December 2009 Archives

Notes in December - Development and Evolving Attitudes

  • Copenhagen: Despite walking past sculptures of skeletons and eerie melting ice polar bears and mermaids daily, the climate change delegates collectively refused to come up with anything substantial in Copenhagen. President Obama curtailed his much awaited visit, altogether minimizing his association with what was by most accounts a failure, but also known as an accord, in order to fly home early and beat a snowstorm. If we are one world we are also many countries with our own economic interests in mind.

    Is there a better way? The Economist suggested in an article last week that the talks may have gone better if different regions and pollutants were considered separately. While the idea is interesting, this sort of regime is also how fishing interests repeatedly fail to establish effective ecological safeguards and effective quotas.

    Although the talks weren't considered fruitful, an interesting sidenote is the inability of very tenacious climate change deniers to convince delegates or the thousands of protestors in Copenhagen that climate change is a hoax, and that nothing's at stake.

  • The Ice Floe Debate: Last month, in our Notes on Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry, under "Curly-haired Science Populizers Spar" we wrote about what we'll call the IQ nurture:nature debate between two science popularizer giants, Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell. Pinker had criticized Gladwell for what he cuttingly labeled the "Igon Value Problem", defined as, "when a writer's education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong."

    In return, Gladwell wrote that Pinker might be "unhappy" with him for not joining him on the "lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism", and criticized him for quoting bloggers. (Although if not for bloggers there might not be people in science of lower regard in the research hierarchy than some of Gladwell's mashable social scientists -- just saying.)

    After we left off, Pinker responded to Gladwell that IQ was related to "many important educational, economic and social outcomes" according to "52 signatories" and "a unanimous blue-ribbon panel". Gladwell then raked over Pinkers' sources, detailing how 15 of those 52 signatories belonged to a group founded by a eugenicist -- whose members are racists, eugenicists and sexists. After substantiating his response at length, he concludes:

    "The fact that ideas are sometimes supported by people with unsavory connections does not make them invalid. An ice floe is not necessarily a bad place to be. It's just that if you are plainly floating on one, it doesn't make much sense to insist that you are standing on solid ground."

    Although both science popularizers are getting more popular via the dispute, there are important issues at stake here. (Acronym Required previously wrote "Watson Uncut: Surprising? Boring? Racist?)

  • Racism Persists: Psychology researchers at Yale University found that racism persists, despite US society's more tolerant overt attitudes. The psychologists studied nonverbal interactions between white and black characters on television shows, then surveyed study participants for their responses to the actors attitudes (complicated methodology). They concluded that nonverbal behavior towards minorities on television influence the attitudes of millions of viewers.(Dovidio et al Science(326) 1641 - 1642 DOI: 10.1126/science.1184231)

  • Larry Summers Summons the Economy to Man-Up: Larry Summers is overly optimistic on jobs says a guest blogger on Naked Capitalism in the article titled: "Larry Summers Is Like a Guy Who Yells That the Sun Really DOES Revolve Around the Earth and that the Current Orbit is Just a Temporary Aberration . . . and That If We Just Wait a Little While, Everything Will Return to Normal". We last reviewed Summers's history of unfailing optimism in Mission Accomplished: Summers Ends Economy's Free Fall.

  • Coaxing The GOP To Eat Arugula: Michael J. Petrilli questions the GOP vote getting strategy in Wall Street Journal. The Hoover Institute Fellow observes that "with the white working class shrinking and the educated 'creative class' growing", Republicans such as Sarah Palin, "whose entire brand is anti-intellectual", and GOPers who brand themselves for "working-class families", "Sam's Club Republicans", and "your co-worker not your boss", might be miscalculating. Petrilli's assessment of those who criticize "Eastern Elites"? "Playing the populism card looks like a strategy of subtraction rather than addition". Instead he suggests: "What is needed is a full-fledged effort to cultivate "Whole Foods Republicans" - independent minded voters who embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics."

  • South Africa's Ex-Health Minister Dies: South Africa's Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang died of complications from a liver transplant she had two years ago. As Health Minister during the Thabo Mbeki administration, she was known as "Dr. Beetroot" for her suggestions that lemon, beetroot and garlic would protect AIDS patients against the deadly effects of the disease in lieu of antiretrovirals. Mbeki's administration oversaw the fraught handling of the AIDS crisis in South Africa, and the former president went to great lengths to protect his comrade Tshabalala-Msimang, who attracted international attention for her positions.

    Even the Minister's liver transplant was controversial. The Times wrote in Manto: A Drunk and a Thief, of a Health Minister who was an alcoholic with liver cirrhosis -- a kleptomaniac on bad behavior while in hospital. One hospital employee told the paper that Tshabalala-Msimang's "antics were common knowledge among staff.'Everyone here thinks its hilarious that she is today a health minister in South Africa'". The story questioned whether favoritism and power enabled her to receive a liver transplant ahead of others.

