Archive for the 'policy' Category



singing opossums

Now that I have hopefully intrigued and possibly worried you, read on to answer your burning questions!

New Zealand has a opossum problem.  It has a problems with lots of invasives, actually, but I have excellent photos of stuffed opossums and a topical link, so let’s start here.

This is my concise understanding of the problem:  Soon after the primordial ooze dried up into the world, New Zealand said ‘Cheers!’ in a hilarious accent to Pangea and floated off alone.  It spent the next whatever billion years developing an eco-system free of most mammals.  Maybe all land mammals, actually, and only occasionally swim-bys from whales.  But definitely no rats, stoats, weasels, opossums, whatever creepy little things you can think of, or bears or other large scary things*.  The animals left got used to not being hunted- the kiwi is flightless, as are a couple other native birds, because who needs to fly when there’s nothing after you or your eggs?

Anywho people got there, and brought bunches of other mammals with them, some by accident, some on purpose to make the place more ‘home-y’.  And since then, it’s been open season on the unsuspecting indigenous animals.

But why are opossums so bad?  They eat eggs, and procreate quickly, and travel.  They’ve helped wipe out bird populations all over New Zealand.  They’re widely hunted- and drivers are encouraged to aim for them when you see one on the road, opossum roadkill being a sort of public service- but their populations keep growing.

Let’s add another wrinkle (NZ is a very wrinkly country): NZ is pretty concerned about it’s environment.  Active government agencies and task forces figuring it out, cleaning it up, keeping it nice for the tourists and hugely influential agriculture industry and sometimes even to fulfill promises to the tangata whenua.  Environmental debates more closely impact more of the population than here in the US, and it was my impression that they tended to be more active and spirited than they are here (Kiwis, care to comment?  I wasn’t there long and the headlines in the NZ Herald could be misleading me).

So, opossums are a problem (I think they also spread cattle diseases so farmers are all upset about them), hunting’s not enough, and the government has decided to deal with it by still dropping poison all over the landscape from airplanes.  What?  This does not sound caring and thoughtful.  At first!

Their risk analysis shows the destruction done by opossums is more than that done by the poison, referred to as ‘1080’, so they’re going to keep using it despite protests from staff who don’t want to be exposed to all the poisons and other people who, well, don’t want poison all over.  Kills more innocent animals and such who get in it, gets into streams.  The stuff they use does degrade, but it’s pretty potent for a few days.  More info on it is here.

Pretty interesting debate.  Check out all the comments at the NZ Herald on the practice– both for and against, from people much more informed and in-tune with the country’s needs than I am.  I am curious about why they use aerial spraying, though- is it simply more efficient than spreading it in a more localized fashion?  Would local drops raise fewer safety issues?  Or, since the animals need to ingest the poison for it to work, does it have to be coating everything to be effective and so spraying just makes sense all sorts of ways?

Ponder away, if you like, or check out a more entertaining way to get rid of opossums- by selling their carcasses to tourists.  I visited Opossum World in Napier, NZ, in order to see what is billed as their “amazing static display”.  They have a diorama of taxidermy opossums eating the eggs of taxidermy birds- with a system to play the songs of the native birds the opossum endangers, and some other stuffed exhibits on the opossum life cycle, how they’ve killed (lots of old poison cans in that display), and a display of a opossum hunter skinning one while another fiddles on his roof.  Also a quintet of singing opossums on a car (see, brought it back for you).  Not all of it is strictly factual.  But it is certainly amazing: check out my pictures here.  (There are other less dead-opossums related things to do in Napier, too.  Just putting that out there.  You should go.)

In the same shop, you can get all sorts of opossum gifts- they’re commodifying the dead animals by making their fur into yarn for some very warm knits, hats, computer dusters…you name it, they make it from opossum for you.  They even made a moa.  And the opossum/merino blends are in stores all over the country, too, so the more you get your friends and family, the more you help rid the island of a pest.  Except the 1080 helps even more than that.  But it’s a start, and my new mittens are prettier than accidental poisonings.

*I double checked and they had two kinds of mammals, both of which are bats, and despite that Calvin and Hobbes sequence about them not being bugs I had no idea they were really mammals.  Didn’t Susie even say that? Ah, youth.

“Science”, “Journalism”, “Scandal”, “Irony”…

Friday I saw this headline from CBS posted at Huffpo:  EPA May Have Surpressed Report Skeptical Of Global Warming.  Shocking, yes?  After all that talk about evidence and science and facts leading to decisions, Obama might have let us down.  I cried a little inside in case it was true- after 8 years of not being able to believe a word coming from the administration, trust doesn’t come easily- but skipped reading the article until later, as I had actual work to do.

