Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chris Hayes survives beat-down from Jonathan Chait

Chris Hays appears in Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime's great series on Global Warming. Hayes has called Global Warming the most important issue of our time and has done a great deal of research on it, so he knows what he's talking about.

Jonathan Chait knows very little about Global Warming, which he appears to regard as about as important as a smudge on your newspaper. Nevertheless, he takes Hayes to task in a New York Magazine piece entitled, "Chris Hayes is not making sense on Keystone". Chait has two basic complaints to make about Hays's latest article in the Nation: Keystone's total load of carbon, he says, is only one-tenth as much as its opponents believe, and President Obama has comparable options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Chait's problem is simple. He doesn't believe Global Warming is a crucial issue. For him, the Alberta tar sands become harmless if they release "only" 22 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Chait wants to support Obama's nonsensical, "all of the above" energy policy. But he and Obama somehow believe that increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is ok if it only increases "a little bit." This is nonsense.

The president should be fighting against every gram of carbon injected into the already dangerously loaded atmosphere. "All of the above" is a great energy policy if it means stopping tar-sand development, imposing a carbon tax, raising emission standards, and making polluters pay for the damage they are doing to the environment instead of forcing our children and grandchildren to pay for it.

I said Chait knows very little about Global Warming because he takes his 22 billion tons figure from an article in Scientific American that he has clearly not read. Taking only the parts of scientific studies that support your viewpoint is called cherry-picking. That's obviously what Chait has done, because that same article includes a quote from James Hansen (a scientist, not a journalist) who says:
Moving to tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet, is a step in exactly the opposite direction, indicating either that governments don't understand the situation or that they just don't give a damn.
Read the article, Jonathan, don't just steal favorable statistics from it.

Chait is generally considered a liberal, but in this article he adopts the tactics favored by the extreme right: denial, cherry-picking data, and attacking the messenger. He wants the reader to believe that Global Warming isn't as bad as we thought it was, writing:
First, the environmental impact of Keystone is far smaller than Hayes implies...And second, the practical alternative, far from being nonexistent, is actually quite potent.
Chait needs to do a bit more reading in the literature before he sets himself up as an expert. The opinion among scientists is that the situation is worse, not better, because the US and other governments are dragging their feet and failing to take the drastic measures necessary to avert catastrophe. The steps that Obama is taking are fine, and he deserves our gratitude for taking them, but they fall far short of what the world needs, not in the distant future, but right now.

Obama's actions come after two decades of inaction on climate change, and time is our enemy. His two predecessors did almost nothing to combat the problem. The Bush administration and his cronies assured us that the problem was not real, that scientists were lying to us, and anyway global warming was good for business. In other words, they intentionally made the problem worse for their own private gain. So Obama needs to see this as an issue on which compromise has already been tried with terrible results. The free market has had its chance and failed utterly.

Obama needs to take the same stance he did on raising the debt limit: no debate, no compromise, no games. Chait, as Obama's media surrogate, needs to urge Obama to heed the warnings of reputable scientists. Instead, he attacks Hayes, a journalist like himself, for faulty reasoning.

Do not attack journalists, Jonathan. Attack the scientists who are pimping themselves to the energy industry. Attack the Kochs, who are saturating the media with misleading advertisements using the same arguments that you are using. You have a platform. Use it for the good of humankind.

Give a damn.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chris Hayes understands the threat of global warming; Tim Cavanaugh understands nothing

Chris Hayes must be used to this by now. Whenever Hayes--or anyone else, for that matter--mentions the catastrophe of global warming, he gets smacked down by someone. There are usual suspects in this game of whack-a-mole. The criticisms usually come from right-wing sources that are heavily financed by the energy industry.

One of the usual suspects is National Review. National Review Online published a critique of Hayes's latest essay in the Nation, headlined "Chris Hayes Wants to Kill About 5.7 Billion People." The headline has nothing to do with the article, but it sure catches your eye. The author, Tim Cavanaugh, presents no evidence that Hayes wants to kill anyone. There are no meaningful statistics presented, nor are there quotes from Hayes's article indicating how many people he wants to kill and why.

Cavanaugh's article is typical anti-science blather. He is no scientist. He does post the International Energy Agency's graph showing how much energy the world generates and how little of it comes from renewable or non-polluting sources. The graph is meaningless in itself because it does not predict how fast or at what cost polluting sources of energy can be replaced by non-polluting ones. It's possible they could all be replaced in 50 years, but Cavanaugh doesn't go into this because it would destroy his entire argument, or even his entire reason for living.

