Archive for September, 2008

Steve Rayner on Wired’s Smart List

September 30th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

My friend and colleague Steve Rayner, of Oxford University, was noted by Wired Magazine as one of 15 really smart people that should be informing the next president. I couldn’t agree more. Here is an excerpt from Steve’s commentary:

The only plausible way to curb emissions in the next few decades is to accelerate the development and adoption of low-carbon energy sources. Rather than setting targets for greenhouse gases, we should establish goals for installed technology, beginning with the most energy-intensive sectors, like electricity generation, ground transportation, and cement manufacturing. Similarly, international cooperation on emissions reduction should focus on the handful of countries responsible for the lion’s share of the problem. In the US and elsewhere, R&D funding should be directed toward technologies that otherwise might not come online for up to 20 years.

And if you want to read a fuller treatment of Steve’s views, check out his collaboration with Gwyn Prins titled The Wrong Trousers (PDF).

Budgeting by Continuing Resolution Continues, Congress Earns its Dismal Approval Ratings

September 27th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Both NPR and Congressional Quarterly are reporting that amidst all of the financial bailout negotiations, Congress today did clear a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government until early March 2009.  This marks the third consecutive fiscal year (which starts October 1) in which the Congress has failed to pass even a majority of its appropriations bills before the start of that fiscal year.  This is just one reason why their approval rating is lower than the President’s.

This professional incompetence is both not surprising and a bad sign for any programs depending on consistent funding – whether that funding is constant or promised with a constant rate of growth.  I think research communities need to seriously consider finding alternative sources of funding.  Independent of the twin fiscal drains of war and bailouts (the auto industry got $25 billion today), federal funding can no longer be counted on, even at the more meager levels.  The biomedical community completely failed to manage its wealth of riches when the NIH budget was doubled, and they have too many students and too many researchers landing hard.  I am concerned that all research communities in this country will be neither ready nor able to handle a decrease in resources.  We’ve just been on the gravy train too long to see it crashing into the painted hole in the rock.

I’m afraid I can’t describe this in stark enough terms for people to act accordingly.  If you thought science and technology were ignored before, get ready for fiscal apathy.  If you think the expected crunch of the mid-90s following the Cold War was successfully avoided, consider the possibility that it was only delayed 15 years.  To borrow climate science language – adaptation strategies are needed now that mitigation appears to be unsuccessful.

Ensuring Yellowstone’s Future

September 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Todd Wilkinson, author of Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth, gave Professor Susan G. Clark’s new book Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens a rave review in this week’s Jackson Hole News and Guide. For the last five years, I have worked on natural resource issues in the Yellowstone region. I could not agree more with Todd’s assessment of the book. Of course, my opinion has nothing to do with the fact Susan was my master’s degree advisor. ;-)

Compared with pulp fiction or even the latest sleaze in the National Enquirer, books that are written about the operational process of government bureaucracies often make a strong case for the virtue of narcolepsy.

What I mean to say is show me a dry scientific treatise on the topic of administering Western public land management agencies, and I’ll find you readers who would rather be waterboarded than crack open the pages.

Despite its unflashy title, Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens by Susan Clark, founder of the Jackson-based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and adjunct professor of environmental policy at Yale University, is actually a barn burner.

It’s one of the best books ever written about the major jurisdictional fiefdoms the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and fish and game departments from three states – that collectively oversee the management of more than 18 million public acres in this famous corner of the American West…


Carbon Dioxide Levels Rising Fast, Scientists Surprised, We Aren’t

September 26th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The AP covers the new reports of rapidly increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere:

The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

That’s an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.

Readers of our recent paper in Nature (PDF) won’t be surprised at all by this report. I’m not sure which is more scary — rapidly rising carbon dioxide levels or the failed analysis of the IPCC that remains largely unacknowledged.