  • Sickle Cell Anemia Not the Only Genetic Mutation to Protect Against Malaria: We learned in our biology courses that the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell anemia is an adaptation to the malaria causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Recently, scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris have shown that a less common malaria causing strain, Plasmodium vivax, has also caused adaptive pressure on the genome. The scientists found a gene variant associated with an enzyme deficiency which seems to protect against infection by P. vivax in Southeast Asian populations. The variant causes a deficiency of the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), associated with neonatal jaundice and hemolytic anemia after exposure to certain infections, foods, or medications. (Sakuntabhai et al Science 326, 1546-1549 (2009)DOI: 10.1126/science.1178849)

  • Cookstove Technology: Indoor pollution causes 1.6 million deaths per year. Cookstoves contribute significantly to indoor pollution, especially in developing countries where morbidity and mortality from cookstoves disproportionately affects women and children. The New Yorker recently published an article about an Oregon company (one of many) working on cookstove technology for developing countries. An efficient cookstove will vent smoke out of the dwelling and will also burn fuel effectively, saving both lives and forests. But as the article shows, it's about more than technology -- there's many ways a cookstove can not work in developing countries.

New Strategies for Bisphenol A and Chemicals?

The Chemical Lobby Finds Their Man:

Back when the momentum for banning bisphenol A (BPA) hadn't quite built up to its current fervor, BPA lobbyists used to denigrate everyone who questioned the safety of bisphenol A. Male, female, old, young, it didn't matter, they were 'internet moms' who'd worked themselves into a blind tizzy about bisphenol A, which was 'perfectly safe'.

But things were a little more tense last May for industry leaders who met to discuss a strategy for fighting back against the growing movement to limit consumer exposure to risky levels of BPA. As we quoted the Wall Street Journal in our post back then:

"industry executives huddled for hours Thursday trying to figure out how to tamp down public concerns over the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA. The notes said the executives are particularly concerned about the views of young mothers, who often make purchasing decisions for households and who are most likely to be focused on health concerns."

In addition to crafting clever lines to scare consumers, like "do you want to have access to baby food anymore?", the industry group discussed getting the right spokesman for their cause. A scientist might be difficult they acknowledged, they had reputations to preserve, but a pregnant woman would be "the Holy Grail".

Now it looks like they found their man in a public relations expert named "Joe Householder" -- his real name. This isn't the first challenging public relations assignment for Mr. Householder. He worked with, among others, Enron's law firm, baseball player Roger Clemons, Hillary Clinton, various other politicians, and Public Strategies Inc. Now he's with Purple Strategies Inc., apparently heading a group called "Coalition for Chemical Safety". The Coalition for Chemical Safety works with American Chemical Council (ACC) and other businesses. To date, those businesses are known more for not putting the safety and health of consumers before corporate profits.

So we look skeptically at "The Coalition for Chemical Safety". Indeed, it's described by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) as an BPA astroturfing organization. But it takes different tactics then previous BPA astroturfing campaigns. Mr. Householder and the Coalition for Chemical Safety take a warmer approach to BPA and chemicals, astroturfing-wise, then representatives in the past have.

In step with the times, the everyone_together_at_the_same_table age of Obama rhetoric, as opposed to the more acrimonious Bush era rhetoric, the Coalition is 'educating' consumers about chemicals. Instead of saying bluntly that BPA is safe, the mother in this Coalition sound clip talks about banning BPA in baby bottles, but encourages consumers and public health advocates to always work with the chemical companies (mp3 from EDF). This is the more subtle approach to controlling the public perception of chemicals. And who better to assure "young mothers" making "purchasing decisions for households", than a guy named Joe Householder?

In keeping with this new, more collegial approach to marketing/public relations, Householder has directly engaged Dr. Richard Denison, EDF's sometimes scathing Senior Scientist, in a mano-a-mano on Denison's blog. This is Householder's "purple" strategy, I think, not red, not blue, purple -- get it? That's where we all agree that chemicals are indeed wonderful (they are) and that we love regulation, just the "right" regulation, and "reasonable" regulation. Look out for that.

Mr. Household has invited Dr. Denison to join the Coalition for Chemical Safety, and although Denison hasn't posted a public response, I think with their combined gregariousness and magnetism, it's just a matter of time before they're hanging out together, Richard educating Householder on bisphenol A and Joe sharing public relations tactics and the use of his very apropos name. Isn't that how things get done these days?

Update: 02/14/09 Dr. Denison did continue to engage Joe Householder on the EDF blog. In a February post, Denison continued to ask Householder what his funding sources were, and what PR tactics he had used to get certain sectors so riled up about the Toxic Chemical Safety Act (TCSA):

"What exactly are you telling lawn services and landscaping companies they need to worry about in TSCA reform? And just what tortuous scenario are you weaving to convince police associations that better chemicals management will compromise their safety on the job?"

Denison wants some transparency from Householder. We don't know how/if Householder responded.

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Acronym Required has written extensively on BPA science and regulation. We also wrote about individuals hired by industry, the acrimony they stir up, and the possibility of wonderful relationships blossoming between players on either side of the chemical divide in BPA Rhetoric and Reaction

Tricky Science-Speak

Trick

Scientists sometimes confuse people with inscrutable acronyms -- BPA, NIEHS, NTP, EPA (bisphenol A, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program, Environmental Protection Agency), words that are difficult to pronounce -- "phthalates", or words that are difficult to get to the end of -- "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis". But lately, we've been stumping people with words everyone thought they knew, like "trick". People went wild over the idea that East Anglia scientists had used a "trick" to manipulate raw data.

