Archive for May, 2009

UK Climate Change Act Paper Now Accepted

May 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

My paper on the Uk Climate Change Act has been provisionally accepted for publication by Environmental Research Letters, so it can now be cited as in press.

Here are the details:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2009 (in press). The British Climate Change Act: A Critical Evaluation and Proposed Alternative Approach, Environmental Research Letters.

Here in PDF is a link to the pre-publication revision following review. And here is the Abstract:

This paper evaluates the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act of 2008 in terms of the implied rates of decarbonization of the UK economy for a short-term and long-term target established in law. The paper uses the Kaya Identity to structure the evaluation, employing both a bottom-up approach (based on projections of future UK population, economic growth, and technology) as well as a top-down approach (deriving implied rates of decarbonization consistent with the targets and various rates of projected economic growth). Both approaches indicate that the UK economy would have to achieve annual rates of decarbonization in excess of 4% or 5%. To place these numbers in context, the UK would have to achieve the 2006 carbon efficiency of France by about 2015, a level of effort comparable to the building of about 30 new nuclear power plants, displacing an equivalent amount of fossil energy. The paper argues that the magnitude of the task implied by the UK Climate Change Act strongly suggests that it is on course to fail, and discusses implications.

Arrangement Further Blurs Line Between Online and In-Person Education

May 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

An arrangement between a Kansas university and an online education provider highlights the tensions between online education and the traditional higher education model (H/T Yahoo! News).  Fort Hays State University has teamed with StraighterLine to allow students who take the introductory level StraighterLine courses to continue work at Fort Hays with credit for the intro courses under the Fort Hays name.  As you can read in the article, not everyone is happy with the partnership.  Other companies and universities are teaming up in similar arrangements, so what used to be a brighter line between online learning and traditional higher education is softening.

The sheer economics of higher education explain some of this movement.  Paying big school tuition for introductory courses doesn’t make sense for the vast majority of students, especially with many faculty avoiding these courses and universities cutting costs by hiring adjuncts to teach them.  Speaking as someone who has taught a completely online introductory course (for a state university), the educational experience is not necessarily of lower quality because the course is online.  There are reasonable questions about how to effectively accredit online offerings, regardless of who provides them, but this is a phenomenon that will not go away.

Counteracting the ETS in German Energy Policies

May 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The FT reports today that the German government is acting to blunt the effects of the ETS (the European cap and trade program):

Berlin is preparing to help domestic industries overcome the economic crisis by cutting the electricity bills of the country’s largest energy users.

Aluminium, copper and zinc producers are among energy-intensive industrial sectors that could benefit from the plans, which are set to be agreed ahead of elections in September.

Ministers have argued for months about how best to aid domestic industries and the chancellery has also intervened in the discussions, industry sources have told the Financial Times.

Any subsidies will be examined closely by competition authorities in Brussels and could prompt renewed criticism that Berlin is undermining European Union climate legislation. . . .

The bulk of any relief is likely to be found by reimbursing companies for the cost of carbon dioxide emissions trading certificates that utilities currently price into their electricity bills.

Berlin successfully argued at an EU summit in December that energy-intensive industries should be not be forced to buy emission permits between 2013 and 2020 because companies would shift production overseas. It now wants to go further by compensating energy-intensive companies in the intervening years. Officials are also considering whether to reward big power consumers for their role in balancing the electricity network during peak-load periods.

But Claudia Kemfert, head of energy policy at the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW Berlin), said it was “not the government’s job to subsidise the profits of energy companies”.

Information on Emerging Diseases Relying More on Internet

May 25th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From the New England Journal of Medicine we have this review of digitally-enabled public health surveillance.  The recent online activity over the swine flu and Google Flu Trends are only the latest efforts in activity that go back 15 years.  What started with reporting systems has grown to include news aggregation, mashups, and, yes, even the Internet darling of the moment, Twitter.  The authors are concerned, however, that the increasing online capacity for assessment and analysis not displace the work of public health practitioners and clinics.  Put another way, its fine to look up symptoms online, but you should still see a doctor if needed rather than self-diagnosing.  There are other concerns:

Information overload, false reports, lack of specificity of signals, and sensitivity to external forces such as media interest may limit the realization of their potential for public health practice and clinical decision making. Sources such as analyses of search-term use and news media may also face difficulties with verification and follow-up. Though they hold promise, these new technologies require careful evaluation. Ultimately, the Internet provides a powerful communications channel, but it is health care professionals and the public who will best determine how to use this channel for surveillance, prevention, and control of emerging diseases.