The rapidly increasing carbon dioxide levels are a surprise only because the IPCC failed to anticipate them. The “surprise” is thus due to a failed analysis. Effective policy is unlikely to result from failed policy analyses. This would seem obvious. Somewhat perversely, the failed analysis is often used to justify going more quickly in the wrong direction. But it seems that the poverty of the current approach is starting to be realized:

Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the economic downturn. That didn’t happen.

“If we’re going to do something (about reducing emissions), it’s got to be different than what we’re doing,” he said.

Questions for Senator Inhofe

September 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Today, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) released a report entitled Political Activity of Environmental Groups and Their Supporting Foundations. This document is an expanded version of a document published in 2004. The report’s general argument is that environmental groups are stealth advocates for the Democratic Party despite that environmental organizations claim to serve public interests:

Environmental activism has become a multibillion dollar industry in the U.S. Campaigns to save the whales or stop mining beg average Americans for their support through donation of their hard earned dollars. These environmental campaigns also receive millions from charitable foundations such as the PEW Foundation, Turner Foundation, and Heinz Foundation. But what most don’t know when they donate to a cause to “save the rainforest” or “save the polar bear” is that their money could end up being used for partisan activities that are only tangentially related, if related at all, to the cause for which they are intended…

…Because of the complicated web of 501(c), 527, and PAC organizations, it is clear that individuals who donate to a 501(c)(3) organization intending to contribute to the cause of the organization, have no clear mechanism for verifying that their donation was used for the cause. Unsuspectingly, these donors may be contributing to partisan activities when they originally intended their donation to aide an environmental cause. Additionally, there is not sufficient oversight over these organization to police their political and campaign activities.

Are contributors to environmental groups really so naïve that they do not understand the political implications of the groups they donate to? I doubt it.


Technology and the Recent Troubles

September 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

The title of this post may seem a bit misleading, because I am not going to be writing about what many readers would automatically assume – the role of high-tech companies or products behind the recent shenanigans.  After all, that nonsense was at least one or two speculative bubbles ago. What I want to do is take a few lines and point out that the financial sector is a very real, almost tangible example of the failure of imagination often found in considerations of technology – and, by extension, technology policy.

Financial instruments, whether we’re talking about basic mortgages (sub-prime or otherwise) or more complicated derivatives like the credit default swaps that may have had a hand in locking up several financial services companies, are technologies.  They aren’t as tangible, so to speak, as other technologies, but their creation still has consequences – consequences rarely engaged until after they have emerged and changed the world – for better or worse.  But I don’t expect some kind of ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications) research program to emerge in business schools or in Science and Technology Studies departments, focused on the financial sector.  Ironically enough, there’s probably no money in it.

Changes in the business world can often be traced to changes in the instruments and forms of organization used by companies to acheive their goals.  Corporations didn’t always exist, after all.  The form had to be created.  Alfred Chandler, in his historical scholarship, has focused on the business operations behind several key industries, most of which were involved in innovation – either then or now.  The Visible Hand is a revelatory (well, for me anyway) history of how the formation of corporations and partnerships was critical to how the railroads and retail emerged in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries.  In short, capital intensive industries needed new forms of organizations to function.


Welcome to the CIRES Policy Center, Bill Travis!

September 25th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Must be moving day. Our new director is Bill Travis (pictured above), an excellent choice. Lets see if we can get him blogging here at Prometheus;-) Here is the CU News Release.


Welcome to CU, Mickey Glantz!

September 25th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[UPDATE: CU press release here.]

[UPDATE #2: Above is a screenshot of Mickey, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bill Clinton from the CGI live stream taken at 2:05PM MST today]

Thanks to a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Mickey Glantz (pictured above), Tsegay Wolde-Georgis, and Qian Ye will be joining the University of Colorado to establish a new Consortium for Capacity Building. The grant is being announced at the Clinton Global Initiative and is covered in today’s New York Times:

A program that helps poor countries reduce their vulnerability to floods, drought and other climate-related hazards will move to the University of Colorado, Boulder, under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, foundation and university officials said Wednesday.

