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Spraying for Ticks: Unscientific and Bad Policy


I am extremely upset that the Board of Supervisors took it upon themselves to spray county parks for ticks. No population counts of ticks before or after spraying makes for bad policy and lousy science. The use of chemicals with known toxicity to honey bees and acquatic invertebrates and a high residual rate makes for incredibly bad policy. The best prevention for Lymes Disease is education. Check yourself and children for ticks, remove them in an appropriate manner if they are embedded. Go to your doctor if you have the classic bull’s eye or go to your doctor if you have unexplained fatigue, chills and a headache. The supervisors have taken a sledge hammer approach without even knowing what exists where they are spraying. It is bad science, expensive and has higher repercussions to much more than ticks. … Continue Reading

Rain Barrel Workshops Offered for Leesburg Residents

April 12, 2012 Events, Lifestyle Comments Off on Rain Barrel Workshops Offered for Leesburg Residents

The Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, in partnership with the Leesburg Environmental Advisory Commission (EAC), will be offering four rain barrel workshops for Leesburg residents during April and May 2012.

Rain barrels are an economical and practical way for homeowners to conserve water and save money. In addition, they reduce runoff, as stormwater is collected before it picks up sediment and contaminants that pollute area streams and rivers which drain to the Potomac River and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay. … Continue Reading

Deep Staff Cuts Proposed to Environmental and Historic Protection Programs

March 7, 2012 Government, News Comments Off on Deep Staff Cuts Proposed to Environmental and Historic Protection Programs

Loudoun’s newly elected Board of Supervisors has received recommendations for significant reductions in staff for programs that help ensure basic protections for the County’s environmental and historic assets. In one case, staff cuts will signal the end of an entire program.

The recommendations seek to eliminate two full time positions within the County’s Water Resources Management Program (WRMP), which collects data and develops management plans to protect water sources. Opponents of the cuts, including the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy say that “Cutting the Water Resources Program by 25 percent … will make it difficult to continue the program … Approximately 100,000 Loudoun residents rely on wells for their drinking water. … Continue Reading

Fukushima Daiichi

March 22, 2011 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Fukushima Daiichi

“Speaking in Tokyo, government spokesman Yukio Edano said the plant – which has six reactors – will eventually be scrapped once the emergency is brought under control. Mr Edano said the plant will be in no condition to be restarted after corrosive seawater was pumped into the reactors to help control the overheating core.” [1]

Last September I described five serious concerns with nuclear power before their vulnerability was made evident by the Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster which unfolded last week. The first is the critical supply shortage of fissile uranium U-235 [2]. Based on a European study of all known and speculative reserves and resources, we might be able to derive all of human exosomatic energy from nuclear power for perhaps 12 years. There simply isn’t enough of the stuff. In 2006, the United States imported 84% of our nuclear fuel, so the argument that nuclear power would help wean ourselves off of imported energy doesn’t fly [3].

Second, if we consider nuclear power the solution then it is the solution for all of mankind so we had better get used to Iran processing their own fuel. Given the United States government discomfort with that idea speaks volumes about the inherent security problems, real or imagined, with nuclear energy. Third, we described the impracticality of building out nuclear capacity and the huge investment in capital which would be required and which would have to be siphoned away from more useful enterprises. Fourth, we described the rising costs of the nuclear power plants [4]. It was already prohibitive before the Japanese earthquake disaster. The industry can only possibly make money or be a viable investment if taxpayers and ratepayers are forced to subsidize and take on all of the risk. Since nuclear power cannot happen without the substantial investment of the public, the public has a right to object even if those objections are based on a “not in my back yard” attitude rather than on the very serious and specific objections which I am raising. This attitude happens to be far more rational than that of nuclear proponents.

Fifth, we have no solution to the nuclear waste problem even if Yucca Mountain storage facility were to be opened. This fifth point was highlighted by the accumulation of spent fuel at the Fukushima reactor site, which turns out to be a more serious problem than the partial meltdown of the reactor cores themselves. This happens to be the situation in the United States where most of the spent fuel is stored on-site in similar pools of water.

A sixth very serious problem which I did not discuss is the critical requirement for cooling water. Nuclear power plants cannot be built where there is or might be a water shortage. During droughts, nuclear power plants have to be taken out of service. Water problems are why so many plants need to be constructed on coast lines. This week, we’ve seen though that even that placement is no guarantee of a usable supply of cooling water.

Here is a partial list of nuclear accidents which resulted in decommissioning of the reactor as a result of the incident. Text is from reference [5].

January 21, 1969 — INES Level unknown – Lucens, Canton of Vaud, Switzerland – Explosion. A total loss of coolant led to a power excursion and explosion of an experimental nuclear reactor in a large cave at Lucens. The underground location of this reactor acted like a containment building and prevented any outside contamination. The cavern was heavily contaminated and was sealed.

February 22, 1977 – INES Level 4 – Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia – Fuel damaged
Operators neglected to remove moisture-absorbing materials from a fuel rod assembly before loading it into the KS 150 reactor at power plant A-1. The accident resulted in damaged fuel integrity, extensive corrosion damage of fuel cladding and release of radioactivity into the plant area. The affected reactor was decommissioned following this accident.

March 28, 1979 – INES Level 5 – Middletown, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, United States – Partial meltdown Equipment failures and worker mistakes contributed to a loss of coolant and a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station 15 km (9 miles) southeast of Harrisburg.

April 26, 1986 — INES Level 7 – Prypiat, Ukraine (then USSR) – Power excursion, explosion, complete meltdown. An inadequate reactor safety system led to an uncontrolled power excursion, causing a severe steam explosion, meltdown and release of radioactive material at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant located approximately 100 kilometers north-northwest of Kiev. Approximately fifty fatalities (mostly cleanup personnel) resulted from the accident and the immediate aftermath. An additional nine fatal cases of thyroid cancer in children in the Chernobyl area have been attributed to the accident. The explosion and combustion of the graphite reactor core spread radioactive material over much of Europe. 100,000 people were evacuated from the areas immediately surrounding Chernobyl in addition to 300,000 from the areas of heavy fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. An “Exclusion Zone” was created surrounding the site encompassing approximately 1,000 mi² (3,000 km²) and deemed off-limits for human habitation for an indefinite period. Several studies by governments, UN agencies and environmental groups have estimated the consequences and eventual number of casualties. Their findings are subject to controversy. Four reactors were decommissioned.

October 19, 1989 – INES Level 3 – Vandellos Nuclear Power Plant, Spain -fire in one of its two turbo generators. After the fire in the turbo generators the Spanish commission determined a large list of issues in the plant that was closed by the owners due to economical unviability.

There are about 440 operating nuclear reactors in the world today. At least eight reactors failed beyond recovery as listed above. With the six reactors which will be decommissioned at Fukushima, 14 reactors had to be decommissioned before their service life because of catastrophic failure. That is a failure rate of 3 percent. What entity in the private sector would fund an enterprise which requires billions of dollars of investment up front which has a 3% catastrophic failure rate and unlimited liability?

In a real free market system, nuclear power would not even get a second glance. And since public funding is required then the public has a right (assuming we still have a functioning democracy) to veto their tax dollars and energy rates subsidizing a technology which they do not want.

[1] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/fukushima-nuclear-plant-shut-for-good/story-fn3dxix6-1226025025196

[2] http://www.energywatchgroup.org/fileadmin/global/pdf/EWG_Report_Uranium_3-12-2006ms.pdf

[3] Joseph Romm http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2008/pdf/nuclear_report.pdf

[4] http://climateprogress.org/2009/07/15/nuclear-power-plant-cost-bombshell-ontario/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civilian_nuclear_accidents

The Great Ocean Conveyor

September 16, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on The Great Ocean Conveyor

“Wally Broecker has likened the climate to an angry beast that we are now poking with a stick.” Gabrielle Walker and David King, The Hot Topic, Harcourt, 2008.