Given the title of the NEJM piece – “Digital Disease Detection – Harnessing the Web for Public Health Surveillance” – I think another pair of concerns to add is privacy and security.  If IP addresses can be tracked, which is true with some of these cases, then it is possible to connect particular incidents to particular individuals.  Unless its necessary to communicate with specific individuals, measures should be taken to preserve the anonymity of those whose information supports this public health monitoring.  The security of the databases and other systems using this information need to be strong enough to guard against breaches and inadvertent exposure.

Green Chemistry Infiltrates EPA’s Office of Research and Development

May 24th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Amongst the recent appointment announcements is the news that Paul Anastas, a synthetic chemist who coined the phrase ‘green chemistry,’ was nominated to head the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (H/T ScienceInsider).  As the EPA’s green chemistry efforts are in a different part of the agency, the choice of Anastas was not necessarily expected.  While currently at Yale, Dr. Anastas has worked at the agency before, and just might shift some of the research and development initiatives at the EPA to incorporate green chemistry.  This might prompt a scenario where there is greater attention paid to designing and innovating new products that reduce environmental impact.  It would be nice to have additonal policy choices besides traditional limits on exposure and similar regulatory restrictions.

NASA Appointments Suggest Business As Usual

May 23rd, 2009

Posted by: admin

One of the biggest science and technology positions still open in the Obama Administration was filled today when the President announced General Charles Bolden, Jr. (USMC, retired) would be the nominee for NASA Adminstrator (H/T Wall Street Journal and Dynamics of Cats).  General Bolden is a former astronaut, and served in NASA as assistant deputy administrator in the early part of the 1990s.  Lori Garver, a former NASA official during the Clinton Administration, has been nominated as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden’s name has been bandied about since the beginning of the year, suggesting some reservations in the White House or other space constituencies.  Gen. Bolden’s employment by NASA contractors following his astronaut service may have given some quarters pause, particularly when the agency wil be forced to navigate new territory when the Space Shuttle is retired, something supposed to happen next year.  As the Obama Administration has instituted an agency review of human spaceflight operations, there will likely be some pressure to change old institutional habits, including relationships with contractors.  Ms. Garver’s experience with contractors also suggests potential resistance to change.  Since the investments in resources required for what NASA does are large, making big changes requires extra effort.  These may not be the right people for making big changes.

Waxman Markey Confuses Political Camps

May 22nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

With the Waxman Markey Bill passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee thanks to the tireless and strong leadership of its Chairman, Henry Waxman (D-CA), there will now be some time for reflection on what happens next. The simple answer is “no one knows.”

The bill could be referred to other committees for mark-up — following the same process that we observed this week in Energy and Commerce. The House Agriculture Committee has expressed an interest in having jurisdiction over the bill. If so, then the bill will certainly be watered down further to placate agricultural interests. We saw a bit of this late in the debate over Waxman Markey when an amendment was offered to “grandfather” offsets for actions taken by farmers more than a decade before W-M is intended to go into effect, i.e., for emissions already reduced, as if that makes any sense. Even if the jurisdictional issues are resolved without a further referral, these concerns will necessarily be addressed if and when the bill comes to the floor. When (and if) the bill eventually comes to the full House it will face a range of concerns, almost all of which will lead to a further weakening of the bill and concessions to various interests who want a piece of the pie. An after this long process, whatever results, if approved by the House, is probably DOA anyway as the bill faces long odds in the Senate. There are a lot of wild cards in the mix not raised here as well.

Far more certain has been the reaction of advocates for action on climate change who have displayed a very wide range of responses to Waxman Markey.

For instance, Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress, champions W-M as the only possible vehicle for reducing US emssions, and rejoices at the bill’s progress thus far:

Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill.

The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town. If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead.

At the other end of the spectrum Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action network (pictured in photo below at the protest, far right) was arrested yesterday along with 14 colleagues for blocking the office of Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA), a Democrat who supported W-M and help craft an important compromise (supported by Waxman and Markey) that got the bill out of committee.

For his part Congressman Boucher wants to see the current energy mix sustained for at least the next 10 years, relying on the offset provisions in W-M to allow business as usual to continue, as he relates early in the following clip:

Allowing business as usual for the next 10 years has proved too tough to swallow for some. For instance, a CCAN member relates details of a meeting with another member of the Energy and Commerce Committee he arranged via a hunger strike and office sit in:

I went to [Congressman] Mike Doyle’s (D-PA) office at 2 pm yesterday and told Pat Cavanaugh, his energy staff person, that I was a long-time climate activist on the 18th day of a hunger strike ( for strong climate legislation and that I wasn’t leaving until I met with Doyle. . .

