Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is the California Delta to you?

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Dan Bacher has an update on Delta issues - noting that federal representatives of the Delta and North Coast recently met with the new Delta Czar, Jerry Meral.  Their reason:  To let him know that they have "grave concerns" (Mr. Bacher's language) about the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.  Add their voice to the many groups who've been involved for years fighting to make the Delta whole and healthy.

According to Mr. Bacher, the Reps.' concerns are over a peripheral canal.  However, if you read the quotations, it sounds like those representatives are not as adamant about opposing a canal as is Mr. Bacher.  This is too bad, and we constituents need to let them know that we want solid, explicit language opposing any conveyance around the Delta.

Make no mistake:  Any peripheral canal would be an ecological compromise, at best; at worst, it would be an ecological and economic disaster for a fertile, diverse, unique region. 

Everybody rips on the Delta, but the Delta is California's crown jewel, the source of our very life: from its water, the foods that come from its amazing soil (with no need to go against gravity), and its unique habitats.  From the way it is talked about in the news and in so many watercooler conversations, you would think that it is a festering sore on the face of the Earth, a cesspool of pollution, devastation and death just waiting for a catastrophe to rip it wide open and spread famine everywhere.  But, we have made ugly in concept something that is beautiful in fact - even now - and we do it because we do not understand our physical connection to it. 

You, who drink water in Los Angeles, water that is pumped hundreds of miles and over an entire mountain range, you are connected to the Delta: It infuses your cells, hydrates your body, helps fire your synapses. 

You, who spray water to ever-saltier flats on the West Central Valley, you are connected to the Delta: It lines your pockets, pays your kids' tuitions, keeps your workers happy.

And we, throughout the world, who buy California produce, we are all connected to the Delta:  It grows the largest agricultural industry on Earth, it builds our muscles and bones, forms our staffs of life, grows our children's eyes and brains.  We sanctify it, pray over it, cook it up, add it to our very selves.  We are made of the Delta.

And this is good.

But if we are to continue to benefit from it, then we must treat it right.  Many billions of other lives depend on the Delta, too, and the Delta, as any ecosystem, depends upon those lives for its own health.  There is no separation of a wetlands habitat from its water without loss and significant change, and we, as Americans, have taken on the responsibility of caring for those creatures we have harmed. 

Mr. Bacher notes a sad new record set this year:  more Sacramento splittail minnows were killed at the pumps this year than any other.  Nine million little lives lost for the pumps, while more water was pumped than ever before.

All of this that is the Delta - the devastation as well as the vitality, goes into those things we put in our bodies to keep ourselves whole.

So next time you start to think about the Delta as a horrible place, just remember:  The Delta is You.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Professor Mankiw's frustrating comment - with no chance to comment!

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Sorry for the non-environmental post, but the Harvard Econ. Professor Greg Mankiw has me a tad frustrated this morning.

I'm no economist, and so, if he cared to, I'm sure Mr. Mankiw could come in and take apart my comments here, (frankly, I'd love that, because I want an accurate representation of economics out in the public, and where I'm mistaken, I want to be corrected).  My real problem is that the Professor posts to a blog, but doesn't allow comments.

First, I would hope Mr. Mankiw would understand that the interactive nature of the internet makes it a world-changing phenomenon, and participate wholeheartedly in this interaction.  Second, I think by opening comments, Mr. Mankiw would watch his own posting a bit more carefully.  Case in point:

I'm poking through the cadre of economic minds on-line (starting at Env-Econ, of course) this morning, and I come across a little post by Prof. Mankiw.  He ends this three-sentence post with:

"If you can remember only one fact, make it this one: The middle class (middle quintile) pays 14.1 percent of its income in federal taxes, while the rich (top tenth of one percent of the population) pay 30.4 percent."

Of course, I'm frustrated by this comment, because it misses a basic economic concept, "diminishing marginal utility".  But, when I scroll to the bottom of the page to respond, I find no way to comment!

So, I'm taking time to point out a couple of mistakes that Mr. Mankiw makes in his implication (as I understand it, he is implying here that our federal tax system is sufficiently progressive).

First of all, as he points out, the richest 1/10 of 1% pay about double in "federal taxes" (we'll get to that definition in a minute) what the middle quintile pays.  My immediate question:  What is 14% to a person making the middle quintile vs. 30% to one of the richest 1/10th?  So, I follow the link he posted, and I find that the middle quintile is defined as people making between ~ $34k and $62k, while the richest 1/10th are defined as making over about $2,468,000.

Then I ask:  What is the marginal utility of this money - the relative impact of 14% on $34k ($4760) vs. 30% on $2,468,000 ($740,400)?  Am I the only one to see that the five grand is way more valuable to the person making $34k than the $750K is to the person making the nearly $2.5 million?  If you don't see that, then realize that I just swallowed the poorer persons yearly after-tax salary in the rounding error for the richer person.

Now, consider that these were just the examples of the poorest in the group.  For the richest of the 1/10th, we are talking billions upon billions of dollars earned per year. 

Upon closer examination, then, it becomes obvious that 14% is a far heavier tax burden on the middle quintile than 30% is on the richest 1/10th.

And there is one other problem.  The "effective federal tax rate" Mr. Mankiw uses doesn't even include federal excise taxes - like the 18.4 cents-per-gallon on gasoline.  For poorer people, these taxes are heavy burdens (one study showed that the folks in the middle quintile pay about a quarter of their income on transportation), but for rich folks, that regressive tax is almost nil.

Professor Mankiw, please consider teaching folks in the ether about real tax burdens and economic concepts (like diminishing marginal utility), and please oh please start participating in the earth-changing world of the interwebs.

I'd be tickled pink if you'd start here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sec. Salazar continues the time-honored tradition of promising California hydrological miracles

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Mike Tougher has a good article in the San Jose Mercury News about Interior Secretary Salazar's comments on pumping Delta water to Central and Southern California.

Last year, when I pointed out that Meg Whitman (remember when she ran for Governor?) promised more water, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to the pressures of a live debate (I'm sure I'd look like a complete moron in a live debate, so I'm always judging those events nicely).  Secretary Salazar, when taking questions before the Commonwealth Club, might also get the benefit of the doubt.  It was a live, well-respected audience.

But the comments Mr. Tougher reports show a man flirting with serious conflicts with physics.  And believe me, physics always wins.

From Mr. Tougher's report:  "Salazar said building a new aqueduct around the Delta might increase the flexibility of water operations in such a way that it could lead to more water deliveries."

The Delta needs x amount of fresh water each year.  We aren't sure what x is, yet, but we know that in a typical year it is more than it now gets.  If freshwater is diverted from the Delta, it will suffer an ecological decline.

Mr. Salazar later visited the new fish screens put up to protect fish from the South Delta pumps.  Unfortunately, what Mr. Tougher failed to note is that the sucking up of fish into the pumps is only one of the ways they impact endangered and threatened species.  Their overall impacts on the flow of water through the Delta also kills fish by confusing them and sucking them into predator pits. 