I’ve written previously about all the myriad factors which contribute to the Earth’s climate at any given time [1]. .Our climate today, and by “today” I am referring to geologic time, i.e., the entire Holocene (12000 years ago to the present), is dominated by the positions of the continental land masses, ocean circulation, ice extent, greenhouse gases and the rather benign characteristics of Earth’s current orbital parameters, described by the Croll-Milankovich cycles (see for example [2] and [3]). We have discussed the Pliocene [4] (from 5 to 2 million years ago) and how that climate regime closely resembles the current climate regime, with some notable differences.

The Holocene climate is fortuitously stable. It allowed humans to develop sustainable agriculture. This scientific achievement enabled the development of sizable communities and cities, increases in population, and our civilization and economy. The last time the climate was this stable was during the Eemian [5] (between 130,000 and 114,000 years ago). Three subspecies of humans lived at that time: Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Sapience of course means wisdom and that is the name we gave ourselves in a fit of self-important hubris. All three groups used fire to cook meals and as a possible consequence developed large brains. About 50,000 years ago our ancestors evolved the capacity for complex language and that set us apart. But the unstable and abruptly changing climate dominating rest of the Pleistocene (2 million years ago to 12 thousand years ago) prevented our application of agricultural science. Wild swings in climate occurred over centuries, decades and even years, meaning that what would grow at one place one year would change dramatically the next. Agriculture demands a stable repeatable climate from one year to the next.

Most of the land mass during the Cenozoic (from 65 million years ago to today) is in the Northern hemisphere. Because of the existence of the American Cordillera vapor export from the Pacific to the Atlantic, via the Westerlies, is blocked by the Rocky Mountains in North America and by the Andes is South America. But vapor export from the Atlantic to the Pacific, via the Trade winds, easily flows over the lower land mass of Central America. This makes the Atlantic more salty than the Pacific because evaporated water contains no salt. This circumstance, along with other pertinent features of the Earth’s current landscape drives the “Great Ocean Conveyor” shown in figure 1. Wally Broecker, of Lamont-Dougherty and Columbia University is the discoverer of this ocean conveyor current (see [6] and [7]).

Figure 1 The Great Ocean Conveyor, from http://news.softpedia.com/newsImage/The- Ocean-Conveyor-Belt-Gets-Closeup-Study-2.jpg/

Figure 1 The Great Ocean Conveyor, from http://news.softpedia.com/newsImage/The- Ocean-Conveyor-Belt-Gets-Closeup-Study-2.jpg/

You are familiar with a piece of this conveyor by another name, the “Gulf Stream”. The Gulf Stream flows northward from the hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico along the Eastern Seaboard and the coast of Virginia towards Greenland. But this water does not simply pile up in the North Atlantic. Instead, because of its density being salty, it sinks into the deep ocean and flows southward, shown in blue, below the Gulf Stream which flows on the surface and is shown in red, (see for example [8]).

Broecker [6] describes two stable climate states associated with the current Earth climate regime, a very cold Earth associated with events such as the Last Glacial Maximum (between 30 and 18 thousand years ago) ([9], see also [10]) and the interglacial periods such as the Eemian and the Holocene, in which we are now living. In between the climate is dominated by abrupt changes of several degrees swings in average temperature taking place over just a few decades. The transition between the LGM and the Holocene climate is remarkably wild switching back and forth several times with warm areas oscillating back and forth between the southern and northern hemispheres [11]. This is shown in figure 2. The x-axis is time measures in thousands of years ago from today. The right most vertical axis is at the end of the last glacial maximum and the left vertical axis is 9000 years ago, a time when the climate was stable and near the time when we discovered agriculture.

This figure is from a new paper by Michael Kaplan and colleagues published this month in the Journal Nature. The dark grey shaded area is the Younger Dryas between about 12.8 and 11.5 thousand years ago. The light grey shaded area is known as the Antarctic Climate Reversal in the southern hemisphere and the Bolling/Allerod period in the north. This period began with an abrupt warming event when sea levels rose more than 100 meters from glacial melting. Proxies for temperature are shown for the Northern Hemisphere by the curves e and f. The Hulu and Donegge are caves in China. The North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) results are measurements on the ice cores themselves. The notable feature is that the Bolling/Allerod was nearly as warm as today at least in the North but was followed by a return to ice age conditions during the Younger Dryas. The average temperature in Greenland during the Younger Dryas was 30 degrees F colder than today. However these conditions were not global. Curve c shows a temperature proxy from the Antarctic Dome C ice core. Note that the Antarctic gradually warmed after the last glacial maximum but then the warming stalled just as the northern hemisphere was warming up. Completely out of synch with the North, Antarctica continued to warm during the Younger Dryas ice age in the north. The curve a is a temperature proxy measurement from New Zealand showing that New Zealand climate was in step with that of Antarctica and that the Younger Dryas glaciation had no effect on much of the southern hemisphere.

Important to us, is that a stable and sustainable economy and society is impossible during such dramatic swings in climate because agriculture on the current scale would be unmanageable and unpredictable. We inhabit a sweet spot, a sweet spot that may have lasted 50,000 years without human interference.

Of course, we do not know how the earth’s climate will react to increasing man-made greenhouse gases but there is no historic evidence to support the belief that it will behave linearly and smoothly. And there is plenty of evidence that it may feature sudden jumps. What we learn from studying the Pliocene [4] will help us understand a little better. But the atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Pliocene was only about 350 ppmV while today it is already 393 ppmV and continuing to climb. When other man made greenhouse gases are considered then the effective atmospheric carbon dioxide level is about 450 ppmV.

For further reading, I recommend Wally Broecker’s book [6] which describes the discovery of the great ocean conveyor and the abrupt climate changes of the Pleistocene. Richard Alley’s book The Two Mile Time Machine [7] describes the ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica which have helped us understand the Earth’s climate. Both are exceptional descriptions of climate science by two of the world’s leading experts. You can here a fantastic talk by Richard Alley here [12].

Tony Noerpel.

[1] http://brleader.com/?p=1414

[2] J.A. Rial, Earth’s orbital eccentricity and the rhythm of the Pleistocene ice
ages: the concealed pacemaker, Global and Planetary Change 41 (2004) 81–93.

[3] S. Meyers, B. Sageman and M. Pagani, Resolving Milankovitch: consideration of signal and noise, American Journal of Science, Vol. 308, June, 2008, P. 770–786, DOI 10.2475/06.2008.02.

[4] http://brleader.com/?p=1585

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eemian

[6] Wally Broecker, The Great Ocean Conveyor, Princeton University Press, 2010.

[7] Richard Alley, The Two Mile Time Machine, 2000.

[8] Amy S. Bower, M. Susan Lozier, Stefan F. Gary, & Claus W. Boning, Interior pathways of the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, Vol 459| 14 May 2009| doi:10.1038/nature07979

[9] http://archaeology.about.com/od/lterms/g/last_glacial_ma.htm

[10] Andrey Ganopolski & Stefan Rahmstorf, Rapid changes of glacial climate simulated in a coupled climate model, Nature | Vol 409 | 11 January 2001 |www.nature.com

[11] Michael Kaplan, et al., Glacier retreat in New Zealand during the Younger Dryas stadial, Vol 467| 9 September 2010| doi:10.1038/nature09313

[12] http://www.agu.org/meetings/fm09/lectures/lecture_videos/A23A.shtml

Nuclear Power

September 6, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Nuclear Power

As the memories of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear power plant accidents recede and as the price of oil rises, interest in nuclear power rekindles. Understandably, there is considerable and well justified opposition to this technology based on safety concerns and additionally after September 11, 2001, concern that radioactive waste might fall into the hands of terrorists. In contrast to the latter concern, if nuclear power is supposed to be the energy source for all humanity for the foreseeable future then we cannot withhold this peaceful use from countries we don’t like such as Iran, nor should we prevent them from enriching uranium to the level sufficient to generate fuels for power plants.

The world supply of recoverable uranium presents a more intractable problem. If nuclear power is a long term solution to human energy requirements then it should be able to supply nearly all of human exosomatic energy for an extended period of time’

According to a 2006 study on uranium resources by the German-based Energy Watch Group [1], there are 3,297 kilotonnes of reasonably assured recoverable resources of uranium. We use 67 kilotonnes per year in 440 reactors world wide. According to the British Petroleum 2010 World Statistical Review of Energy [2], we currently produce 5.5 percent of our total energy from nuclear power. If we were to derive all of our energy from nuclear power, we would need to consume 1224 kilotonnes per year giving us about 2.5 years before these resources were exhausted. Somewhat worrisome is that we are currently producing only 42 kilotonnes of uranium per year so even at the current low rate of nuclear energy production we are relying on old stockpiles for 25 kilotonnes every year and these stockpiles will be depleted in about six years.

