July 25, 2008

Climate Change & What to Do About it

This was published on July 24, 2008 in the Colchester Sun.

What To Do About Climate Change?
I've been stewing in my juice on this issue for far too long. Here's the real issue.

Let's agree that the climate is changing, i.e., getting warmer at this juncture in history. Let's also agree that weather is far different than climate. Rather than arguing about whether the cause of climate change is man-made or whether changes in weather are evidence that the climate is changing, the fundamental issue is what, if anything, to do about it. I watched a popular YouTube video presentation recently that oversimplifies the issue (How else to get a nine-minute video done?), as does Al Gore, in his Inconvenient Truth video. Both presentations are unduly laced with catastrophe, probably to serve as a wake-up call.

Two primary paths have emerged for what to do about climate change:

1./ Reverse the warming. Commit to do everything we can to reduce the creation of greenhouse gases so that climate change will be lessened or reversed. The Kyoto Protocol was a failed attempt at this approach. Clinton and Bush were right for he U.S. not to join. Only a handful of countries that signed on to Kyoto are meeting their commitments. Other international attempts are underway to to better. Some in the Vermont Legislature and followers of Bill McKibben see this climate reversal as 'must do.' World Corporate sees a way to make big bucks. I believe the world has insufficient resources to reverse the warming.

2./ Agree that the planet is warming and the consequences are both beneficial and deleterious, depending on where you live. So, to ameliorate the negative consequences, spend our resources, energy and creativity on mitigating the bad outcomes. Many, including McKibben, sponsor a return to local community production of food and goods to reduce the economy's energy demand and change our consumptive lifestyle.

The conventional wisdom is that humankind probably is incapable of doing both simultaneously without a terrible cost to the economies and standards of living while the world population continues to increase. The cost/benefit scenario is devilish on this issue. And there is no assurance a change is possible.

I am at the moment mostly in the second camp, subject to change as new information arrives and is digested.

Conserving limited assets and preventing waste and undesirable byproducts seem to me both economically wise and could be beneficial to the environment/climate. We should not focus on obscure targets such as carbon footprints or create mysterious carbon taxes or believe that carbon offsets or trading carbon credits are some magic panacea that will reduce the average (whatever that may mean) global temperature. We have no evidence these outcomes are obtainable. Instead, we should live individually and communally as efficiently as we are able and use our best technologies to live a decent life and waste as little as possible.

The purpose of massive resource expenditures should be to minimize the negative effects of climate change on humanity, rather than devoting huge amounts to changing the climate. Let's set that as a rational goal. To think we have the ability to reverse climate change is unprovable and wishful at best. Any projections that I've seen, including Kyoto greenhouse gas targets, would take more than a century (three generations!) to have any substantial effect, certainly not reversal. I believe our energies and resources will have a better payoff by helping mankind be efficient and adjust to climate change, rather than pretending we can reverse it.

So, that's where I am at the moment. How we spend our resources while the climate changes is the fundamental question, not whether we do something...or nothing to change it. Fear-mongering is not helpful and weather is not climate.
David Usher
Colchester, VT

July 21, 2008

Who Pays Federal Income Taxes?

Based on newly released IRS data, the Wall Street Journal opines on July 21 that the Bush tax cuts have worked. The following is an excerpt:

"... the top 1% of taxpayers, those who earn above $388,806, paid 40% of all income taxes in 2006, the highest share in at least 40 years. The top 10% in income, those earning more than $108,904, paid 71%. Barack Obama says he's going to cut taxes for those at the bottom, but that's also going to be a challenge because Americans with an income below the median paid a record low 2.9% of all income taxes, while the top 50% paid 97.1%. Perhaps he thinks half the country should pay all the taxes to support the other half. (emphases added)

Aha, we are told: The rich paid more taxes because they made a greater share of the money. That is true. The top 1% earned 22% of all reported income. But they also paid a share of taxes not far from double their share of income. In other words, the tax code is already steeply progressive."

Wouldn't it be refreshing for politicians, particularly on the left, to state the facts rather than trying to mislead Americans by spouting their 'soak-the rich' rhetoric?

