Of Climate Change, Tipping Points, Paris, and Trump

June 4, 2017

The news about climate change these days is anything but good – at least if you’re rooting on the side of the long-term survival of species, ecosystems, and human civilization.  President Trump has announced that the U.S. Government will be rescinding its acceptance of the Paris Accords, which had committed the U.S. to making steep reductions in its Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions over the next ten years.  The quick analysis by climate scientists is that the loss of that commitment would mean a 0.2-0.3 degree Celsius increase in the 50-year worldwide average temperature rise – from about 3.5 degrees to 3.7 or 3.8 degrees.  When one considers that, in order to avoid drastic consequences, most climate scientists figure that a 1.5 degree increase is all that can be tolerated without major repercussions, It means we’re all that much deeper in hot water (so-to-speak).

Interestingly, Trump did not say the U.S. would ignore climate change.  Instead, he said that the U.S. commitment was a bad deal for us, compared to what other countries had committed to, and he wanted to see something fairer.  To some extent, that’s a supportable position.

The Paris Accords were the result of a desperate last-ditch effort by the international community to avoid having to admit abject failure in addressing human-caused world climate change.  Previous efforts had either been ineffectual or run aground on disagreements between nations with differing national interests.  This time, rather than face failure, the world community opted to accept a “lowest common denominator” – something pretty meaningless that at least everyone could agree upon.  The result was a voluntary agreement, with no real teeth, that allowed each country to decide for itself what it was willing to commit to.  In some cases, like the U.S., the E.U. countries, and China, those commitments were fairly impressive – not good enough to reach the 1.5 degree goal, but at least a significant reduction in GHG production compared to staying with the status quo. In other cases, notably India, the promised effort was little more than eyewash – a token effort that promised little if any reduction in GHG production.

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that one of the two countries not to sign the accords, Nicaragua, did so not because the Agreement was too strong, but because it was so weak as to be practically meaningless.  (Nicaragua, by the way, is already way ahead of most countries in lowering its GHG production.)  To the extent the U.S. was committing to major reductions in GHG production while some other countries’ commitments were so minimal as to be laughable, Trump might have had a point, if he had demanded, as a condition for the U.S. staying in, that there be a minimum threshold of GHG emissions reductions to which all signatory countries would have to commit.  That would have been a principled statement, and might have actually gotten at least some other countries to follow suit.

Instead, however, he put the U.S. withdrawal in the context of the narrow self-interests of U.S. businesses that might be put at a disadvantage compared to companies based, for example, in India.  That’s neither an enlightened or principled position.  If other countries were to follow Trump’s example, the Agreement would very quickly collapse.

What are the repercussions’ of President Trump’s decision?  Well, to begin with, pulling out of the Paris accords is not simply a matter of tearing up a document.  Withdrawing from the Paris Accords, like Brexit, is a complicated multi-year process.  There is plenty of time for second thoughts, in addition to the 2018 Congressional elections and the 2020 Presidential election, before the U.S.’s exit becomes final.  Meanwhile, if Trump is serious about caring about climate change and the environment (which  he still claims to be), he ought to be pushing the U.S. forward on efforts at addressing climate change that don’t put U.S. businesses at a serious disadvantage.  (Yes, there are such things, like putting a serious effort into developing cost-effective carbon sequestration methods.)

All that having been said, the worldwide temperatures are continuing to creep up, year by year.  Some time in the not-very-distant future, they’ll very likely pass the 1.5 degree increase that scientists are warning about.  What happens then?

Well, the Paris Accord negotiators were well-aware that the agreement they had reached wouldn’t get the world to where it needed to be on climate change.  However, the agreement included a requirements that the commitment made be revisited every five years.  The negotiators expected that in five years, the effect of climate change would be more evident, indisputable, and severe; and disregarding them would be less politically acceptable.  As a result, the reasoning was that five years down the road, the commitments would become more meaningful, and perhaps the worst effect could still be avoided.

However, climate scientists have warned that at some point, we will reach a “tipping point” in climate change.  As average temperatures continue to rise, there are numerous effects that will, in themselves, increase the rate of GHG emissions.  In cybernetics, this is called a positive feedback loop.  With public address audio systems, the result is the squeal you hear when a microphone is placed too near a loudspeaker.

Right now, the earth has natural mechanisms for sequestering – i.e., keeping out of the atmosphere – GHG.  For example, the ocean’s waters contain vast amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide (or technically, carbonic acid).  Further, as the atmospheric CO2 concentration rises, more of it gets dissolved.  However, as water warms, its ability to hold dissolved CO2 decreases.  Thus, as the oceans warm, along with the rest of the planet, they’ll release a huge amount of dissolved CO2 into the air.  Similarly, as the permafrost – permanently frozen ground in the vast arctic tundra of Russia and Canada – warms, there is a huge amount of methane, generated from decayed prehistoric vegetable matter, that will likewise get released.  This happened before, at the end of the Permian geological era, and resulted in a sharp temperature increase.  Accompanying that was a huge mass extinction that eradicated a majority of then-existing life on earth.  (This is shown in the fossil records from that time.)

Another way in which climate change is likely to affect sequestration is that vegetation is continually removing CO2 from the atmosphere and converting it to organic matter through photosynthesis.  While a lot of this matter later decays – re-releasing the sequestered CO2, trees sequester massive amounts of CO2 as wood.  A lot of this happens in tropical rain forests, located near the equator.  However, as global temperatures keep rising, some parts of the Earth’s equatorial area will become too hot for rain forest trees.  Those trees will die, and then rot.  Not only will sequestration decrease, but lots of sequestered CO2 will be released.

Yet another damaging positive feedback loop is already being seen in the melting of the arctic sea ice.  The two polar icecaps are vast areas of white snow and ice.  They reflect back into the atmosphere most of the sunlight that reaches them, meaning that the radiant heat carried by that sunlight goes back out into space.  Even with the current level of global warming, more and more of the north polar icecap is melting in the summer months, exposing the much darker seawater underneath.  That exposed seawater absorbs far more of the heat from sunlight, increasing the warming of the Arctic Ocean, which, in turn, further accelerates the melting of the polar icecap.  The result of this cycle could soon be the total loss of the north polar icecap, with more warming and a huge increase in sea level.