Got around to it yesterday and it does indeed sound bad.  CBS makes it sound very, very bad.

Back story:  in March, the EPA  issued a report instructing the government to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, since they endanger the US.  Historic, etc., helped lead to the initial passage of Waxman-Markey last week.  Here is the EPA page detailing that recommendation, providing supporting documents and such.  From here on, I’ll call that the ‘endangerment finding’.

Last week, a conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, provided CBS with internal EPA emails that are the basis of this uproar.  An EPA employee, Alan Carlin- an economist, not a scientist- wrote a report critical of the scientific basis of the endangerment finding- which relied on the 2007 IPCC report on climate change- as being outdated.  He also contended that the cost of mitigating the impact of climate change would be less than the cost of regulating greenhouse gases.  The CEI’s emails from his supervisor seem to indicate that the report was not taken into account for the final EPA report on climate change sent to the White House a couple months ago.  The EPA says they did send his report around for peer review, however, and dealt with some of his objections in the final document.

The CBS article speculates that the EPA put out its report too quickly to be fully researched (you will find the same charge on the CEI website linked above), dwells on the irony of the new administration suppressing science (while hedging that it only ‘might’ have suppressed science, but wouldn’t it be ironic if they did!), and quotes several Republican congresspersons and a representative of CEI as decrying the EPA for ignoring the report.  Which again, the EPA says it didn’t.  CBS did not check the contents of the employee’s “suppressed” report against the published EPA report, to see if his concerns were indeed mentioned, as the EPA claimed.  CBS also did not double check to see if his “suppressed” report made any sense.

Shocking!  What depths will the EPA sink to next?  Bush and Co. suppressed real science, and now Obama’s suppressing…um, fake science.  Turns out that Carlin’s report was largely cut/pasted from a few anti-climate-science blogs and lobbyist groups, with pronouns changed.  Deepclimate has an article here and here detailing Carlin’s sources, and the good folks at RealClimate go more in depth here on the origins and veracity of the report  (if you just read one, read that one).  It’s ok for CBS to have missed that whole thing, since they don’t have access to the internet or basic accepted climate science or anything.  Bah.

And the charge the the EPA ignored Carlin’s report altogether?  Well, let’s head to the Federal Register the endangerment finding was reported in- Vol 74, no 78, from April 24th, 2009.  Middle column of page 18894 (or page 10 of this 26 page pdf excerpting that Federal Register that the EPA website above happily and transparently links you to) reads:

This addresses a number of concerns raised by commenters about the July 2008 version of the TSD, arguing that it relied too heavily on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (published 2007), which some argued was either not current enough or not specific enough to U.S. conditions. We note that the IPCC North American chapter (of the Working Group II volume) on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability covers the U.S. and Canada (not Mexico) and that the general findings in that chapter (drawn from many individual studies for the U.S.) are indeed applicable to U.S. conditions. Even with more recent information available, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report remains a standard reference, essentially serving as the benchmark against which new findings over the next few years will be compared. Therefore it also serves as a robust and valuable reference for purposes of this proposal. The TSD has also been edited or updated in a number of places to reflect specific comments received on the July 2008 version, and to reflect comments from an additional round of review by the federal scientists following the incorporation of the more recent scientific findings.

Sounds like they considered concerns that the 2007 IPCC report was not current enough to me.   And Carlin’s accusation that they hadn’t taken into account his cost analysis of mitigation vs. regulation?  From the same page 10 of that pdf, third column:

The Administrator also believes it is inappropriate, in considering whether greenhouse gases endanger public health or welfare, to consider potential private behavior aimed at alleviating some of the effects of climate change. Just as the Administrator would not consider, for example, the availability of asthma medication in determining whether criteria air pollutants endanger public health, so the Administrator will not consider private behavior in the endangerment determination at hand. On the contrary, ameliorative steps of that kind would attest to the fact of endangerment.

Brava- and oh snap, Administrator Jackson.

Ok, so Carlin’s report is lifted from lobbyists and science-challenged blogs, and doesn’t really address the EPA report question of whether greenhouse gases are a danger to human health in the US in the first place, and the EPA acknowledges his two main concerns in their report anyway.  Hasn’t stopped him or the CEI from making this a big deal, but now we know.