July 18, 2008

Wireless telecoms | Culture clash | Economist.com

Wireless telecoms | Culture clash | Economist.com

The next generation, 4G, of wireless network standards holds great promise and deployment of both WiMax and LTE technologies seems 'just around the corner.' This story by The Economist reports that efforts are underway to reduce the 'either/or' competitive standards fight that has been raging by making WiMax work with LTE. LTE seems to have come out on top of the standards battle as the world wide GSM camp...and Verizon and AT&T in the U.S.... have agreed this is their chosen technology.

Sprint/Clearwire and the computer guys and cable guys are in the WiMax camp and my guess is they have decided they cannot win the standards war. This may be because they are rapidly losing their 2-year USA deployment head start and the chance to recover their financial underpinning by winning 4G customers.

In any event, the speeds and features delivered by these technologies will really help rural areas like Vermont increase penetration, assuming the 'density deficit' still enables a viable revenue model.

July 9, 2008

FISA Bill Vote Today

This from Glenn Greenwald at salon.com:

"After the cloture vote, the Senate just approved final passage of the FISA bill, by a vote of 69-28. Obama voted with all Republicans for the bill. Hillary Clinton voted against it.

Democrats voting in favor of final passage of the FISA bill: Bayh - Carper - Casey - Conrad - Dorgan - Feinstein - Innuoye - Kohl - Landrieu - Lincoln - McCaskill - Mukulski - Nelson (Neb.) - Nelson (Fla.) - Obama - Pryor - Rockefeller - Salazar - Webb - Whitehouse.

Democrats voting against final passage of the FISA bill: Akaka - Biden - Bingaman - Boxer - Brown - Cantwell - Cardin - Clinton - Dodd - Dorgan - Durbin - Feingold - Harkin - Kerry - Leahy - Levin - Lautenberg - Murray - Reed - Reid - Sanders - Schumer - Stabenow - Tester - Wyden."

Both Vermont Senators voted against the bill...no surprise. I am surprised that Clinton joined them.

With the passage of this bill, the country is safer from terrorists plotting our destruction . It will surely be challenged by attorneys seeking to make big bucks suing the telecoms in class actions, but they should fail in that attempt to overturn the immunity granted in the bill.

July 7, 2008

Energy Musings

I'm not advocating cheap oil. Price signals are the best stimulus for change and we will gradually move away from our reliance on traditional petroleum for transportation. But we shouldn't underestimate the time it will take to change the transportation fuel infrastructure.For example, people are experimenting with hydrogen powered cars but the delivery and storage problems are BIG. The answer for transportation will be a mix of fuel/energy sources, but petroleum will be the biggest component by far throughout my lifetime.

Today, energy sources are not wholly interchangeable. Major reworking of our infrastructure, culture and economy will be necessary for that to happen. For example, electricity from 'clean' coal is not a direct substitute for petroleum until electric cars become far more widespread and they can be charged when and where needed. We'll get far quicker petroleum savings from millions of cars that get 40-50 mpg. Europe does it now. We can and should, too. We need far more low-sulfur diesel fueled autos.

Too many people believe that wind and solar are the answer to our electricity needs when 'clean' coal and nuclear are the only viable sources to meet baseload electricity demand which will increase under my scenario. I'll bet you my fuel cell powered wheelchair that wind and solar combined will contribute less than 5% of our total energy/fuel use by 2040!

I believe we can conserve and become more efficient in things that use all forms of energy by ~15% in the near term. However, despite our best efficiency efforts, demand will continue to grow as population increases in an electronic age.

I certainly agree that we would be better off ensuring our energy future than fighting in Iraq, but if "it's all about oil" as many contend, the Middle East will be critical to our energy supply for a long, long time. If we should not be there militarily, how would we ensure that supply continues?

My point is we must wean ourselves off Middle East, and probably African oil, too, for transportation needs, but that will not happen quickly despite our best efforts.