At the South Pole, warming will also mean the melting of polar ice, which will expose the bare rock of Antarctica.  Again, the result will be much more absorption of solar radiation, faster global warming, and more sea level rise.

Add all these feedback loops together, and at some point climate change will reach a “tipping point” – a point where temperature increases begin to accelerate.  Once we reach that point, it will matter very little whether humanity has started making more serious efforts to reduce its GHG emissions, or even to sequester some existing emissions.  It may well be “game over” for human civilization, and for many of the Earth’s plant and animal species.

Even after the tipping point, humans might be able, using drastic means, to reverse the course of climate change.  Some people have proposed that we begin to engage in “geoengineering” – intentionally attempting to influence the Earth’s climate by, for example, putting large amount of reflective material into the polar upper atmosphere to replace the icecaps’ reflective effect.  That, however, would come with its own huge risks.  We would, in essence, be “playing God” with our own planet.  We would be doing, however, without, the omniscience and  omnipotence by which God would avoid unintended consequences.  Moreover, the Earth is not like a computer game.  There is no “Reset” button to punch if a particular experiment goes awry.  It would be a “game” we’d be playing “for keeps,” and with all the planet’s life at stake.

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The November 2016 Ballot Measures – Part 1 – Statewide Measures

October 18, 2016

This is the first of several posts I’m going to do on the November general election.  There’s too much on the ballot to put it all in one, or even two posts.  Just in terms of statewide ballot measures, there are seventeen of them.  That may not be a record, (The most in recent history was 20 in November of 2000) but it’s still a lot to get your arms around.

My starting point in commenting on them will be the recommendation of the Courage Campaign, a generally “Progressive left”membership group in California.  (Membership is defined loosely – no dues or anything, just a willingness to call yourself a member and participate in occasional lobbying efforts and membership poll.)  They polled their members and came up with a set of recommendations on the measures.  I don’t always agree with them, but it’s as good a place to start as any (and probably better than either the official Republican or Democratic Party positions).  In case you’re wondering what other groups’ opinions are, the Courage Campaign has put together a compilation of recommendations.  Here‘s the link to it.

Here goes:

Proposition 51 – $9 billion bond to fix and upgrade CA school facilities — Courage’s position: Neutral.  My position, Oppose.  I have become more and more skeptical of bond measure as I’ve seen more and more of them get twisted out of shape from what the voters are promised.  The state constitution requires that bonds be spent on what the voters approved, but the courts have been notably lax in enforcing those requirements, so I have become much less trusting.  In this case, however, there are other problems as well.  The $9 billion dollars is to be given out on a “first come-first served” basis, which will tend to favor the well-financed and well-organized (i.e., wealthy) districts who can get their applications in quickly.  The measure doesn’t prioritize poorer districts or those with more pressing capital needs (e.g., districts with older, earthquake vulnerable building or with overcrowded facilities).  The measure also take pressure off developers to pay for the schools needed to service big residential projects they build.  They are making the profits; they ought to pay for the public improvements those projects require.
Proposition 52 – Make Hospital Fee Permanent to Pay for Healthcare Services — Courage’s position: Neutral.  My position, Support.  While ideally we ought to have a single-payer system where everyone gets the healthcare they need and we all pay for it collectively through taxes.  (Clinton and Trump both reject single-payer, but what do you expect of candidates raking in donations from the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and private insurance industries.)  Given that we aren’t going to single-payer any time soon, at least this will make sure the neediest people in our society get at least some healthcare.  Yes, hospitals will pass on the fee to their users, but until we go to single payer, it’s probably the best we can do.
Proposition 53 – “Stop Right-Wing Millionaire from Blocking Infrastructure Projects” [Courage Campaign’s description, not mine]. Courage’s position –  Oppose.  My position –  Support. Big public project can bring with them big problems.  Nationally, there was Boston’s “big dig.”  Here in California, we’ve had the new Bay Bridge project and the BART to airport projects (Oakland & SF), all of which have had large cost overruns and questionable results.  (Both BART project have turned out to be big money losers.)  The main thing motivating this measure is Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel “peripheral tunnel” proposal for shipping more water south.  Because Southern California agencies would pick up most of the tab, this wouldn’t require a general obligation bond [which would already have to go on the ballot], but a revenue bond, which currently doesn’t require voter approval.  This measure would require voter approval for such measures if the involve over $2 billion.  Given the Legislature’s (and local agencies’) untrustworthiness,  this  seems to me to be a good idea.  Also, what happens if the revenue doesn’t cover the costs, or if one of the agencies promising to pay goes belly up.  Who do you think will end up picking up the tab?  Us, the California taxpayers.
Proposition 54 – 72-Hour Publication of Bills Prior to Vote — Courage’s position – Neutral.  My position – Support.  Particularly near the end of the legislative session, the Legislature now often resorts to so-called “gut and amend” measures, which take a bill that has already passed one house, removes all of its substance, and quickly replaces it with something entirely different.  Such “end of session” bills are notorious for being approved, with the connivance of the legislative (Democratic) leadership and the Governor, with little opportunity for public scrutiny or comment.  IMHO, this is really bad public policy, and in the past has resulted in some really bad bills.  Yes, this would slow down the legislative process, and might keep some measures from getting enacted, but that, to me, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Proposition 55 – Extend the Tax on the Wealthy to Fund Education and Healthcare — Courage’s position – Support. My position – Support.  This again is a stop-gap measure.  As Bernie Sanders said repeatedly in his campaign, we all benefit from making quality education available to all, and healthcare ought to be a right, not a privilege.  In almost all other developed countries, it is.  Why not here, because moneyed special interests control the legislative process, both in Congress and the Legislature.  This measure isn’t really what we need, but it’s better than the alternative of not having funding at all.