"Trick", previously associated with annuals "treats" and six year olds in fairy costumes, was suddenly linked to nefarious acts. Yes, there is that "trick", but it's not often used1. And did the media mayhem over "trick" top the media mayhem over the breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction" during Super Bowl half-time a couple of years ago? Hard to say -- but global warming is actually serious.

Scientists explained over and over that "trick" can be a good thing, like mathematics, logical thinking, transparency, pragmatism, maybe even dignity for life -- but their insistence only increased suspicion and talk. "Trick" dominated the news cycle longer than any five letter word should be allowed to and even wormed its way into events like the US legislature, where senators leveraged the word in committee meetings to veer away from very important topics like the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)2.

Now we see the word all over the place. And like the original East Anglia "trick", it's often used to rationalize why climate change, the reality, isn't being translated into climate change policy. The Financial Times reported on the tension between China and the US in Copenhagen and quoted China's on its changing stance:

"'China will not be an obstacle [to a deal]. The obstacle now is from developed countries,' he said. 'I know people will say if there is no deal that China is to blame. This is a trick played by the developed countries. They have to look at their own position and can't use China as an excuse...'"

John Tierney recently used the word to propose a temperature based carbon-tax -- a joke perhaps, or to scoff at science?

"[U]se the temperature readings as the basis for a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade system...the carbon tax would be more effective at reducing emissions because it is simpler, more transparent, easier to enforce and less vulnerable to accounting tricks and political favoritism."

Up to his usual tricks, that Tierney.

Talking about the challenge the US Senate presents for Obama in Copenhagan, Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center described Obama's challenge as a "Goldilocks Problem":

''The trick is finding something just right in balancing the importance of demonstrating international leadership while not undermining the legislative dynamic here at home.''

Moving away from climate change, the word "trick" can morph from a bad thing or a challenge, to a good thing. An author recently mused in an essay in the New York Times about the "tricks" to maintaining a marriage.3

Hack

The confusion over "trick" is not entirely unjustified. Merriam Webster has seven possible uses of "trick". And another word that's ambiguous for some people, again, reasonably so, because it has nine uses in Merriam Webster, is "hack", as in, they hacked into the email server in East Anglia and stole a thousand emails.

During the December 2, 2009 hearing on the pressing imperative of revising the "Federal Toxic Substances Control Act" (TSCA), climate denier Senator Inhofe (R-OK) hijacked the meeting to windbag on about "tricks" in emails necessitating a halt to EPA emissions rulemaking.

Senator Boxer (D-CA) responded eloquently and forcefully, noting that although she was concerned about criminal acts of "hacking", she was more concerned about anthropogenic carbon emissions, about global warming, and about the repercussions for human health -- that's where her duty was, to the people effected by global warming. About the email break-in she said:

We're dealing with a criminal act of hacking into a computer...It seems to me they must have been hacking this for years. And just before Copenhagen they came out with it...That's what it seems to be...because, these emails, they go back...how many are there? Over a thousand emails? So I don't know how long a thousand emails...

This may be a silly example, but it shows how people with expertise in a particular area assume common understanding of simple words. Here it seems like "hacking" into a computer is visualized as George Washington trying to "hack" down a giant redwood tree in the Muir Woods National Park.

Hack can mean to chop at roughly. It can also mean to tolerate or bear something, for instance, I don't know how Senator Boxer can hack Senator Inofe's perennial global-warming-is-a-hoax B.S. so gracefully. Used as a noun, hack can also be a cough, a horse, a worker, or (derogatorily) someone who misconstrues or butchers something -- for example, Senator Inofe is a real hack when it comes to science and global warming.

But when someone hacks into a computer as they did in East Anglia, they exploit a vulnerability in order to access data owned by someone else. Different than hacking at a tree. It can take a computer hacker a while to find the vulnerability and locate the data, but then they most often swoop in, get it, in this case a bunch of emails, and go. Sometimes they lurk about, poised to commit further crimes, or leave an opening to come back, obviously there's no rules, but generally they're not hewing emails out of the server one at a time over many years 465 -- hack, hack hack, 466 -- chop, chop, 467 -- hack, hack -- that's a different use of the word.

The Trick for Scientists, If They Can Hack It

So "trick" can not so intuitively mean find a solution, as well as to deceive, and "hack" can mean deceptively break into a computer in order to plunder or pillage, as well as to chop at something. And confusingly, computer scientists, sometimes known as "hacks" but in a good way, will "hack" a solution to a very tricky programming problem, just as scientists use a "trick" to help analyze and make sense of data.

And that's the challenge for scientists -- a trivial one, but another one. In addition doing science, teaching, writing grants, motivating grad students, negotiating politics and budget cuts, actually physically looking out for hackers and those who would break into scientists offices and steal computers as part of a global effort to undermine climate science; in addition to assessing threats of bodily harm, scientists need to simplify concepts, avoid acronyms and watch their use of simple seeming words whose meaning they take for granted.

All that work because even people with the best intentions don't always have a grip on either science or its lexicon. And once scientists sort out "trick" and "hack" for everyone, they'll then face the greater challenge of explaining the risks of doing nothing about global warming, with the risks of doing something. After all, probability and risk are orders more challenging for people to grasp than "tricks" and "hacks".

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1 See, "Do Names Portend Profession?", in AR's Science Dust-Ups and Dirty Laundry

2

We wrote about TSCA here. Of 80,000 chemicals produced, there's little information about which ones are on the market, and only 5 are regulated by the EPA.