CBS: WHY would you report this story this way?  With your “well the EPA saiiiid, buuuuuuuut… all these other people said so who knows!?” It took me less than 10 minutes to find that EPA report, read the contents list, and double-check Carlin’s assertions.  AND I was drinking a beer doing it.  You people are supposed to be the reporters.  Report, don’t regurgitate.  Sheesh.  Makin’ me look stuff up when I could be watchin’ Star Trek.  Nuts to you guys.

Climate Bill Squeaks* Through The House

It passed by 7 votes!  212-219!  It almost sounds like Congress was exciting today, and not in the embarrassing way!

There’s been a huge lobbying push behind this bill– also known as Waxman-Markey, this is the cap-and-trade plan- and no one was sure they had the votes until today.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s got the support of a lot of the environmental groups.  Not Greenpeace (not enough for them, which I can respect), but the Sierra Club supports it, and the League of Conservation Voters even said it won’t endorse anyone for reelection that doesn’t vote for the bill.  Now, on to the Senate, than hopefully committee, then the President?  It if can somehow make it through those hurdles without being watered (coaled?  nucleared?) down even more, I’ll be not dissatisfied.

*Forgot the ‘u’ the first time out.  One day I’ll learn my lesson about posting sleepily.

A Crisis By Any Other Name

Sounds a lot nicer!

NYT article on more effective terminology for environmental issues.  A group called EcoAmerica is trying to figure out how to talk about it to make more people care:

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

I’ve been interested in how to relate what good science is, and what it means, to the general public for a very long time.  Back in school, I was in a whole student group dedicated to the problem- Student Pugwash.  The nature of hypothesis and observation and testable results- that’s fun for me.  And ambiguous, which I also find kind of fun, but I get it’s not for everybody.

Facts are a lot more marketable when you can say they’re absolutes, and those are pretty rare if you’re doing science right.  Experts aren’t supposed to be reasonably sure, they’re supposed to absolutely know- or at least act like it on CNN.  But honest scientists will only tell you how certain they are about their facts, and under what conditions.  And when we get to something as big and weird as climate change, which is inconvenient to deal with anyway, talking about the levels of certainty of your results makes the results too easy to dismiss.

I do think scientists should explain their work in terms that the public can understand, after they publish all those fancy papers to impress their peers.  I think that’s a basic responsibility that everyone involved in expanding knowledge has: dissemination, communication.  But that’s not what EcoAmerica is pushing- they want communication without the sticky science.

Ah, but as a dedicated climate warrior, does it matter how EcoAmerica convinces people to believe, as long as they do believe?

Yes.  It fundamentally does.  Because if your only argument is one of feeeeeelings, then it’s easily broken by other feelings.  Like laziness and hunger and boredom.  And frustration-especially frustration.  Galvanizing whatever “undecideds” with patriotic verbage goes nowhere when they face the difficult realities of what the science actually means, how we solve the associated technical problems, and how we structure a political solution to this mess. Then we’re back where we started, only now the folks are frustrated.  We have to give people the reasons and facts they need to make informed and principled decisions- whether they want to make those decisions or not.

EcoAmerica, I applaud your intention of talking effectively to the public about this.  And I get that you feel  handicapped by the abysmal lack of science education in this country.  But give the public some credit- treat them like idiots, and you’ll lose them.  Convince them on a slippery “American ideals” basis (some of us are apparently ok with torture, so maybe that’s not the firmest foundation right now), and they’ll follow you nowhere past the sentiment.  You’ll do better by translating the difficult issues you plan to avoid to those idiots- put it in clear terms, explain what the science means, explain the problems both technological and political that we face- and the idiots will hopefully surprise you.

Easier said than done!  Always sounded that way at Pugwash, too.  But if you in the know don’t try, who will?

And Thursday Makes A Comeback!

Wow, today was looking rough, but now I’m at home, self medicating a cold with Otter Creek Winter Ale and peach tea (the herbal medicine aisle at Whole Foods confuses and frightens me) and watching that episode of The Office where Jim bikes to work.  That isn’t even the good part!

Today Obama outlined his proposed budget for the next year or so, and beyond all the other stuff I like (and don’t) about it, he’s proposing to pay for some of the new spending by starting a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.  Cap and trade programs haven’t worked so great in Europe, mostly because they tend to not limit the total amount of carbon allowed to be emitted very well, they just put a price on it.  However, a good program, with a stringent carbon limit that decreases over time, would go a long way towards assigning pollution a real cost in the marketplace, and prompting the profit-driven to care about it.  So this is a step in the right direction.  Give the market what it needs to do the right thing for now, eh?  Plus it just makes me happy when a government plans to have the money it spends.  Should be interesting to see how Congress actually sets up the carbon market.  Here’s a bit more from the NYT Green Inc. column.