We may have another 1446 kilotonnes of inferred resources, 2519 kilotonnes of prognosticated resources and 7536 kilotonnes of speculative resources. If we assume that all of the prognosticated and speculative uranium ores actually exist and are recoverable, which is almost certainly not true, we have a total of 14,798 kilotonnes as an absolute maximum amount of uranium available. Using 1224 kilotonnes per year these resources would last 12 years.

If we continued to meet only 5.5 percent of today’s energy requirements with nuclear power, then of course the fuel would last much longer. But then we could quite easily save 5.5 percent of our current energy consumption just by targeting the low hanging fruit and therefore replace this energy at practically no cost.

If we wanted to meet all of our energy needs using nuclear power as a goal by say 2034 for example (reactors have an average life of 24 years), assuming future reactors are as large as existing reactors: 440/0.055 = 8000 total reactors would be required. Since most current reactors are already old and will have to be replaced soon anyway, it is safe to assume we need to build out 8000 more reactors. If we want to achieve total nuclear power by 2034 therefore we would need to complete a new reactor nearly everyday or about 330 per year.

How much would this cost? Ontario Power Authority received only one compliant response [3] from the company AECL to a recent request for quotation proffered to the industry to build two 1,200 MW reactors. In order to be compliant, the bids had to be on a “fixed firm price” basis. The one compliant bid was for $26 billion or $10,800 per Kilowatt of power capacity. So they are not cheap. The total cost of building out these nuclear power plants would be something like $200 trillion dollars. There are two caveats to consider. First is that there are currently seven billion people on the planet today and demographers typical project that the human population will be more like nine billion by 2050, requiring about 30 percent more power at today’s per capita level of consumption. Even today, though about one billion people don’t get enough to eat and several billion are below any reasonable poverty line. If we were ever inclined to share the Earth’s bounty, our power requirements would be even greater. If everybody on Earth lived like an American, total uranium would last not 12 but less than three years. The second caveat is that as these reactors age and wear out they have to continually be replaced costing roughly $8 trillion per year every year basically forever ignoring the fuel supply problem. This is just for the costs of the power plants and excludes the cost of fuel, safe disposal of wastes and decommissioning the old reactors.

How much does it cost to safely dispose of nuclear waste? As a matter of fact we do not know because with the closure of the Yucca Mountain repository last year, we do not know how to safely dispose of waste. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository cost $9 billion to construct [4] and if we were to use it, the facility would be completely full by 2014 from US waste alone. As a ballpark estimate we would have to build about two sites equivalent to this facility every year, world wide. We have no solution and therefore no cost estimate is possible.

Other nuclear solutions include fusion reactors, breeder reactors and thorium reactors. We can discuss these possibilities in future articles.

Tony Noerpel.

[1] http://www.energywatchgroup.org/fileadmin/global/pdf/EWG_Report_Uranium_3-12-2006ms.pdf

[2] http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/globalbp_uk_english/reports_and_publications/statistical_energy_review_2008/STAGING/local_assets/2010_downloads/statistical_review_of_world_energy_full_report_2010.pdf

[3] http://climateprogress.org/2009/07/15/nuclear-power-plant-cost-bombshell-ontario/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_Mountain_nuclear_waste_repository

Our Economy

September 1, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Our Economy

“I’m more worried than I have ever been about the future of the U.S. economy. The challenge is unique: poor and diminishing growth, a sticky unemployment rate, sky-high deficits and a sovereign debt that makes us one of the most fiscally irresponsible countries in the world.” Allen Sinai, co-founder of the consulting firm Decision Economics, attending an economic symposium, and after hearing a presentation by Carmen M. Reinhart, an empirical economist at the University of Maryland.

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb cautions us about relying on our predictions of future events. We are not very good at it. However, he does recommend we make predictions and write them down. He suggests we record the predictions of all the media pundits and experts as well. He opines that these experts don’t perform well. His instructive lesson is that we should take op/ed pieces in the papers and the Sunday morning talk shows with a grain of salt. The failure of our own predictions will teach us well earned humility.

A topic we’ve visited in the past, several times, here and here, is the current housing bubble. I’ve shown various plots of the Case-Shiller home price index. I like figure 1 below because it is so instructive. Home prices are normalized to 1890 values and indexed to inflation. Note that for the most part, home prices tracked inflation. This makes sense because a home cannot sell for more than people can afford to pay for housing and wages and salaries tend to track inflation. If we compare the current bubble with the two bubbles which formed around 1980 and 1990, we see that the current bubble should have collapsed during 2002 or 2003. This did not happen perhaps because the Gramm, Leach, Bliley Act of 1999 eliminated critical banking regulations by repealing the successful Glass Steagall Act of 1933. In addition, in order to pay for Bush’s wars while simultaneously reducing badly needed tax revenue by cutting taxes on the wealthy; Greenspan was forced to hold interest rates artificially low. In his defense, Greenspan probably believed the rhetoric of the Bush administration that the war would fought cheaply, be over quickly, and resultant access to Iraqi oil would reinvigorate the US economy. These circumstances created a perfect storm of loose credit causing the housing market to dangerously overheat at a time when prices were already high. The resultant economic stimulus caused by rising personal debt, masked the rising national debt.

Last week on August 24, the National Association of Realtors released the existing home sales figures for the month of July. The pace of used home sales plunged 27.2 percent from the June pace, and is 25.5 percent lower than the pace of sales one year ago. This drop is onerous when one considers that it is occurring when interest rates are already low. They cannot go lower. The drop has been attributed to the expiration of the $8000 tax credit incentive for home buyers. Figure 1 shows that this program halted the precipitous decline in home prices since the peak in 2006, at least temporarily. Unfortunately the current average price of homes is still 20 to 25 percent higher than what was normal for most of the past century and 40 percent higher than the average price between the start of World War One and the end of World War Two. This period included both the relatively prosperous Roaring Twenties and the not-so-prosperous Great Depression.

A friend recently asked me whether I thought home prices would recover and I said I thought they would fall further because they are still too high. I showed him this data and his response was that maybe houses were better now and simply worth more. The average home was certainly bigger so maybe the higher prices were justified. I replied that I thought the relative quality of houses was immaterial. Families could only afford to pay so much for shelter since they had to budget for other expenses. And other expenses such as health care and college costs were increasing much faster than the nominal rate of inflation. Median incomes were also going down as a result of unemployment and manufacturing jobs were moving overseas. I told him I didn’t think it mattered how fancy or large a house was; if nobody could afford to buy it, the price had to come down. According to the same report no homes priced above $750,000 sold during June or July in the country. The homes are not worth what people cannot afford to pay. He saw my point.

Figure 1. Case Shiller home price index from 1890 to the present.

So what will happen to home prices? We have to assume that most likely they will fall further between 20 and 40 percent. If this happens, more and more families will find themselves hopelessly underwater on their mortgages. More and more families will be forced to walk away from their homes. This will put more downward pressure on home prices. It is possible that home prices will overcorrect on the downside. This may not happen but it is hard to make an argument that it cannot happen.

In order for such a drop not to occur, major structural changes would have to be made to the US economy. We would have to employ more people and pay them more money and reduce their health care and education liabilities. In order to do this, we would have to invest in America. We can no longer afford to misallocate resources and run up debt on wasteful enterprises. We would have to cut our losses and withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and Iraq immediately and cut military spending by 80 or 90 percent, freeing up funds for domestic investment and stimulus. We would have to overhaul our health care industry such as adopting a universal single payer system. This would reduce health care costs perhaps 40 percent while covering everybody. Freedom from health care worries would encourage entrepreneurial activities within the middle class creating jobs. We could use the resultant savings to invest in conservation, the most economic source of new energy available to the United States, in mass transportation projects and in renewable energy. We could invest in education. We need to restore banking regulation.