3 In the NYT on marriage: "Recently one of my wife's college students kept pressing us, with baffled curiosity, for our secret, as if there had to be some trick to it..."

Sussing Out Friedman On Climate Change

In his most recent column, Thomas Friedman marshals ideas from Ron Suskind, Dick Cheney and Cass Sunstein in order to call for action on climate change. By the end of his column, Friedman has reminded readers of decades of research showing that greenhouse gases make the planet warmer, with the "potential to unleash 'catastrophic' warming." What risk should we take, he asks? Should we increase our energy efficiency and mitigation efforts? Then, in the unlikely event that climate change weren't critical, "as a country we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent". Or should we risk not preparing? Then if climate change were a catastrophe, "life on this planet" would become "living hell"?

Before we get to the crux of his argument in "Going Cheney on Climate", though, Friedman forces his interpretation of Dick Cheney, Ron Suskind, and Cass Sunstein on the reader. It's unclear why Friedman chose them -- perhaps to convince the GOP, or any deniers, or those who are swayed by deniers, to support climate change action? Friedman habitually pulls a few (three, often) diverse things together to make a point.. But by (mis)using the diverse philosophies of Cheney, Suskind and Sunstein he muddles the facts of climate change. In doing so he undermines what I believe is his intention, to emphasize the imperative for action.

The "One Percent Doctrine" and Climate Change

Friedman refers to Ron Suskind's book "The One Percent Doctrine", titled after the following comment Dick Cheney made in 2001:

"If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response..."

Friedman appropriates Suskind/Cheney to implore us to treat climate change as if it were a threat as serious as Al Queda developing a nuclear weapon. But Suskind was actually extremely critical of Cheney and the "Cheney Doctrine". Why? Here's the rest of Cheney's comment:

"...It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence...It's about our response""

Cheney's defined a new world order and demanded action despite the evidence, as Suskind describes:

"Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters. As to 'evidence', the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply. If there was even a one percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction- and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time -- the United States must now act as if it were a certainty. This was a mandate of extraordinary breadth..."

As Suskind wrote, Cheney's set an extraordinarily low bar considering he was completely turning around US policy. Cheney's doctrine meant commitments from everyone, citizens and libraries as well as all levels of government -- the the CIA, the Army, the NSA, the Treasury -- and the costs were stupendous. As Suskind wrote:

"all parties took a vow of sorts on Sept. 12...vowed to work each day and every night...They'd stop at nothing...Global accords on everything from greenhouse gases to international courts...now were seen as constraints...Such agreements were for lesser countries. They were to be shaken off...

Suskind criticized the Cheney Doctrine precisely because its framers willfully disregarded evidence about the negligible risks of Al Queda gaining nuclear capability. Cheney demanded a charge into war despite the evidence.

This is not the situation with climate change. Suskind's description of the Cheney Doctrine does not bolster what I take Friedman's argument to be. Unlike the incredibly weak to non-existent evidence that Al Queda would obtain and use nuclear arms, the evidence for climate change is very substantial. It is substantial despite the well funded opposition of deniers. A cartoon in the Atlantic Constitution this week summarizes the folly of the deniers. The woman depicted in the cartoon, speaking sometime in the future, says: "The North Pole melted. Polar bears are extinct. Asia's under water. Africa's a desert." The guy next to her responds: "Hey I never said the global warming hoax wasn't elaborate." It's not only the evidence we see with our eyes. It's the evidence that thousands of scientists and researchers have pointed out to us.

Friedman obstructs his own line of argument even further with the Cheney Doctrine, because as Suskind noted, the Doctrine left no doubt about the administration's intentions for dealing with climate change. According to Suskind the US took greenhouse gases off the negotiating table in deference to the pressing urgency of military action.

Friends or Foes? Friedman's Folly

In addition to confusing the issue with Suskind and Cheney, Friedman pulls in Cass Sunstein to obstruction his argument further, writing

"Sunstein wrote in his blog: 'According to the Precautionary Principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events -- such as climate change. Indeed, another vice president -- Al Gore -- can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over 1 percent)."

Again, Friedman misappropriates Cass Sunstein's arguments. Here, Sunstein was actually criticizing the Precautionary Principle, and by extension the Cheney Doctrine. According to Sunstein, the Precautionary Principle muddles and stalls appropriate action on climate change. This he spelled out in papers, articles and books like Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle", and "Risk and Reason: Safety, Law, and the Environment", his 2002 book.

In his body of work, Sunstein uses social science research to show that individuals are susceptible to faulty conclusions based on irrational fear and errors in judgement like "availability heuristics". Sunstein argues that instead of the Precautionary Principle, the risks and benefits of action on suspected perils should be evaluated empirically. On global warming, he suggests incentives to motivate players to make choices to limit emissions. He suggests this as an alternative to regulation.

Take for instance, Sunstein's 2008 Boston Globe essay, Throwing Precaution to the Wind. He specifically used the example of Bush's Iraq War as a precautionary tale for dealing with global warming:

"the Bush administration justified the war on explicitly precautionary grounds - that even the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iraq was so threatening that it demanded action. Indeed, the idea of "preemptive war" articulated by President Bush is a kind of precautionary principle. The nation went to war on the chance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But this precaution is imposing a heavy price and creating serious risks for the future."