The announcement was made weeks after the loss of government support for the program, the Center for Capacity Building. It will move from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, which eliminated its $500,000 annual budget last month, citing budget cuts and shifting priorities, to the university under a $1 million grant spread over two years, said Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Ms. Rodin said more support was likely. The name will change to the Consortium for Capacity Building because one goal will be to build relationships with foreign institutions.

I and many of my colleagues are looking forward to working with Mickey, Qian, and Tsegay on developing the CCB at CU. Thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for this strong show of support in the CCB and CU!

Al Gore on Breaking the Law

September 24th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[UPDATE: The 9/25 NYT provides some additional context, see below.]

Al Gore explains who should start breaking the law and who he thinks is already breaking the law:

“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration,” Gore told the Clinton Global Initiative gathering to loud applause.

“I believe for a carbon company to spend money convincing the stock-buying public that the risk from the global climate crisis is not that great represents a form of stock fraud because they are misrepresenting a material fact,” he said. “I hope these state attorney generals around the country will take some action on that.”

[UPDATE]The 9/25 NYT reports on the statement the following:

Mr. Gore said the civil disobedience should focus on “stopping the construction of new coal plants,” which he said would add tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — despite “half a billion dollars’ worth of advertising by the coal and gas industry” claiming otherwise. He added, “Clean coal does not exist.”

The audience at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, which was composed of hundreds of heads of state and chief executives, as well as representatives of philanthropic groups, reacted with scattered applause. There was a lot of shifting in seats.

Mr. Gore did not elaborate on his call for action. And almost as soon as the words “civil disobedience” were out of his mouth, Mr. Clinton, moderating a panel that Mr. Gore shared with the singer Bono, the president of Liberia, the chairman of Coca-Cola and Queen Rania of Jordan, turned to the queen to ask whether Middle Eastern countries might ever become “models of clean energy usage.” The discussion continued in a less-fiery vein from there.

Deja Vu All Over Again

September 24th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

From The Economist, November 12, 1998:

Financial firms employed the best and brightest geeks to quantify and diversify their risks. But they have all—commercial banks, investment banks and hedge funds—been mauled by the financial crisis. Now they and the world’s regulators are trying to find out what went wrong and to stop it happening again. . .

One reason is that everyone was up to the same thing. Shareholders tend to shun institutions that take outright punts on markets. Better instead, they think, to take what appear less risky bets on the difference in price between two assets: in the jargon, “relative-value” trades.

The eagerness to do such trades was also the product of a bull market and a strong economy, especially in America. Yields on government bonds fell, so investors and financial firms bumped up returns by, among other things, taking more credit risk. . .

Returns on such trades were low but apparently safe, so the firms borrowed heavily to leverage their bets. . . It was easy to increase leverage because borrowing, using assets as collateral, became much cheaper—lenders were overly sanguine about credit risk. . . By earlier this year some hedge funds were able to borrow 95% of the value of this splendid collateral. And the biggest hedge funds were able to borrow from banks without any “haircut” at all against better government securities.

That, as one risk manager now admits, is like a banking system without reserve requirements. Banks lent to one another on similar, if not quite so generous, terms. Of late many funds and weaker banks have had less generous treatment from lenders.

All this was wonderful for traders. In a bull market, the bigger their bets, the more money they made. Few thought much about potential losses. The rewards for punting with abandon were huge, while the penalties were small—they could walk into another job if they were fired. Very few had their fat bonuses tied to the long-term value of the firm. And the more money they had already tucked away the bolder they became. Greed, says the boss of one big firm, meant that “traders took risks that put you at the edge.”

But what made their eventual losses so huge was that many financial firms had the same positions. Which is not surprising: their data was similar, and their traders had learnt the same financial theory. So had their risk managers. Yet in a crisis, unwinding all these positions simultaneously became almost impossible. Liquidity dried up.