Proposition 56 – $2 per pack tobacco tax.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  Opponents of this measure label it a “nanny tax” – government using its tax powers to force us to do “what’s best for us.”  If it’s approved by the voters, this won’t be government telling us what to do; it’ll be us deciding what WE want to do.  I sympathize with people who’ve been sucked into tobacco addiction; and there’s absolutely no question it’s an addiction, just as much as heroin or cocaine; and far more than marijuana.  Problem is, it’s a really harmful addiction, and we, as a society, end up picking up much of the tab for dealing with its harmful results – heart disease, emphysema, cancers of all sort – you name it and whatever harmful medical condition you think of is probably either caused by or worsened by tobacco use.  At least the proceeds of this tax will help somewhat pay for all those costs, as well as help pay for programs to get people to kick the habit.  Big tobacco, of course, opposes this.  I can’t think of a better reason to support it.

Proposition 57 – Reform California’s Broken Parole and Juvenile Trial System [Courage Campaign’s label].  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  You should read up on the details of this measure.  How things are run now is the sad legacy of twenty years of “tough on crime” ballot measures that have left our prisons overflowing  with inmates, destroyed many thousands of people’s lives, and haven’t really worked in terms of reducing crime.  Californians have had a schizophrenic attitude towards crime – on the one hand wanting to “correct” bad behavior and on the other wanting to punish it.  Even with pets, it’s become clear that punishment isn’t a good way to teach behavior.  People are much more intelligent than pets (at least mostly) and all punishment does is build resentment.  Prisons ought to be a last-resort place to put people that we can’t prevent from harming others any other way.  This measure was really forced on us by the federal courts’ acknowledging that  California’s current way of running its prisons – overcrowding them and focusing on punishment – violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.  We’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this measure, but at least we’re there.  Much more needs to be done before our criminal justice system begins to bear any relation to justice and recognize the realities of what we’ve learned about correction in the past hundred years.

Proposition 58 – Repeal the ban on bilingual education.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  We’re finally undoing some of the mischief done by the over-simplistic and ideologically motivated ballot measures of the ’80s and ’90s.  Remember “English Only”?  Supposedly, bilingual education let non-english speakers go through school without learning english, and “immersion” in english would be “tough love.”  It didn’t work.  All it did was further reduce non-english speakers’ motivation for staying in school.  Without bilingual education, many non-english speakers will get no education.  How does that help us as a society?

Proposition 59 – Overturn Citizens United.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  For any of you who may have been asleep for the past few years, “Citizens United” was the name of a U.S. Supreme Court case where the court, by a 5-4 majority, decided that 1) corporations had a right of free speech, and 2) donating money to political campaigns was equivalent to free speech and therefore could not be regulated.  Since then, corporate control of our government has mushroomed even beyond where it was before, with “dark money” political committees able to raise unlimited funds from corporate sources while those contributions were hidden from public disclosure.  Is it any wonder that our two major presidential candidates are both almost totally beholden to Wall Street and other big-money interests?  Unfortunately, this measure does little more than register whether California’s voters are unhappy with the current situation.  It remains to be seen how much California’s congressional delegation will pay to the results.

Proposition 60 – Mandatory Condom Use in Adult Films. Courage’s position – Neutral.  My position – Support.  This has been one of the more controversial measures on the ballot, because it deals with California’s huge porn movie industry.  There are two issues here: 1) should California outlaw unsafe sex in porn movies as a public health measure, and 2) should California stop porn movies from showing, and thereby glamorizing, unsafe sex?  My answer to both questions is yes.  We’ve known for more that 20 years that sex without condoms can spread sexually transmitted disease.  Maybe if people were all totally monogamous, and only had sex with one person – ever – condoms would only be needed for birth control (but isn’t that a good enough reason in itself?), but porn movies more often than not portray casual sex which is exactly where condoms are most needed.  Yes, it’s true we show lots of stupid human behavior in movies.  How about we eliminate one of the stupider ones?

Proposition 61 – drug price ceiling in California.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  This measure would cap the price California pays for state-supported drug purchases (e.g., MediCal) to the price paid by the Federal VA, which negotiates prices with drug companies and does a very good job of it.  Short of going to single-payer [strange how that keeps popping up] this is another way to at least get some handle on reining in the explosive increases in prescription drug prices.  Not surprisingly, many mainstream organizations, like the Democratic Party, that get lots of money from the pharmaceutical industry, don’t support this measure.  Also not surprisingly, the Sanders campaign’s successor group, Our Revolution, does.  So do I, for the same reasons.

Proposition 62 – Repeal the Death Penalty.  Courage’s position – Support.  My Position – Support.  Here we go again.For some reason, Californians still seem to believe that the death penalty somehow makes sense.  Nevermind that study after study shows that it has virtually no deterrent effect, and that states and countries that have abolished the death penalties have no higher rate of what California calls capital crimes than states and countries that still execute people.To me, though, the most convincing argument is that juries are not 100% accurate.  We’ve seen over and over cases where someone was convicted and sentenced to death, only to discover years later that they didn’t do the crime they were accused of.  It’s bad enough when they’ve spent years in prison.  What do you do when they’ve already been executed.  Saying, “Oops, we’re sorry,” is so inadequate as to be criminal in itself.  If California wants to call itself a civilized state, it must eliminate the death penalty.  NOW.

Proposition 63 – Increased state controls on guns and ammunition.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  I don’t care what the NRA says.  While guns, by themselves, don’t kill people (at least not usually), people with guns and ammunition do.  As has been pointed out innumerable times, when private citizens have more guns, the amount of gun violence goes up, not down.  In my humble opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court made one of its stupider decisions (other than Citizens United) when it decided the right to bear arms applied to individual private citizens.  Well, since we’re stuck with that (and Citizens United) for the time being, at least this makes private gun ownership a little bit safer for those of us who aren’t NRA fanatics.