But never forget that removing actual habitat (i.e., through a peripheral canal) is not the cure for pump impacts on tides and flows.  The single greatest ecological and economic benefits for both the Delta and the rest of the Central Valley would come from farming the Westlands for solar power.  

Physics can be our friend.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's rural? Wild? Urban? Nobody really knows

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Matt Weiser has an interesting article about Sacramento's recent, apparent uptick in violent human/wild animal encounters the past two weeks.  In particular, a couple of animals have been found with rabies (sad and scary, as anybody whose seen Old Yeller can tell you).

Coming from the country, I love how these stories are often told with surprise and awe about how these animals can live in such seemingly unnatural environs; namely, our cities.

First, I don't know how even humans live in these seemingly unnatural environs, but let's look past that, and consider the reality of our habitats and communities:  Nothing in nature respects political boundaries because they don't really exist.

There is no such thing as a "city" in nature.  Roads, rivers, bike trails, ditches, empty lots, power and sewer lines... the list of entryways into cities is long, and animals that have a high tolerance for humans and similar tastes find cities very inviting, indeed.  Cities offer wonderful shelters from weather and feasts for omnivores, and there is little we can do about it.  Conversely, traffic, agriculture, flood and fire control are a few examples of how the "urban" infiltrates and impacts those places we consider rural and wild, altering them completely.

Certain animals thrive under conditions that humans create.  As Bill Tweed, former Chief of Interpretation at Sequoia National Park, once pointed out, scavenging omnivores love food-storing omnivores; and, what are we, if not the consummate food-storing omnivore?  It would be very unnatural if other animals did not take advantage of our largesse.

For its part, Sacramento's wildlife may be wilder than most cities, which can, ironically, help bring down animal encounters.  We are blessed with a Wild & Scenic river corridor running right through the city, providing habitat for pipevine swallowtail butterflies to mule deer.  These wilder habitats offer more appropriate shelter and foods for those raccoons, skunks, opossums, and others who may be tempted to hit up houses and parking lots.

(If you are interested, you can read more of my posts on the illusions of rural, wild and urban here, here, and here).

Friday, September 2, 2011

President Obama concedes the wrong point in pollution regulation

© 2011 Joshua Stark

President Obama has pulled back from his earlier proposal to put stricter limits on ground-level ozone, a major pollutant and cause of asthma attacks and deaths, reports the Associated Press.

By this act, the President has conceded to opponents the very idea that pollution regulations are job killers, and opened the door to a flood of rollbacks, and the subsequent pollution increases that will come with them.

Hard choices have to be made, and the President has ducked a big one right here.  Sadly, he has done it by buying into the notion that pollution control is a net loss to our economy, thus legitimizing the idea, even though, under our current circumstances, it almost never has merit. 

In our dirtiest places, Americans live like 3rd World countries.  California's Central Valley has thousands of Americans who can't even drink their own tap water, and one-fifth of their children have asthma (for a thorough look at the impacts of asthma and ozone on the Valley, click here).

The regulation that the President has backed off would have direct impacts on asthma rates in places like the Central Valley, improving the quality of life for millions of Americans, particularly the poor.  But, what would be the economic impact?

Well, in 1997 the EPA estimated that asthma cost the U.S. between $9 and $11 billion (today, that would be $12.5 to %15 billion).  And these rates don't calculate lost productivity due to parents' worries over a hospitalized child, stress from losing a child, young people's inability to perform work throughout their life due to their impaired physiques and oxygen loss during growth.

Additionally, these calculations don't take into account the value of individual dollars - a gaping intellectual hole when calculating economic impacts.  Simply put, one dollar is worth more in a poor person's hands than it is in a rich person's hands, especially now.  A poor person, when getting a dollar, will spend that dollar, because it is more valuable turned into food than it is sitting in a bank.  A rich person may spend that dollar, or they may save it, because its value as a saved dollar may be bigger than its value as one more hamburger.

Right now, our economic problem is in large part due to our low total demand for goods and services because we can't afford them, because there isn't enough circulating money.  Money isn't circulating because we have too many people out of work, unable to afford things.

We are in the beginning stages of a vicious cycle, economically-speaking, and this cycle has nothing to do with our pollution.  But, regulating our pollution can go a long way toward ending this cycle and getting us out of our current slump.  Robust pollution regulation can lead to direct job growth in the testing and regulating industries (often public-private partnerships), and it will lead to increased productivity among those who would see improved health.  The additional demand from this growth of more valuable dollars would lead to increased supply to meet that demand, pushing up employment.

Make no mistake, companies who fight these regulations want to pollute.  If they didn't want to pollute, they would not care about the regulation.  They do not care about total demand, they do not care about social health improvements.  The individuals who work in these companies might care, but officially and professionally, they don't make their decisions based on what is good for the nation; they cannot, because the pressures of their fiduciary duties and their pressures to see quarterly profits are too great.

Economic reasons aren't the only reasons for robust pollution controls, and they shouldn't even be the first reasons.  But, there are real economic benefits to robust pollution control, and the President, by ignoring these, has lost sight of the good of the nation and has given over to ideas that will further stunt our growth, economically and otherwise.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Grist wins me over - with sensible talk about population control

© 2011 Joshua Stark

In response to Vice President Biden's comments on China's one child policy, Grist's senior editor Lisa Hymas posted an article debunking some myths about the policy.  But what she really does is bust population control as a place for government intervention, and for that, Grist should be commended.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sport, or not? Hunting, philosophy, & language

© 2011 Joshua Stark

It's funny, because my title, compared to those at Holly's, Tovar's, and Phillip's, is pretty high-falutin, but I won't go nearly as deep as they.

Currently, these three sites are having a great philosophical conversation over whether or not A:  hunting is a sport; and B:  whether that is good or bad.

Tovar and Holly (and me, to be honest) take the tack that hunting, to us, is not "sport" in the general sense of the word, and that the term dilutes, diminishes, and ultimately harms hunting in the general public's eyes.  Phillip, bless his soul, embraces his hunting as sport, and gently chides us for falling for stereotypes (sport and "trophy" hunters as bad folks), rather than trying to destroy them.  His inference (which he's made more clear at other times) is that the hunting community shouldn't be torn apart by these esoteric distinctions.

Personally, I don't think hunting is a sport, in the general definition of the term.  That is, I believe that the impacts to hunting (physically, emotionally) separate it from the category of sports.  Specifically, I think the fact that you try to kill an animal during hunting (and much fishing) means that it is, inherently, different from other categories of recreation, and "sport" has a dismissive tone to it nowadays that diminishes the gravity of killing.  I, for one, don't use the term for this very reason.

Phillip's argument seems, to me, a bit off-focus.  First, he seems to define "sport" as encompassing all recreational pursuits.  If this is true, then I concede that hunting is a "sport", but I don't buy his definition.  I think there are many pursuits, and that within the realm of recreational pursuits there exists both sports and other things (reading, for example).  There are also some activities that are both recreational and something else, entirely.  For example, many people do not grocery shop as a recreational pursuit, but many people fish for both recreation and food. 