Unfortunately, none of this looks likely to happen. So the best guess is that jobs continue to disappear, incomes continue to fall, the housing market continues to collapse, wasteful defense spending continues to bleed the US economy to death and the current Bush depression becomes painfully evident eventually even to the pundits on the Sunday morning talk shows and the Op/Ed pages, albeit a little too late.

What can we do? The advice I have is that we should build strong communities based on tolerance, trust, cooperation and peace.

Tony Noerpel


“What an organism feeds on is negative entropy.” Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life (1956)

“The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” — Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

“The American people are sending a strong message here: We don’t like the implications of this law, and we will not rest until it has been reversed in the courts.” Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed, as reported in the Onion, America’s Finest New’s Source [1].

What is entropy? Why does life so utterly depend on the ability to extract negative entropy from its environment? What does that mean? What is the secret of really good satire?

To comprehend just a bit why the Entropy Law is so absolutely supreme among the laws of physics consider this. All other physical laws are invariant with respect to time. Newtonian or Classical Mechanics, Einstein’s special theory of relativity, his general theory of relativity, Maxwell’s equations, quantum Mechanics, quantum electro-dynamics, Superstring theory all are equally comfortable with the flow of time in either direction. Only the Entropy Law defines time’s arrow. If we drop a wine glass on a concrete patio it shatters. Time never runs the other way. Shards of glass never come back together and reconstruct the wine glass. The simplest explanation, one of many interpretations of entropy, is a probabilistic one. There is only one organization of the glass shards which forms the glass but an infinite number of random configurations of shards which do not form the glass and all of which are functionally indistinguishable. The glass is ordered and far from thermodynamic equilibrium and has very low entropy. The scattered shards are disordered and have high entropy. Wine glasses shatter in forward time and could only spontaneously reconstruct in negative time. We’ve never observed a glass spontaneously reconstruct. The Entropy Law, the second law of thermodynamics, tells us that we can proceed in one direction from order to disorder in time but we cannot go the other way.

A gallon of gasoline is in a state of low entropy. The concentrated carbon-carbon and hydrogen-carbon bonds store enormous free chemical energy and are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. We can burn these molecules and release the energy and create carbon dioxide and water vapor and heat. What we are doing really is transforming the low entropy of the gasoline into high entropy of scattered carbon dioxide, water vapor and heat. We are using the transformation of the quality of the free energy to move our car.

The energy and matter in the system before and after the transformation is the same and has to be by the first law of thermodynamics which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This is the conservation law. We started with a highly ordered collection of gasoline molecules far from thermodynamic equilibrium and ended up with dispersed molecules and heat scattered throughout the environment. And if we’ve burned a gallon we’ve moved our car 20 or so miles up the road. We’ve done work. Cars like organisms, like society require low entropy.

Even standing still requires low entropy. Bananas rot, cars rust, organisms including people age. Much of the low entropy cost of operating society is simply required for maintenance not growth. GDP got a boost in the wake of Katrina but New Orleans still is not recovered fully. We haven’t fully replaced the wealth we once had. Out bloated military spending, defending as it is, our oil supply, requires vast amounts of low entropy which could otherwise have been spent on growth or simply maintenance of existing wealth. Growth is therefore limited by available low entropy after the requirements of maintenance have been met. If our society is so complex as to require more low entropy than is available growth is impossible.

The arguments which economists raise against prescient books such as Limits to Growth [2] include: price, technology and substitution. We see that by the Entropy Law, there is no substitute for low entropy. We can replace one source with another but that game is very limited. We can replace wood burning with coal burning and indeed coal has a higher energy density but available coal is limited and not renewable. We have supported less than a billion people burning wood whereas we are supporting seven billion people burning coal and other fossil fuels. We cannot therefore simply go back to wood.

The substitution argument tells us that when oil prices get intolerably high, we will simply substitute some alternate source of low entropy for the low entropy we have been capturing from oil. One problem with this argument is that we’ve invested incredible amounts of low entropy in the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. We did this when oil, from an energy cost perspective, was cheap. Any substitute will require the build out of equivalent infrastructure which right now does not exist [3]. We will have to do this when energy costs are high and low entropy is scarce. And we know there is no substitution for other sources of low entropy. There is no substitution for fresh water, good top soils and nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, for example.

Technology may increase our rate of burn of available low entropy and it can improve the efficiency with which we transform available low entropy into useful work but it cannot create available low entropy any more than the wine glass shards can magically reconstruct the wine glass. We see that technology can actually exacerbate limits to growth. Technology cannot violate the second law. And even the most partisan judges cannot repeal it.

Price signals lose their effectiveness when resource limits are reached [4, 5 and 6]. Neo-classical economic hypothesis violate the second law because they assume resources and waste sinks are infinite. At least we know therefore that there is no hope for them.

The point of lowest entropy in the universe was 13.7 billion years ago at the big bang. Black holes represent the highest entropy we are aware of today [7]. Whatever stuff is inside a black hole, and maybe only Steven Hawkins knows, can be rearranged billions upon billions of ways and one still has a black hole. That is thermodynamic equilibrium. You by contrast are a collection of precisely constructed atoms and molecules. Even a very minor deviation, such as the miscoding of a single nucleic acid may portend a cancerous death. You and I are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. We should not take life for granted.

Good satire is almost plausible. :+)

Tony Noerpel

[1] The Onion, http://www.theonion.com/articles/christian-right-lobbies-to-overturn-second-law-of,281/

[2] Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, William Behrens, Limits to Growth, 1972 and Limits to Growth, The 30-Year Update, 2004.

[3] Vaclav Smil, Energy Transformations, 2010.

[4] Frederick Soddy, Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt, 1926.

[5] Herman Daly, Beyond Growth, 1996.

[6] Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 1971.

[7] Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004.


August 17, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Peer-Review

“Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.” Richard Feynman.

I assume that everybody knows at least what I know. I talk about entropy, not to show off but simply with profound humility. If I know the importance of the Entropy Law then surely everybody else must know as well. I refer to peer-reviewed science with the same reverence and awe that I assume everybody else shares. I am surprised that people really don’t know what the peer-reviewed scientific literature is. This is sad because these refereed journals document human knowledge. It is what we know, in fact. I am amazed that people don’t know how to evaluate knowledge and use their precious time to learn effectively in a world saturated with mostly unreliable information.

I engaged in an exchange of emails with a global warming denier a few years ago. I told her that there was no scientific evidence which supports the denialist position. She accused me of exaggerating. She reads science everyday which supports denial, she informed me. So I challenged her. “You can make your point if you can provide just one peer-reviewed scientific journal article which supports the denial view.” I wrote. With much pomp and certitude, she sent me an editorial from the Wall Street Journal [1]. The Wall Street Journal is not a science journal. It is not peer-reviewed. The author wasn’t even a scientist but an editor who majored in English. I informed her. We had this back-and-forth. “It is not science.” “But it is what I believe.” Clearly she did not know what science was. So I proposed this exercise. She and I will pretend to be peers of the editor and we will edit his editorial as if it were submitted to a science journal. Fully half of the article consisted of personal and unjustified attacks on Al Gore and Michael Mann, remarkably nasty stuff, made all the more nasty because of course none of it was true. I red lined that and struck it out. I told her that in a science journal one is not allowed to criticize another person. You can criticize their science, of course, but politely and with civility and of course, backed up by evidence. We proceeded in this way line-by-line through the entire piece, deleting the entire editorial except for two inconsequential sentences and a third admitting that the most recent and faddish denial argument at the time wasn’t actually correct. The editorial was an insincere apology on behalf of the Wall Street Journal for its fraudulent reporting of a non-event. The sum total of verifiable and useful information contained in the editorial actually contradicted my friend’s assumptions about global warming. It was an amusing exercise for me. For my denialist friend though it was very painful and she never corresponded with me again. I had thought that global warming denial simply reflected of ignorance and arrogance but discovered that it is really about fear.

Are there peer-reviewed journal articles which support denialism? Yes, I’ve read some of them. It is not a large body of work. Most of them are flawed or inconsequential. That wasn’t my point though. The lesson for me at least is that virtually all global warming deniers, certainly every single one you or I are likely to meet on any given day, and including George Will, do not have any idea what they are talking about. No denier you or I have ever met can cogently argue that global warming isn’t happening, that it is not caused by man and that the impact will not be profound.