Proposition 64 – Legalized Marijuana use.  Courage’s position – Support.  My position – Support.  OK, so marijuana isn’t a totally harmless drug.  If you’ve been smoking wed, your probably shouldn’t be driving a car, or operating machinery; but it’s no more dangerous than drinking alcohol, and a lot less dangerous (and addictive) than smoking cigarettes.  The prohibition on marijuana use is a hold-over from the days when the state was considered responsible for regulating private morality – along with prohibiting alcohol consumption on the Sabbath and prohibiting public displays of affection.  Folks, this is not Iran, and we don’t need to have the government regulating private morality and creating victimless crimes that get people thrown in prison.

Proposition 65 and 67 – plastic bag fee versus repeal of plastic bag prohibition.  Courage’s position – Oppose 65; Support 67.  My position – Oppose 65; Support 67.  Both these ballot measures are the result of the financial power of the plastic bag industry.  It circulated and qualified a referendum [Prop. 67] of the Legislature’s prohibition on disposable plastic bag use (like in supermarkets) and then qualified its own initiative measure that would allow them but put a fee on them to go into a state fund.  All you need think about is the huge island of plastic, much of it plastic bags, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  You can also think about the thousands of birds and sea creatures who die each year when they mistake plastic bags for sea creatures like jellyfish and choke on them.  also think about how much cleaner beaches and parks have gotten where disposable plastic bags have been eliminated.  We need to greatly reduce our use of plastic. Period.  It’s bad for the environment.  Yes, it’s regulating behavior, but so are many hundreds of laws that nobody complains about.  Regulating objectionable behavior is one thing government does.  Using plastic bags, unlike marijuana, isn’t victimless.  Ask a sea turtle that’s died from one.

Proposition 66 – Make the Death Penalty more “Efficient.”  Courage’s position – Oppose.  My position – Oppose.  As should be evident from my position of Proposition 62, I consider this proposition an embarrassing holdover from the years when Californian’s approach to crime was “lock ’em up” or “kill ’em.”  That approach didn’t work.  Making the death penalty more “efficient” – i.e., quicker to decide and carry out – will only increase the likelihood of mistakes.  I consider this measure little short of barbaric.  Hell, if we want to make the system more “efficient,” how about when someone’s accused of a crime, they’re immediately brought before a judge, who flips a coin.  Heads you’re innocent, tails you’re guilty.  That’s efficient, but it’s sure not justice.

 

Next post will deal with local ballot measures.  Third post will deal with candidate.

 


What Obama Should’ve Said

October 4, 2012

OK.  So the commentators seem to be saying that Romney won last night’s debate.  I’m not so sure.  If he did, it’s only because Obama didn’t press him hard enough on things like how he’s going to reduce the deficit while making huge increases in military spending and dropping the tax rates on both corporations and high-income individuals.  I know, he says he’ll reduce loopholes and exemptions, but unless he’s talking about eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, state & local taxes deduction, and medical expense deductions [starts to sound like making the alternative minimum tax apply to everyone] it’s hard to see how he’ll get deficit reduction.

My big beef with Obama, though, was when Romney dinged him on his alternative energy program.  Obama just let it slide past, even after Romney poured fuel on the fire [so to speak] by talking about how he thinks the country should be burning more “clean coal’.  Never mind that the very idea of “clean coal” is almost a contradiction in terms (maybe not entirely, in terms of conventional air pollutants, although the technology is not anywhere close to there yet).  What Obama shudda, cudda come back with, though, was a strong defense of moving America’s energy production into the 21st century, rather than back to the 19th.  Oil and gas technology goes back to the dawn of the 20th century, and coal goes back to the 18th century.

In fact, if you think about it, burning coal is shamelessly wasteful.  Here we’ve got an enormous resource of almost pure carbon — the basic source of all organic chemicals, which includes many of the products we depend upon on a daily basis.  Right now, a lot of those compounds are made from petroleum, which we mostly import.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be putting our coal resources into manufacturing the organic compounds we now make from petroleum, and putting research dollars into how to do that efficiently, effectively, and economically, rather than burning it up into CO2 and atmospheric pollutants?

Wouldn’t it also make sense, given that climate change is real [why didn’t he challenge Romney on that!?] to push for new and better ways to produce energy, and save the carbon in coal for when we figure out how to use it in efficient forms of energy production like fuel cells (where we can perhaps capture and sequester any GHG products produced?)   Seems to me Obama missed a chance to show Romney up and put himself forward as someone who’s thinking about the future rather than the past.

But, what do I know?  I’m just an “average citizen”, not a spin doctor.


Environmental protection under attack – Again.

August 21, 2012

CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, is California’s most important environmental statute.  It’s a “truth in lending act” for the environment.  It requires government to admit the environmental damage projects cause, AND look at reducing or avoiding that damage.  It also encourages public participation.  However, because CEQA violations invalidate project approvals, it is favorite punching bag for developers, business groups, and recently Governor Brown, who said he never saw a CEQA exemption he didn’t like.

In recent legislative sessions, a pattern has emerged.  As the session winds down, suddenly legislation appears to “reform” CEQA.  In 2008, then-governor Schwarzenegger pushed through a CEQA exemption for twelve Caltrans projects.  The next session, a developer got a CEQA exemption for an enormous Southern California stadium project.  Last session, another stadium got CEQA “streamlining.” Then, at the eleventh hour, the offer was expanded to a group of huge projects the governor (now Jerry Brown) would pick.

As the current legislative session ends, the same pattern is repeating with vengeance.  A coalition of business and development interests is proposing a bill, SB 317, to not just weaken, but eviscerate CEQA.  Pointing to the range of regulatory laws in effect, they argue that CEQA has outlived its usefulness and should be largely replaced by reliance on other environmental and planning laws.  This ignores a number of basic facts:  1) these same forces have, for the past forty years, fought, often successfully, to weaken the laws they claim make CEQA unnecessary; 2) state planning laws often exempt charter cities entirely, and defer to local decision makers, who, influenced by these same special interests, often make decisions at the expense of their own constituents; 3) only CEQA brings the searchlight of public scrutiny on environmental decision-making.  Most other environmental laws involve obscure bureaucrats with little incentive to require rigorous compliance. 