Like Suskind, Sunstein is criticizing the Bush administration's flight to military action based on scanty evidence. Sunstein uses this to warns against regulation on climate change, saying that regulation can invoke unforseen risks or even death. Banning DDT he says here and previously, caused deaths from malaria. Of course this argument is absolutely incorrect. Nevertheless Sunstein recruits it and others to warn people off applying the Precautionary Principle to climate change.

The "Cheney-Thing" on Climate - Something to Get Behind?

In the end, Friedman says:

"When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is "irreversible" and potentially "catastrophic," I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.""

Cheney might use the one percent argument to go to war, but he did so to invoke fear in the American public in order to gain their support. Suskind did not support the Cheney Doctrine, because it wasn't based in evidence and fact. Sunstein also criticized the Cheney Doctrine, but in his case compared it unfavorably to the Precautionary Principle. Now Friedman incongruously corrals the whole mix to support: "doing the Cheney-thing on climate -- preparing for 1 percent." I'm not sure quite what to make of this kind of endorsement, but I'm very wary of it.

Higher Pollution from Alberta Tar Sands

Alberta Tar Sands

Last year we reported that the Alaskan gas pipeline, touted as necessary for American energy independence, would actually be transporting a lot of the gas to Canada's Alberta tar sands", where the gas would fuel oil extraction from bitumen, an energy intensive, elaborate process for getting oil. The oil will eventually help fuel US needs.

Extracting oil from the tar sands is difficult, expensive, and dirty.1 But as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, extraction from the tar sands becomes a more economical option. Bitumen production increased from 482,000 barrels in 1995, to 1.3 million barrels a day in 2008, and is expected to reach 2 to 2.9 million barrels a day by 2020.2 Extraction operations increased in area to 530km2 (205mi2) in 2007.

Now a study from University Alberta released in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), finds that the tar sand extraction projects are dirtier than thought.2 Previous surveys done by the industry found that the tar sand operations didn't increase downstream levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) -- chemicals (some carcinogenic) released both naturally and through mining operations.

Schindler et al independently investigated water pollution from the tar sands. Testing water from the Athabasca River, Lake, Delta and tributaries, their findings contradict previous studies by showing increased PACs. The authors found that the levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) are higher downstream of mining activity, and greater in the summer than winter months. They also sampled snowpack, where they found significant particulate deposits.

Currently, the industry monitors itself, and the Alberta government somewhat audits the reports. Schindler observed to the journal Nature 3 what many recognize as problems with industry self-monitoring, it's "sort of like abolishing the police and asking people to pull over if they see they're speeding and report themselves." The PNAS authors recommend that the federal government take over monitoring pollution from the bitumen extraction operations.

Reports of like this are bad news to some Canadians who are worried about impressions and bad publicity around the tar sands, especially with the increased international attention due to Copenhagen. As University of Alberta energy economist Joseph Doucet put it: put it, "God help us if this becomes like baby seals."

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1 To get a sense of it, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert's article in the New Yorker, "Unconventional Crude."

2 Schindler DW et al "Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and it tributaries" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0912050106

3 Jones, N. "Tar sands mining linked to stream pollution" Nature www.nature.com | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1127

The EPA Finalizes Endangerment Finding. Climate Change Deniers Inchoate

When "Effective EPA" is No Longer an Oxymoron?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the agency's finding last April that greenhouse gases "(GHGs) endanger public health and welfare. Jackson reminded viewers that the Bush administration EPA had found that greenhouse gases endangered health and welfare, action compelled by the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, but had "regrettably" stalled on moving forward with the agency's recommendation offering only "excuses" and "delay". Said Jackson: "this administration will not ignore science or the law any longer, nor will we avoid the responsibility we owe to our children and grandchildren."

Having finalized the Endangerment Finding, Jackson announced some first steps:

"Next month, large emitters in the U.S. will begin working with EPA to monitor their emissions. Beginning in 2011, large emitters will - for the first time - submit publicly available information that will allow us to meaningfully track greenhouse gas emissions over time....And starting next spring, large emitting facilities will be required to incorporate the best available methods for controlling greenhouse gas emissions when they plan to construct or expand."

The agency noted that it had no intention of putting burdens on small businesses.

The Indefensible Status Quo and Republicans Think They're Deep Throat(?)

Last weekend we wrote about a group of GOP Republicans who asked the EPA to withdraw the Endangerment Finding because of the CRU emails. We noted their tone of desperation, for instance that they tried to make their case by quoting an infamous, non-sensical UK climate denier. Jackson addressed the skeptics, and noted that the EPA's action was based on decades of research.

"We know that skeptics have and will continue to try to sow doubts about the science. It's no wonder that many people are confused. But raising doubts - even in the face of overwhelming evidence - is a tactic that has been used by defenders of the status quo for years. Those tactics have only served to delay and distract from the real work ahead, namely, growing our clean energy economy and freeing ourselves from foreign oil that endangers our security and our economy."

True to form, last week Representative James Sensenbrenner(R-WI) had said that CRU emails were "evidence of scientific facism". Today, having worn out facism, communism and nazism and Hitler references, EPA letter writer Representative Richard Issa (R-CA) summoned fellow Republican the deceased Richard Nixon for his incoherent campaign. Responding to Jonathan Pershing's (U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change) observation that the emails were inconsequential and the science on climate change was "incredibly robust", Issa declared: "Richard Nixon said that about what Deep Throat had outed about the break-in."