I’m referencing a representative scientific paper by Boyce published in the journal Nature [2]. If one reads it and doesn’t understand it then one will have learned something more valuable than anything anybody could possibly learn from reading every single op/ed piece ever published in every newspaper in America. We learn that we do not know what we are talking about. George Will doesn’t. E. J. Dionne doesn’t. I don’t. And you don’t. That is precisely why I read science. Every single day, I learn that there are things I do not know. For me this is an energizing experience. There is a reason to get up at the crack of dawn. There is always plenty to learn. It is a great feeling.

Op/Ed pieces are sap for the true believer. Liberals read Dionne, not for knowledge but for affirmation of what they think they already know. Conservatives read Will for the same reason. People read this stuff because they do not have open minds. As a liberal, I don’t read Dionne on purpose precisely because the last thing I want is to reaffirm what I think I know but I may not. I do not want to reinforce my faulty and perhaps irrational opinions. I occasionally read Will’s column just to see what the other side of the aisle is thinking and to challenge my opinions. I’ve read maybe four of his columns on global warming, which all require the reader to suspend comprehension of reality. His opinion violates the laws of physics. These columns at least are rubbish. What I learn is that nobody on George Will’s staff knows how to perform elementary fact checking. George Will doesn’t know how to do that and nobody on the editorial staff of the Washington Post does either. The valuable lesson is that the Op/Ed pages are unreliable. If nobody is fact checking Will, then nobody is fact checking Dionne either. There is no point to reading any of it. I do read Tom Tole’s cartoon every day. Wonderful stuff, I love those cartoons.

I selected the referenced paper [2] for two reasons. Firstly, it is simply the most recent paper I’ve been reading. It has been on my mind, so to say, having just been published by the journal Nature a few weeks ago. Secondly, in my humble opinion, it may turn out to be one of the most important scientific papers written this year, if other scientists are able to confirm these results. It states “We observe declines [in phytoplankton biomass] in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1 percent of the global median per year.” If phytoplankton populations really are in decline as much as the authors project then primary productivity is as well. If this is true then the total low entropy available to sustain life on Earth is in decline. If this is true, then there are not simply limits to growth but limits to growth which are becoming more constrained. If that is true then as society becomes more complex and human population continues to increase, we require more low entropy at the same time as we are reducing its supply. We are not just rushing headlong towards collapse at a constant rate but our collective lead foot is firmly pressing the accelerator to the floor and the Diamond Rio we are aiming for is accelerating towards us.

If phytoplankton populations are decreasing, I think there may be two possible anthropogenic causes. The one proposed by the authors is the warming climate. The other may be overfishing. As we deplete the oceans of fish, zooplankton populations, upon which fish feed, should expand. If zooplankton populations expand, phytoplankton populations upon which they feed, should contract. Of course, both are most likely operative and both are anthropogenic. The overfishing hypothesis is contained a microbiology text book by Susan Gaines called Echoes of Life [3].

The most important way to look at this particular science is with alarm, of course. If you believe in God then you realize that God gave us the capacity to destroy ourselves. But another way to look at it is with great humility, joy and pride in being human. We have this remarkable capacity to discover this result and learn from it and adapt our behavior accordingly. God gave us the capacity to destroy ourselves, true, but also to save ourselves. We do have free will. It is our choice.

Tony Noerpel

[1] Stephens, B. 2007 A Denier’s Confession Global warming is more alarmist than alarming. Tuesday, August 28, 2007, Wall Street Journal.

[2] Boyce, D., Lewis, M., & Worm, B., “Global phytoplankton decline over the past century,” Nature, Vol 466|29 July 2010| doi:10.1038/nature09268.

[3] Gaines, S., Eglinton, G. and J. Rullkotter, Echoes of Life, Oxford, 2009.


August 6, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Nothing

“Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Dick Cheney to Paul O’Neill, November 15, 2002, (Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, 2004).

“… a philosophy is influenced by facts. So there is a constant interplay between what do I think and why do I think it….Now, if you gather more facts and have more experience, especially with things that have gone wrong – those are especially good learning tools – then you reshape your philosophy because the facts tell you you’ve got to… Ideology is a lot easier, because you don’t have to know anything or search for anything. You already know the answer to everything. It’s not penetrable by facts. It’s absolutism.” O’Neill (Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, 2004)

Among the first casualties of war is not only truth but also sound finance.” Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance, 2009

Nothing” President Bush responding to a reporter’s question about what Saddam had to do with the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. – Press conference August 23, 2006.

In the same press conference President Bush acknowledges that Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. You can see for yourself in this youtube video [1].

It is clear and unambiguous that Bush and Vice President Cheney did not tell the truth about the Iraq War. Bush admits that himself, unfortunately three years late. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, nothing to do with the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were bitter enemies. The war, to quote Bush, was about “nothing” unless perhaps it was about the oil. Iraq does have lots of oil, an estimated 114 billion barrels. Many think even more. And it is very cheap, high quality, easy-to-produce oil. The problem for Bush and Cheney was that it didn’t belong to us. Like all wars the Iraq war appears most likely instigated for control of resources, in this case oil. The US military has become in the words of Michael Klare an oil protection force and a hugely expensive one [2]. Bush himself famously pointed out Americans are addicted to oil.

Tea Party folks are right to be concerned about federal deficits, in fact all debt, but they need to think more clearly about where to place the blame for those deficits [3]. Bush’s tax cuts for-the-wealthy which conservatives want to extend cost the country an estimated $1.6 trillion over the last 10 years. The lowest estimate for the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars was over $1.2 trillion as of October, 2007 [4]. It is certainly over two trillion now (a CNN report on Tuesday morning August 3, 2010 suggested $3 trillion for the Iraq war alone). Defense spending has been running about $600 billion per year during the Bush administration ignoring the two wars which are being funded off-book. According to Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes [4] all of America’s recent federal and trade deficits can be blamed on the Iraq War and maintaining hundreds of garrisons around the world to protect the flow of oil. To finance these wars while cutting taxes for the already wealthy, Greenspan lowered interest rates, allowing newly deregulated banks to create money from nothing and seemingly give it away. Home prices skyrocketed at a time when they were already overvalued relative to people’s incomes. In fairness both men thought the war would be a mere $200 billion lark and the oil would pay for it. The loss of home values in the United States since the bubble burst is about $6.5 trillion from $20 trillion to $13.5 trillion, while the total debt on these homes remains above $11 trillion. If we add these loses and costs together we find that the conservative cost of conservative policy in the United States, which does not include the cost of not telling the truth about global warming, is conservatively 1600+2000+6500 +4800 = 14900 Billion dollars, all of it wasted. Imagine if that money were instead invested in America’s future, light rail, high speed rail, education, health care, alternative energy or simply not spent at all.

Paul O’Neill, then Secretary of Treasury in the Bush administration told Ron Suskind that one of the most significant things Ronald Reagan had proved was that deficits do matter. I think the tea party people do understand that.

Bush’s gamble lost. We did not get Iraq’s oil and we took on crippling debt. The Afghanistan War is now the longest running of all of our wars and the Iraq war is now the most expensive. Iraq is still a member of OPEC and America is still addicted to a diminishing resource. If it was not about oil, if Bush really did invade the country because of non-existent WMD then it was the most insane foreign policy initiative in world history. Without any proof, Bush risked the entire US economy, not to mention hundreds of thousands of lives. Together with the tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, and Greenspan’s FED policies, and the military spending, the two wars created the perfect economic storm.

That is prelude to the real point of my narrative this week. On June, 2009 a letter was sent to Congress [5] from Robert H. Austin, Professor of Physics, Princeton University, William Happer, Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Princeton University, S. Fred Singer, Professor of Environmental Sciences Emeritus, University of Virginia, Roger W. Cohen, Manager, Strategic Planning and Programs, ExxonMobil Corporation (retired), Harold W. Lewis, Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of California at Santa Barbara, Laurence I. Gould, Professor of Physics, University of Hartford, and Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, In it they write about global warming that “THERE IS NO SUCH EVIDENCE; IT DOESN’T EXIST.