With our continuing economic doldrums, it is tempting to think weakening CEQA will result in more jobs, more economic activity, and a better future.  However, it’s worth remembering that 1) the more than 99% of CEQA projects get though without a hitch; 2) while CEQA lawsuits are rare, even rarer is a project halted or even greatly delayed, and 3) for every good project that might be somewhat delayed, many more unnecessarily environmentally damaging projects are either stopped or (far more often) revised and improved through the CEQA process.

There were good reasons why CEQA was created, and those reasons are still valid.  Before there was CEQA, public and private entities did lots of environmental damage because nobody asked tough questions.  From pesticides, to toxic mines and groundwater contamination, to smog, to the Cypress Structure, the litany of damage to California’s environment, and to society, that happened before CEQA is long.  And who do you suppose ends up bearing the cost for cleaning up those messes?  More often than not, it is the public purse, and taxpayers, who pick up the tab.  While other laws form an ever-more-fragile patchwork (much like our increasingly-frayed social “safety net”), only CEQA requires comprehensive environmental scrutiny, and only CEQA affirmatively involves the public.  If you feel CEQA is still important to protect California’s environment, and your pocketbook, now’s the time to let your legislators know!


So Climate Change Is Real – Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

August 5, 2012

As many commentators have pointed out, this summer’s weather: its far-reaching droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., its devastating floods in Asia, and, of course, the rapid melting of the North Polar icecap, are finally getting some “climate skeptics” to change their tune.  A recent statistical analysis of severe weather events is also making the connection between weather and climate.  Just on a probability basis, without even thinking about climate modeling, the weather events of the past ten to twenty years are so improbable based on the events of the previous forty years that something must have changed, and the only obvious candidate is climate.

This leads inexorably to the next question – what are we going to do about it?  Here, however, something hasn’t changed: human nature.  Sadly, humanity has always had a strong streak of self-interest.  Whether it’s the Roman Empire, European colonial powers, or Wall Street bankers, people, as countries, as interest groups, or as individuals always seem to look at situations focused on what will benefit them.  Climate change has, thus far, been little different.

At the global level, developing countries, particularly China and India, have been unwilling to reduce their CO2 production if it would mean reducing their race to catch up to already-industrialized countries in production of goods.  The developed countries, including Europe and particularly Japan and the U.S., have for their part been unwilling to make changes that might require economic sacrifice, pointing to the already-damaging effects of the global economic slow-down of the past twelve years.

Within the United States, the situation has been little different.  Each region of the country is willing to accept change – so long as it’s aimed at another region.  Coal producing states insist that coal mining must continue.  Oil and gas producers point to their superiority over coal and say coal mining should stop first.  Heavy electricity using states demand that power plants continue to be built to prevent brown-outs and another economic slowdown.

Even when global warming has, on the surface, been taken to heart, a closer examination shows that self-interest still rules.  Here in California, our governor points to high-speed rail as a great benefit in reducing climate change.  Yet even proponents are forced to admit that the real benefits are some twenty to thirty years down the road.  In the shorter term, the project will actually significantly increase CO2 production.  More locally, San Francisco has approved the Parkmerced project, which will tear down 1,500 units of moderate-density, post-World War Two, rent controlled housing and replace them with about six thousand units of higher-density market-rate housing.  Again, the project is touted as reducing CO2 production in the long run – meaning some twenty to thirty years in the future. As with high-speed rail, however, before then the project will actually cause an increase in CO2 production.  Meanwhile, climate scientists have warned that we must reduce CO2 production dramatically within the next ten years or face catastrophic changes that will, by that point, become unavoidable.

Why is there this disconnect?  Among other things, powerful political interests, including labor unions, building contractors, and development interests, have much to gain from new construction projects but would get little benefit from projects like retrofitting existing housing and infrastructure to improve their energy efficiency and reduce CO2 production.  These interests influence our elected political leaders with ever more generous campaign contributions and insistent lobbying.  (Thank you, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United ruling!)  As a result, choices are made based on self interest instead of the broader public interest.

Where does this lead in the long term?  The answer isn’t pretty.  As one joke currently making the rounds put it, we’re left asking two questions:  “Where are we going?” and “Why am I in this handbasket?”


Ballot Measure Brain Teasers

November 3, 2010

Here’s a brain teaser for you — try to find a consistent frame of reference that makes sense of all the California ballot measure results from yesterday’s election.  It’s not easy.

Some parts fit together pretty well.  Propositions 22 and 26 are part of a consistent pattern of California voters asking government to keep its hands out of our wallets unless they ask nicely and we say yes.  Prop. 22 keeps state government (meaning the legislature) from taking money away from local jurisdictions to help balance the state budget.  It was sold as protecting local government resources.  As I noted in a previous post, the unmentioned major beneficiary will be redevelopment agencies.  I wonder why the no on 22 campaign didn’t play that up more.  I find it hard to believe, in between their taking money away from other local agencies and being able to exercise eminent domain to take property away from citizens, that voters have a warm spot in their heart for redevelopment agencies. [That’s not to say that they never do anything worthwhile.  To give them their due, for example, Emeryville’s redevelopment agency has had a big hand in transforming that city from truckyards and factories into a retail powerhouse.]  Prop. 26 also makes it harder for the state (or local agencies, for that matter) to collect money in the form of fees.  The complaint was that there were fees being created that were really taxes, and it was a subterfuge to get around Prop. 13 and Prop. 218’s voter approval requirements.  So now most fees will ALSO require a 2/3 popular vote.  The defeat of Prop. 21 also fits with the “keep your hand out of my friggin’ wallet” attitude of California voters.  Interestingly, for both this and Prop. 26, the Bay Area’s attitudes differed from the rest of the state’s.  Here’s a link to the voting map for prop 21 on the Secretary of State’s website:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/ballot-measures/21/  .  We in the Bay Area are apparently a bit more willing to pay the fare when it comes to government services.

