April 2010

Not taxed enough - a challenge to my friends!

April 15 is coming up, which is the deadline for income tax forms here in the U.S. Shelly's already finished ours and sent them in (thanks to J.K. Lasser's online service!) so we should be getting big refunds any day now... and that made me wonder a bit. With all our exemptions and deductions, our federal income tax rate ends up being roughly 3% of total income. Social security and medicare taxes are more than double that - about 6.5%, and I believe my employer pays another 6.5% on top of that so quadruple federal income tax if you count both. We also paid around 5% (not quite double the federal tax) in NY State income taxes, and over 5% in local property taxes. Not to mention that state and local government gets 8.625% of every dollar we spend on taxable items here, plus whatever other taxes and fees apply.

Fossil carbon is the real problem

It looks like the US Senate plans to work on a new energy bill starting Earth Day (April 22). There's been a steady stream of updates from the likes of Climate Progress and Grist. The goal as usual is to produce something bipartisan - which means a lot of compromising on support for things like oil drilling and nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS - aka "clean coal"). And the resulting bill will surely be thousands of pages that will be easy to attack for unfairness of some form or other.

Gadding with Ghouls: adventures with Christopher W. Monckton

Since becoming a Viscount in June 2006, Christopher Monckton seems to have transformed into a climate crusader, with "Lord Monckton" heralded by conservative politicians and demagogues from Canada to Australia, even recently by the Tea Party here in the US. His first official foray seems to have been this November 2006 article in the UK Daily Telegraph, full of his characteristic pseudo-science, quickly shown to be wrong in almost every respect. July 2008 saw his "Physics and Society" article, again full of nonsense, prompting myself among many others to put some effort into showing the many things he had gotten wrong. I also responded with a shorter and more formal article to the newsletter, copying Monckton as a courtesy, a kindness which he and his associates promptly abused.

In general, Monckton's pronouncements on climate have been so ridiculous that no climate scientist or other prominent member of the climate community has wanted to even appear with him to lend him any credibility. However, this past February Tim Lambert of the Deltoid blog finally agreed to a debate - note Lambert is a computer scientist whose interest in climate is personal, not associated with his work. The resulting discussion was quite respectful - the full debate is viewable here on YouTube - and despite the Monckton-friendly audience and moderator showed Monckton exactly for the pompous clown he has become.

Now Peter Sinclair (greenman3610) has put together two brilliant video debunkings of Monckton's fantasies on YouTube, the second featuring Lambert and a great set of quotes from Margaret Thatcher, who Monckton proudly claims to have worked for in the 1980s:

Is Richard S. Lindzen deliberately lying, or just deluded?

Dr Richard Lindzen is a respected member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He has led a distinguished career since the 1960's, publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles studying and modeling Earth's atmosphere, receiving numerous awards and being selected for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. As a professor of meteorology and particularly with the studies of radiative and dynamical atmospheric processes that he has conducted, he certainly qualifies as an eminent climate scientist. He is also well-known as being skeptical about climate "alarmism", arguing that feedback effects are much smaller than most other scientists have assessed. At #136 on Jim Prall's list of most cited authors on climate change he is the third-highest-rated of the "skeptics" (after Roger Pielke Sr. and Freeman Dyson).

All of that is fine. While 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are responsible for significant climate change, there are still those 3% who disagree. [UPDATE The exact survey wording on the question was "Has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures" - which is a slightly different emphasis than my paraphrase (but is it "significant"?), and I apologize for any confusion caused]. Their arguments to the extent they are logical and have any scientific merit should be heard. Lindzen continues to publish in scientific journals, and while some of his recent papers have been greatly flawed, at least he's continuing to actively try to put forth his position in a logical and scientific manner.

But he also has other ambitions. Lindzen's current publication list includes two 2006 Wall Street Journal opinion pieces - "Climate of Fear" from April 2006, and "There is no ‘consensus’ on global warming" from June of that year. This past December Lindzen returned to the Wall Street Journal with The Climate Science Isn't Settled, and now celebrating Earth Day, April 22, 2010 we find Climate Science in Denial (subscription required). Both of these opinion pieces are filled with egregious misrepresentations of the facts, statements I find shocking coming from such a respected scientist. From his latest piece one can only conclude that either Lindzen has descended into the epistemic closure of paranoia and conspiracy theories that has become far too prevalent among some Americans lately or, worse, that he is consciously participating in the malicious disinformation campaign on climate that has recently been extensively documented by Greenpeace and elsewhere.

Either way, given that Penn State was forced to investigate complaints about Michael Mann's scientific work, continued congressional attacks on climate scientists, and the several investigations in England over the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, I want to know when MIT will initiate an investigation of Richard Lindzen's recent output, and whether he is, inadvertently or deliberately, dragging the good name of that institution through the mud.