Then, some of my plotting this week paid off!  I’d been asked to review a new eco-thriller, Freezing Point by Karen Dionne, and it came in the mail today. According to the blurb, the main characters are a well-intentioned environmental activist, a declared eco-terrorist, and an apocalyptic horror from deep within the ice: promising! I also got a little Freezing Point-themed natural lip gloss thing with it, which was a nice touch.  See, full disclosure, so you can decide for yourself if the lip gloss prejudices me to like the book (it does, but I read a paragraph in the middle and I think I’d like it by itself anyway).

On to Friday…

(P.S. As I was finishing this up, V. came by with more medication from The Dairy Godmother– gingersnaps and strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with custard.  Take that, head cold!)

Suits and Cars

Last week, I received an invitation to have dinner with some nice people from General Motors, and to attend the Media opening of the Washington DC Auto Show.  I am not one to pass up an opportunity of this nature, especially involving a free dinner.  And yes, I think GM just got bailed out once or twice, so thanks, taxpayers, and let me know when I can get you back for your 1/300millionth share of my fish and chips.

It is encouraging to see the auto industry try their darnedest to understand why Americans are upset at them, why we generally consider them incompetent and obstructionist, especially when it comes to green innovations.  Somehow, lobbying against CAFE standards during $4 gas and an environmental crisis then blackmailing the country with the loss of millions of jobs if we don’t give them cash does not breed respect.  By highlighting their environmental progress at the Auto Show this week, especially to interested politicians, they hope to fix that.  I saw a congressperson!  Not sure which one.  Also Colin Powell totally walked right past me.  Closest I’ve ever been to famous, unless you count the time I chatted with Freeman Dyson by a buffet for a half-hour, but that only makes me cool in certain circles.

An entire exhibition floor at the auto show is dedicated to more or less green car models.  Lots of things plug in these days, and if you drive a Prius, you can bump that baby to 120 mpg with a plug-in battery for a $10,000 investment at Fitzgerald Toyota in Gaithersburg, MD.  A few cars weren’t even totally car-like- they had a smart car and a glorified bike-thing, too.  But really, it was mostly just cars running on not-gas, or not-as-much gas.  The larger exhibition hall in the lower level had a Tesla display and a few hybrid models- but mostly conventional gas-powered cars.

By meeting with bloggers, too, these guys are really trying to figure out how their message is going wrong.  The execs described to us their efforts to reach out to consumers, their frustration with the misinformation about the industry out there, and we explained to them how blogs work, and how they might use new media to help themselves out.  There was also an amusing interlude wherein the concept of trolling was explained.  Our generational divides were showing.  But really, there are bigger issues than just their ability to communicate.

It was evident at the car show that the American auto industry is trying it’s best to get alternative fuels out there.  It’s sponsoring competitions, it’s looking into hydrogen and battery technologies and all sorts of new ideas.  I worry, however, that their best attempts at green cars are still too much just cars.  Big hunks of stuff that we’ll sit through traffic jams in, no matter what they burn to go when they can.  We’re at a crossroads here.  We get to redefine transportation now- infrastructure needs and environment and quality of life concerns all indicate that we’re not doing well with a car-based country.  There are better uses for our space than parking lots. I don’t think the auto industry is looking beyond their cars to see how we can link up to the trains or bikes or buses or subways or jetpacks we’ll use to get around more efficiently- for them it’s about autos, it’s not about transportation.

I want to see more imagination in their plans.  I want them to think beyond cars.  I think that will save their industry, and it could literally get us where we need to be in 50 years.

The DC Auto Show is a laudable effort on the industry’s part, but it doesn’t begin to address the deeper issues of what moves us.

I got some cards, and I’ll be sending a few thank-you emails for the chance to chat.  I’m hoping I can get some of the participants here for a little to talk with you all, so tell me what you think of my observations, the car companies, hydrogen, whatever, and we’ll get up a little dialog at least amongst ourselves.

Meanwhile, look like it might be nice enough Friday to bike to work…

Congressional Bicycle Caucus Riding High

The NYT profiled the founder of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus today, a Mr. Earl Blumenauer.  The group is pretty much what it sounds like, and Blumenauer (D-OR) is quick to point out how enhanced biking opportunities are good for basically everything that ails us- from obesity to oil prices.  I’m a believer, but I can wait until it’s not cold as (all the analogies I come up with here are obscene, so insert your own and we’ll keep this family-friendly) to start biking to work again.

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