This might all seem consistent, but at the same time voters also adopted Prop. 25, which eliminates the 2/3 majority requirement to pass the state budget.  Thus it’ll now be easier for the legislature to pass a budget, but harder for them to have it survive the laugh test of, “So where are you going to find the revenue to make this budget balance?”  Look for many more applications of smoke and mirrors to produce a “balanced” budget in the future.  Also look for the state budget deficit to continue to grow, since Californians seem to think they can have all the services they want without having to pay for them.

Props 20 and 27, like props 21,22, and 26, but unlike prop 25, also showed voters’ distrust of the legislature.  In 2008, the voters narrowly passed prop 11, taking legislative redistricting out of the (self-interested) hands  of the legislature and putting it into the hands of an independent “citizens’ commission”.  This year, the legislature tried to convince voters that they should reverse the decision.  No such luck.  In fact, the voters turned around and took congressional redistricting out of the legislature’s hands as well.  Perhaps, with the exception of prop 25, the theme might be that the legislature is not to be trusted with doing much of anything right.  Arguably, even prop 25 could be said to reflect that attitude.  i.e., “OK, you don’t seem to be able to handle passing a budget with a 2/3 majority.  We’ll make it easy for you — just get something out with a simple majority; and if you can’t handle that, we’ll take away your pay because you clearly aren’t earning it!”

Then we’ve got two “lifestyle” initiatives.  Prop 19, that would’ve legalized recreational marijuana use, and prop 23, which would have suspended the state’s global warming law. 

On the former, early polls seemed to show voter approval, but two things appeared to turn the tide.  First were a bunch of articles pointing to flaws in the initiative’s language that would result in litigation and unintended consequences.  Second was the U.S. Attorney General’s public announcement that he didn’t care what California did; he was still going to have MJ users, growers, sellers, etc. arrested and thrown in prison under federal narcotics laws.  This could, perhaps, have stirred up a states’ rights oriented state like Alaska or Mississippi to say, “Oh yeah?  We’ll see about that!  See you in court!”  But …  California is not a big states’ rights bastion, and with law enforcement groups up and down the state saying it was a bad idea, the voters apparently had second thoughts.

Prop 23 was a different story.  For one thing, Californians have long liked to think of themselves as being an environmentally conscious group.  After all, we have Yosemite, the redwoods, the sequoias, Lake Tahoe, etc.  We were also one of the first states to block offshore oil drilling after the big Santa Barbara oil spill, and Californians have bought more hybrid vehicles, not only in toto but on a per capita basis, than any other state.  So it only stands to reason that, having passed landmark legislation to try to curb global warming, Californians would not readily turn around and say, “Oops, we made a mistake.  Let’s put that law in the deep freeze for twenty years or so until it gets REALLY hot.”  It also didn’t help that it came out very early (thanks to California’s campaign finance disclosure laws) that almost all the money financing prop 23 was coming from out-of-state oil companies.  Hey, what the heck, they were in Oklahoma or inland areas of Texas.  It wasn’t their coastline that was going to disappear under water as sea levels rose.  Bottom line, Californians decided they didn’t believe the oil companies (who have, of course, tremendous credibility already — almost as good as Enron’s).

One thing that still leaves me scratching my head is that in spite of what appears to be a set of almost Tea Party-like attitudes  about government spending, Californians still elected an entire set of Democratic state office holders.  Like I said at the start of this post, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a consistent frame of reference for California voters.


A Warning to be Heeded — Or Ignored

October 30, 2010

Today’s New York Times contained an article discussing the alarming similarities between today’s economic situation in the U.S. and the situation in Japan in the late 1990s.  Here’s the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/30/world/asia/30japan.html

To put the article in a nutshell, in the late 1990s, just as Japan was crawling out of a severe recession brought on by an economic “bubble”, the Japanese government decided that the country’s ballooning deficit needed to be brought under control.  Consequently, the government enacted a tax increase (from 3%  to 5% in their national consumption tax) to bring in additional revenue.  The result, however, was to decrease the nation’s money supply and slam the door on economic recovery.  Here’s a direct link to a graph that shows what happened to the Japanese CPI as a result:

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2010/10/30/world/30japan-graf01.html?ref=asia

Essentially, the decrease in money supply led to a deflationary spiral that took years to pull out of.   Even today, more than ten years later, Japan is still suffering from anemic growth.  (Of course, the recession that began in 2008 didn’t help matters, but you’ll note that the graph only goes up to 2007, when the rest of the world was still experiencing boom-like expansion.)

What’s the relevance to the U.S.?  The current election portends an increase in Republican political power, with most observers predicting that the Republicans are poised to take over control of the House, if not the Senate as well.  Part of the Republican mantra is the prime importance of decreasing the size of the federal deficit.  While Republicans don’t propose to increase taxes — quite to the contrary, they propose to extend all of the Bush tax cuts indefinitely; they do propose to dramatically decrease federal spending, primarily by eliminating spending on federal social programs.  The reduction in federal $$ pumping into the economy will have a similar effect to a tax increase.  It will decrease the size of the money supply.  With less money available, there will be less demand for goods, and consequently prices will fall — deflation.  In short, the Republican economic strategy appears likely to result in a variation on Japan’s economic mistakes of the 1990s.  It’s possible that by 2012, when Obama is up for re-election, the stupidity of this policy will have become apparent enough that the public will repudiate the Republicans, re-electing Obama and restoring a Democratic majority in both houses.  It’s even possible that repudiation will be intense enough that it will give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority and perhaps eliminate some of the Democrats-in-Name-Only who currently side with Republicans in obstructing Obama’s legislative agenda.  Even so, the U.S. will have lost two years of growth, as well as continuing back-asswards environmental policies at a time when that can be ill-afforded. 

Even worse, however, it’s possible that by 2012 the American public still won’t “get it” and will elect a Republican president and congress in the hope that further reducing the deficit will prove to be a cure-all.  (Americans have always loved magical thinking.)  If that happens, we can look forward to repeating Japan’s mistake in spades, and perhaps dropping off the first tier of world economic powers, to be replaced in all likelihood by China and India.