For the benefit of the authors of this letter I’m including the actual temperature record. The line labeled Broecker 1975 identifies the date when in an article published in the Journal Science the climate physicist Wally Broecker first estimated that the Earth surface temperature would increase 0.8 degrees C over the twentieth century because of anthropogenic global warming [6].

Figure 1. Global temperature up to June 2010 according to the NASA GISS data. Grey line is the 12-month running average, red dots are annual-mean values. The thick red line is a non-linear trend line. (9)

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [7], Anderegg et al show that more than 97 percent of publishing climate researchers support the consensus view on global warming and less than 3 percent hold a “skeptical” or “denialist” view. One of the latter is Pat Michaels. In the Cato Institute handbook for policy makers Michaels writes [8]: “Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.” Within the scientific community, even deniers admit that there is evidence of global warming. Austin et al’s research exhibits a rather remarkable economy of effort. Kerry Emanuel, a friend of Lindzen’s, wrote a searing critique about this letter to congress in and article published by the National Association of Scholars[10]: “Among other untruths, it [their letter] contained the sentence, referring to evidence of anthropogenic global warming, “There is no such evidence; it doesn’t exist. I confronted the sole climate scientist among the authors with this statement, and he confessed that he did not hold that to be the case.” Richard Lindzen is the sole climate scientist of the six authors of this letter. The letter also contains this statement: “The Earth has been cooling for ten years.” A more sober Ken Caldiera writes [11]: “To talk about global cooling at the end of the hottest decade the planet has experienced in many thousands of years is ridiculous.” Caldiera is a member of the 97 percent of climate scientist who accept that anthropogenic global warming is happening. The “skeptical” Michaels remarked [12]: “You’ve all seen articles saying that global warming stopped in 1998. With all due respect, that’s being a little bit unfair to the data.” Austin et al find themselves awkwardly skeptical of their fellow skeptics as well as mainstream science, hardly the cleverest position to hold. Figure 2 is evidence of global warming impact on the heating of the oceans.

Figure 1: Total Earth Heat Content anomaly from 1950 [13] (Murphy 2009). Ocean data taken from [14] Domingues et al 2008. Land + Atmosphere includes the heat absorbed to melt ice.

Figure 1: Total Earth Heat Content anomaly from 1950 (13) (Murphy 2009). Ocean data taken from (14) Domingues et al 2008. Land + Atmosphere includes the heat absorbed to melt ice.

A recent report published by NOAA [15] identifies as evidence ten signs of global warming.

  • Less heat escaping to space
  • Cooling stratosphere
  • More fossil fuel carbon in the air
  • More heat returning to Earth
  • More fossil fuel carbon in coral
  • Nights warming faster than days
  • 30 billion tones of CO2 per year
  • Less oxygen in the air
  • Riding tropopause
  • Shrinking thermosphere

Lindzen, the only climate scientist in the bunch, did admit that he had lied, sort of, and knows in fact there is indeed some evidence [10]. Austin et al’s letter to congress addressed as it is to a body of people noted for their keen inability to think critically and their gullible embrace of the ideas favored by their donor population is welcome relief from less obvious acts of dishonesty. They further opine that “The proposed legislation would cripple the US economy, putting us at a disadvantage compared to our competitors.” To which we wonder, haven’t we already done that? Figure 3 shows total credit market debt as a function of GDP. The unprecedented level of our total debt is quite obviously beyond any level ever experienced by any segment of humanity before, a significant accomplishment. It is so far beyond human experience that economists and politicians are struck dumb trying to explain it and guess at what it might mean.

Figure 3 Total Credit Market Debt as a percentage of GDP [16]

Figure 3 Total Credit Market Debt as a percentage of GDP (16)

Dr. Marc Faber of the conservative investment advisory company Agora Finances remarked recently: “We had a colossal misallocation of capital [from 2001-2007].” Let me pointedly remind our select group of professors of physics that this misallocation did not include, unfortunately, any investment related to mitigating global warming, developing alternative energy sources, health care, education or taxing anybody for anything. Instead conservatives allocated all of our present and future resources to paying for two lost wars, our obscene pork barrel military budgets, Bush’s tax cuts for the extremely wealthy, the machinations of bankers freed from the chains of the Glass-Steagall Act by the Gramm Leach Bliley Act as well as a multitude of other conservative policies. And we know this for a fact from empirical evidence. Meanwhile our competitors unfettered by conservative ideologues, Germany and China, invested heavily in alternative energy and efficiency and are eating our lunch from a competitive perspective. We outspend China 5 to 1 on the military and find that we cannot complete with them. Both Germany and China have greater exports. Our competitors without the crippling military and war debts are investing their resources in the future [2], while we favor bankruptcy.

Figure 4 Case-Shiller housing index

Figure 4 Case-Shiller housing index

Figure 4 shows the Case-Shiller housing index for the United States. This metric reflects the cost of the average home indexed to inflation. Note that since housing prices have collapsed starting in December 2006, to a considerable extent, they still are twice as high as the historic norm. With unemployment high and wages low, one should wonder how these prices can be sustained even at 1995 levels. The bankers have already fleeced everybody they could. Conservatives seem to think there are more citizens to be fleeced and the tea party people appear to be volunteering. Good luck to them. So while there is quite literally no evidence, and none offered, that addressing global warming and resource depletion and income and wealth inequality would hurt the US economy and significant evidence that it would help, there is considerable empirical evidence that these six physicist know as much about economics as they do about climate physics or how to tell the truth. The real question is, and this would be a challenge, is there anything at all left to our economy with which to address the quite significant problems conservatives have already inflicted on us let alone the environmental problems looming menacingly in our very near future. Tony Noerpel

We have all just flunked our big test of dealing with the climate catastrophe because we couldn’t even agree on the science. Everyone feels entitled to their own science now. And it’s no big surprise that we can’t understand climate science, since we’re still arguing about EVOLUTION after 150 years! Good luck, science teacher.” –Tom Toles

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_A77N5WKWM
[2] Klare, M., Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency, 2005
[3] David Stockman, “Four deformations of the apocalypse”, New York Times, July 31, 2010. http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/01/david-stockman-how-gop-destroyed-the-economy/#more-30855 See also War is making you poor Act http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0_TtYQEDTo&feature=player_embedded
[4] Stiglitz, J. and L. Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War, 2008
[5] http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2010/05/16/global_warming_debate_makes_climate_tough_on_friends/?page=full
[7] Anderegg, W., Prall, J., Harold, J., and Schneider, S., Expert credibility in climate change, June 21, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/22/1003187107.abstract
[8] Michaels, 2009, http://www.cato.org/pubs/handbook/hb111/hb111-45.pdf Murphy, D. M., S. Solomon, R. W. Portmann, K. H. Rosenlof, P. M. Forster, and T. Wong (2009), An observationally based energy balance for the Earth since 1950, J. Geophys. Res., 114, D17107, doi:10.1029/2009JD012105.
[9] Temperature recon http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/07/happy-35th-birthday-global-warming/ and here: http://clearclimatecode.org/all-python-ccc-gistemp-release/, where you can download python code to do the data analysis for yourself.
[10] Kerry E. letter http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doc_id=1444
[11] Ken Caldeira http://climateprogress.org/2009/10/26/global-cooling-myth-statisticians-caldeira-superfreakonomics/
[12] Sinclair http://www.youtube.com/user/greenman3610#p/u/2/QwnrpwctIh4
[13] Murphy, D., Solomon, S., Portmann, R., Rosenlof, K., Forster, P., Wong, T., An observationally based energy balance for the Earth since 1950, JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 114, D17107, 14 PP., 2009, doi:10.1029/2009JD012105
[14] Domingues, C., Church, J., White, N., Gleckler, P., Wijffels, S., Barke, P., & Dunn, J., “Improved estimates of upper-ocean warming and multi-decadal sea-level rise”, Nature 453, 1090-1093 (19 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07080
[15] NOAA http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100728_stateoftheclimate.html
[16] http://www.uselectionatlas.org/FORUM/index.php?topic=91933.0

America’s Economy and Open Decision Making

July 28, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on America’s Economy and Open Decision Making

From Forbes: “The top six bank holding companies earned an aggregate of $51 billion in pretax income in 2009. We’re talking about JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. All of this pretax income can be attributed to their trading revenues of $59.7 billion. The proprietary trading operations of an oligopoly of banks, saved from disaster by Uncle Sam’s largesse and subsidized with cheap money from the central bank, was the single driving force behind the restoration of their fortunes and the renewed surge in their stock prices…..This astonishing performance underscores the casino the oligopoly has become. It bears testament to the payoff from the Wall Street bailout of 2008, which resulted in the elimination of competition and the concurrent strengthening of the few giants left standing.”