There are characteristics to the common definition of "sport" that do not ethically fit with hunting, especially when considered from the perspective of the non-hunting public.  For example, sport tends to have a competitive element, but when that is applied to hunting, the non-hunting public imagines people who want to kill something in order to beat somebody else, and they tend to be repulsed by this urge.  

It seems as though Phillip is really upset that some hunters condemn certain hunting practices or attitudes, and that this leads to fractures in hunting that may jeopardize it for all of us.  He gives a lecture on the evils of stereotypes, and ends by suggesting that Tovar and Holly are not trying to destroy stereotypes, but are actually bolstering them by taking a side. 

But, this isn't a case of stereotypes, this is a case of identifying unethical actions and condemning those actions.  I (and probably Tovar and Holly) aren't taking a group of people, identifying them by one shared characteristic and then attributing to them additional characteristics that aren't true.  We are saying that a particular action may be, or is, wrong.  In the case of hunting, there are people who hunt for trophies, there are hunters who kill only to kill, and I (and probably Tovar and Holly) do not believe this is ethical behavior.  We have a different standard from Phillip (we don't draw the ethical line at the law, which is a totally different conversation).  But, that's okay.  Hunting, like all good human endeavors, will thrive when people think more deeply about it and talk openly about it. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and if hunting couldn't survive public scrutiny, then it shouldn't survive it.  I, for one, know that much of it is good and important to pass down, including the ethical considerations.  I know hunting can survive this argument.

(Note:  Phillip's link doesn't seem to be working, so go to his main website page for reference.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yo-Yo: Grist with a good article on eating fish

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Grist has a good interview with chef/author Barton Seaver about eating seafood.  It's a tad light on actual tactics for improving our ocean conditions by eating seafood, but it is still worth a read.

This is a big step away from the opinion piece it ran a couple of weeks back on an oyster farmer's desire to own more farms at the expense of other fisheries... well, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh, but that is how it read to me.

Mr. Seaver does explain one tactic for improving our impact, and it happens to be one of my favorites:  Eat lower on the seafood food chain.  He doesn't make the claim so directly, but the fish he points out that need to be replacing the giant, slow-growing (and often toxin-laden) predators we currently eat are smaller prey species like sardines and mackerel.  These just so happen to be the tastiest fish one can eat (we had grilled, whole sardines two nights ago!), and they are also cheaper than the big ones.

It was a refreshing change to read at Grist, though it wasn't a complete rebuttal to the earlier piece.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Level-headed and honest discussions about famine, climate change & overpopulation

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Within ten days, two separate radio programs addressed the controversy around overpopulation, and they did it exactly like it should be done:  in passing, dismissing it as a separate threat, and mentioning it only in the context of sociopolitical pressures and poverty.

These two shows?  Forum, with Michael Krasny, and Talk of the Nation Science Friday, with Ira Flatow.

In the Forum episode, an update on Somalia, Semhar Araia, the regional director for OxFam's work on the horn of Africa, addressed an email from a listener who railed about Somalia's inability to feed its too crowded landscape.  In perhaps two sentences, Mr. Araia stated clearly that Somalia has the ability to feed itself even under the current circumstances.  People were starving to death there because militia groups were preventing them from reaching food.

It is as simple and as horrifying as that.  Somalia doesn't suffer from brown and black people having too many babies, it suffers under the hands of vile militias.

And today on Science Friday, in an entire discussion (I think it was a half-hour) on food, its production, and climate change, only a few scant seconds were given to overpopulation as a problem in and of itself.  Ira Flatow started off with the fear-mongering threat we often hear - by 2050 there will be 9 billion people - and the respondent replied, to agreement with the other speakers, that:  first, we may not even reach 9 billion by 2050; second, we grow enough under current situations to feed all of us; third, the problems are an overpopulation of poverty and distribution - and more specifically, that when people get out of abject poverty, they will want to eat more and different foods; fourth, climate change is going to impact our yield, and so we need to study those impacts and do what we can to mitigate them. 

Again, that was it.  Overpopulation was not the problem.  (For the record, I think Mr. Flatow was lobbing a softball in his question on overpopulation.)

I hope to post a bit more on the Science Friday show, because there is so much in there to take apart related to ethics and the environment, but I wanted to make the overpopulation issue clear:  For most folks seriously working to improve food security, overpopulation isn't the problem. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opinion piece in Grist gets it wrong about fishing

© 2011 Joshua Stark

There are few controversies in the environmentalist world quite like fishing.  Most folks agree that most recreational (though I hate that term) fishing is a great way for children to connect directly to the wild in a special way, a way that often begins a lifetime of love and appreciation for the outdoors; fishing is often our gateway.  Really, only the animal rights groups have a problem with recreational and subsistence fishing, and as I've pointed out before, "animal rights" is not environmentalism.

But, then there is "commercial fishing", that ugly moniker attached to images of mutilated sharks, denuded seascapes, and "Whale Wars".

Yet, there is more to commercial fishing than many give credit.  Commercial fishing, when done right, is a powerful way for many people to connect to the wild, through their food.  In fact, commercial fishing is the only major food market left with a direct connection to and need for healthy wild places.  And many organizations and fishing groups have tried to make commercial fishing an ecologically viable enterprise, especially in the past couple of decades, and especially in California. 

Also, consider commercial fishing's impact to wildness vs. farming's impact.  As one fisheries biologist points out, commercial fishing, at its worst, impacts about 30% of habitat, while agriculture, at its best, still impacts very nearly 100%, by completely altering landscapes. 

And the importance of having a group of people whose very livelihoods are affected by the health of ecosystems is vital to ensuring that those same ecosystems have a voice in our democratic systems.

I'm not defending all commercial fishing, but I am arguing that it is a powerful connection to a wild place that would suffer worse without that connection.

This is why I'm disappointed in a recent opinion piece in Grist Magazine titled the, "Sustainable Seafood Myth".  I can expect Grist to go over the top on a typical day, though I am a fan of their reporting and suffer the flash to get to the meat of their stories, but this one didn't have much meat.

Grist uses the very real dangers associated with global warming to pooh-pooh Whole Foods' (and others') attempts to provide real information to consumers about the sustainability of various fish.  Instead of asking Whole Foods why they might still sell fish with a low sustainability rating (I don't know if they do), or simply pointing out that the sustainability rating should include carbon emissions, the piece makes wild claims like, "Sadly, in the era of climate crisis, overfishing and other forms of unsustainable harvest are the least of our problems."

First of all, the least of our problems are still problems.  Second, if it's in the "problems" category, there is no reason to attack a solution.  Third, it may be the least of our problems, but it ain't the least of fish's problems.

The author of the piece does recommend that sustainability rating systems include carbon footprints, but he then wades into deeper waters with an over-simplified and risky solution:

"...dedicating portions of the ocean to farming -- while reserving large swaths for marine conservation parks. These farms need to be small and decentralized. Industrial aquaculture farms have rightly been branded as large-scale polluters producing low-quality food. Simply replacing destructive fishing fleets with destructive global fish farms will only hasten the demise of our oceans. Guided by principles of sustainability, our shorelines of the future can be dotted with organic fish farms servicing local communities."