Since Cavanaugh doesn't explain how he arrives at the 5.7 billion killings figure, I will give it a shot. The total number of people on the planet in 2011 was about 8 billion, so Cavanaugh's estimate would be about 2/3 of that. Cavanaugh is simply stating that we can't possibly replace polluting energy sources with non-polluting ones and that therefore 2/3 of the people on the planet will die. A daunting thought, even though most of the energy we use does not go directly toward keeping us alive. Most of the energy we use is wasted on unnecessary items like NASCAR, barbecues and airplane flights to Bermuda. So we could probably cut 2/3 of it without killing anyone.

On the other hand, 40 percent of the energy we consume is used by industrialized countries, whose total population is about 1.2 billion. Therefore, we could easily reach a 40 percent reduction in energy use in industrialized countries without killing more that 1 billion people. Cavanaugh's prediction of mass extinction could only be true is each person on the planet used approximately the same amount of energy. But they don't.

Cavanaugh argues that the use of fossil fuels made rapid population growth possible. He calls this growth "progress". It follows from this assumption (implicitly) that stopping fossil fuel use would reverse "progress", resulting in the predicted number (5.7 billion) of deaths.

Cavanaugh uses some of his article to attack Hayes's writing style, calling it "tricked out with quasi-erudition and broad claims". He charges that Hayes uses "overflowing adjectives", "lethal compound modifiers", and "cascades of adverbs." Cavanaugh does not explain how this style negates the logic of Hays's article. I suspect he was just having fun with words. But his description of common compound modifiers like "heart-stopping" and "full-throated" as lethal is perhaps over the top.

I've spent far too much time dissecting Cavanaugh's article, but I was having too much fun. I'll discuss Jonathan Chait's more important critique in New York Magazine tomorrow.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Poisoned seas produce fatal fish

Go into any restaurant in Florida and you will see grouper at the top of the menu. Grouper are tropical reef fish that thrive in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The most famous and largest member of the grouper family is the goliath grouper, a huge, slow-moving behemoth of the deep that scares almost no one. Many groupers tip the scales at more than 700 pounds.

An apex predator is one that lives at the top of the food chain, consuming all those below it in the chain. Much of its diet consists of less-than-apex predators. For a long time it has been assumed that the goliath grouper, because of its size, must be one of the sea's apex predators, along with the shark, the dolphin, and the human. But no more.

Studies have shown that the goliath is too slow to do much besides steal fishermen's bait and feast on other critters that scurry along the bottom of the sea. Florida's fishermen are incensed by this pilferage, partly because goliaths have been protected by law since 1990. The fishermen complain that goliaths are responsible for the reduction in lobster populations and are lobbying hard to end the outright ban on goliath fishing.

Sport fishermen frequently claim that "fighting" fish are more exciting to catch. Their desire to catch goliaths seems mystifying, for goliaths are large, slow-moving, and have no fear of humans, making them easy prey for spearfishing. Hunting the giant groupers is about as exciting as bringing down a cow with a shotgun.

Groupers remain protected under federal law, but they may have found a way to strike back at their only predator, man. Increasing phosphate mining and fertilizer runoff in the Gulf of Mexico have nourished huge blooms of poisonous algae--poisonous to humans, that is, not to groupers. Studies have shown that 3 to 7  percent of Caribbean residents and tourists are poisoned by the condition called ciguatera annually. The results may be minor--consisting of nausea, vomiting, and itching--or they may be serious, resulting in neurologic symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis and lasting many years. One percent of ciguatera sufferers die.

Ciguatera poisoning is something to be concerned about when eating goliaths. They live so long that the chances of their becoming infected are greater than for their much smaller cousins. Cathleen Bester of the Florida Museum of Natural History assures us that cases of ciguatera poisoning are very rare. Those of us who studied probability in school may not consider a 7 percent possibility of infection as very rare. Horse racing aficionados observe that 10-1 shots frequently finish in the money.

On the other hand, Lori Bester of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that ciguatera is the most commonly reported marine toxic disease in the world. Lori suggests that you should never eat barracuda or moray eel and should exercise caution with snapper and grouper. I suppose she means you can eat these fish, but just don't eat very much.

If there was ever a fish that encouraged overeating by its very size, the goliath would be it. So perhaps, if the ban on fishing is lifted, the great goliath unintentionally will take its revenge on man after all.

[Note: Research for this post was provided by Matthew Gamel, a graduate student at Florida Gulf Coast University. His help is appreciated.]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why the Keystone XL Pipeline is (still) a bad idea

The main talking points of Keystone advocates are that it's a big project, ready to go, and it will create jobs.

The main replies by Keystone opponents are that being a big project has nothing to do with being a good project; it may be ready, but we, as a country, are not ready for its consequences; it may create jobs, but they are not permanent jobs or green, sustainable jobs.