To look at the bright side, we probably will no longer be able to enforce the “Pax Americana” and there may be a little less warfare in the world overall.  Have a nice day!!


We interrupt this election horserace …

October 24, 2010

With the pre-election brouhaha fast approaching a frenzy, here are a couple of articles that step back a little to look at the bigger picture.  The first, by Robert Reich (it was reprinted in today’s S.F. Chronicle), talks about something I’ve already addressed in this blog — how the wealthy are hijacking the American political system.

http://robertreich.org/post/1344561814

The second, in today’s New York Times, by The Nation contributing editor Ari Berman, talks about what might happen after the election, and how losing some of the Democrats in Congress might not be such a bad thing. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/opinion/24berman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

This is an interesting article because it suggests that the Democrats might profit from something the Republicans did during the Reagan years — doing some ideological “housecleaning”.  It notes that starting in 2005 [IMHO, actually well before then, going back to the Clinton years and the Democratic Leadership Conference] and led by DNC chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emmanuel, the Democrats attempted to recruit “competitive” candidates throughout the country, including the “red” states won by GW Bush.  In order to make sure their candidates were competitive, they looked for people who would fit with the red state terrain they’d be campaigning in.  As a result, Congress received an influx of so-called “blue dog” Democrats — Democrats who hewed to a center-right perspective and voted with the Republicans at least as often as with their fellow Democrats.  It was these blue dogs who watered down Obama’s healthcare reform and financial reform packages, who stymied global warming legislation, and who have contributed to having many Obama appointments stuck waiting for Congressional approval.  In short, the blue dogs have become almost as big an obstacle to the Democratic Congressional agenda as the Republicans.  Further, as Democrats, they hold leadership positions, allowing them to be more effective in their opposition than most Republicans.

While the Democrats will undoubtedly lose seats in both the House and Senate this November, a lot of those seats will be blue dog seats.  So, we’ll have Republicans instead of Republicans masquerading as Democrats.  That may not make a lot of difference.  In fact, as Berman points out, it may actually help the Democrats if it allows them to become more unified and pointed in their legislative program.  So, come November 3rd, before you start shouting that the sky has fallen, it may make sense to take a deep breath, wait a few months, and see how the new Congress shakes out.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be the Republicans’ turn to be saddled with some blue dogs?


Follow the Money – the statewide ballot measures

October 20, 2010

Unlike Oakland ballot measures, it’s pretty easy to find out who’s contributed – both for and against – on the statewide ballot measures.  The information must be provided to the Secretary of State and is posted on her website.  However, it’s been made even easier because the California Voter Foundation has compiled a listing of the top five contributors, both pro and con, on each of the nine measures on the November ballot.  You can find that information, along with a lot of other general useful information about each measure, here:

http://www.calvoter.org/voter/elections/2010/general/props/index.html

The information is quite revealing.  Go take a look.


November Election – Last Installment

October 14, 2010

OK.  Now we finally get to the nitty-gritty — the candidates.  I’m going to start at the top and work down.  That way, if you’re not living right next door, you can read as far as applies to your ballot, and then stop (unless you’re just curious about other people’s elections).

So, at the top of the ballot (figuratively speaking) is the U.S. Senate.  This is one of the easier races for me.  I happen to like Barbara Boxer and have found myself agreeing with her on almost every issue that comes up.  Fiorina has criticized her for being “ineffective”.  I’m not sure how you can be effective in a gridlocked Congress like we’ve got now.  Aside from that, the kind of places Carly wants to go are not places I’d like to be:  more restrictions on abortion, more outsourcing of jobs abroad, less environmental protection, more global warming, less spending on education and more on the military.  YUCK!!!  Boxer is an easy choice.

Once you get down to the statewide offices, I find it harder to get excited.  It’s not so much the lesser of two evils as it is trying to choose among levels of mediocrity.  But, choose we must.  This year (as in most years) I am guided by Ivins’ Rule — which I was introduced to by the late Molly Ivins.  Ivins’ Rule says that, just before you cast your ballot, look at the results from the most recent and reputable poll.  If the poll shows more than a five point difference between the Republican and Democratic candidate, you’re free to vote your conscience.  You’re vote is very unlikely to affect the outcome anyway.  If the difference is less than five points, however, hold your nose and vote for the Democrat.  It’s a rare day indeed (at least in California) when the Democratic candidate, no matter how wishy-washy and disgusting, would be worse than the Republican, and the winner is (sadly) almost certain to be one or the other.  So, with that as as introduction, on to the races:

Governor — GOD, I wish we had good candidates to choose from!!!  Between Jerry Brown and e-Meg Whitman, it seems to be a battle over who can talk and act in stupider ways during the campaign.  Neither one seems to have any novel or insightful ideas about how to address the state’s intractable deficit problem.  Jerry appears very beholden to the state employee labor unions, while Meg is the darling of the coupon-clipping millionaire set.  If there’s at least a five point difference by election day, please vote for your favorite minor party candidate.  Don’t let Jerry think the electorate really likes him, and please don’t let him win by a landslide.  He’d be even more insufferable than he already is.  If it’s less than five points, however, please vote for Jerry.  He may not be good, but Meg would be worse.

Lieutenant Governor — This position holds some minor power, mostly due the boards the holder sits on ex officio, like the State Lands Commission and the boards of UC and CSU.  The two major party candidates are as lackluster as the office.  Gavin Newsom is memorable for having turned most of his entirely Democratic Board of Supervisors against him and battling with them at every turn.  Abel Maldonado’s main claim to fame is that he eventually voted for a Democratic proposed state budget, after extorting what he could out of the Democratic leadership.  The best one can say is that neither would be in a position to do major damage to the state.  None of the minor party candidates look very impressive either.  Sigh …  However, Maldonado is still somewhat to the right of Newsom, and getting Newsom elected will benefit San Francisco by getting him out of the mayor’s office.  Newsom, by a hair.