Ah.  So, the author (an oyster farmer) sees a solution in ending our connection to the wild and replacing it with seafood only for those wealthy enough to live right next to the sea... got it.

This excerpt is so damaging on so many levels, and so completely dumbs-down so many ideas, that it becomes destructive to the greater good.  First, "marine conservation parks" can be problematic, as they often only disallow fishing, but allow for water pollution and resource extraction, both of which come with far larger carbon footprints and other ecological impacts than well-regulated fishing.

Second, dedicating portions of the ocean to farming is the same thing as saying "completely denuding wild landscapes from portions of the ocean and replacing them completely with man-made operations".  Third, not all large-scale aquaculture is bad - in fact, fully enclosed, freshwater systems are very important alternatives that remove impacts on the oceans and can provide local fish to inland consumers who aren't blessed with trust funds. 

Shorelines and oceans aren't homogenous, but pretending that one stretch of beach is the same as another is detrimental to an understanding of fish, habitats, and fishing.  The same spot that will make a great oyster farm (for example) is very often the very same spot that makes great wild habitat for varieties of species.

Last, fish farming in ocean waters is problematic, not only because of the damage it has on wild systems, but because of the political economy.  Fish farms can scale up and pressure markets and governments quickly, and without commercial fishing operations who need healthy ecosystems, there will be little pressure to keep farms' impacts in check through regulation.  (This is true for any industry:  hence, the "well-regulated" label.)

Commercial fishing has a horrible history, but there are proven ways to operate a well-regulated system that helps the environment - just think of the salmon folks fighting today to recover salmon habitat inland throughout the Pacific Northwest and California.  And the commercial folks' check on  aquaculture is vital to a well-regulated market.  We would be far worse off if we lost yet another connection to our wild oceans.

At the end of the piece, we are tasked to, "reimagine our waters as agrarian eco-spaces designed to curb seafood's carbon footprint..."  To which I say no, thank you.  I prefer not to "imagine" my waters as anything. I prefer to understand my waters as they are, and to understand and improve my relationship with them.  I do not wish to pretend that just by ending commercial fishing they will no longer suffer from global warming.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am a board member of SalmonAid.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

A short, non-environmental post on the debt "deal"

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The title of this AP piece, and EVERY article about this horrific deal should be:


Here's the most important quotation from the above-linked article:

"Yet it appeared Obama's proposal to extend the current payroll tax holiday beyond the end of 2011 would not be included. Nor would his call for extended unemployment benefits for victims of the recession."

Republicans are now running around saying they kept taxes from going up, but what happened is that they wouldn't vote for an extension of a tax cut to working folks, nor would they vote to back-fill these tax losses through taxing corporate jets.

Democrats are running around saying that they get the debt ceiling raised, thus averting catastrophe, but happened is that they were willing to let their major donors in the financial sector get away with not having to deal with the catastrophe they've created, this limping-along recoveryless recovery.  They also voted to cut unemployment extensions and to raise taxes on working people at the same time.

Here's a quick reminder of the definition of "unemployment":  Those who do not have a job, but who are able to work and are actively seeking work.  It's these people that keep inflation in check - and if there are too many of them, they drive down wages and keep recoveries from happening (sound familiar?).

This is a sham, another slap in the face to working people and people who want to work, and another meaty steak for the rich.  What a sorry, sorry state we are in.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cap-and-trade, when studied under one simplified scenario, beats carbon tax, one study finds

© 2011 Joshua Stark

My title should have been the title to this article out today at California Watch.  Unfortunately, they picked a title with a tad less specificity, and in doing so have picked a side in the debate between the two ideas.  Their title:  Free cap-and-trade system beats carbon tax, study finds.

That study, Inducing Clean Technology in the Electricity Sector:  Tradable Permits or Carbon Tax Policies?, by UC Merced & the University of New South Wales, compares the possible impacts of a carbon tax vs. a cap-&-trade system using a model of a single, small firm that owns a coal-fired power plant.  In the abstract, the authors claim to find that, due to the inherent uncertainty of a tradable permit system, a small firm will more likely hedge its bets by investing in some hybrid form of clean tech. + coal than it would under a system with a more stable carbon price.

Now, I don't have $20 to put down on a copy of this study (chalk it up to microeconomics, both literally and figuratively), but I do have some questions - especially to California Watch:

-The study's abstract says nothing of a "free cap-and-trade system", and in fact, I don't have a clue as to what a "free" cap-&-trade system would look like.  People pay when carbon is priced, period.  So, California Watch, where did "free" come in?

-The study's abstract also explains that other ideas associated with C&T (e.g., offsets) are also more expensive than just a tradable permits system without them.  California Watch, why did you not include this little gem of news?

-And for the researchers: Why study a particular scenario that is unlikely to have much of an impact on carbon?  If energy companies were as the authors envision - small firms owning one coal plant - then uncertainty may lead to hedging.  However, we are talking about creating a contrived, government-mandated market with a number of very, very large firms.  These firms move markets, they tend to suppress volatility (which is why companies want to be big), and they unduly influence political economy in their favor (hence, offsets & free permits to them).  This last point cannot be understated, especially because any carbon price is going to be the result of a government regulation and it will be much easier to "game" the system if it has elements of contrived uncertainty in it. 

Also, consider this:  A clear government regulation pointing to a relatively quick increase in carbon prices will also lead a small firm to switch to clean tech.  In fact, if the price looks high enough, that firm will leave coal completely, thus saving lives.  This regulation will also lead big firms to switch.

Never forget that, no matter how we price carbon, it will be through a government regulation.

Uncertainty in carbon prices may, indeed, lead many companies to hedge their bets, although current history (carbon prices are surely uncertain right now) does not completely bear this out.  And if carbon prices were a commodity, rather than a priced-in externality, I'd be more inclined to allow some uncertainty.  But the fact is that any carbon price will be contrived, because it doesn't have to have a market price.  Since the price for carbon will come out of regulations (even a C&T price) and an artificial scarcity, since large companies can thrive on creating their own certainty and influence shifting and uncertain regulations to a greater extent, and since a clear sign that carbon prices will go up will also induce a strong shift toward clean tech., it is imperative that we have a clear and certain regulatory framework.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bad Science on levees makes it into the paper

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Alas, having an advanced degree in a field doesn't always mean you are always right all the time.

Take this op-ed piece in yesterday's Sacramento Bee.  In it, a Dr. Lund from UC Davis, a man who is probably nearly a genius in his field, makes some very dubious claims about Central California's levees.  Sadly, here he refers to no studies nor historical evidence to prove his position.

The professor's claim is that we should remove trees from all "urban" levees, per a requirement by the US Army Corps of Engineers, even though doing so may have bad impacts to riparian habitat and recreational values.  He is concerned because trees may weaken levees, and hide burrows from workers checking them.

