an article, Your Hometown and the United Nations' Agenda 21, drawing attention to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Reaction to the information in the NYTimes article has largely been dismissive, treating the individuals involved as crackpots. Here's an example:
It's true, the blueprints were kept secret until now, but smart monitoring of energy use is designed to turn you into a godless slave of the great beast that is the UN. Using a combination of electromagnetic waves and psychotropic medications released from the devices, it's victims will be turned into mindless, left-wing voting slaves of the beast.
I think the tea party has started electing paranoid schizophrenics to their leadership. You couldn't make this stuff up. This stuff is so great I have to resurrect (drumroll) the Tin Foil Hat!
But dismissing these individuals as isolated crackpots fails to account for a number of interesting facts. First, the idea is obviously spreading. Second, why connect the NWO trope to Agenda 21 now? The document has been around for nearly 20 years without attracting much attention from the conspiracy community. Third, the Google Insight data suggest this is a distinctly American phenomenon -- fully 100% of the searches originated in the US.

More significantly, there is an obvious connection to the larger dynamics of American politics. These ideas are predominantly held by members of the Tea Party movement, a group that emerged in 2009. The connection with local environmental issues is an extension of their denial of climate change and specifically the notion that cap and trade schemes, ironically introduced as the free market solution to climate change, are a global government plot.

A detailed statistical profile of Tea Party views (and how they compare with other groups) on climate change can be found in Politics and Global Warming: Democrats, Republicans, Independents and the Tea Party. Among the more interesting findings:
  • Values: While Democrats have stronger egalitarian values than all other groups, Tea Party members
    hold relatively anti-egalitarian views. Tea Party members have stronger individualistic values than all other groups, with strong anti-government attitudes. In other words, Tea Party members are hierarchical-individualists in the parlance of the cultural theory of risk.
  • Beliefs about Climate Change: Tea Party members are substantially more likely to deny climate change or attribute it to natural processes (71%) than Republicans (54%), Independents (40%) or Democrats (27%).
  • Intensity of their Beliefs: Tea Party members are three times as likely to say that they are “very well informed” about global warming than members of the other groups (Democrats, Republicans, Independents). Likewise, Tea Party members are 2 to 2.5 times as likely to say they “do not need any more information” about global warming to make up their mind and half as likely as other group members to agree that they could change their mind based on additional information.
This set of facts is particularly interesting in light Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas:

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. ... “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” 
For the full study, see Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities (warning, dense math).

Obviously, the RPI study needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is a mathematical model and one can easily think of counter-examples. The abortion debate, for instance, consists of two opposing groups each with more than 10% of the population that posses unshakable beliefs. There is no indication that either is going to run the other out of existence. But, at the same time, the facts of the situation warrant consideration. Tea Party members make up about 12% of the population and, compared to the members of other political groups, hold their beliefs about climate change with an exceptional fervor. These are precisely the characteristics the RPI study identifies as necessary conditions for the rapid spread of the belief.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Complexity and Geomagnetic Storms

A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions is a fascinating article linking two of my pet fascinations: complexity and catastrophe.The immediate prompt for the article is the expected 2012-13 peaking in solar activity and the potential it has for a geomagnetic superstorm that could disrupt power grids all over the world. The article provides lots of fascinating detail about the storms themselves. Here I focus on the connection to the disruption of power grids
From where we sit, the sun seems quiet enough. And yet it is constantly bombarding Earth with electrons, protons, and radio through X-ray waves. ... Under normal circumstances, this solar wind produces only negligible effects on Earth. Occasionally, though, the sun erupts violently, emitting solar flares or throwing out coronal mass ejections consisting of billions of tons of charged particles. ...

But how does all this space weather cause damage down on the ground? It's a multistep process. First, the intense magnetic field variations in the magnetosphere induce electric fields and currents over large areas of Earth's surface. In turn, this geoelectric field creates what are known as geomagnetically induced currents, or GICs, which flow in any available conductor, including high-voltage transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines, railways, and undersea communications cables. These interconnecting networks essentially act as giant antennas that channel the induced currents from the ground. Hit with a 300-ampere GIC, a high-voltage transformer's paper tape insulation will burn, its copper winding will melt, and the transformer will fail, either right then and there or in the future. High-voltage power grids are designed to withstand the loss of any single important element, such as a substation transformer, and then recover within a half hour or so. For a terrestrial storm like a hurricane or a tornado, this approach works well. But a severe geomagnetic storm covering an entire continent would cause multiple failures all at once.

The video below discusses the most recent major geomagnetic storm from 1989, a storm of roughly 1/10 the magnitude of those known to have occurred in the past. The last time we had a truly powerful storm was in 1921—decades before developed economies became utterly dependent on electrical infrastructure. So here we have a wonderful example of how complexity begets more complexity -- how the development of a complex technological infrastructure has led to the emergence of a new type of problem; a problem that requires yet more complexity (in the software and other aspects that manage the grid) in order to minimize the potential for widespread blackouts.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Politics of Data

Going Down the Up Escalator is an interesting post discussing the politics of separating signal from noise in climate change data. As the post notes:

There are also a number of effects which can have a large impact on short-term temperatures, such as oceanic cycles like the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation or the 11-year solar cycle.  Sometimes these dampen global warming, and sometimes they amplify it.  However, they're called "oscillations" and "cycles" for a reason - they alternate between positive and negative states and don't have long-term effects on the Earth's temperature.

Thus, by selectively picking the range of data, it is possible to argue that the temperature is cooling rather than warming (as shown in the graphs below).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Climate Change vs Energy

As public discussion of climate change has become increasingly polarized, the Obama administration's rhetoric has shifted from a discussion of 'climate' to a focus on 'energy.'

This trend is documented in a recent study, Running from Climate Change: The Obama Administration’s Changing Rhetoric.

The always interesting Max Boycoff weighs in on these observations with A dangerous shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ rhetoric.
But what do we lose when global warming and climate change get repackaged as clean energy? We wind up missing a thorough understanding of the breadth of the problem and the range of possible solutions.

To start, talking only about clean energy omits critical biological and physical factors that contribute to the warming climate. “Clean energy” doesn’t call to mind the ways we use the land and how the environment is changing. Where in the term is the notion of the climate pollution that results from clear-cutting Amazon rain forests? What about methane release in the Arctic, where global warming is exposing new areas of soil in the permafrost?

“Clean energy” also neatly bypasses any idea that we might need to curb our consumption. If the energy is clean, after all, why worry about how much we’re using — or how unequal the access to energy sources might be?
And terms such as “carbon pollution” ignore that climate change isn’t just a carbon issue. Some greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, do not contain carbon, and not all carbon-containing emissions, such as carbon monoxide, trap heat.

When the president moves away from talking about climate change and talks more generally about energy, as he did in the State of the Union, calling for “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” the impact is more than just political.

Calling climate change by another name creates limits of its own. The way we talk about the problem affects how we deal with it. And though some new wording may deflect political heat, it can’t alter the fact that, “climate change” or not, the climate is changing.
True enough, but this appears to be another example of Obama's 'don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good' philosophy. Convinced, realistically, that the current chances of getting the Congress to act on climate change are essentially zero, he's opted for a frame that could, potentially, lead to legislation. The operative question is to whether "clean energy policy" remains that, or becomes simply "energy policy." If it becomes the latter, with its unrelenting emphasis on ways to maintain the current fossil fuel fixation, then any incremental advantage to the climate issue will have been lost. And, as described in the recent Wired article Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust, keeping the clean in energy policy will not be easy.