But as I sat in Doyle’s office, no one with me, none of the press people who I called showing up to find out what was happening, thinking about what was going to happen at 6 pm, wondering if I had been too impulsive, wondering what would happen if I was arrested–because I was very clear that it was either talk with Doyle or that–wondering, wondering. . . after two hours of sitting, into the office comes Mike Doyle.

I’d never met the guy, so at first I didn’t know it had happened when he arrived. But when he sat down across from me and said something like, “I’m Mike Doyle, what’s up,” I knew it was game time. And for the next half hour I had the most intense, in-your-face, no-holds-barred discussion with an elected official I have ever had.

Doyle’s no dummy, and I have to acknowledge that he’s a strong debater. I didn’t get him to change his mind about the efforts that he and Rick Boucher have been leading to weaken the “discussion draft” of climate legislation Henry Waxman introduced on March 31st. The way Doyle described it, he was doing the bidding of Waxman, carrying water for him by going to the blue dog Democrats to find out what was necessary in order to get a bill out of committee. He also said his main thing was the 15% free emissions permits for steel, cement, aluminum and other energy-intensive industries during a 10-15 year transition period. But when I asked him why he was then supporting the idea that 40% of the permits would be given free to coal companies/utilities (local distribution companies), the best answer he could give was something like this, a very revealing answer:

“If you return money directly to the American people for them to use to pay for higher energy costs in the transition period, they’ll spend it on things like flat screen TV’s. By giving free emissions permits to utilities they can then pass on the savings directly to consumers.”

With the environmental community split, the Republicans must be enjoying a good bit of satisfaction, despite the movement of the W-M bill out of committee. Going forward, the bill will require ever more compromises, and it is hard to see these actions winning more supporters to the bill from the environmental community.

Waxman Markey may well have taken its first steps toward a protracted death spiral, taking with it any semblance of consensus and coordination of the environmental community about what to do on climate change.

Science Fiction and Policy

May 22nd, 2009

Posted by: admin

From the front page (of the Style Section) of today’s Washington Post, there’s an article about the latest engagement between government and science fiction writers on the future.  This is an ongoing effort, currently with the Department of Homeland Security, to encourage different kinds of thinking that has some basis in science.  The costs are minimal, but light pieces like the one linked to here really don’t address the value of such programs.  As this is a flip side of the efforts to get better scientific advice for entertainment ventures, it’s disappointing to see relatively superficial coverage like this.

Chu to BBC: Compromise Means New Coal

May 22nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In an interview with the BBC, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu says that environmentalists in the the United States need to compromise their ambitions, such as supporting the building of new coal plants that are not outfitted with CCS. In response, Greenpeace said that action should be dictated by science not politics. Above is the interview, and below is an excerpt from Roger Harrabin’s BBC news story:

Prof Chu is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a world expert on clean energy. But he said it was impossible to ignore political reality.

“With each successive year the news on climate change has not been good and there’s a growing sensation that the world and the US in particular has to get moving,” he said.

“As someone very concerned about climate I want to be as aggressive as possible but I also want to get started. And if we say we want something much more aggressive on the early timescales that would draw considerable opposition and that would delay the process for several years.

The US energy secretary said that awareness of climate tipping points had increased greatly only in the past five years. He added: “But if I am going to say we need to do much, much better I am afraid the US won’t get started.”

To the anger of environmentalists, he said that one compromise would be approving new coal-fired power plants without obliging them to capture and store their carbon. The UK government has made this a stipulation for new coal plants but Prof Chu declined to explain why the US government would not follow suit. Now Live

May 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

Joining, and is, a website hosting government data sets from Executive Branch agencies (H/T Science Progress).  It is still somewhat thin, with only 47 data sets, but they are available in different formats. You can find other data sets through open government groups like the Sunlight Foundation, or hosted by Amazon.  Additionally, the website is taking suggestions for what datasets to add.

Aside from the potential of this website as a data tool, this provides another resources for third-party examination of government data.  With the increased availability of programs to crunch, collate, sort and analyze data, going back through “old data” like that available on could provide new insights and information we couldn’t get before.  I expect non-governmental organizations like the Sunlight Foundation to stay ahead of government efforts in this area.  What websites like provide is additional encouragement to make more government data available and/or easy to work with.  With a multitude of data formats used today, there is no guarantee that a Census data file will be easily matched with Bureau of Labor Statistics information.  Hopefully more disclosure will help address these formatting concerns.