Words have power.

This magnificent short film was produced by Everynone in collaboration with WNYC’s Radiolab.

Bjorn Lomborg has a change of heart

Apparently, the world’s most prominent climate change skeptic, statistician Bjorn Lomborg, changed his mind, and now believes that Global Warming is a viable threat that deserves an annual investment of tens of billions of dollars.  Apparently, it is “one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront.”

While Lomborg has a new book out, and sales will undoubtedly be helped by this change of heart, this is still a moment to consider.  After all, the Republican strategy to prevent environmental reform, as laid out by strategist Frank Lutz in 2002, is to sow doubt about the scientific consensus about global warming.  In fact, Charles and David Koch, owners (and oil barons) of Koch Industries, collectively known as Kochtopus due to their unmatched spending to help sow that doubt, are the face of that effort.  Americans For Prosperity is their lovechild.

Lomborg’s reversal isn’t a huge game changer itself, but after the recent vindications of Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, the IPCC, and IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri, it appears that the Climate Gate and other Koch-funded efforts to sow doubt about Global Warming, are, to quote Shakespeare, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

However, after speaking with a couple of right-wing lobbyists this weekend, I understand anew that some folks consider attacking climate science a bonafide calling, and in their minds, are convinced of global conspiracy.  Typically these types of people are surfaced whenever they start rambling about Al Gore.  No scientist, or amount of reason, will be able to convince them otherwise.

In related news, Canada just banned bisphenol A (BPA) by declaring it toxic.  Scientific American linked it to cancer, genital defects, obesity, and ADD.  However, The American Chemistry Council continues to defend the use of BPA.  In the United States, the FDA raised concern about BPA, but remains unwilling to regulate its use.  Lets see, what is the common link here?  Oh yes, industry is spending money to prevent limits to their behavior.

Finally, a new study identifies 39 more coal ash dumpsites that are polluting drinking water with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals.  The EPA is holding hearings this week.  However, the electric power industry is fighting national regulations.  I suppose they would rather take their chances with conservative state governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, whose residents will have to deal with the lead and arsenic.  Coal may look cheap, but its externalities are enormous.

Unfortunately, the prospects of a Republican takeover of Congress mean that the obfuscation will only increase.

UPDATE: The Washington Post had an excellent editorial today on the subject of attacks on climate science:

“EARLY THIS YEAR, climate-change skeptics went on the attack, pointing to two molehills of scandal that they claimed were towering peaks of scientific malfeasance. One was “Climategate,” in which skeptics used highly selective excerpts of stolen e-mails in an effort to discredit some well-known scientists. The other was the identification of errors in the last assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the canon of the international consensus on global warming — particularly a dubious prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035.  Investigation after investigation has since shown that neither episode undermined the basic science of climate change or the credibility of climate scientists. On Monday, the scientists were vindicated again, twice… So the overblown critique of climate science that emerged early this year continues to underwhelm.”

Complexity and risk increase with oil development.

Witness the Perdido, now producing oil at depths of more than 9000 feet.

Recently international marine modeling expert Malcolm Spaulding shared his thoughts with ecoRI about the oil spill on the Deepwater Horizon, and what went wrong.  Spaulding, after reviewing much of the technical information from the BP hearings, concluded that while the Blowout Preventer Valve will present a lot of evidence on why the rig exploded and sunk, there were “relatively straightforward oversight problems” that could be fixed:

“In this case we had a whole series of human failures in the system. One of the control pods didn’t work. There is some question about whether some of the plumbing on one of the valves was installed correctly.”

Spaulding also believes that a key to future offshore development is improved risk assessment and scenario development, to show that these oil companies can respond should a disaster occur.

Well, witness the Perdido, profiled in the NY Times.  The Perdido is much more sophisticated and complex than the Deepwater Horizon.  Not only does it operate in deeper water, but it is the deepest platform in the world, with a well in production at 9600 feet.  The Perdido is a 20-hour boat ride from shore, which means that fire response vessels may not be able to arrive in time to save the rig in case of a fire.  But the Perdido’s complexity is not in the state-of-the-art rig, it is on the ocean floor:

“The Perdido platform is a vast hub that can drill and pump oil from wells across 30 miles of ocean floor. Below it is a subsea cityscape of pumps, pipes, valves, manifolds, wellheads and blowout preventers — all painted a bright yellow so as to be visible to the floodlights of the remote-controlled submarines that maintain it.  Shell, in reducing the weight of the platform, which can produce up to 130,000 barrels of oil a day, is among the first companies to use a new technique: instead of pumping the drilled liquid to the platform and separating the oil, gas and water there, as is typically done, engineers installed new separation equipment directly on the sea floor. While that improves efficiency, the equipment is also more difficult to monitor and fix than if it were on the platform.”

Lets see, the rig drills at depths that human divers cannot reach; much of the equipment which could cause an accident can be reached only by submarines; the rig is 20 hours from shore.  Additionally, the rig is designed to simultaneously drill new wells and pump out existing wells across 30 miles of ocean floor.   The complexity of the Perdido is incredible.

