Archive for April, 2010


Leaky Plumbing

April 24, 2010



Graham Threatens Pullback

April 24, 2010

In an unbelievable move of political cowardice and logical hubris, Lindsey Graham has threatened to pull out of proposed climate and energy legislation (scheduled to be released on Monday) unless Obama backs off on his criticism of the recent Arizona immigration legislation and his possible shift to focus on moving immigration legislation forward. PostCarbon breaks the story.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to abandon his effort to push a climate and energy bill Saturday, saying he will only continue if Democratic leaders promise to relinquish plans to bring up immigration legislation first.

Graham’s departure, if he follows through on his ultimatum, would likely doom any chance of passing a climate bill this year. He is the sole Republican working with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a compromise proposal which they had planned to unveil Monday.

Because, you know, permission to erode civil liberties should certainly be a determining factor in how serious we are about addressing climate change and our energy future.


Liberty and Freedom

April 24, 2010

I probably don’t need to say much about this, but I thought I’d just point out how outrageously unethical the new Arizona immigration law is. It’s not just a bad law, it’s an unethical law, an unjust law, and it cuts deep into liberty and freedom — values that, I’m under the impression, are supposedly important to folks who have been making quite a stink lately. [Here’s the actual law.]

Some people (like, Fox News and CNN) are saying that liberal critics of the law are concerned about racial profiling. To my mind, racial profiling is the least of the concerns. A bigger concern is arbitrariness.

Arizona basically now requires law enforcement to demand papers from any person that any officer deems suspicious or illegal in any way, and permits those officers to detain those people on these grounds alone. It doesn’t specify the look of that person. It doesn’t specify the nationality of that person. It just specifies that a cop must be suspicious of that person being in the country legally. How does it ensure that the decision to request papers or detain a person won’t be based on the arbitrary whim of the police officer? It doesn’t. Presto. Carta blanca.

This differs dramatically, I think, from current criminal law which enables an officer to arrest or detain a person with “probable cause,” where that probable cause is a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime. Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, so some non-arbitrary evidence — blood stains, eye-witnesses, a weapon, so on — is required that will distinguish the criminal from the non-criminal. Not so with citizenship. With citizenship, there is no non-arbitrary evidence. Some attributes may function as decent proxies for non-citizenship — brown skin, a Mexican accent, dirty clothes and shoes — but those proxy attributes aren’t even close to “evidence” in the traditional sense of the term. Many hard-working and voting citizens also have those attributes (about 16 million naturalized citizens and 37 million foreign born).

This means, in effect, that you will need to carry your papers, or at least some legal documentation, with you at all times, no matter what you’re doing. If you go to the gym. If you go on a run. If you take the dog for a walk. You need to have your papers.

Oh, sure, clean white people with ‘merkin accents and nice shirts will likely not fall victim to the vagaries of this law. They’re way too American, despite the fact that they may be Canadian.

As it happens, the Governor is apparently somewhat concerned about the racial profiling implications of this law (not the above-mentioned problem with arbitrariness and universalizability), so she’s instructed the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to establish a training program for officers on how to “appropriately implement Senate Bill 1070.” Nothing cops like more than “sensitivity training.” And hey, there’s no mention in that executive order either of just what one is to be sensitive to.

Even if nobody falls victim to the law, this law cannot be justified. I fully and completely expect it to be deemed unconstitutional if it ever comes to the Supreme Court. But, then, I’m not a legal scholar, so I’m happy to be shown the error in my reasoning.


Democracy and Science

April 23, 2010

Roger called my attention this morning to a comment by philosopher Gregor Betz (Uni Stuttgart) in response to his recent review of four climate books (by Gore, Hansen, Schneider, and Helm/Hepburn) in Nature. You can read Betz’s shortened and published response here, but also his longer response at his website. I’d like to respond to the longer response.

For starters, I do think he’s right both about the normativity of policy (he seems to agree with Roger) and about the importance of descriptive claims to practical reasoning (he seems to disagree with Roger).

Just as an example: if I promise to be in London at 4:00, it matters to me what facts come into play. If there are no trains that arrive before 5:00, I’m in big trouble.