What does the professor use to support his claim?  The fact that other parts of the world - namely, China, Japan, & the Netherlands - remove trees from their levees.

That's it.

He offers no studies in this article that have shown these levees to be superior to California's.  He offers no examples of California levee failures (or any levee failures) due to trees.  He offers no support whatsoever for such an environmentally devastating act, for an act that will forever change habitats and recreation on our levees.

After some research, I found Dr. Lund's article as a blog post where he actually does cite references.  However, the references are largely skewed (most being from the Corps), or almost never support his position.  For example, this Power Point presentation lists trees and vegetation that are more or less problematic according to their research on European levees.  The list describes a host of bramble bushes - blackberries and such - as less problematic for levees.  However, I daresay that a burrow would be harder to find in a blackberry bramble than under a valley oak.

Another example, from the Ca. Dept. of Water Resources link he cites:  "... California asserts that the Corps’ strict enforcement of the ETL and PGL will adversely impact public safety."

An earlier report by the Sacramento Bee, about the lawsuit by environmental groups against the Corps for this horrid idea, did mention the science on levee failures:
"But it (the Corps) offers little scientific evidence for those conclusions (to remove trees).  A 2007 symposium hosted by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) offered evidence for the opposing view: Tree roots may, in fact, strengthen levees by binding soils together."

I am no levee engineer.  However, a quick google search of images from the last major levee failure on the California Delta, at Jones Tract in 2004, are telling; do you see any trees?  Also, think back to times when you've noticed tree roots, perhaps sticking out of the side of a cut-bank on a road or a creek.  Think about the dirt and rocks sticking to it, and how it and the land touching it stick way out from the eroded places around it, places that only had short grasses growing on it.

Last, I want to make a point about Dr. Lund's tone (and nearly everybody else talking publicly) when talking about levees:  It is super-easy to make dire predictions, because nobody wants to have been the Pollyanna the day one fails, and because the old saw about there being two types of levees (those that have failed, and those that are about to) is true.  But I would like to point out that this year we have experienced well over double our average runoff, and have had no major levee breech. 

It may be time to reconsider a push for drastic actions to redesign a system that has been working pretty well for quite a while.  Eventually, a levee will fail.  Far less likely will multiple levees fail, and the event that would cause multiple failures will also likely go beyond what we actually accomplish to protect them now, regardless of the current wild-eyed rhetoric.  Perhaps we should look at smaller-scale solutions to a recurring issue, rather than panicking about a potential catastrophe.

And for the record, I was born and raised on the Delta, and I live on the Delta now, as do my parents, a sister, and a nephew.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Non-environmental economics post

© 2011 Joshua Stark

But, it's a quick one.

I just wanted to re-post this quotation from Professor Brad DeLong's blog:

"A depressed economy with a slack labor market, low wages, and very low interest rates can be consistent with high asset values and ample corporate profits. But policies that produce such an outcome aren't policies for economic recovery. They are policies for class war. They are not in the public interest..."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

California Republicans Have a Strange Way of Shrinking Government

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The Sacramento Bee blog Capitol Alert has a post on a letter from four Republicans in talks with California's Governor over a budget deal.

The Republicans explain the types of reform that must happen in order for them to vote to allow Californians the chance to vote to keep taxes at their current levels.

I found page 3 of the letter - on regulatory reform - fascinating.  In particular, I am blown away that the way Republicans hope to shrink government and reign in spending is by creating a brand-new Office of Economic and Regulatory Analysis.

I don't get it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Sound of One Shoe Dropping

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Sadly, as the New York Times reports, the catastrophe hitting California's State Park System is more of a nationwide phenomenon.

To sum it up, parks around the country have had few funds, and in the past few years, even these have dried up.  In California, we are looking at closing 70 parks, and probably radically altering fees.  Closing 70 parks.  This is unprecedented, and sad.

Think about this:  What do we have to remember about the 20th Century's massive economic meltdown?  Many things, of course, but just about the only physical representations are the "C's" park units - parks whose infrastructure was designed and built by the CCC, a Depression-era attempt to put young men to work.  These park buildings are often jewels of rough-hewn timber and stone trail steps, with a unique aesthetic, beautifully integrated into the rugged park scenery.  In their day, they were beacons of hope to aspiring American visitors, and good, honest work for young men.  

What will our legacy be for this economic downturn?  According to the NY Times, "Customers... is the new buzzword", the notion that parks are selling goods and services, competing with the likes of Six Flags, WalMart, Sierra Pacific Lumber and Chevron.  Gone is the notion that visiting our most treasured natural and historical spots is an American rite and right.  Gone is the notion of "visitors".  "Customers" is the new buzzword. 

A few years back, I stood up during a National Park Service-sponsored conference on visitor use and defended the idea of visitors using parks.  Amid concerns from park staff about a sizeable reduction in visitation to parks, a well-meaning professor had made the comment that fewer boots on the ground meant fewer impacts to the resource. 

My response:  If visitors aren't using it, if Americans and other tourists aren't there to enjoy what we are trying to protect, then they will no longer care, and others will use them - they will log them, dam them, mine them, and drill them.  They will get used, just not in the same way.  We have to encourage appropriate use, to build appreciation for and a desire to protect these amazing places, by encouraging appropriate access.

Today (from the Times):  "One of the most inventive efforts is in Ohio, where the Legislature is set to approve a bill that would allow drilling for oil and gas in the shale beneath some state parks. Lawmakers say parks would directly benefit from revenues."

As a Western American, I know our Right to Freely Move through Our Lands.  California is half-owned by the federal government, in the form of US Forest Service and BLM lands.  These lands have always been free (notwithstanding the Los Padres Nat'l. Forest fiasco), and it is as American as apple pie that they stay free to appropriate uses.  However, parks have usually had minimal fees - they require higher standards of protection and more intense management because they guard our most cherised natural and historical places.   But without funding from government, these places are pressured to increase fees to draconian levels, where they can, and pressured to close - or be opened up to extractive uses - where they cannot.  "Customers" is the new buzzword, as unAmerican as that is - limiting access to the history of how we became the freest society on Earth.

I am sure I've opined in previous posts about the sad affairs of California's State Park interpretive (educational) system - how I had to quit my best job as a park interpreter because we couldn't afford to live on a 3/4-time salary, how my park units saw one million people per year (1/3rd the visitation of Yosemite), but only had one 3/4 time interpretive position.

For a quick reminder, here is the Mission of the California State Park System: 
"To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation."

Sadly, we are way past just underfunding the very mission of the park system.  We are actually closing parks.

We have met our recent economic downturn in a much different way than did our forebears some eighty years ago. 

I, for one, am ashamed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A classy piece from a good man

© 2011 Joshua Stark

If you have not yet read it, please read this piece by Bill Magavern on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which he describes as, "the centerpiece of California's economic democracy."  If you think that is a reach, then definitely read it to understand his position.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Not buying the premises

© 2011 Joshua Stark

California State Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg says that a budget deal with Republicans is close, which most likely means that:

A)  A tiny cadre of probably termed-out Republicans will support a tax increase, most likely in the form of regressive taxes (sales, vehicle license fees, etc.); and
B)  Democratic leadership will probably support environmental regulatory shortcutting in the name of "job growth".