Does this sound safe?  Can we manage these risks?  Just because the engineer in charge says that the Perdido has “multiple safety barriers and redundant systems,” does that mean we can believe they will work?  Is Royal Dutch Shell prepared to handle an accident?

The Perdido is a banner example of how complex and expensive new energy is becoming.  Energy Returned on Energy Invested, or EROEI, continues to drop closer to 1:1.  The risks only increase.  How exactly is this sustainable?

How would you like your salmonella, scrambled?

I was ‘shocked’ to discover that the recent Salmonella outbreak in eggs, which led to the recall of 380 Million eggs nationwide, was just tied to an industrial-sized egg operation, Wright County Egg.

I was even more ‘shocked’ to hear the owner of said industrial-sized farm accused of being a “bad actor” by going to the “lowest level of compliance” on FDA regulations by another local farmer in Clarion, Iowa.

Finally, I was even more ‘shocked’ to discover that the owner of Wright County Egg , who also owns a facility in Maine, recently admitted responsibility for 10 counts of animal cruelty in a negotiated settlement with the State of Maine and paid  $36,947 in fines and restitution, and $100,000 to aid further inspections by the Maine Department of Agriculture.

I am just ‘shocked.’

Strategic Sourcing & Procurement: Great Starting Points to a Green Supply Chain (via ValueStreaming)

This new survey by Deloitte is a must read (there is a link to it in the Value Streaming blog.) Deloitte questioned a group of 50 executives across a broad spectrum of industries and found some great insights about the application of sustainability principles in business today. Nearly all companies felt that sustainability had a part in their organizations’ strategy and interests. For most, while they talked about a Triple Bottom Line, sustainability initiatives were predominantly environmental. The survey also indicates that in the recession, some companies drew a hard line with regards to sustainability investments and traditional Return on Investment (ROI) measures – in other words, they limited their investments to ones that would pay off in the short term. However, many did see opportunities for payoffs with investments in operational efficiencies, brand enhancements, and supply chain improvements.

Strategic Sourcing & Procurement: Great Starting Points to a Green Supply Chain Reports surfaced this week about a Deloitte survey of a relatively small group of 50 executives taken from late 2009 to early 2010. However, the survey covered five industry sectors: automotive, consumer products, process and industrial, technology, and telecommunications. While there was disagreement in some industry’s over what constituted a ‘green job’, there was widespread agreement in a number of areas.  Almost all surveyed indicated that su … Read More

via ValueStreaming

RI not quite as screwed as Daily Beast thinks

RI not quite as screwed as Daily Beast thinks.

Ted Nesi at WPRI.com does an excellent job dispelling some fiscal alarmism over the state debt load in Rhode Island.  Today you see a lot of criticism of deficits and debt, but often a poor understanding of the difference between short and long term structural deficits, as well as the different types of debt.  It is important that voters begin to understand these issues, instead of just relying on misleading talking points from their politician or cable/radio personality of choice.  Ted writes that:

“…Rhode Island has a lot of difficult decisions to make over the next few years. And it’s important that as we move forward, we really understand the reality of the state’s problems so we can focus on the right issues, ask the right questions, and make the right choices.”

Do Americans respect Islam?

Are we at war with Islam?  George W. Bush, author of the “War on Terror,” said this about some American statements critical of Islam, way back on November 13, 2002, after a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi-Annan:

“Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”

The current controversy over the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” shows that the sentiments of a vocal minority of Americans are not so welcoming of Islam.  They may claim that they only oppose the Islamic Center being built on “hallowed ground,” but you see Americans protesting mosques all over the country.  Is that just NIMBY?  Or, do they have a problem with all Mosques and Islam?

When you have Christians in Florida creating a Burn the Quran day on September 11, it is hard not to see a War on Islam from this vocal minority.  The danger of this rhetoric is that it may be feeding the radical minority of jihadist Muslims from groups like Al Queda.  By grouping those extremist few with the global Islamist whole, the rhetoric may be helping the radicals recruit and fundraise.  The Wall Street Journal, bastion of Rupert Murdoch, seems to agree.  They quoted independent terrorism consultant Evan Kohlman of Flashpoint Partners saying “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”

In the same breath, those that view President Obama as a secret Muslim without a birth certificate feed into the same rhetoric.  It shows an America that is intolerant of religious freedom, despite our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  This whole “controversy” is a disgrace.  David Brooks has an excellent column today in the New York Times, where he talks about the “underlying” problem in America:

“In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.  But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness… There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized…To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.  Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.”

Unfortunately, American attitudes towards Islam are often wrongheaded.  Before the Iraq War, most Americans did not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone a Sufi Muslim.  We tend to view Islam through the lens of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Al Queda, and the violent historical intersections between the minority of extremist Muslims and American foreign policy.  If we are really so serious about the Constitution that we inherited, and the freedoms encapsulated in the Bill of Rights, we need to reaffirm those freedoms by respecting Islam and the Muslim community in America.