The question, ultimately, is whether Roger is actually saying that under no circumstances do descriptive claims play a role in the success or failure of a given policy or proposal. I’m fairly sure he’s not saying that, and a short shout out the door of my office confirms my suspicions. “Hey Roger: do you think that? No? Okay.”

Even still, if we take Betz’s initial caricature of Roger’s position on its face — “that [Roger seems to imply] that it is undemocratic for climate scientists to call for action against climate change in the name of science” — there are several ways to parse this out.

If it’s the “in the name of science” that’s important, as I believe it is for Roger, then it’s not clear why it is terribly important to accept a policy proposal in the name of science. Maybe there are reasons to propose a policy in the name of science — like, suppose, one may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, so that there are more species around to study — but isolating those reasons may be more or less difficult depending on one’s view of what science is.

If Roger is making the broader claim, which Betz apparently understands Roger to be, that democracy has no role for science, and thus no role for facts, I think I’ve completely misread Roger’s Nature article. My understanding of Roger’s position is that scientists who pretend that they’re taking the strictly descriptive stance — lo, this is what science tells us, and prescriptions naturally follow! — and therefore seek the moral high ground through their science, are doing a disservice to science, and to some extent, a disservice to democracy, by pretending (or, at least, acting under the illusion) that they aren’t also driven by ineffable political and normative considerations. That’s a mistake and a pretense of many (if not most) scientists, and it would be good to beat this out of them. We are not guided strictly by descriptive considerations. Practical reason is not theoretical reason. It doesn’t work according to tidy syllogisms.

On the second charge, I’m beginning to be worried that this is a straw man. For one thing, Roger only uses the term ‘democratic’ once, he uses the term ‘democracy’ twice, and he doesn’t use the term ‘undemocratic’ at all. As I say immediately above, my understanding is that Roger is not criticizing the scientists on grounds that there is no role for science in democracy. That’s ridiculous, and just looking at his entire body of work, it should be evident that he doesn’t feel this way. He’s a scientist, first and foremost. To make such a claim would essentially invalidate (or, at least, devalue) everything he works on himself.

Betz reveals, I think, that he has an almost naïve view of the practice of the sciences when he suggests that the only reason why scientists get involved in the public policy discourse is in order to clear up confusions. As he says, “because the public is unaware of the consequences of its actions.” It is true, of course, that scientists are sometimes motivated to clear up confusions, and perhaps that’s why, in many cases, they interject their work into the public discussion. That’s all very valuable. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think Roger agrees that that’s valuable. But what also often happens is that our allegedly value-free scientific positions are shaped, in part, by our orientations toward the right and the good, and sometimes it is when looking through this lens that we are more willing to emphasize one scientific finding and downplay another.

Depending on how cynical one is about truth, and depending also on what standards one holds for truth, one may think that science never escapes the pervasive influence of the normative. I’m willing to accept that claim, and I think it’s true in a very theoretical sense, but since a more-or-less pragmatic theory of truth strikes me as the correct theory of truth, I think I’ll say that the gavel has to fall on science and truth at some point, so the best we’ve got is the best we’ve got. It’s fallible, but it’s true nevertheless.

Finally, and this is a nitpicky philosophy thing, Betz is only partly right about the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is often confused with the is-ought fallacy, which is what I think he really wants to invoke. The is-ought fallacy relates to the illegitimate leap from some descriptive observation about a state of the world, or a currently accepted practice, to the normative prescription that this is how the world or the practice ought to be. That’s different than the naturalistic fallacy, which refers primarily to moral properties and stems from the misapprehension that whenever we observe some property in some object, there’s a related moral fact. The problem is that it’s an open question as to whether or not the property is also a moral fact. To be sure, the two fallacies are related and often confused by philosophers — particularly those who think that if you’ve identified a moral good then you have a reason, prima facie or otherwise, to promote that good — so I’ll give him a pass on this. Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing this distinction in mind if you ever consider invoking one or the other fallacy. You can read about the difference herehere, and here.



April 22, 2010

My sister and I have another publication out, this time on treating the sources of sleep problems.

Oh, sure, I know what you’re going to say: What? You don’t work on sleep. You work on environmental ethics.