Green Jobs, Pragmatism and Details

Jackson noted that today's action would also assure the American people, scientists, and the world that the EPA is serious, after eight years of inaction, about acting on the challenge of climate change. She hoped that recent EPA action would restore the "credibility and the trust of the American people" by taking an "enduring" and "pragmatic"

"step[s] towards innovation, investment and implementation of technologies that reduce harmful emissions...green jobs, reduced dependence on foreign oil, and a better future for our children."

These are great steps for the EPA, although we recognize the devil is in the details. Just as the work wasn't over once Obama won the election, the work isn't over now that the waiver is finalized.

Republican Letter To EPA Requests Halt on Climate Action

"We can only marvel at the disarray." - Jeffrey Sachs on climate policy.

The CRU Emails - Fool's Gold:

Like glittering treasure, the emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (CRU) beckon Republicans and climate change deniers who paw through the loot like pirates with fool's gold, pulling out one little nugget or another from the 1000+ email trove. I'm sure there's more than a lifetime's worth of out of context quotes to be mined.

(Graph: Instrumental Global Surface Temperature Measurements from >150 stations; image from Wikicommons. More info)

300px-Instrumental_Temperature_Record.png

It's a lesson some of us know and others are just learning, that given the slightest excuse, the climate science disbelievers will get louder, despite 30 years of accumulated evidence showing anthropogenic climate change. And so post-CRU email events and protagonists continue to gather momentum. This week the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and four members of Congress demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) halt all rule-making to reduce man-made carbon emissions on account of the CRU emails. In their letter, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) requested that the EPA-

"conduct a thorough and transparent investigation" into the "questions raised by the emails". "Additionally, the EPA "should withdraw the Proposed Endangerment Finding, as well as the Light Duty Vehicle Rule, and the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule....."

It was an over-the-top response to the CRU emails, but Sensenbrenner et al have been bombarding the EPA with this kind of stuff long before the CRU emails. Sensenbrenner is the former Chairman of the House Science Committee and ranking Republican on the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, a committee that he vehemently opposed before its formation, at which point he saw that he couldn't stop it so he got on board to undermine it anyway he could.

The EPA's Endangerment Finding, gives the agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases affecting US citizens health and welfare. We wrote about endangerment in a number of posts ( here, here, here, here, here, and here), describing the protracted negotiations between the states, the Bush and Obama administrations, and the courts, including the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA.

The four legislators demand that the EPA withdraw the Endangerment Finding decision of last April and halt Light Duty Vehicle and the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rules, just when the EPA, after eight years of Bush administration shenanigans, takes baby steps to try and slow down our human contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. The letter might as well request the agency drown itself in a bathtub. 1

If A "Climate Change Bullshit" Prize Bears Your Name, It Makes Sense That Republicans Would Quote You In A Letter To The EPA...?

"The content of the emails raises serious questions that demand your attention", write the four congressmen. To emphasize the erroneous climate science potentially informing their request, they quote from three newspaper essays - an editorial from the Wall Street Journal, a column from the New York Times, and a column from the British newspaper the Telegraph.

It's the job of Representatives and Senators to get information for their constituents. But what's their line of reasoning and who does it benefit? To anchor their letter, they reference UK Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker, presumably to give EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson good reason to consider their demands. Booker wrote that the CRU emails' "importance cannot be overestimated". US readers may not be familiar with the conservative Telegraph papers and they may not know Christopher Booker, but here's a sampling of his ideas:

  • Asbestos "poses no risk to human health and is chemically identical to talcum powder" [2]
  • "Scientific evidence to support the belief that inhaling other people's smoke causes cancer simply does not exist" [3]
  • Intelligent Design is valid and evolutionary scientists "rest their case on nothing more than blind faith and unexamined a priori assumptions" [4]
  • "2008 was the year man-made global warming was disproved" and more, in columns, and a book "The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With 'Climate Change' Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder In History" [5]

The UK Health and Safety Executive has rebuked Booker multiple times for his "misinformed" statements on asbestos. His false assertions on climate change are so well recognized in the UK that before George Monbiot wobbled uncertainly about the wisdom of casting his lot with climate scientists, he established the "Christopher Booker Prize for Climate Change Bullshit" with The Guardian.

The Christopher Booker Prize for Climate Change Bullshit awards the person who serves up the most climate falsehoods in a single article. That bullshitter gets a trophy made from what looks to me like a tin can and paper/styrofoam cup decorated with a magic marker - have a look for yourself. The "trophy" is made in "mid-Wales".6 You get a feel for Christopher Booker's authority.

The winner also gets an invitation from Monbiot to take a "one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole" to "see for him or herself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt." (The Arctic video showing global warming here is actually in our last post.) The Guardian generously offers excursion support in the form of a little bit of mint chocolate.

The Gall (and Fatal Flaw?) of the GOP

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) don't offer the most countable untruths, so technically they're not even eligible for Monbiot's prize as defined, although Sensenbrenner has made such career out of hassling the EPA that he might be considered for a lifetime achievement award. Two styrofoam cups.

