Archive for 2011 November

Unemployment: The unheard fire bell in the night

Robert Schiller, one of this nation's most respected economists, writes today in The New York Times that the unemployment we face today could be ruinous for our society for years, perhaps decades, to come: 

The stakes are very high here, and they are not just economic. As anger rises in today's economy, I'm reminded of Thomas Jefferson's words about the danger of "angry passions" arising between the North and South over the question of extending slavery to the Missouri territory. In an 1820 letter, he wrote that "this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror." He went on to predict, from his observations of such rancor, the secession of the South that was to come 40 years later.

Our country is a much more stable and just society now than it was in 1820.  Still, we should regard the current economic dispute as another fire bell in the night. It is important to recreate the sense of a just society, without anger – and an important step in that direction is to ensure that there are enough jobs. 

Ted Rall looks at the economic picture — the release of a Census-based study showing that nearly one of three Americans lives in poverty — and suggests a solution. 

But this really is a problem we could solve, as Schiller points out. Painful to contemplate.  

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House budget makes climate change go away (not)

The budgeting story from the Washington Post over the proposed National Climate Service, comparable to the National Weather Service. Here are the last four graphs:

In the NOAA budget battle, the Democratic-led Senate approved most of the climate service in its budget. The Republican-led House approved none of it. [edit]

After the deal, which passed Congress last week, a House Appropriations Committee news release implied that Congress had saved $322 million in fiscal year 2012 by nixing the climate service.

The reality: Congress is still giving NOAA those funds for climate research and data delivery. But they’ll be distributed across the agency instead of consolidated under an umbrella climate service. The hundreds of millions in savings trumpeted by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee are an illusion.

“We think it’s very unfortunate,” said Chris McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, which represents 60,000 scientists. “Limiting access to this kind of climate information won’t make climate change go away.”

Burying the lead? (Er, in journalese, the lede?) 

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Disaster lurks behind every moment: Suddenly Last Summer

Nate Sinnott, who comes from the world of stage production, and has not directed before at this level, wrote his master's thesis on Suddenly Last Summer. Currently he has on a brilliant production of this play by Tennessee Williams at California Lutheran's Black Box Theater.

It’s shocking, symbolic — unlike most of Williams’ plays — and masterfully brought to life in Sinnott’s “experimental” staging. He points out that Williams wrote that the stage design “could be as unrealistic as a lyric ballet,” and chooses to put us inside the asylum with the cast. The grimy floor of black and white tiles angles down a muddy slope toward us. Broken pieces of asphalt lie about and it feels as if we’re inside a madness. Stark black and white images of strange natural phenomena on high screens add to the ominous mood. Behind the bars around the back of the stage, a phalanx of attendants dressed all in white stares coldly at Violet and Catherine as they battle desperately with their words. Disaster lurks behind every moment.


My full review here


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The trouble with climate change: New York City

Today New York released a 600-page report on the consequences of climate change in the state, which so far (mysteriously to me) only The Guardian has covered, near as I can tell. Their opening:

Irene-like storms of the future would put a third of New York City streets under water and flood many of the tunnels leading into Manhattan in under an hour because of climate change, a new state government report warns Wednesday.

Sea level rise due to climate change would leave lower Manhattan dangerously exposed to flood surges during major storms, the report, which looks at the impact of climate change across the entire state of New York, warns.

"The risks and the impacts are huge," said Art deGaetano, a climate scientist at Cornell University and lead author of the ClimAID study. "Clearly areas of the city that are currently inhabited will be uninhabitable with the rising of the sea." 

The shocker for me so far is that this study, two years in the making, including a great deal of GCM modeling, projects a possible 2-to-4 foot rise in sea level by the end of the century, should the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica accelerate, with big impacts in the 2020s. Haven't seen anyone reputable put a figure on that possible SLR before. One startling passage:

Sea level rise in combination with coastal storm surge has the ability to severely damage transportationsystems in New York—particularly those in New York City and the surrounding metropolitan region—since much of the systems are located at low elevations, and some in tunnels below sea level.

By the end of this century, the ClimAID projections show that sea level is expected to rise by 2 to 4 feet with significant implications for the transportation sector. Damages from a coastal storm in the New York City metropolitan area that currently occurs on averageonce every 100 years would be significant. At current sea level, economic losses from such a stormwould amount to about $58 billion. Losses under a 2-foot sea level rise scenario increase to $70 billionand to $84 billion under a 4-foot sea level rise scenario.  