True, that. But I’m a versatile cat, dig? A veritable renaissance philosopher.

Here’s the back story on my philosophy of sleep stuff. A lot of my research focuses on freedom, autonomy, and obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy. Most of the time, to suss out obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy (as opposed to harms), I hone in on arguments without straightforward victims (as victims are commonly conceived). The environment ends up being a pretty good source of cases where nobody gets hurt in the traditional sense. So I employ cases in environmental ethics to challenge what I take to be the dominant view in applied ethics and public policy.

My sister, as it happens, doesn’t work in the environment. She’s a public health demographer and statistician whose primary body of research focuses on sleep. She has been working for a while on identifying social determinants of sleep, mirroring, in many respects, some of the work in the social determinants of health. She is also, as it happens, someone with whom I speak on a regular basis.

At any rate, we talk…and in talking, we talk about our research. The social determinants of health, as it further happens, has this peculiar non-empirical dimension that also spills over into the justice and political theory literature, which is really my domain.

And so, there’s one final piece of this puzzle: sleep is a very strange behavior. Unlike most behaviors that are, roughly speaking, behaviors that we choose — I choose to exercise or eat cake — sleep doesn’t admit of the same sort of analysis. Why not? Because it’s a non-experience good. I’m actually not even sure if it is a ‘good’ in the technical sense. We don’t choose to sleep in the same way that we choose other things in our lives. That observation about the peculiar nature of sleep, coupled with concerns about how such sleep-related choices, are all caught up in the picture of autonomy that we employ, as well as, ultimately, the relationship between autonomy and justice. Our obligations, I think, stem from our autonomy.

So you see, the thoughts are not as distant from one another as it first might seem.

Here’s the abstract:

Based on theoretical and empirical work, we argue that autonomy is likely an important underlying source of healthy sleep. The implication is that ‘treatment’ for sleep problems cannot be understood as an individual-level behavioral problem but must instead be addressed in concert with larger scale social factors that may be inhibiting high-quality sufficient sleep in large segments of the population. When sleep is understood as a proxy for health, the implications extend even further. Policies and interventions that facilitate the autonomy of individuals therefore may not only help reduce individual sleep problems but also have broader consequences for ameliorating social disparities in health.


FOIA Eyes Only

April 20, 2010

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the broader environmental science and law community.

A leading British university has been told it must release data on tree rings dating back more than 7000 years to an amateur climate analyst and climate sceptic.

The ruling, which could have important repercussions for environmental research in the UK, comes from the government’s deputy information commissioner Graham Smith. In January he caused consternation at the height of the “climategate” affair by criticising the way that the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, handled sceptics’ requests for data from its Climatic Research Unit.

On one hand, it obviously makes sense to make one’s data as widely available as possible. Sunlight is a great disinfectant. On the other hand, this potentially creates substantial problems for researchers the world over if data and findings are to be made available to any who ask. Plainly, if this rule is universalized, there will be hell to pay from free enterprise. I’m no law scholar, but it seems to me that depending on how this is phrased, and depending on its reach — if it is like the Hyde Amendment, say — it could potentially open the door for  no private business to partner with University employed or publicly funded scientific researchers at all, ever. That would, possibly, be a terrible outcome, for many reasons, not the least of which is that Universities may cease to be engines of technological expansion. From this article, at least, it does indeed appear that the ruling has far broader reach than simply into the climate community:

The ruling sends a strong signal that scientists at public institutions such as universities cannot claim their data is their or their university’s private property.


Planes or Volcano?

April 19, 2010

Planes vs Volcano: Who's emitting the most CO2?


The Money to Be Made

April 19, 2010

Jeff Goodell has a nice little schtick in this Grist piece on the directional flow of dollars in the geoengineered world. I’m surprised, in a way, that the $$ question hasn’t gotten more play, but perhaps it’s too early for that.