On the other hand, maybe we could redefine the award, given that everything is in "disarray", and all topsy-turvy anyway. Think about it. The EPA, after being thrown out to pasture for eight years, is now being served up demands by a foursome who cite as evidence the most egregious of science deniers, capable of provoking George Monbiot's most venomous contempt. But Monbiot himself fears that no sooner did he stake his reputation on climate science then the scientists left him standing on an ice floe.

Actually, there's too much evidence for global warming, no cache of CRU emails can undermine that, therefore the Republicans are reduced to sending a letter full of nothing. So perhaps Monbiot could redefine the prize and the four intrepid lawmakers could capture the "trophy" simply for offering the most nothing? The four would look very sporty upgraded from a kayak to a little round rowboat. But will Monbiot stand by his prize offer? Or will he throw the whole styrofoam cup and little bit of mint chocolate thing overboard...and throw back a pint with Booker?

The Myth of the Republican Rhetoric Machine?

Marvel that the Republicans cite Booker's opinion in a letter to the EPA. They do offer longer quotes from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that would also be facile to refute; however, I was most impressed with the audacity of opening a letter to the EPA administrator with a quote from such a clown. Such is the sad state of Republican intellectual rigor in 2009. When scientists fret about their ability to counteract deniers, they sometimes overestimate the GOP as some well-oiled rhetorical wonderboat. It's not always so.

---------------------

1. Grover Norquist said said: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1381270/Christopher-Bookers-Notebook.html
3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1556118/Christopher-Booker%27s-notebook.html
4. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1495664/Christopher-Bookers-notebook.html
5.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/3982101/2008-was-the-year-man-made-global-warming-was-disproved.html

6. I bet if these four won we could commission some Hackensack, NJ, USA made trophies, because I know that's important to some camps. Hackensack is nice now, like Brooklyn, they say.

Denial will Live On During Climate Change, But the River May Not

Of Course Denial Is Not The River In Africa:

The upheaval over the climate e-mails is business as usual for the climate science deniers or denialists - they're not "skeptics", ok and here's why. Scientists are by nature "skeptics" and consider skepticism a valid approach to analysis. Merriam Webster says "skeptic" derives from the Greek skeptikos thoughtful, or skeptesthai to look. Quite different however, and unfortunate for all of us, the climate data needs to be denied to be disbelieved. There's too much of it over too many years from too many different fields -- too much evidence to be skeptical about. Meanwhile, while some deniers happily call themselves deniers, others deniers take extreme offense, saying calling them deniers is dismissive or denigrating. But that's not the goal here. I'm not saying deniers don't have feelings, they have valid feelings, and they may also have issues facing reality or other problems.

For instance, just as people who don't recycle may sincerely have difficulty separating cans from cardboard, climate deniers may be incapable of swimming. We can empathize. Swimming may become an even more vital skill in the future. Deniers may fear being seen driving an electric car, fear heatstroke, fear malaria, fear fire, fear tornadoes, fear heatstroke, or fear moving from Florida, which could be affected most by impending climate change with rising sea waters, temperatures and incidence of malaria. Fear may incapacitate deniers reasoning faculties or propel them to convince themselves and others that no change is necessary. We empathize some more.

But if we chance-it, if we do nothing because of the deniers' fears, if we just go on talk about emails in the UK some more, then we're making a choice that has the potential for far scarier outcomes than facing the mounds of evidence and choosing to do something. And we can do something, we can change, we can support industries that solve climate problems. Or we can do business as usual, and suffer the economic consequences of that. There are all sorts of innocent reasons why deniers are in denial. But denial for any reason thwarts problem solving.

Rearranging The Deck Chairs on The Titanic. Well..?

We don't necessarily understand their reasons, but we recognize the deniers' rhetoric. Decades of ice core data, Antarctica data, arctic data, temperatures, sea levels, temperatures and, corral bleaching, tree ring data, and more, all show global warming over decades, but they'll point out the window laughing and say "but today is cold out - global warming? Hahaha". If there's noise in a 30 year graph showing an up or down trend, they focus on a one year time period that shows the opposite trend, and say that's proof" that the graph is false.

Here's one video, just one piece of evidence in mountains of available data, showing the decrease in perennial sea ice (seconds ~25-50):

Deniers will ignore all the evidence, focus on a bunch of emails and call it ClimateGate, and get everyone to run over to the starboard side of the ship, when there's an iceberg forward (although, actually, eventually that won't be a problem anymore.) Or they'll say the problem is that the scientists weren't communicating and weren't being transparent with the data. Of course last year the Wall Street Journal was complaining about "too much" global warming evidence. We're not saying that scientists shouldn't have thought twice about pouring vents and frustration into emails, but this is the sideshow which keeps us all spinning, keeps us doing nothing.

Meanwhile, if the sea level of the Mediterranean Sea rose 1 meter, the Nile River Basin, home to millions and cultivated to feed more millions, would lose 6.1 million people to displacement. Where would they all go? 4,500 square kilometers of Nile River Basin cropland would be lost, and the World Bank estimates a 6% loss in GDP to Egypt, and direct GDP losses for about 10 other countries. 6% GDP impact would raise to 16% with a 5 meter rise of sea level. That's one area of the world and one river basin, there's many others. Louisiana and Florida will be lost to rising seas. California and Australia will have more forest fires.