All sectors of the transportation system would be affected, including roads, railways, subways, airports, and seaports.  The effects of such a flooding scenario would occur rapidly. For example, many of the tunnels lying below flood heights (including subway, highway, and rail) would fill up with water in less than 1 hour. Atthe low-lying La Guardia Airport, sea level rise would wipe out the effectiveness of existing levees, even for less severe storms. The outage times estimated for the various transportation systems range from 1to 29 days, depending on the infrastructure and sea level rise scenario

The study preaches adaptation again and again, but also talks about environmental inequality issues — a lot. We'll be hearing more about this one. 

The Guardian story also mentions that NOAA's plans to include a climate service were blocked by Republicans in Congress. To quote the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations:

Climate Change – The conference agreement does NOT include funding to establish a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Service. The Administration requested $322 million to establish this new entity within NOAA.

That's thinking ahead. 


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Horror in Happy Valley: The Jerry Sandusky Movie

The scene: a nice little college town, where everyone is happy and peppy and civic minded, and really loves the football team. Someone from Colorado or someplace, transfers into town for a new job and … starts noticing things. It turns out that the town patriarch (Paterno) isn’t even the ruler…

Something Else is…


A comment from Rod Dreher's ever-interesting blog at The American Conservative

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The “hydraulic hearts” of Southern California

Another terrific CA water story from Bettina Boxall of the LATimes, this one on how soaring energy costs — up to 80% higher in the next decade — will force local water agencies to think about local water supplies. 

To pump water up just this 500 feet, carrying water from the Colorado River, is only really practical with low-cost power from Hoover Dam. And that contract is going away.


Boxall describes this, the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant, as one of the "hyrdaulic hearts" of Southern California. 

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Point of no return for climate is 2017: IEA

The staid, uncontroversial International Energy Agency said last week that we have five years to preserve our present-day climate.

It's generally agreed that warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius risks disaster. Their studies show that most of that is already built in. In the words of Wonk Blog's Brad Plummer:

The key issue here is something known as “infrastructure lock-in.” The coal plants that countries like China and India are constructing right now are going to last another 50 years, at least. The energy-inefficient buildings we’re erecting will stay up for some time. Every gas-guzzling SUV that gets built will likely get sold and then driven for at least a decade. Which is just a way of saying there’s a lag built into our energy infrastructure. It’s not easy to turn off the carbon tap once we edge near 450 ppm.

To the Guardian, the Agency's chief economist put it plainly:

"The door is closing," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. "I am very worried – if we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever."                       

This amount of warming has been set, by consensus in the IPCC process, but still has its critics. No sooner had the staid research body issued this alarming opinion, than it was attacked on all sides. Deniers whipped out the mockery

If we get to where it’s “irreversible”, we won’t be bothered by them trying to take our bucks to reverse it.

Think about how peaceful that will be without that alarmism 

On the scientific side of the issue, Richard Betts, a climatologist who worked on the earth systems chapter of the most recent IPCC report in the UK, also had doubts:

While really bad things may happen at 2 degrees, they may very well not happen either – especially in the short term (there may be a committment to longer-term consequences such as ongoing sea level rise that future generations have to deal with, but imminent catastrophe affecting the current generation is far less certain than people make out. We just don't know.

The thing that worries me about the talking-up of doom at 2 degrees is that this could lead to some very bad and expensive decisions in terms of adaptation. It probably is correct that we have about 5 years to achieve a peak and decline of global emissions that give a reasonable probability of staying below 2 degrees, but what happens in 10 years' time when emissions are still rising and we are probably on course for 2 degrees?

And yet in the next breath, in a comment in the ensuing discussion, Betts revealed the possibility that the atmosphere could warm much more than 2C by 2060, if fossil fuel emissions aren't reduced. Temps could rise twice as much as 2C, or even more: 

While much political attention is focused on the potential for global warming of 2◦C relative to pre-industrial, the AR4 projections clearly suggest that much greater levels of warming are possible by the end of the twenty-first century in the absence of mitigation. The centre of the range of AR4-projected global warming was approximately 4◦C.

So the tipping point identified by the agency is a) good news, b) maybe bad news, or c) dwarfed by the really bad news.

Let's be realistic about this much: Talking about climate change can be confusing, even to experts. 

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Obama delays Keystone XL pipeline decision

The Obama administration, in a major concession to climate activists, is putting off the Keystone XL pipeline decision

“Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process,” President Obama said in a statement Thursday, “we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood.”