From this story by Tyler Durdan: “Of the 986 bank holding companies in the US last year, a total of 980 of them LOST MONEY.” This year 98 of those banks shuttered their doors.

This story put me in mind of the following article from John Robb which he gave us permission to republish. While most historians rate George W. Bush as the worst president in American history (and he is a worthy candidate), my vote has always gone to the ideologue Ronald Reagan. His administration was the one to decide to favor the wealthy over the rest of America in the mistaken belief that “a rising tide raises all boats,” which of course makes no sense. Reagan’s administration was the beginning of the end of the American Empire and the American economy. It was during Reagan’s administration that American’s GINI index began to climb into failed state and banana republic territory. Reagan declared war on America’s middle class and poor.

I’ve been reading John Robb’s Blog Global Guerrillas for years now and recommend it.


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The global financial system is melting down. Our approach to decision making may have been the reason we are at this impasse today.

This gets us to the nexus of our current problem. The environment within which we make decisions is getting more complex, uncertain, and incomplete at a faster rate than the mental constructs we use to model it are being improved. To wit: ever greater amounts of novelty (for example: new technology) is being produced than ever before yet our strategies and methods are scarcely different than those we used half a century ago.

From the brief “Open Decision Making.” Read the entire thing.

The 20th Century’s central struggle was between the ideological systems that advocated governmental control of the economy and those that relied on market control. The market-based systems won. Why? In short, market-based systems made better investments, over the long term, than government managed systems. The lesson: systems with large numbers of decision makers, each with capital to invest, make better decisions.

As is often the case, the emerging victory of the market-based system created yet another problem/struggle. Specifically: is it better to trust that individuals empowered with growing salaries/wages will make the best investments for future economic success — or — is it better to grow corporate profits (at the expense of wages/salaries) and let capital markets invest the excess?

Between WW2 and 1974, while still engaged in a bitter struggle with Communism, the US hedged its bets on that question. Both individuals and the capital markets received an equal share of the benefits of productivity growth. Incomes rose mightily and we became broadly wealthy, mirrored by generous growth in the capital markets, relative to the start of the century. As a result of this shared decision-making system, smart investments in infrastructure, industry, education, and much more made America the economic powerhouse of the world. In short, we prospered.

However, the shared decision making system ended. From 1974 onwards, the rewards of productivity growth (economic expansion) went exclusively to the capital markets and not into income growth for individuals. This was likely done, although the mechanism is unclear, under the assumption that the discipline of capital markets produced better investment decisions than individuals. Regardless of the motive or the specific mechanism, where the flow of capital from American economic activity went, couldn’t be clearer:

• Median per capita incomes in the US are the same as they were in 1974 — there hasn’t been any income growth at all.
• In contrast, we have seen torrential capital accumulation / concentration and the capital markets have enjoyed a nearly 30 year run of unbridled expansion.

So, what were the results of this concentration/narrowing of decision making power in the hands of the capital markets? How did they invest thirty-four years of American productivity growth for the future?

As of this year, the final results of this American experiment in financial decision making are in. The allocation of this capacity exclusively to capital markets, rather than sharing that decision making with hundreds of millions of Americans, has produced a horrible result. Instead of investing the accumulated wealth of America in productive assets that yielded long term benefits, the money was invested in derivatives (illusory financial products) that yielded nothing of tangible value. In short, the narrow group of actors that operate within the capital markets made the decision to forgo the long and difficult process of growing investments in the tangible world in favor of the outsized returns available through investments in virtual products. That investment is now evaporating.

What it Means

Even under the most ideal conditions, it’s dubious whether the capital market’s decision making loop (the sum total of the intellectual product of all capital market participants) can even closely approximate the requirements of the rapidly evolving global environment we currently find ourselves in. In short, we are falling behind ever more every day. Given a situation where decision making is falling behind the requirements of the environmental reality, we can expect inevitable catastrophic failure at some point in the future.

Would we have been better off if the benefits of massive productivity growth over the last three decades had been shared with hundreds of millions of Americans? Of course. In fact, it is hard to see any other way, other than an open decision making process, which would be able to deal with the growing complexity of the modern world — from globalization to technological change to growing instability.

Can this be error be corrected? Probably not. Most Americans have fallen deeply into debt (mirrored by the US government) in an attempt to maintain lifestyles (or an illusion of progress). They don’t have the financial resources for any meaningful decision making power left and worse; there isn’t any recognition that a concentration of decision making was even a problem in the first place. In fact, given that most of the last 30 years of American economic investment is now vapor, it’s hard to imagine us avoiding economic catastrophe.

John Robb

John Robb is an author, an entrepreneur, a former USAF pilot in special operations and author of the book Brave New War, in April 2007.

Robb proposed a new theory of warfare in his book called “open source warfare” which made the cover of Nature magazine (one of the world’s two most prestigious science magazines, the other being Science). He was named one of the “Best and Brightest” by Esquire Magazine, and invited to speak at a plethora of venues (the DoD, CIA, NSA, NIC, Highlands Forum, Center for Biosecurity, and many more).

Eating Green

July 23, 2010 Public Safety Comments Off on Eating Green

Being green from the inside out may be easier than you think and can start with a few simple steps at your local supermarket. Sustainable food shopping can help you be socially responsible, environmentally conscious as well as healthy! There are many reasons to want to eat a little “greener” but the benefits can stretch from you to your community and globally. Buying locally means not only the products will get to you, the consumer faster allowing less nutrients be lost from the time of harvest or being processed but also cuts down on air pollution, water pollution and a decreases our oil dependency.

Taste is another incentive to buy unprocessed and locally raised groceries. Many times foods are not only sprayed with chemicals but meats are injected with solutions to, “improve texture”. Grass-fed animals also have been found to have substantially more omega-3’s.
Although shopping at a local farmer’s market would be the ideal circumstance this option is not available to everyone and many times doesn’t carry everything you need. If you shop at a large chain supermarket and do not want to change where you buy food there are steps you can take to help you shop more sustainably.

Many times you can find organic or local fruit sold in your store. Look for signs stating such and if they aren’t posted speak with the manager to see if they could be labeled locally grown if it is available at your location. The meat department is another area where you can shop more sustainably. Ask your butcher or store manager if any of the meat is organic, sustainably raised and/or from local farms. If this is not the case ask for them to start carrying the type of meat you wish to buy as many times you will find they will do so in order to keep their customers loyal.

Another step is to simply cook for yourself. It will not only help your wallet by not spending money at restaurants, but by not purchasing prepared foods you save by not having to pay for the companies expenses of packaging, processing, and advertisement. This will allow you to pick more sustainable ingredients. Preparing your food at home also allows you to pick your method of cooking which can help you keep some of the nutrients that may have been lost in the factory due to overcooking and preserving methods.

Lastly, educate yourself! Look at food labels and find out what they mean. De-coding organic food can help you understand which items will help you shop more sustainably and which companies use the term “organic” for advertisement. Many online sites can help you de-code labels as well as give you list of food items or brand names to look for. Happy Shopping!

This article written by Debi Skaggs of Lou Who Contracting, Inc. for informational purposes only.

Open Letter Request for Information

July 7, 2010 Columns, Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Open Letter Request for Information

“To talk about global cooling at the end of the hottest decade the planet has experienced in many thousands of years is ridiculous.” Ken Caldeira, Climate Scientist [1]

“You’ve all seen articles saying that global warming stopped in 1998. With all due respect, that’s being a little bit unfair to the data.” Pat Michaels, Climate Scientist [2]

Dear Dr. Pat Michaels

I write and edit a column called “Sustainable Planet” [3] for a small local internet news paper in Northern Virginia called the Blue Ridge Leader. With this open letter, I’m asking if you wouldn’t mind describing your view on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) for my readers. We are specifically interested in the science and not policy or economics.