July 6, 2008

American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot - NYTimes.com

American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot - NYTimes.com:

This Times story is well worth a read for a summary of the forces at work that have brought us to $4.00+ gasoline prices and the collapse of the American airline and automobile industries. What isn't clear is the future solutions and when they will arrive, if ever.

Given the mpg attainment of autos is Europe ( We were in Italy recently and had rented a diesel powered car that got 35-40 mpg with four people and their luggage.), there is no reason that American manufacturers can do the same. Given the sudden collapse in consumer demand for gas guzzlers, they will be forced to deliver vehicles with better fuel efficiency or cede the market for automobiles to Asia and European manufacturers. Can they quickly turn their production capacity? Probably, but it will take 3-4 years, I think.

While blame for this crisis is flowing freely, we simply must increase petroleum supply while at the same time slow demand for petroleum as a transportation fuel. There's no other practical alternative in the next few years that I can see. Alternative sources of transportation fuel, attractive though they may be, simply cannot take up the slack at the scale needed.

Fuel from food grains is a very bad idea, as we are now coming to realize.

"Congress, meanwhile, in its bid to explain the run-up in fuel prices, is examining the role of speculation and the increased flow of investor money into commodities. Most energy economists emphasize the fundamental issue of supply and demand, rather than market manipulation, but financial factors like the weak dollar are also exacerbating the situation. Stephen P. A. Brown, director of energy economics and microeconomic policy analysis at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, estimates that a little more than 20 percent of the price of oil today can be attributed to the dollar’s fall against the euro and other currencies.

Another financial factor behind the price rise that hasn’t been talked about much on Capitol Hill or elsewhere is reduced hedging by oil companies on futures markets, says Larry Goldstein, a longtime energy analyst. In the past, crude producers would offer buyers a portion of their energy output in future years in order to protect themselves if prices pulled back. But energy companies got burned as prices kept rising during the last two years and have since cut back on selling untapped production — forcing prices for energy futures even higher.

Now, the prospect of a perpetual climb in oil prices has become part of market psychology, which is notoriously hard to change. William H. Brown III, a former Wall Street energy analyst who now consults for hedge funds and financial institutions, says investors have become convinced that the White House and Congress are unlikely to do anything dramatic to bring down prices."


Others say that although the push to blame market speculators rather than discuss economic realities is likely to intensify on Capitol Hill as the presidential election draws near, they believe that what the world is confronting is a momentous shift in energy supply and demand.

“Speculation and manipulation are two different things,” says Mr. O’Reilly of Chevron. “Most of where we are is because of fundamentals and concern about the future.”

July 4, 2008

Obama Fuels Debate on Iraq Pullout With Remarks - NYTimes.com

Obama Fuels Debate on Iraq Pullout With Remarks - NYTimes.com

It is almost comical, but sad, that the Times reporter goes to great lengths trying to nuance what is clearly becoming another Obama flip-flop, this time on the Iraq war. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination he was "the" anti-war candidate. End the war and bring the troops home in 16 months was the mantra when it suited him politically. He was obviously pandering to people. Perhaps his nickname should be the 'Pandering Flip-Flopper.'

The Democrats, including Obama, have consistently refused to acknowledge that significant progress has been made in Iraq by our military (for our troops and their leaders I am thankful) and the 'surge' strategy by any measure must be judged successful. But the Democrats are invested in defeat, it seems, because that suits their political agenda. How is it that any thinking voter cannot see this obvious political pandering by Obama. Change is his mantra, but flip-flop is his demonstrated style.

Even the Times editorial writers are not happy with the Pandering Flip-Flopper. Today they had this to say:

We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games.
Another story in the Times describes his flip-flop on the FISA surveillance issue. He now suppoerts the proposed FISA bill including a provision that would grant telecom companies immunity for their role in post-9/11 surveillance activities. I support immunity, but thousands of his supporters do not and are unhappy with Obama's flip-flop on that issue, too. Character matters!

I have said that I am not satisfied with the choices we are presented for Presidential candidates this year. But of the two, Obama is the one I would see as worse for our country. The ability to inspire via syrupy rhetoric is important, but I prefer substance and character. He, unlike McCain, has shown me neither.