And while many results of climate change are known, other possible changes could be even more catastrophic if they happened. This is the case with The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt or thermohaline circulation. Scientists don't know what the outcome of the collapse of the thermohaline circulation would be. They don't know how that would further change climate, which areas would be warmer, how it would effect ocean salinity. Would the ocean become a pond? Scientists can't predict, but there's a chance that it could be catastrophic. There's never absolute surety in science, but the outcomes can be different both ways, better, or a lot worse.

Deniers like Senator Jim Inhofe would be brandishing threats about emails if he were in hip-waders up to his waist in sea water. That's the way its always been and that's the way it will always be. Fighting against mult-million dollar "pro-industry" campaigns by oil companies and the people they corral - like Inhofe - has occupied scientists as much as the science. So when some people, (including scientists) now turn around and say that scientists need to be more transparent, it doesn't ring true. The data has been there and still is. These 'scientists aren't talking right' distractions only derail scientists from looking for solutions.

World AIDS Day 2009

Progress and Promises on AIDS:

Today, on World AIDS Day 2009, while looking for a statistic, I entered into Google the search: "HIV infections decrease". The sometimes precocious search engine offered an instantaneous correction: "did you mean HIV infections increase" [sic] No, I silently answered, frowning, before I caught myself attempting to communicate with a search engine. Then I flipped the search to Google News. Google News search also insisted I must mean "increase". So I finally got the statistic I was looking for, and then relented to Google's know-it-all suggestion and looked at "HIV infections increase". Google was wrong, as I already knew, HIV infections were actually decreasing. But I understand the reasoning, even if it's only algorithmic: The first search phrase, ending with "decrease", yielded only 1,940,000 results in .22 seconds, whereas the second, ending with "increase", gave 3,550,000 results in .18 seconds.

Just like the search engine, we brace ourselves for the worst with HIV/AIDS, we're habituated to hearing bad news. As the pandemic continues and effective methods for decreasing HIV infections, increasing treatment, and procuring funding seem at times as elusive as ten years ago, sometimes we need to look up once a year on AIDS day with some real intention just to see the inches gained in the sand we've been trying to get traction in.

Otherwise, even though the number of number of infections has decreased by 17% since 2001, all the World AIDS Days blur together and we're tempted to ask questions. Questions like -- has anything actually changed since the 20th World AIDS Day of 2007, when 61% of HIV infected population were women? Or from 2008 World AIDS Day? Or the first World AIDS Day 22 years ago?

Last year, on the the 21st World AIDS Day, we noted milestones like Bush's PEPFAR funding effort, and Barbara Hogan's appointment as South Africa's Health Minister. However, things change quickly in this area of public health, and this year brought both positive and negative news for PEPFAR and South Africa, two of our areas of interest.

The year started out promisingly, with Obama's inauguration and his pledge to pay even more attention to AIDS, especially for the recently increased national infections. He noted that his strategy would-

"...be based on the best available science and built on the foundation of a strong health care system"....however, he warned, "in the end, this epidemic can't be stopped by government alone, and money alone is not the answer either."

After being sworn in, Obama immediately got rid of the ban on international funding for groups that provided counseling on abortion. Condoms, an essential part of prevention, lost the evil connotation they had during the Bush administration. (The church took up the campaign when Pope Benedict XVI announced falsely in March that condoms would worsen the AIDS crisis). Obama was true to his campaigning words here. Science studies show that condoms are effective, and abstinence programs are not. Studies also show that attention to public health is central to preventing and treating infectious disease. Indeed, healthcare has been a theme of Obama's administration -- albeit to what end, we don't know. The president also recently lifted the HIV/AIDS travel ban, which has ostracized AIDS patients, something that's also been proven to undermine prevention and treatment programs.

Unfortunately, but again true to his word, Obama hasn't provided the leadership people hoped he would, even though government leadership has proven central to any successful HIV prevention and AIDS treatment program. Worse, although Obama the president-elect promised $1 billion per year in PEPFAR funding, the 2010 budget proposal contains only $366 million. The funding shortfalls have effected HIV and AIDS treatment programs, for instance eligible patients in Uganda are being turned away for lack of funds. The president's funding choices earned Obama a scathing D+ from AIDS NGOs.

Change in South Africa

In good news, South Africa's President Zuma has made several promises that show he's wised up from the time in court not long ago, when he defended himself on rape charges and said that a shower would prevent infection by HIV. Last month, Zuma promised that South Africa would vigorously address the national AIDS crisis.

Last May, when Zuma announced the reassignment of Barbara Hogan, whom he replaced with Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, there was some concern from South Africa's public health community about the assignment, concern the Dr. Motsoaledi was inexperienced, while Hogan's work was widely praised. However public health groups have since welcomed the new minister's straightforward acknowledgments of past mistakes.

We hope South Africa's new realizations -- like that the nation's deaths from AIDS increased more than 100 percent in 11 years -- are not just a rhetorical distancing of the ANC party from former President Thabo Mbeki's and his denialism, but a real commitment to an AIDS program. Optimistically, today Zuma announced the government's intention to treat all babies and pregnant women infected with AIDS.

In other major HIV/AIDS news this year, initial reports of a successful vaccine clinical trial in Thailand brought increased public attention and then consternation to later news of the same trial. The second news release informed the world that when researchers did further analysis of the results they doubted that the benefit was statistically significant. That's the way it goes though, steps forward, and steps back. The work continues tomorrow, and for the next 364 days we'll all work towards a more upbeat World AIDS Day 2010.

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