I don't buy either premises.

First of all, the notion that we can re-establish a robust state government relying even more heavily on the backs of the poor and lower-middle class are ridiculous.  I've talked about the problem with regressive taxes before, but I'll be clear and concise right here:  A tax that disproportionately impacts poorer people is unethical and bad economics, because it devalues dollars by moving more valuable dollars (one dollar is worth more to a poorer person than to a richer one) into a pool of less valuable dollars, it exacerbates the problems of poverty (which require more government expenditures to fix), and it makes government revenues rely upon a more volatile base (poor people's purchasing power fluctuates a lot more than rich people's, which is why everybody wants to be rich).

The second premise is a bit more hidden:  If Democrats agree to curtail environmental regulations in order to grow California's economy (jobs), then they are agreeing to the premise that environmental regulations are dragging California's economy.

I've yet to see a study showing this to be true.  Further, I've seen studies showing that, if anything, the opposite is true.

To be honest with you, the majority of places where California's economy is in dire straits are those places where: 

A) California's environmental regulations have been lax or inconsistently applied;
B) Places where California's economy has always suffered.

Think places like the Central Valley and other poor communities.  For goodness' sake, we refer to them as environmental justice communities! 

Just consider this another unintended consequence of term limits.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Vatican takes a stand on climate change

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The Catholic Church recently published a report from its scientific arm - a non-denominational organization, and one of the oldest scientific bodies on Earth - showing its concern over the indisputable fact of mountain glaciers retreating all over the world. 

From the introduction:

"We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious
and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused
by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other
pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other
land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without
delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of
climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain
glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home.
By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility,
we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet
blessed with the gift of life.

We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet
receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink
as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect
the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant
us this wish."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trying to stay afloat - and taking on Monbiot

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Work and life can really take from one's blogging time...  I wish I could say that the World has had no environmental ethics dilemma as of late, and that's why I've been so sparse in blogging, but alas, that is not the case.

So, one fairly quick comment on some recent environmental conversation, hopefully to get my writing juices flowing.

George Monbiot, prominent environmentalist, has changed his mind about nuclear power, in light of what has happened at Fukushima.  His article, "Seven Double Standards", is a strong defense for nuclear, though he hasn't convinced me.  He is catching a lot of flak for his position - undeservedly so, as I truly believe he is looking out for the world's interests.

Still, he hasn't convinced me to support nuclear.  His major argument, that if we eliminate nuclear as an option, we will turn to the far dirtier, people-killing coal, is true, but not inevitable.  He conveniently leaves out both the option to turn to other renewables and more importantly, conservation.  His idea that if Fukushima is the worst that can happen then nuclear is sound makes a point - to which I counter, a massive failure of a nuclear plant in a sparsely populated corner of the world's most technologically advanced country is not the worst that can happen.  The worst that can happen is a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant near a massively populated region of one of the world's least technologically advanced countries.  Of course, that could only happen if that country has enemies crazy enough, and of course, India is loved by all, right?

Even the article I link above, though generally well-written, completely ignores conservation, and makes a stretch about some other ideas (his last double-standard makes a wonderful argument against nuclear that I hadn't even considered, for example).  But, he is right about coal:  It is far, far worse than today's best nuclear options.

The question is:  Where should we be spending our resources for our future production?  I say, we should be focusing on generation that doesn't include catastrophic failures either as a means of doing business (coal) or as a potential (nuclear, hydroelectric).  Thus, if it takes ten years to build either a good nuclear plant or a good solar plant, I choose the latter option.   

Monday, April 18, 2011

California Native Plant Week

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Yesterday kicked off California's first Native Plant Week.  The California Native Plant Society has a list of events going on around the state celebrating this week, which was declared by the California Legislature last year (I'm very close to the person who wrote the resolution). 

Also, if you are interested, you may read the resolution, which talks about the economic, social, and historical importance of native plants to California, here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Black Swans, the Precautionary Principle, and Power

© 2011 Joshua Stark

A quick note:  I'd like to read what you all think about nuclear power in light of the events in Japan.  It is a horrible, sad, tragic series of calamities befalling the country right now, and I won't tolerate any unkind comments.  For us, however, the debate should begin.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of "black swan" thinking, in general.  However, outliers should be examined in the context of the level of catastrophe that may one day occur.  For nuclear and large hydropower, the potential for catastrophe is large at generation.  For petroleum and coal-based generation, the potential for catastrophe is large at extraction (see the Gulf).  Really, the only generation types that would appear to limit the potential for catastrophe is very small hydropower, wind, and solar power.  

What do you all think?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Much going on...

© 2011 Joshua

With a baby and a new job, I've found my blogging time constrained.  Alas, the world still turns, and there are many topics on which I'd love to wax poetic...

First, this report from the U.N. on sustainable agriculture.  In a nutshell, "agroecological farming practices" can double food production in many regions.  These science-based practices empower local communities with their foods, which puts major corporate enterprises out - so, expect them to fight these conclusions.

Next, California Watch reports on a Pacific Institute report on nitrates in California's Central Valley groundwater... we've all known it's been there for years, but this report attempts to quantify the human impacts. 

My view on the Central Valley, my second home, is that its social, political, and economic infrastructure is effectively a 3rd World country, a fiefdom for a handful of extraordinarily (and inordinately) powerful people.  Pile this report on top of the reports on asthma, air quality, cancers, unemployment, working conditions, transportation, income inequality, etc.  And if you are so inclined, please pray for the Valley. 

The L.A. Times reports on Republicans using the budget in California to dismantle our environmental regulations.  Please, conservative conservationists, keep up the calls to legislators, letting them know that this is not your value.  The major law usually attacked is CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), which, in a case of powerful irony, is just about the only transparency-in-government law out there, and is also a law very often used by companies to keep out competition from industrial growth. 

Looking at our economic and fiscal conditions, it's safe to say that these regulations have not had an economic impact on our State to any great extent, especially in relation to our quality of life, nor in comparison to more lax states like, say, Texas, whose budget deficit is larger than ours in absolute terms and in relative terms ($27 billion in Texas vs. $26.6 billion in California).  Far larger an impact on our quality of life has been our decision to stop funding infrastructure like transportation, schools, and energy. 

And, speaking to California's impact on the rest of America, it looks like our Congress has decided to run its budget show like we do here in the Golden State.

That's it for now.  I'll try to get back into the swing of things, but first, I'd like a full night's sleep.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Update: Conservative conservationists

© 2011 Joshua Stark

In my previous post, I asked where they were, and I've got my answer:

A couple days back, a number of conservation and environmentalist groups testified before a California Assembly Committee - among them, representatives from the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance (COHA), our hunting lobby.  What were they talking about? 

They were informing the California Legislature of the horrible, horrible proposals of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the devastation they will wreak on conservation. 