Here are Goodell’s estimations as to who makes the cash, quoting directly. The fourth and fifth must be tongue in cheek, because if not, hey, I’m suddenly in favor of geoengineering. The positive externality of fundamentalist preachers is that their ridiculous reasoning amps up the demand for philosophers. This well could be my meal ticket:

  1. Lobbyists: Right now, because geoengineering is not much more than a twinkle in James Lovelock’s eye, nobody on K street is pushing for Department of Energy funding of stratospheric aerosol injection devices. But in the future, they might be. Geoengineering could turn out to be the 21st century equivalent of industrial agriculture … or a government project that has a lot in common with the overwrought, overfunded Star Wars missile defense system. Either way, lobbyists make out.
  2. Carbon-sucking entrepreneurs: Here’s a simple truth: anyone who figures out a cheap, simple way to suck CO2 out of the air is going to make a lot of money. Not surprisingly, a number of scientists/entrepreneurs are working on it, including David Keith, a physicist at the University of Calgary. Keith’s company, called Carbon Engineering, uses a simple chemical process borrowed from the pulp industry, and has attracted $5 million in funding from investors, including Bill Gates. Right now, the cost of sucking carbon out of the air is up around $150 a ton, but if Keith — or anyone else — can cut that cost in half, things start to get interesting. And when it comes to geoengineering, CO2 removal is the one area where the profit motive is clearly lined up with the public good.
  3. Early investors in albedo engineering companies: Manipulating the earth’s albedo (a fancy word for reflectivity) by brightening clouds or injecting particles into the stratosphere is the most dangerous and complex type of geoengineering researchers are currently exploring.  Among the many questions: Who is going to end up doing the actual work of brightening clouds or injecting aerosols? Maybe governments will be in charge, maybe a Richard Branson-like billionaire. Either way, the hardware is likely to be built by private contractors, just as the fighter planes used by the U.S. Air Force are built by private concerns like Lockheed Martin — a company with a market cap right now of about $32 billion.
  4. Geoengineering conference organizers: The whole idea of geoengineering is so fraught with technical, political, moral, and cultural complexities that, no matter how the future of geoengineering plays out, there are going to be plenty of issues to fret about. So we may as well gather up and fret together, even if we have to pay for the privilege.
  5. Fundamentalist preachers: I’m not suggesting that religious leaders are motivated by money (or sex). However, if we start trying to deliberately manipulate the earth’s climate, you can be sure that some will see this as trespassing into forbidden realms, and they will raise their voices against it. Imagine the war over abortion played out in the stratosphere and you’ll have a pretty good idea where we might be headed.

Paine and Pleasure

April 19, 2010

I got a kick out of this post by Prof. Rick Hills regarding the conceptual confusion of the tea party. He argues, basically, that members of the growing conservative backlash need to find the correct historical icons. To wit:

Take, for instance, Glenn Beck’s effort to appropriate Thomas Paine as the inspiration for Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government. I assume that Beck’s beliefs are roughly libertarian, pro-“Christian” in some sense, and generally anti-redistributivist. Paine, by contrast, was (1) a tax-and-spend liberal who (for instance) wrote six pamphlets defending the proposed national 5% impost against its small-government attackers in Rhodes Island; (2) an egalitarian who called for redistribution of land in his pamphlet, Agrarian Justice; (3) a Deist who ridiculed the Bible as a pack of socially destructive lies in The Age of Reason; (4) a self-proclaimed centralizer who teamed up with Pennsylvania Federalists like Robert and Gouvernour Morris to press for a powerful and consolidated national government; and (5) a citizen of the world who participated in the French Revolution and called on America to receive the fugitive from abroad (to the irritation of John Adams who denounced “the disciples of Thomas Paine” to John Marshall as European intellectual riff-raff — “a company of schoolmasters, painters, and poets” — more undesirable as immigrants than Caliban and Ariel “with a troop of spirits the most mischievous from fairy land”).

Yes. Exactly. Thank you.


Curruption Eruption

April 18, 2010

While our friends across the pond are wrestling the Icelandic smoke monster, Judy Curry (Georgia Tech) has piped in with a few of her own words on the recent CRU exculpations. My colleague Roger Pielke Jr. has the original scoop, and my other colleague Tom Yulsman takes a mini-scoop out of the original scoop to highlight the impending scoop explosion. I thought I’d grab a spoon for my own dollop off the mini-scoop, however, and unscoop some of the mini- from that explosive mini-scoop. [UPDATE: I have been corrected by Keith Kloor that my chronology is wrong here (see below). There’s some enigmatic chain of scooping and re-scooping — I can’t quite figure it out — but the long and the short of it is that all the climate people, including Keith Kloor, who originally scooped the scoopers, are talking about this.]