Keystone XL will produce more greenhouse gases because tar-sands gas consumes more energy than it delivers, tar-sands gas has byproducts so dirty that they must be shipped to China to burn, and much of the profit will go to Koch Industries, a company that has consistently tried to undermine our democratic institutions. We may not be able to stop the Koch brothers from spending vast sums of money to influence public opinion, but we should be able to stop allowing their egoistic schemes.

President Obama should look Keystone advocates in the eye and say, "You have opposed every single project I proposed to create jobs. You have given me nothing in return for this project. I can't stop the federal government from giving you tax breaks and subsidies, but I can sure stop you from building this pipeline."

Take a stand, President Obama. You speak for all of us.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Corporate greed threatens the bounty of the sea

Omega 3 additives have become common in everything from eggs to peanut butter. Omega 3 is recommended for its beneficial effects against a wide variety of ailments including heart attacks, stroke, and colon cancer.

Omega 3 is a good thing. But we need to be concerned about where all this omega 3 is coming from. Mechanized harvesting of fish is not a good thing. Overfishing can have disastrous results in the areas where it is practiced.

Take the case of Omega Protein, a company that harvests 230 million pounds of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay every year and turns them into fish meal and omega 3 supplements. The menhaden are mostly harvested in Virginia and North Carolina by a fishing method called purse seining. Purse seining is illegal nearly everywhere because it captures whole schools of fish, wiping out entire populations wherever it is practiced. Purse seining is illegal along the Atlantic coast--except in Virginia and North Carolina.

One man who made millions from polluting Chesapeake Bay was billionaire Malcolm Glazer, who used to own Omega Protein. Like many other one-per-centers, Glazer showed no compunction about using purse seining, a process banned nearly everywhere, to rake in the millions.

One result of overfishing menhaden in Virginia has been the creation of a vast dead zone in Chesapeake Bay, once the most productive source of oysters in the world. A dead zone occurs where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support any fish at all. Menhaden are a keystone species. Their existence affects a broad range of other species and the health of the entire Atlantic. They provide a food source for large game fish, like the striped bass and the Atlantic cod. They also provide a food source for large sea birds like the osprey and the loon. As the numbers of menhaden have fallen, so have the numbers of the species that rely on them. Additionally, the food they used to eat, microscopic algae, have multiplied astronomically. Hence, the dead zone grows larger every year.

Once oysters kept Chesapeake bay waters clear. Oysters are filter-feeders that remove oxygen-consuming algae from the water, but the oysters are nearly gone now. Menhaden also consume large quantities of algae that remove the oxygen from water. They are an essential food source for striped bass, beloved by sport fishermen. They also improve water quality by removing algae. But Omega Protein, a company based in Texas, has almost completely eliminated them from Chesapeake Bay.

We can restore our estuaries and coastal waters to abundant production. Or we can let billionaires, like Malcolm Glazer, steal our fish and bankrupt the ecology. The choice is ours.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Charles Koch spills his guts in WSJ Op-Ed

Charles Koch believes that everything he does is good. Other people are not to be trusted to make decisions that he disagrees with. He is the most conceited, self-righteous, and misguided person in the headlines today.

Koch makes several dubious claims in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. Koch claims he has spent his life studying the principles that enable people to improve their lives. This statement is demonstrably false. Koch has spent his entire life running a multi-national corporation. This occupation has left him little time for reflection.

Koch lists these principles as dignity, respect, equality before the law, and personal freedom. These are not the principles listed in our founding documents, where the authors discuss life, liberty and the the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution includes a bill of rights that nowhere mentions dignity or respect. Those principles are too vague and ill-defined to serve as the cornerstone of any philosophy. Dignity is an attribute of authority. A judge has dignity, a king has dignity. Respect is a two-edged sword: Respect is earned as well as granted.

Koch lists equality before the law as a fundamental principle, but he has not spent his life donating to legal services for the poor, to ensure that everyone is equal before the law. He lists personal freedom as another fundamental principle, but he runs an organization, a corporation, which tells each employee exactly what he or she should do. Each corporate employee has a written job description that describes exactly what the corporation expects the employee to do for 40 hours a week. There's not much personal freedom there.

Furthermore, the corporation has unwritten rules that restrict personal freedom. The employees must obey all the edicts imposed on them by the executives of the company. They must never question authority, since insubordination is grounds for immediate dismissal. In many ways, a corporation limits the personal liberty of its employees, in the clothes they wear, in the language they use, and in the opinions they must hold about the company and its place in the world.

Koch apparently finds it acceptable to control his employees in this way, but believes that the elected government should never make any rules that affect its citizens. The citizens of a country vote to choose the government and the laws they wish to follow. The citizens of this country choose representatives to make those laws and enforce them. Koch's corporation is a dictatorship. One man makes all the decisions for everyone.

