Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reality Based Policy

It's always nice to find articles which clearly articulate a belief strongly held. It's ironic in this case when the article is about the slow re-emergence of facts over ideology. Far and away the worst problem I have with the current Republican ideology is their inability to incorporate facts into their world view. I like it when people change their minds after new information enters the scene. I have seen where Obama asks experts for the facts and their opinions, then uses those inputs to make decisions. He doesn't just step up and say, "my gut says we go with Door 2." Ultimately it may come down to a gut instinct, but at least his guts have had exposure to facts first.

In light of the recent economic mudslide, I've pulled a book out of my TBR pile for bedtime reading. Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs, & Steel fame, also wrote a book called Collapse covering the worst collapses of civilizations in an attempt to figure out why they went down when other civilizations in similar straits did not focusing on those dealing with ecological catastrophes. Turns out he's got a cheery, "cautiously optimistic" outlook he wants to share. And when I read the end first, success comes down to two factors - willingness to acknowledge and deal with ecological problems, and a willingess to change basic ideology when the current beliefs are not helpful.

There seems to be a pervasive notion that people of the past were more in tune with nature and lived easier on the earth. I think that's a load of crap. (J. Diamond does too.) When your farming policy is clearcutting 10 acres for your village's crops, using the land for 4 years then clearcutting another 10 acres, it works fine if there are isolated villages in a large forested area. While you're farming your second area, the first is reclaimed. When the population density goes up, though, you either farm the area too long or clearcut too close together or cut too much for natural reclaim to occur when you're done with the farm. At some point you overwhelm the system and either need to farm a new way, or help the reclaiming along somehow. Some societies put in place decisive policies to improve farming and/or reclaiming and some don't. Those that do keep going on. Those which don't, don't.

I recently read another well written essay on being conservative. If I remember the link I will post it but I suspect I won't. His primary thrust was that "conservatives" look at how we've lived our lives so far and think it's safer to use methods we've already used to solve future problems. Whereas "liberals" see problems which "ought" to be fixed an often propose scary new, untried solutions. Ok.

As with my first paragraph, my problem with "conservative" thinking comes in when the evidence says, "We've tried to do things with methods X,Y,Z for many decades. X works great. Y is marginal and Z causes great harm." and the conservatives say, "Well, X,Y,Z work well for us so lets keep going the way we always have." Either they don't agree that Y is marginal and Z causes great harm, or they don't agree that the harm is sufficient to try wacky new policies B and C. And it makes me want to scream.

I think there are a lot of things currently wrong with how we're going about things. And continuing to do things the same way, I'm convinced, will lead to all kinds of disaster. While I'm still a bit of a "global warming" skeptic, I can totally get behind the "global weirding" idea. What's more immediate in my mind is the volume of pollution and toxins we dump into the air when we already have the technology not to. We've done pretty well with passenger car emissions. We have not done well with trucks. We have not done well (still! thanks to GWB) with coal fired power plants. We have gotten better in some ways about industrial waste. Unfortunately, some of the ways we deal with it are to send it to places that don't have OSHA and the EPA and let them throw it out, or recycle it in hazardous ways. One of the points J. Diamond makes early is that environmentalists and corporations need to work together to solve problems or nothing will happen.

As I see it, we (the people of all countries) need to immediately reduce the amount of mercury we spew into the air. Due to mercury poisoning, there are only 2 fishable rivers in New England and they're pretty restricted too. We need to reduce the particulates from burning anything. The haze of Beijing is the iconic picture of this. We need better methods of recycling things and water and we need to do much more of it. And we need further policies (for lack of a better word) to reduce water and energy waste. What I mean by this last is that we need to set things up so it's easier to use less water/energy and possible but more difficult or costly to use more.

Some would suggest compact fluorescents. But they have pollution issues and I've never have them last long enough to justify their use. We need LEDs or other such technology, preferably. Fluorescents are a stop gap measure at best. As a better example, instead of flow restrictor faucets which limit MAXIMUM flow, keep the maximum high, but make it harder to get maximum flow for most tasks. So when someone just flips the handle on a faucet to wash their hands, they get only 1/3 of the max flow. But instead of getting an anemic trickle have aerators and other dispersers in place to get good coverage with the lower flow. Then if you need to fill a pot, you can push a button (for instance) on the side of the faucet to enable the maximum flow without superhuman strength. I keep seeing people leave the water on while they're doing things away from the water (yes, in this arid area). We'll never convince people not to do this, so make it less harmful when they do.