And I would also like to know when, for balance, the Wall Street Journal plans to run the over 100 op-ed pieces it owes to the 97% of climate scientists who understand the impact of humans on our planet, given these 4 pieces it has already run by Lindzen. I'm not going to hold my breath for Rupert Murdoch though.

Hansen's Climate Stewardship Act: I don't entirely agree

With US politicians squabbling over current proposals for climate change and clean energy legislation and world leaders getting nowhere fast on a global agreement to limit CO2 emissions, well-informed people may be losing hope for progress on solving the problem. But we should find some hope in that policy choices that could actually substantively address greenhouse warming are at least being openly discussed and debated. A few years ago the only options on the table seemed to be more individual virtuous action ("change your lightbulbs", "buy hybrid cars") or modest government-level efforts; world CO2 emissions continued to rise quickly even after the entry into force of the Kyoto protocol. Now at least there are substantive proposals, still inadequate, but capable of addressing at least a significant fraction of the emissions problem. Any of these would be, if they pass into law, a major step forward.

Aside from the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (KGL) senate bill that has been so much in the news lately, we have also the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House last year - both of these are "cap and trade" proposals, though the KGL bill avoids that label - and in fact with its constricted "price collar" and credit reserve it's much closer to a straight tax (but still one that is allowed to vary by a factor of 2 or 3 in price). Both bills act at the point of emission of CO2, rather than the point of extraction. And both bills at first give away many of the emission permits to industry, so that it becomes a real tax with money going to the government only over a period of decades. Both bills allow some form of offsets, and both bills include proposals to spend the money raised, partly but not entirely for clean energy and efficiency investments. Flawed as they are, they will clearly have a significant impact on CO2 emissions, and cost estimates indicate little damage to economic growth, and perhaps a rather large positive effect, not even counting the benefits from starting to address climate change itself.

The other bill that seems to be seriously under consideration is from Senators Cantwell and Collins (CC). As I argued here, the real problem is our extraction and import of fossil fuels which are then added to the surface carbon cycle; it makes much more sense to tax or set a cap at that point of extraction. That is one major difference in the CC proposal - they set a cap and then auction shares in that cap to the extractive industries. The effect of that is essentially to eliminate the use of "offsets" and trading markets (though Jim Hansen attacks it for still allowing some offset-like projects). It has the simple direct effect of limiting fossil carbon use to an amount we set, and allocating the "rent" of those shares (or at least 75% of that revenue) back to the American people. It seems a much cleaner policy approach than the complex mechanisms of KGL and Waxman-Markey, and much less subject to attack for unfairness, but as with any political document there are compromises that many will be unhappy with.

What Hansen has been calling for is an even simpler "tax and dividend" plan, and he along with the Carbon Tax Center has just released a People's Climate Stewardship Act proposal with details. I fail to see how such a proposal could become law without some of the sort of compromises at least in the CC bill, but let's look at what the proposal actually entails as it stands now and see whether it really makes that much more sense.

The Future can be Bright, not Dark

I have been remiss on my blog here in not yet highlighting Worldchanging and the visionary essays there by Alex Steffen. I've followed Worldchanging for years, bought their first book, and not too long ago won one of their fundraising auction items (a pile of environmental books I still haven't finished reading). I even sent them some material, at least one of which they posted on the blog. But Alex's writing is the real treasure there, and he seems to just get better. He recently posted this powerful look at what we need to do to make the future bright, not dark - go read the whole thing, it's worth it. I'll excerpt and comment on a few bits of it below.

On fallacies

This article is mainly intended as a placeholder for some links I've had as tabs in my browser for way too long. I'll add a few thoughts to try to connect them together. Basically the question I've been pondering is a continuation of my meanderings in On the dimensions of the noosphere. In this world awash in information with the deluge increasing seemingly exponentially, what structures will help us to find those pieces of knowledge that are true and useful? What elements of trust are needed, what processes of understanding? As all the new fact-checking websites out there attest, we no longer trust the traditional media as gatekeepers - perhaps we never should have, and the internet just makes their failings more obvious.

Happy Arbor Day!

Shortly after we bought our house a little over 14 years ago, a note arrived in the mail from the Arbor Day Foundation, offering us "10 trees" for a $10 membership fee. We liked trees, so decided sure, why not, and sent in our money. Our "trees" arrived in the mail I believe in March, and consisted of a plastic bag with 10 straight sticks no more than 6 inches long. They didn't look like much, and since it was still pretty chilly outside we put the bag in the garage and promptly forgot all about it.

Summer came and we discovered the forgotten bag of "trees", the sticks all covered with some sort of white mold from the months of dark neglect. Feeling guilty and expecting little to come from it, we washed them down, prepared a big pot of vermiculite and half-buried the sticks. It wasn't long before buds appeared on 9 of the 10, and by fall they had doubled in size. The next year all 9 were thriving - it turned out we had 2 dogwoods, 2 hawthorns, 2 redbuds, 2 goldenraintrees and 1 crabapple (the second crabapple was the only casualty of our neglect).