Is Japan outgrowing growth?

Yesterday in the Times Japanese Professor Norihiro Kato reflected on the news that China recently overtook Japan as the World’s second biggest economy.  Surprisingly, Kato reacted with “relief,” as if a “load [was] off my shoulders.”  In fact, he calls the new Japanese reality a maturity:

“The rest of the world’s population is still exploding, and we are coming to see the limits of our resources.  The age of ‘right shoulder up’ is over.  Japan doesn’t need to be No. 2 in the world, or No. 5 or 15.  It’s time to look at more important things, to think more about the environment and people less lucky than ourselves… Freshly overtaken by China, Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake.  In a world where limits are increasingly apparent, Japan… may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.”

Some economists, those of the ‘right shoulder up,’ neo-classical province, would argue that limitless growth is possible, especially if you remove all regulation and government interference.  These neo-classical economists do not recognize limits, they do not account for the stock of natural resources that is blindly being used.  Of course, Kato points out that in Japan the new 20-somethings are revolting against the old logic of limitless growth.  He calls them non-consumers, frugal, savers.  Will the United States follow Japan?

Inevitably, yes.  Japan is mired in deflation, where “consumer demand has become so weak – and deflationary expectations are now such the norm – that the economy seems no longer to respond to such monetary tools.”  Sound familiar?  Interest rates are at record lows here in the United States, and the economy is responding sluggishly, if at all.  Economists are arguing that the era of inevitably rising house prices is over.  That housing wealth was the engine for the nacent growth in the past decade.  With health care costs continuing to rise, our current economic model is unsustainable.

Of course, when you consider looming resource limits, where oil, minerals, and even fresh water will become more scarce and more expensive, and you have a recipe for a sea change.  The old guard will continue to argue for exponential growth, but sooner or later, the kids won’t buy the same tired argument.

Zeitoun and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

My wife and I just returned from a 8-day road-trip that took us from the Berkshires, through the Green Mountains, east through the White Mountains, ending with a day in Portland, Maine.  During the trip we hiked a mountain, idled by a stream, and generally unplugged from the noisy din of civilization.  I was blissfully unaware of the 24-hour news cycle, instead concerned only with the lazy whims of vacation-time.  I treasure vacations for many reasons, but one benefit that applies to all trips is the time to catch up on reading.  For me, that meant finally getting to Dave Eggers’ latest, Zeitoun.

Zeitoun is a true page tuner, one that I couldn’t put down and read in a day or so.  It is a non fiction account of the harrowing experience of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-American businessman, in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina.  Zeitoun, a Muslim, stayed behind to watch over his painting business and his rental units, but ended up saving people in his canoe.  Of course, the weight of this narrative, and the reason why this book is once again very timely, is the fact that Zeitoun, despite his honorable reputation, winds up experiencing the dark side of our society, our prejudice towards Muslims, and winds up detained where his family cannot find him.  I won’t spoil the story for you, but when you read what happened to Zeitoun, you might wonder, like I did, what exactly America has become.

In fact, given the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” it is easy to see how intolerant we have become as a society.  Of course, tucked away in the White Mountains, I was blissfully unaware of the ongoing controversy until I returned.  Once I came within range of the media din and the 24 Hour news cycle, I could see clearly how stupid the entire controversy is.  The Islamic Community Center would sit two blocks from ground zero; an existing Mosque, Masjid Manhattan, sits three blocks away from the hallowed ground.  That’s right, there is already a Mosque only three blocks away from Ground Zero.  If the construction of the new Mosque is so unacceptable, shouldn’t we also tear down Masjid Manhattan?  Shouldn’t we tear down all Mosques in New York City, in the District of Columbia, in Pennsylvania?  After all, they are also “hallowed ground.”

Wait a second, lets not get ahead of ourselves.  The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. If that is the case, why are Americans protesting the building of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?  Ahh, there is that prejudice rearing its ugly head.  It appears that certain Americans do not like Islam at all. I wonder how they feel about the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights?  A church in Gainesville, FL is planning a “Burn the Quran Day” on September 11; Tennessee Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey advocates that Islam is in fact not a religion but a cult, and thus does not deserve First Amendment protection; Indiana congressional candidate Marvin Scott compares ALL Muslims to Kamikazes.  It appears that in Republican eyes, the Constitution is only sacred part of the time (see discussion of Anchor Babies and immigration for another example).

In the midst of this senseless election-year controversy, Dave Eggers’ brilliant account stands out as a must-read book.  I was reminded in some ways of Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, because the narrative builds suspense effortlessly, and weaves together the past and present experience of Zeitoun and his family, to give you a whole picture of these Muslim patriots and the difficult trials they encounter.  Tune out the media din, and pick up Zeitoun.

A good old fashioned road trip

Today, my wife and I embarking on a good old fashioned road trip.  For the next week or so we will be exploring different corners of New England, from the White Mountains to the Berkshires.  However, In A Future Age will be back before you know it.  Stay classy, friends.