And my mind is warming to the global warming notion due to having a friend who is a climate scientist who says "global warming" is real based on the data she has seen. And it does make sense. Oil and coal are energy sources that were essentially out of play when stored underground. Solar energy comes and goes regularly and interacts with the surface plants and land and water. If you redirect solar energy either with solar collectors or by burning trees, you're redistributing the energy already in the atmosphere. But when you dig up oil and coal and burn it, you're adding energy to the system that wasn't there before. Adding energy causes temperatures to increase. The fact that we have non-uniform temperatures across the globe means that things won't heat uniformly. Things will, however, interact.

Since corporations don't seem to respond well to concensus, unless there is already evidence or a market in place, I do think government needs to step in with regulations, even if they're different and untried and scary. We can make them temporary trials if we must. When people say "I'd like better gas mileage, we get a couple fringe cars and a lot more of the same. But when the government says "improve fuel economy or there will be financial penalties", then fuel economy gets improved more broadly. I don't think every vehicle must have a gas mileage over 50mpg. Perhaps that's unrealistic for something carrying 20 tons. But for a 2 ton car, it's absolutely possible. I've gone through 20 model years in the cars I've owned as an adult, and had zero improvement in mileage. Actually, I went from 32 to 31 to 30 mpg. Yes, I do have more features and more safety devices I'm hauling around. But if we hadn't had the gas scare in the 70s, it's unlikely I'd even have gas mileage that good.

So to try and wrap up this ramble, I DO think governments need to work with the people and the corporations to force us to work in our own best interests. Where the market doesn't account for the negative externalities, the government needs to step in and do so. Since I want things to change and want to try wacky new ideas to cause that change, I guess that makes me a liberal. However, what those best interests are will always remain in contention and I understand that. So I'd prefer to have a president setting the tone with congress and the populace who has shown that he will be looking out for all the people of the country, not just the folks like him. And who has shown respect for facts and experts. I do think more than our economy is in crisis. I think our ecolosystem is at a crossroads and we can choose the road less traveled by, up 'til now, and make it more of a thoroughfare. If we all have increasingly clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink and the hope of maintaining this state of affairs, I think this civilization of ours will become more prosperous.

My preference, though, is for government to set a goal, not give a roadmap to get there. The mileage one is good: 85% of passenger cars seating 5 or fewer people need to get 50mpg in 10 years without negatively affecting emissions or crash safety. Don't, however, say we have to do it with a certain technology like ethanol, batteries, or hydrogen. Just give us the goal. Then all sorts of people and corporations can try all sorts of technologies and the one or two that seem most promising can be phased in. Make a goal of reducing commercial or residential water use, or charging extra for large consumers. (Yes, I realize this could be bad for my company!) Make a goal of getting out of Iraq...


farmwifetwo said...

So.... why is 1980's weather the "best"? In the Middle ages it was much warmer. In the 1970's we were heading for an Ice Age. The only people that believe in global warming are the environmentalists and the physicists that wrote the programs.

The modelling programs are linearly written. Weather is a dynamic system. So to write the programs they removed a variety of information - like the purpose of clouds, H2O in the atmosphere - just to name a few. Why now over the last 2 yrs they are now saying "oh, but the rain you've had is global warming" after telling us for years about the HOT, DRY summers that haven't materialized. Why is every little thing that weather does... now b/c of climate change. We've always had blizzards, tornados and hurricanes. Just b/c the US is now full of trailer parks that can't survive severe weather... doesn't make the weather more severe... just more people in the way.

The climatologists... aren't convinced.

Pollution and climate change... are not the same thing. And nobody is saying we shouldn't do something about pollution.

I'd keep reading. When you get done that one... read the Skeptical Environmentalist.


Quark said...

When I was in New Zealand, there was an expose show on how places in China are the cheapest bidders fro receycled goods, but the plants are often running illegally and unsafely, and do a lot of pollution harm to China -- they showed how chemicals were just flowing like creeks off into the ground. I guess the point of the show was to make you think: You think that when you recycle that it is helping the environment, but it might be doing harm. (The real point they tried to hound on was why NZ companies and governments don't recycle in NZ, by NZ saftey standards, and the companies all said "It would cost more.")