The science in support of Svante Arrhenius’ theory of AGW is assessable, unambiguous and coherent. We can begin with the four IPCC reports but can add to that record a host of text books related to earth sciences and climate physics [see fore example 4 and 5]. There are several really good review papers and one by Stefan Rahmstorf is especially helpful [6]. The video of Richard Alley’s invited lecture at last year’s American Geophysical Union conference summarizes the paleoclimate record and the impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth’s climate [7]. The peer-reviewed literature is compelling and overwhelmingly in support of the theory as several studies have demonstrated, the latest being Anderegg et al. [8]. Furthermore Arrhenius’ theory is consistent will all science from microbiology [9] to astrobiology [10].

By contrast it is hard to find any science supporting the denialist [11] view. Not only is this science sparse as evident by reference [8], but it is obscured by the noisy and obfuscating nature of denialist arguments, most of which ignore data, and contradict each other as well as the laws of physics, or simply are outrageous attacks on individuals such as James Hansen, Michael Mann or Al Gore. The vast sea of arguments on policy or economics is an attempt to put the cart before the horse while the horse has already galloped off in the other direction. The denialist canard that global warming stopped in 1998 is typical of arguments which ignore data and contradict physical laws.

Each year Heartland Institute hosts a global warming denier conference. On March 2, 2008, you were their keynote speaker. The focus of your talk was the disingenuousness of this particular global warming denialist argument. You said, addressing the room full of deniers: “You’ve all seen articles saying that global warming stopped in 1998. With all due respect, that’s being a little bit unfair to the data.” You then went on to describe why. Peter Sinclair captured your candid admission in this informative youtube video [2]. While you are more charitable, you are in complete agreement with Ken Caldiera. That puts you in good company.

You opine “Make an argument that you can get killed on and you kill us all.” Your meaning, I presume, is that if many denialists make arguments that are easily debunked all global warming denialists, including yourself, will lose their credibility. You conclude: “Global warming is real and the warming in the second half of the twentieth century, people had something to do with it.” In the Cato Institute handbook for policy makers [12] you repeat this sentiment: “Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.”

Physics teaches us that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide will result in a radiation imbalance of 4 Watts per meter squared (W/m2) which will directly cause the Earth to warm about 1 degree C. Your article in the Cato Handbook aligns to this view. The difference between your view and the consensus view is related to the strength of feedbacks in the Earth’s climate system. As you point out water vapor is a greenhouse gas and as the Earth temperature climbs as a result in increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, more water evaporates off the oceans. This additional water vapor reinforces the warming. You don’t mention but I’m sure you agree that as the temperature climbs, snow and ice at the poles melts. The exposed darker dirt and water absorb more of the short wave solar energy than the white ice and snow once did, further reinforcing the warming. In addition, warm ocean water holds less carbon dioxide than cold water, thus as the oceans warm the equilibrium point between the atmosphere and ocean changes. These are positive feedbacks. Most identified carbon cycle feedbacks are positive. The consensus view, the view defended in the IPCC reports, is that including these feedbacks the equilibrium climate sensitivity, the amount the Earth’s surface will warm as a result of a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees C.

James Hansen’s view as described in [13] is that equilibrium climate sensitivity may be as high as 6 degrees C. This high value does not contradict the consensus view which, as you know, does not rule out the possibility of higher values.

In contrast, your view, if I’m interpreting your policy paper correctly, is that climate sensitivity is very low, 1 degree C or less. This view is outside the bounds of the consensus view. It means that all of these positive feedbacks must be counterbalanced by some unspecified negative feedbacks. Pointedly, you do not describe any of these possible negative feedbacks. In other words, your paper does not address the physics. Your paper is an attempt to defend a policy based on conservative ideology, and not a defense of your scientific view. This paper ignores the fact that policy that is not based on credible science or reality can’t help but be bad policy.

What would be helpful instead is a high quality paper defending your opinion that equilibrium climate sensitivity is indeed dominated by unidentified negative feedbacks and therefore that though the Earth’s surface will warm as a result of human emissions of carbon dioxide, the warming will not be very great. Your policy paper does not do this. Your logic is based on one peer-reviewed reference, from a May 2008 article in Nature by Noel Keenlyside et al. [14]. Figure 4 from Keenlyside’s paper (see below) shows that they are forecasting temperature (the green curve) to end up in exactly the same place as the IPCC scenarios which you cite (the black curve). The measured temperature is shown in red and falls in between.

Surface Temperature

Keenlyside is forecasting a hot climate than hotter. It does not support your hypothesis. I recommend Joe Romm’s blog, including interviews with the authors, in order to better understand Keenlyside’s results [15]. Keenlyside’s forecasts are somewhat controversial and already underestimating warming that is happening, so it is not clear that even if you had interpreted it correctly that this is the best reference to be using. A paper by Rind and Lean should also be considered [16].

My request by this open letter is if you wouldn’t mind describing for us what your scientific view is on this important issue including references. I am not looking for a paper of comparable high quality and completeness as the Hansen paper. I am assuming that perhaps such a paper or papers may already exist in the peer-reviewed literature. My concern is that science supporting denialist point of view is obscured by the ludicrous nature of most denier argument. This makes it a difficult and tedious exercise to uncover. If you could summarize where in the scientific literature possible negative feedbacks are described and verified in the paleoclimate record or by analysis, this would be much appreciated.

At Sustainable Planet, we are skeptics and appreciate good references and then validate them. But we do not discriminate. We hold everybody’s feet to the fire, especially our own.

Best regards and thank you kindly

Tony Noerpel

[1] Ken Caldeira http://climateprogress.org/2009/10/26/global-cooling-myth-statisticians-caldeira-superfreakonomics/

[2] Sinclair http://www.youtube.com/user/greenman3610#p/u/2/QwnrpwctIh4

[3] http://brleader.com/?cat=53

[4] Kump, L. R., Kastings, J. F., and Crane, R. G., The Earth System, 2004.

[5] Lunine, J. I., Earth, Evolution of a Habitable World, 2000.

[6] Rahmstorf, S., 2008: Anthropogenic Climate Change: Revisiting the Facts. In: Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto., E. Zedillo, Ed., Brookings Institution Press, Washington, pp. 34-53

[7] R. Alley, 2009, http://www.agu.org/meetings/fm09/lectures/lecture_videos/A23A.shtml

[8] Anderegg, W., Prall, J., Harold, J., and Schneider, S., Expert credibility in climate change, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2010.

[9] Gaines, S., Eglinton, G. and J. Rullkotter, Echoes of Life, Oxford, 2009.

[10] Plaxco, K., and Gross, M., Astrobiology, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

[11] The science journal Nature referred to AGW skeptics as denialist in an editorial on so called climate-gate.

“…denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.” Nature Editorial Staff, Vol 462 | Issue no. 7273 | 3 December 2009

[12] Michaels, 2009, http://www.cato.org/pubs/handbook/hb111/hb111-45.pdf

[13] Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha1, P., Beerling. D., Robert Berner, R., Masson-Delmotte, V., Pagani. M., Raymo, M., Royer, D. and Zachos, J., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2008, 2, 217-231.

[14] Keenlyside, N., Latif, M., Jungclaus, J., Kornblueh, L., and Roeckner, E., Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector, Vol 453| 1 May 2008| doi:10.1038/nature06921.

[15] see http://climateprogress.org/2008/05/02/nature-article-on-cooling-confuses-revkin-media-deniers-next-decade-may-see-rapid-warming/ and http://climateprogress.org/2009/10/01/interview-with-dr-mojib-latif-global-cooling-revkin-morano-george-will/ and http://climateprogress.org/2010/01/11/foxnews-wattsupwiththat-climatedepot-daily-mail-article-on-global-cooling-mojib-latif/

[16] Lean, J., and Rind, D., “How will Earth’s surface temperature change in future decades?”, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L15708, 5 PP., 2009








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