If you want to read what they have to say, click here: "Congress Considers Massive Cuts to Wildlife Programs".

I often despair that large, corporate enterprises have eaten American conservatism.  It allows for large, corporate enterprises, but it holds many other values equally, or more, important than the mere hoarding of capital. I'm heartened to see conservatives making clear that wildness, and its appreciation, are American virtues.

In other, related news about conservative conservation, Western Farm Press reports that, "California farms and ranches now make up more than 20 percent of all operations in the nation with solar, wind and methane digester use", according to the USDA.

Lest ye forget, amidst the shock-media decrying our horrific fiscal situation, California still leads the nation in many things.  Including green energy.  And agriculture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where are all the conservative conservationists? & a quick economics rant

© 2011 Joshua Stark

I know quite a few conservative conservationists, yet I'm completely baffled by the support I hear for their political leadership in recent days.  Everything from dam removal studies to support for the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, whose corporate partners include Altria, Anheuser-Busch, and Bass Pro Shops, is slated for defunding.

And it isn't as if this leadership is trying to curb government spending:  The same folks who decry these programs as too expensive have already suggested building a gigantic dam with federal funds, and are fighting to keep subsidizing money-losing dams on the Klamath.

Nor is it as if the leadership is trying to remove the federal government from local decision-making:  The same leaders who complain that local folks don't have a say are pushing to defund those Klamath plans, plans that locals have arrived at after years of internal negotiations, and after some deep soul-searching and compromise.  By moving funding from removal studies and back into subsidizing those money-holes in the water, conservative leaders are bringing down the heavy hand of D.C. government into the affairs of locals.

So please, my conservative conservationist friends, please contact your leadership and tell them that we all value the wild, that it is part of our shared American experience and spirit.


Now, my economic rant (those of you who know me have heard this from me a million times, but in my defense this is because it's been said a million times):  Every politician talks about putting America's economic house in order, because the typical American family has to balance its budget, and therefore so should our government.

Baloney.  Pure B.S.

First, the typical American family does not balance its budget.  If any of you has a car payment, house payment, boat payment, college loan payment, or credit card payment, then you have deficit spent, and you have an unbalanced budget.  If you don't have any of these, it's probably because you already paid it off, but at one time you deficit spent to get there, and you probably did it to the tune of many times your annual salary.

We all deficit spend in order to build our economic house.  We pay it off, and save, when we are better able to do so.  We save, in part, for those hard times we know will come. 

Second, the typical American family cannot regulate business, nor does its spending influence the overall cost of goods and services in the economy.

To make the analogy is to lie, in a big way, to the American people.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Precautionary Principle might have come in handy...

© 2011 Joshua Stark

California Watch reports on lead, arsenic, and other toxins found in climate-friendly LED lights.

While reading this post, I thought:  Well, there's another technological fix with the subsequently ugly, unintended consequences (see glyphosate-resistant crops, methyl iodide, and DDT even).  I also remembered my post on our inability to "sell" conservation

Right now, if you hear a spokesperson for any environmental advocacy group, you are far more likely to hear about green jobs, high-mileage brand-new cars, high-tech solutions to saving the planet, efficiency gains, etc.  What you will rarely hear is one of them saying, "just turn off your lights, and turn down your thermostat.  And for goodness' sake, hold off on buying that new car!"  It's hard to sell, "buy less".

But this post isn't on conservation, it's on preparing for all these new technological advances that purport to save us from ourselves.  As I read that report, I thought: how do we keep from shooting ourselves in the foot with each new attempt at efficiency gains, especially here in California, the Land of the Next Big Thing?

Then I remembered that simple, great, conservative pillar of environmental justice:  The Precautionary Principle.  This principle merely states that a new item (chemical, technological process, etc.) must prove that it is generally benign to the environment before it can be mass produced. 

That's it.

When people hear about this principle, they are usually struck by the notion that things don't have to prove that they won't leave tremendous amounts of toxins persistent in the environment.  In the case of LED lights, for example, I'm sure people are thinking,  "but, we regulate lead; how did these things make it here in such huge amounts?"

Regulation is an interesting term, and while most Americans think it means that everybody gets equal scrutiny under the law, the reality is often far, far more complicated.

It comes down to this:  Most Americans believe, inherently, that our regulatory agencies follow the Precautionary Principle, because it is a very conservative way of looking at the World.  But, they don't.

What we need are far more sophisticated models of thinking, rather than re-packaging the same materials in new ways.  We need, when we consider costs, to include the total lifecycle of the product.  We need to consider the noneconomic impacts, even if that means coming up with some quantities to at least represent them (and we need to continually re-work those quantities).  At the very least, we need some form of the Precautionary Principle, some proof that the Next Big Thing doesn't come with the Next Big Cleanup Effort.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rural California: Where bad economic and environmental practices meet

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the AP's Economic Stress Index, which shows that 15 out of the 20 worst counties are in California. 

Of course, there's no real news here, nor is there any change from what would be the case if this were a booming economic time and not a lingering recession.  These counties are chronically the worst in the country.

The sad part?  They are also the counties with the highest agriculture revenues in the world.

In the world.

These are the same counties whose boosters proclaim that they feed the world.  These same boosters cry in anger to the (political) gods whenever the Delta must have more water, screaming that it will destroy, is destroying, their way of life, their jobs and economy.

Never mind that ag. was the only growth industry in the State, even during those drought years.  Never mind that these counties suffer huge numbers of smothering poverty, drug addiction and violence.  Never mind that these counties tend to have much higher asthma rates among its children, and that in dozens of communities throughout their gold-producing fields, nobody is allowed to drink the groundwater, because it is contaminated from runoff.  Never mind that their own rivers are dammed and run dry.

These counties remind me of a drug addict.  Whenever their supply is threatened, they talk about how much they need it, how much better they do with it; even, sometimes, how after this time, they'll work to get off it, but they need this just one more time.  Of course, they talk through blackened teeth, while their children go hungry behind them.

I grew up and live in rural California.  I love it with all my heart.  That is why I talk like I do.

Rural California needs to see a shift away from its typically feudal/colonial structure.  It needs permanent jobs with local and regional focus, it needs industries that do not pollute its water and air and offer minimum-wage (or less) with no benefits. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Non-environmental economics post: The Texas "miracle"

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The L.A. Times reports on Texas' $27 billion debt

The Times gives a positive spin to this problem, even after talking up just how haughty Texans had been over a perceived economic superiority to California, by saying that Texas' problems are now "in the same league" as California's. 

Um, no. 

California's economy is five hundred billion dollars larger than Texas'.  Again: one half of one trillion dollars more is generated in California than in Texas, every single year.  And yet, even with the positive business climate in Texas, even with very low taxes, they still find themselves in a far, far larger debt-to-income ratio than California, which means that they are far, far closer to any kind of default.

Now, how do you suppose Texas is going to deal with its debt?  Lower its taxes to take advantage of the Laffer curve?  I'm guessing they've already fallen off that ideal peak.