The worst thing that our current government does, according to Koch, is tell people how to run their lives. It does this because it does not trust them to run their own lives, he says. It is Koch who does not trust the people, however. He does not believe a government should rule with the consent of the governed. According to him, no one should have to obey any law he or she disagrees with. This is not a prescription for any real-world government, and it is certainly not a description of how Koch runs his company.

Koch's most egregious lie is when he pretends that his company cares about the environment. The company has won environmental awards, it is true, but these are awards for such things as keeping their oil tankers from leaking. They are not awards for fighting against global warming, because Koch does not acknowledge that greenhouse gases are a problem that has anything to do with him.

Koch is concerned about rearranging deck furniture while the ship is sinking. His refineries only release low levels of greenhouse gases, he says. His company has a fine safety record. He argued for the demise of the ethanol tax credit. But Koch industries is fighting to stop conversion of our energy grid to renewable energy.

Koch has no sympathy for the plight of people all over the world who find their homes threatened by rising sea levels, or watch their crops wither in the ever-hotter sun. Instead, he claims that he is not his brother's keeper. He takes no responsibility for his own actions. He spends vast sums of money to defeat politicians who might be tempted to listen to their constituents and limit the influence of undemocratic corporations.

Charles Koch is the face of evil in our world today.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tim Kaine advocates fracking and Keystone XL—Why is the Sierra Club supporting this man?

Tim Kaine in 2010 (By Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA - DNC Chair Tim Kaine, CC BY 2.0,
The most vital issue facing the world today is the rising level of greenhouse gases in the environment, which leads to climate change. The response of the U.S. government has been to promote the use of natural gas instead of oil or coal for the production of electricity.

I recently received a letter from Tim Kaine, U.S. Senator from Virginia, reiterating in detail the talking points of the energy lobby. In his letter, Kaine ignores the one salient fact about natural gas that the energy lobby would like us to forget: Burning natural gas in the atmosphere increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Instead, Kaine, and his energy producing allies, states another fact, equally true but completely irrelevant:

Recent innovation in the production of natural gas has dramatically changed our nation's energy portfolio...[and results in] lower prices, cleaner American electricity, and job growth in our nation's manufacturing sector.”

This is not an argument for permitting greater production and exportation of natural gas. It is simply and blatantly and appeal to permit the energy companies to use these new procedures to make more money.

Senator Kaine, it is not the responsibility of the federal government to assure that energy companies make a profit. It is your responsibility to do everything possible to promote the well-being of the American people. You take an oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution protects the American people, not the profits of corporations.

In his letter, Kaine suggests that we should permit export of natural gas to foreign countries when it is in the interest of the U.S. to do so. In particular, he suggests that exporting U.S. natural gas to Europe will keep European countries from relying on Russia and Iran for their energy needs. This is an indirect approach that has the result of increasing world production of greenhouse gases. Any such policy should be abandoned immediately.

We cannot directly determine what Russia and Iran do, nor can we determine what Europe will do. We can only determine what the U.S. does. We must oppose any policy that results in the U.S. producing more greenhouse gases or enabling other countries to do so.

In regard to other environmental concerns, Kaine states that we should “always ensure that environmental safeguards in the gas production process are rigorously followed to avoid harm to drinking water sources.” Fracking is a “recent innovation”. It has not been proven safe for the environment. It has only been proven profitable for the energy companies. The history of energy companies shows that it make take years or even decades before the harm caused by new technologies is known. During that time, energy companies have proven again and again that they will lie to us about the harmfulness of their products.

The EPA is currently investigating the problems caused by fracking. It could take years to discover just how badly this new technology is degrading our environment. In the meantime, the U.S. must use every means possible to stop fracking. Kaine suggests that we do the exact opposite, that we trust the energy companies when they claim their extraction procedures are safe.

We now know for certain that no product that injects greenhouse gases into the environment is safe to use. We also know for certain that no product that pollutes ground water is safe to use.

Tim Kaine is not a friend to the environment, as he would have us believe. Instead, he is a friend to the energy moguls, like David Koch, who are using their profits from oil to buy the U.S. Congress. Kaine's opinions expressed in this letter suggest that he has already been bought.

A true friend of the environment would be proposing bills that increase use of renewable resources. He would propose increased spending on clean energy research and development. He would be decrying the actions of bought and paid for politicians who today are voting to stop any federal research into global warming.

We, the people, are not gullible, Senator Kaine. We see exactly which side of the issue you are on. Please start respecting our intelligence by making proposals that will save the environment, not destroy it.