I wasn't originally going to post about global warming, but I would suggest reading the Wikipedia page on it. I'm told that it's a good balanced overview.

steve said...

re: Maximum flow control

Patent it!

RfP said...

I've had Diamond's Collapse on my to-read list for a while. Eons ago I read an interesting book called The Collapse of Complex Societies (shoulda been Civilizations for the alliteration), and the complexity itself seemed to get most of the blame. IIRC, one argument went something like:

Rome's infrastructure was huge and aging; the nearby quarries were tapped out; using more distant quarries required building roads and maintaining far-flung towns for the workers; the expense of the whole system got overwhelming.

"The climatologists... aren't convinced."

Actually, that's a dated view. Yes, climatologists are convinced, and have been for a while. The media, and a few books like Lomborg's, still portray climate change as the subject of a lot of dissent within science. Not so. Several massive studies on science in the media have found that ZERO percent of peer-reviewed scientific publications refute climate change, while over half of mainstream media articles give "equal time" to climate skeptics. The impression you're getting, that climate change isn't widely accepted, is based on very dated--over a decade, at this point--reporting. Here's a decent article on when the consensus developed, and how strong it is now--and how wrong the media get it.

This is an area where I'm going to trust science. What do politicians and journalists know about climate? They're in the business of spin and marketing. What we need are facts.

Insurance companies--the most fact-based, risk-based business around--have taken global climate change seriously for years. Because they've already seen the effects on their bottom line.

"Why now over the last 2 yrs they are now saying "oh, but the rain you've had is global warming" after telling us for years about the HOT, DRY summers that haven't materialized. Why is every little thing that weather does... now b/c of climate change."

You're right: that's not attributable to climate change. That's irresponsible reporting, not science. Having a warm (or cool) summer is not evidence for or against climate change. It's ridiculous to make those statements, but the media do it all the time. The weather guy says "It's a warm one. Guess climate change is real." Uh, no. That's not an analysis of climate trends.

CrankyOtter said...

Now to see if I can find my friend in IP law... I'll look into the faucet patent. I do think it's a good idea.

I'm also wondering why I can't find an inline filter for my cold water in house without doing a huge RO system. My biggest problem is calcium. My friends in Italy had the same issue and their electric kettle caused it to precipitate out. So if I wrap my incoming cold wires with electrical current... can I precipitate out the calcium - the trick is to not clog the pipe or heat the water or electrocute myself.

Hrm. I initially thought "global warming" was more about urban areas paving themselves over to a larger radius causing local heating. Average all those temps, and guess what, they're going to go up. But at least one expert assures me that this is happening in unpaved, undeveloped areas too, which is more worrying than scattered urban heat sinks. And too many urban heat sinks (like our east coast) can also be problematic. So yeah, I need to do more research there. But I'd still be more rabid about mercury and sulphur emissions.

Absolutely I had the Chinese women washing PCBs from electronic waste into local streams in mind when I talked about recycling without OSHA. I still think recycling is better than mining, but it might not be cheaper (yet). I think it's N.Stephenson who has near future fiction set with corporations buying mining rights to landfills. I think that's a cool concept, but for the cleanup costs one would be responsible for if one bought up old landfills. yikes.

Thanks for the comments!

RfP said...

"I think it's N.Stephenson who has near future fiction set with corporations buying mining rights to landfills. I think that's a cool concept, but for the cleanup costs one would be responsible for if one bought up old landfills. yikes."

That's an interesting idea, as US law requires that purchasers of commercial property assume the burden of cleanup. So if there was a dry cleaner, a gas station, or some other "dirty" business on that site 40 years ago and you didn't do your due diligence before buying, you're liable for the pollutants left behind.

The same principle could easily apply to landfill sites--but at the same time, cities and regulators give a lot of incentives to developers that purchase brownfield sites. Anything that converts that property to something useful is to be encouraged. I believe some cities are already asking nearby large businesses to contribute to the cost of new incinerators, etc; I wonder if that could be construed as owning a share of the contents of the landfill.

There are also a number of efforts to collect methane from landfills, e.g. to augment natural gas supplies. Perhaps that's a step toward what you describe.