Secretary of State — Debra Bowen hasn’t been a bad secretary of state.  She just hasn’t been a particularly creative or innovative one.  The Secretary of State is responsible for state elections.  Bowen has been a tepid supporter of ranked-choice voting, which is not as good as proportional representation but better than the conventional system.  After much hemming and hawing, she did approve it, which is something.  The Republican would be a step backwards.  Bowen, but without much enthusiasm.

Controller — OK.  Here, finally, we’ve got an incumbent who really deserves to get re-elected.  John Chiang has been willing to call a spade a spade on the state’s financial situation and has not tried to sugar-coat the failures of the governor and legislature to come up with a budget.  He was also willing to stand up to the governor on whether the governor had authority to unilaterally furlough state employees.  In other words, he’s got guts.  Chiang is an easy choice.

Treasurer — Bill Lockyer, the incumbent, has bounced around among state offices, first in the legislature, then as Attorney General, and now as Treasurer.  He’s done a decent job in each position, although in none of them has he been truly outstanding.  Nevertheless, he’s been pretty honest about the damage that the state’s budget crises is doing to California’s financial standing, and critical of both governor and legislature for not getting the budget done.  He’s done a good enough job to merit re-election.

Attorney General — I differ from many of my Democratic friends on this race.  They’re enthusiastic about Kamala Harris.  I’m not.  To my mind, she’s far too political to be a good Attorney General.  IMHO, an AG needs to be willing to go after ANYBODY who’s violating state law, regardless of position or party affiliation.  From what I’ve seen of Harris in SF, she hasn’t done that.  She’s also very politically linked to Obama and his group within the Democratic Party machinery.  Like Jerry Brown, I suspect she’ll turn a blind eye to misbehavior if the offending party is well-connected.  Her main opponent, however, Steve Cooley, is a hard-line law-and-order Republican along the lines of George Deukmejian.  I don’t believe that kind of philosophy, with its emphasis of “lock ’em up”, is particularly effective in dealing with crime.  A reluctant nod for Harris.

Insurance Commissioner — So, here you’ve got two legislators — one Republican, one Democratic, who’ve attempted to push through some insurance reforms in the legislature.  BUT, the insurance commissioner isn’t a legislator; he/she is an administrator and quasi-judicial officer who gets to make determinations on the propriety of insurance rates and write administrative rules for insurance companies.  In the past, insurance commissioners have sometimes been “captured” by the industry they’re supposed to be regulating.  It’s again a danger with either candidate, but probably more of a danger with Villines.  I plan to vote for Jones (but will also think about Ivins’ Rule).

Superintendent of Public Instruction — This one’s a toughie: a legislator vs a school administrator.  Torlakson, the legislator, has been involved in education issues in the legislature, but he’s also been closely tied in with the teachers’ unions.  Aceves, a retired school administrator, has had experience at the local, but not the statewide, level.  Still and all, I think this  position needs to be filled by someone who’s not beholden to a special interest.  I’m afraid that Torlakson doesn’t fill that bill.  I’m going with Aceves.

Appellate Justices — I’m going to start with my standard statement, which I say every two years — the electorate had no business voting on these positions.  Voters don’t know enough about what judges do to be able to make educated decisions about whether they’re doing it well.  Further, the vote is far too easily turned into a political witch-hunt, as it was by right-wing Republicans against the Rose Bird court.  In addition, unless someone turns it into a witch-hunt, justices are routinely retained with greater than 90% of the vote in a meaningless show of “support”.  That having been said, here are my thoughts:  Cantil-Sakauye — Her reputations is that she’s a moderate to conservative judge, which would put her smack in the middle of the current Supreme Court, probably pretty close to where Chief Justice George was.  I personally would like to see the court move a little bit towards the left, or at least away from the right, but turning this justice down wouldn’t do much of anything. YES.  Ming Chin — This is one of the two or three most conservative justices on the current court.  IMHO, he’s definitely to the right of the California mainstream.  I wouldn’t be unhappy if he were replaced by a more moderate justice.  He’ll still get retained with over 90%, but if you’d like to protest the court’s rightward movement, this would be the place to do it by voting NO.  Moreno — Moreno has been the most liberal justice appointed to the court in the last fifteen years.  That’s not saying a hell of a lot, but he has been a pretty fair judge, IMO.  YES.

Moving down to the more local Bay Area First Appellate District Justices, here are my one word recommendations:  Banke — NO  [no opinion]; Dondero — NO; Lambden — YES; Jenkins — NO; Siggins — YES; Reardon — NO; Bruiniers –NO; Needham — NO.  And, at the county level, I’d recommend Kolakowski over Creighton, as I did in the primary.  IMHO, we have more than enough former DAs as judges.

FINALLY, getting down to local elections, here are my suggestions:

Oakland Mayor — I tend to generally agree with the recommendations of the East Bay Express.  Three of the major candidates:  Quan, Tuman, and Kaplan, deserve serious consideration.  I also personally feel that Don Macleay and Greg Harland have interesting things to say.  (See my post on the mayoral forum for more details.)  However, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do NOT vote for Perata for first, second or third choice.  I’ve watched Perata for over twenty years, and IMHO he’s as sleazy as they come.  He is exactly what we DON’T need as Oakland mayor.

Oakland City Auditor — Cortney Ruby has done some good work as auditor, and on that basis, I think she deserves to be re-elected.

Berkeley City Council — While I don’t live in Berkeley, I’m going to throw in my unsolicited opinion on a few of the races:  District 4 – Jesse Arreguin ; District  7 – Kriss Worthington: District  8 – Stewart Jones

Richmond Mayor — This one’s easy.  I’ve watched Nat Bates over the past twenty years, and IMHO he epitomizes the worst of Richmond politics.  By contrast, the current mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, has been a breath of fresh air; willing to challenge the entrenched political powers that have run Richmond into the ground over the past thirty years.  Bates’ campaign has also cooperated with the police and fire unions in running a very nasty smear campaign against
McLaughlin, based on health problems she had some fifteen years ago.


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