Here’s Curry’s incriminating language:

The corruptions of the IPCC process, and the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process, is the key issue. The assessment process should filter out erroneous papers and provide a broader assessment of uncertainty; instead, we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative. I don’t see much hope for improving the IPCC process under its current leadership.

Roger just lets this cherry macerate. Tom, however, digs in, following Gavin and Keith:

“Corruption” is a mighty strong word, and Gavin Schmidt over at RealClimate has already criticized it. But just because he takes exception to it does not mean that journalists should ignore what Curry has to say.

In any case, to prepare yourself for what’s in store in coming days as climate scientists, climate skeptics, journalists, bloggers — in short, the gantse megillah on climate change — weigh in on this, you absolutely must read “Some Spicy Curry” by Keith Kloor.

Let’s parse the language, shall we?

First, Curry didn’t say that climate scientists were corrupt, she said that there were “corruptions of the process.” (I’ll get to her second clause next.) There’s a big difference between claiming corruption as a character trait and claiming that the long and elaborate IPCC process has been subject to corruptions. Matter of fact, one of the reasons that we have a process in the first place, whether it’s with climate science or with any other matter, is in an attempt to minimize corruptions, which are to be expected. Since we’re more or less all aware that humans can make mistakes, that our perceptual apparatus sometimes goes blinky, or that we may even be subject to the pulling and tugging of our beastly desires, we try to formalize systems and processes so as to minimize the distortion. Seems to me that this is a perfectly reasonable statement.

Second, Curry dives in slightly deeper when she claims that “the question of corruption (or at least inappropriate torquing) of the actual science by the IPCC process” is the real question, because this seems to indict (on an extremely uncharitable read) specific actors and their intentions, though even this doesn’t indict the character of any specific actor; but on another more literal read, it suggests that she’s somewhat Socratic in her understanding of science and the process. The very Laws of Athens (or in this case, the Laws of the IPCC) may distract from the science (where Science = Truth). If that’s the case, it is not the people involved in the scientific process who are in need of an adjustment, but the process itself.

It gets foggier still when Curry says that “we have seen evidence of IPCC lead authors pushing their own research results and writing papers to support an established narrative,” as this would appear to indict the character of the perpetrators. But again, as I said above, processes are in place to cope with deficiencies in character and the enticements of whimsy, weaknesses which are known to all but the most deluded idealists. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which an individual actor wouldn’t push his own research results and write papers that support the established narrative. If it’s my research, and it supports the established narrative, what the hell else am I gonna push?

The big question here is not whether there was corruption, but whether this is a mere “narrative,” as Curry has put it. We know from Curry’s earlier statements that she doesn’t think concerns over climate change are a mere narrative. Instead, she’s trying to shore up the process, to secure integrity so that the results are more robust. I think others, like Roger, are trying to do that too, much to the consternation of those who are not in the fold.

Fortunately, Curry is a living, breathing climate scientist, so we can ask her what she meant. It may well be that the IPCC process is, at this point, beyond repair… but that is likely as much due to the corruptions of the process from external sources as from internal sources, due to political factors like the CRU hack that interfere with the apparatuses of an otherwise workable scientific machine. Many branches of science, like medicine, say, endure the hiccups and belches in their own unique processes, but I’m not about to throw out the results of these branches of science as mere narratives. That would be folly. Most of the time, we look past the hiccups and belches and move on.

It is only because the stakes with climate change are so high that the hiccups and belches in the process become indictments of the entire body of research… but that’s a political move, a shifty way of changing the topic. The general thesis of the vast body of research remains unscathed, just as most climate scientists claim. Unfortunately, this is a political fact that many in the climate community are also aware of, and I suspect that, because of this awareness, they circle the wagons, defend their own, and further, gads, corrupt the process.