There's only one way to go, folks, if you are a government entity who cannot deficit spend any more, and I fear that a parallel of Keynes' comment may come true:  The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. 

So God bless Texas.  They need it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

California Cap & Trade loses its court fight, and salt ponds show quick rebound

© 2011 Joshua Stark

A couple of unrelated news items, but both timely and interesting.

The California Air Resources Board's adoption of a cap & trade program was shut down by a judge yesterday, due to CARB's inadequate analysis of alternatives, a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requirement.

CEQA requires state agencies to analyze alternative ways of achieving a project's goal, choosing the most environmentally appropriate way to accomplish it.  In the case of cap & trade, a coalition of environmental justice (EJ) advocates, led by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, successfully argued that CARB didn't adequately analyze the alternatives to cap & trade that they'd put forward.  And, they have a point. 

Many EJ folks have a serious problem with cap & trade.  While on the large scale, C&T could lower total carbon emissions, it does it in a way that favors particular regions (usually rich ones), and hurts others (usually poor ones).  For carbon, this isn't a problem, because carbon doesn't, say, cause asthma near where it is emitted.  However, impacts to industries that would cut back on carbon emissions would also lead them to cut back on "co-pollutants", those pollutants that come out with carbon, and these are typically very harmful to local communities.

The way C&T gains economic efficiency over other methods is by allowing companies to choose whether it is cheaper to cut their emissions (by lowering output or installing cleaner tech.), or cheaper to buy emissions credits on a market.  By doing this calculation, the price of carbon becomes clear in a market-like manner, and we see cuts to carbon emissions.

It is a simple leap, then, to understand that, if company A wants to buy carbon emissions credits instead of cleaning its emissions, then it will continue to emit carbon, and whatever else comes out of that smokestack.  In fact, if California's cap & trade is tied to a larger market-like mechanism, California could theoretically see increases in its own air pollution, including carbon. 

It's the "whatever else" that bothers EJ advocates and the judge.  CEQA's job is to ensure that state activities consider the most environmentally appropriate actions.  In addition, CARB is mandated to decrease air pollution, and if its activities actually increase pollutants, it may well be in violation of its own mandate. 

Stay tuned for more in this arena, for sure. 

In other, happier news, recovered salt flats in the South San Francisco Bay are returning to their natural state at a very fast clip.  As a Son of the Delta, I am always thrilled to see wetlands recover so quickly, especially considering just how cautious scientists have been due to concerns over water pollution. 

My favorite line from that report:  "A similar study done in 1,400 acres of former Cargill ponds in the North Bay near the Napa River also found a wide abundance of bay fish had come back, including striped bass, tule perch and even a chinook salmon, some only weeks after the ponds had been breached."

A similar scene has been taking place for the last seven years in Iraq, too - if you are interested in that one, head over to Nature Iraq.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Quick posts on federal and state politics

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Though not environmental (because he decided not to ever try to do anything about the environment any more, apparently), my comment on the President's speech is what it was last year:

I am very disappointed, just as I was with Bush, that the first words out of his mouth weren't, "we are a nation at war", followed by a good long talk about the killing and dying we demand of many of our young men and women and their families. 

So please, all of you, whether you support or oppose our military actions overseas, please take a moment to let the President know that you want him to focus on the sacrifices he orders others to make in our names.  Their blood is on all of us.

Now, a little note about Gov. Brown's proposed budget.  Of course, just like his predecessor (we can't expect our different parties to actually govern differently, can we?), he's proposed cutting millions of dollars from our State Park system, which will end up closing some parks. 

I'm still saddened by this, but at least we know that the majority of Californians didn't want to pay for it, anyway, and so voted down last year's proposition to get unlimited entry into parks by California cars for a once-per-year fee. 

It's very difficult to come to the realization that your perspective is in such a small minority.  Most Californians, and indeed most Americans, it would seem, have decided that their own, personal economy is more important.

And this from a man who was out of work (and looking) for nearly six months, the most in my entire working life.  I still voted for that proposition while unemployed (which, for those who don't know, is defined as "no job, but actively seeking work"). 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mammoth cloning, anyone?

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Yahoo! News reports that Japanese researchers expect to clone a mammoth in the next five years. From what I know, the technology isn't far-fetched, and many mammoths are found with intact DNA... in fact, Northern Exposure had a great episode about this very thing.

Of course, the ethical question looms, right?

Well, not for me.  I'm all for seeing a live mammoth!  However, to humor folks who may feel uncomfortable at letting loose yet another charismatic megafauna on the Earth, and for those Goldblum fans out there, let's talk a little about the implications.

First, it is almost certain that mammoths, like many large mammals up to about 13,000 years ago, went extinct due to changing climatic conditions, and there is no real argument in favor of human hunting driving them out.  Since they were almost certainly killed off by non-human reasons, why should we want to bring back these extinct animals?

Enter the Pleistocene Rewilding, an idea bandied about by folks who consider the North American ecosystem to have been unbalanced by the extinction of a number of megafauna about 10,000-13,000 years ago.  As the argument goes, today's flora and fauna that had existed for millennia prior to the mass extinctions of this period now find themselves out of balance, as these large (sometimes huge) creatures moved so much biomass that their loss must have had an impact. 

A prime example is the plight of Joshua Trees in Southern California.  Up until thousands of years ago, Joshua Trees were propagated by a giant ground sloth.  Now, the only remaining Joshua Trees probably reflect the last, tiny range of the sloth during its demise.  This range's climate has changed dramatically during the last few thousand years, as a mountain range has sprung up West of it, blocking the rainfall and turning it into a much more arid habitat.  Without the animal that fed on its seeds then walking over ridges and valleys to other, potentially more hospitable climes (very likely in California), the Joshua Tree is in danger of extinction within its current realm. 

The Pleistocene Rewildling line of thinking argues that species that had been extirpated from particular regions, but who still exist, should be reintroduced to their former ranges.  Species who are extinct, however, but who are known to have had an impact on their habitats, should be replaced with similar species (see this on the American cheetah). 

But, what if species can be returned from extinction?  What impact might a herd of mammoths have on tundra habitat, on the size of wolves or bears - the numbers of bacteria and other scavengers, too - on the movement of nutrients throughout the system? 

That's the big problem as I see it.  We are focusing on the megafauna because, let's face it, they are very cool.  However, we don't know why they disappeared, and we don't know what else went with them, particular microbes, for example, that may have played a vital function in maintaining their "balance".  In fact, we don't even know what a balance means.  In any ecosystem movement, there are winners and losers (in the living sense); outside of our own impacts, who are we to pick these winners and losers?

These questions are vital before we can start to imagine a "healthy" ecosystem beyond managing our own impacts, and since our own impacts have been very large and often systems-wide, we have a lot of work to do in the present realm.  I hope the Pleistocene Rewildling efforts will, for the most part, remain shelved until we can control our own impacts, and get a better picture of the mass extinctions that took place thousands of years ago.

That said, I still want to see a mammoth.  I was an eight-year-old once.