It's a big win for the indefatiguable climate writer/organizer Bill McKibben, but Brian Beutler for TPM notes that the only reason the pipeline was rejected was because of political pressure. If OBama wins re-election, and the review process isn't a bureaucratic trainwreck, approval could still happen. 

Before activists turned Keystone into a national story, the project was mostly considered a done deal. There’s a lot of institutional pressure on the administration to see it through. And base voter clamor won’t have the same impact if and when Obama’s a second term president.


True, but the planet will accept partial victories and disasters avoided.  

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The writer who fired the producer: Brett Radner

Yesterday Mark Harris at Grantland eviscerated Brett Radner, the man chosen to produce the Oscar telecast this year, for his "rehearsal is for fags" comment, and lame subsequent apology.

Harris wrote: 

I’ve had to listen to versions of every one of these mea-not-quite-culpas over the years and seriously, I’m no longer interested in patiently witnessing the slow arc of a public figure’s learning curve. What I do care about is what the Academy does, which should be either to ask for and receive his resignation from the show or to drop him as the producer of a show that is supposed to represent the best the industry has to offer. There’s not really a long, nuanced debate to be had about this. If he had used an equivalent racial or religious slur, the discussion would go something like, “You’re fired.” Apology or not. The same rule applies here. You don’t get a mulligan on homophobia. Not in 2011.


Tuesday — Ratner is fired! Er, resigns. Whatever.

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Fruits and vegetables a “specialty crop”: U.S. Congress

Mark Bittman, the brilliant food fundamentalist at the New York Times, has been writing the most amazing occasional editorials the last couple of years. Here's the latest, on the negotiations to reduce farm subsidies, and the group of four heavy-weight representatives from the Midwest on the so-called supercommittee who will negotiate the final numbers on what some are calling the "secret farm bill.":

The group of four is aiming at $23 billion in cuts, with around $14 billion coming from commodity subsidies, $6 billion from conservation programs, and the rest from nutrition programs like food stamps, now more important than ever. Everyone (almost literally) wants the restructuring of subsidies, but it sounds as ifdirect payments would be replaced by a new “shallow-loss” protection plan, essentially free insurance that would cover revenue losses before the also heavily subsidized paid insurance kicks in. Replacing direct payments with shallow-loss protection may save some money, but does nothing to change the fact that the wrong people will get it.

And the devil is in the details. Will small and medium farms raising what are outrageously called “specialty crops” (fruits and vegetables!) be covered by shallow-loss? Will programs supporting new farms, local farms, organic food, access to real food by real people, be boosted? Probably not.

Few are privy to discussions of either the group of four or the supercommittee. Those in Congress who appear most concerned about the process are led by Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of  Wisconsin, who, with 26 other members of Congress, sent a letter to the supercommittee urging it to reject the creation of new farm programs outside the normal legislative order. Meanwhile, Congress was flooded by 27,000 phone calls — encouraged by the excellentFood Democracy Now — protesting the secret farm bill.

Scores of legislators, farm and advocacy groups, individuals and other organizations have crafted proposals to be considered for the next farm bill (here are just a few), and at least some are slipping notes under the door of the group of four, hoping to influence their recommendations. Among the best of these is the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, a title that would strengthen local and regional agriculture and increase access to healthy food, introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Democrat of  Maine, and Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.

I spoke with Pingree by phone on Monday. The title, she said, “looks at existing programs and tries to find ways to make them work for the small to medium-sized family farm, which is the side of agriculture that’s actually growing.” It would make it easier for small and new farmers to borrow money, get small grants and secure crop insurance. It would make it easier to use food stamps at farmers’ markets and buy local food for school lunches. In short, it would be a huge step in the right direction, and asking your Congress representative  to co-sponsor this title is worth five minutes of your time.

Pingree “was looking forward to a public hearing on those things that should be eliminated or encouraged, and re-evaluating how we treat food and agriculture in this country.” But with the farm bill headed for a quick (and secret) trip thought the supercommittee, large-scale reforms like hers may not get the consideration they deserve. Although Pingree is optimistic that she’ll get at least some of her proposals included in the supercommittee report, without an out-in-the-open process real change will be shut out of the debate, as will entire states like California, whose gigantic agricultural industry produces the bulk of our “specialty crops.” (Fruits and vegetables, remember?)

Long, I know, but necessary. Pic below comes from a innovative cost-saving-small-farm-promoting program mentioned in passing in Bittman's full column. This is a program in which low-income women, infants and children are eligible to receive fruits and vegetables with WIC vouchers. 


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