Friday, August 27, 2010

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

An amazing story about how languages do shape how we think. And it's not just Whorf recycled.
If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films. …

For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Brother can you spare a dime?"

Krugman has this video on his blog. It's a great song.

Your religion affects what you see.

From Science/AAAS | Editors' Choice : 27 August 2010; 329 (5995).
Colzato et al. have looked at the linkage between religious upbringing and visual perception in three … populations—neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands, Roman Catholics in Italy, and Orthodox Jews in Israel—and found that adherents of each of these religions differed from atheists of the same cultural background. The Calvinists, whose tradition emphasizes the role of the individual, showed greater visual attentiveness to local features, whereas the big picture perspective was favored by Catholics and Jews, whose traditions stress social togetherness.

Collective thinking

From Science/AAAS | This Week in Science: 27 August 2010; 329 (5995).
When two people peer into the distance and try to figure out if a faint number is a three or an eight, classical signal detection theory states that the joint decision can only be as good as that of the person with higher visual acuity. Bahrami et al. (p. 1081; see the Perspective by Ernst) propose that a discussion not only of what each person perceives but also of the degree of confidence in those assignments can improve the overall sensitivity of the decision. Using a traditional contrast-detection task, they showed that, when the individuals did not differ too much in their powers of visual discrimination, collective decision-making significantly improved sensitivity. The model offered here formalizes debates held since the Enlightenment about whether collective thinking can outperform that of elite individuals.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Free Trade"

Dean Baker has a nice piece on "so-called free trade."
The Washington Post has a front page article telling readers that the debate over the Korean 'free trade' agreement is actually 'a dispute over free trade itself.' The Korean trade agreement is not in fact a 'free trade' agreement. It does not free trade in many areas, for example it does little to reduce barriers to trade for highly paid professional services, like doctors and lawyers' services. The deal also increases some barriers to trade, most notably by increasing copyright and patent protection.

The proponents of the deal use the term 'free trade agreement,' because 'free' has a positive connotation which they hope will help sell the deal politically. They do not use the term because it is true.

Similarly, it is absurd to claim that the United States is having a 'dispute over free trade itself.' There are no prominent public figures who support free trade. Genuine free trade would eliminate barriers to trade in all goods and services. In areas where these barriers are greatest, like health care, free trade could have an enormous impact in improving living standards and reducing inequality since prices in the United States are so far out of line with prices in the rest of the world.

Instead, the trade agenda of the United States had been about reducing barriers to trade in manufactured goods with the purpose of putting non-college educated workers in direct competition with much lower paid workers in other countries. The predicted and actual result of this policy is to reduce the pay of non-college educated workers, thereby increasing inequality in the United States. This is a policy of one-sided protectionism. It has nothing to do with 'free trade.'

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

A cute Target protest video

It goes on a bit too long. I would have stopped after about 2 minutes.

I doubt that I'd have the guts to do that. Can you imagine this happening at your local Target?

Click here to sign a MoveOn anti-Target petition.

More corporate shenanigans

Courage Campaign | Stop Anthem: Sign the letter demanding they stop blocking implementation of the health care law
Anthem Blue Cross made headlines earlier this year when they proposed a whopping 39% rate increase for their health insurance policies. Now they're trying to stop the implementation of the federal health care law here in California.

Anthem Blue Cross is going all-out to fight the implementation of the federal health care reform law here in California. While the public’s attention is elsewhere, Anthem is fighting to kill the bills that would set up the state-based “exchanges” that are the heart of the health care law.

If Anthem gets their way, they’ll make it difficult for you to get affordable health insurance. They’re counting on you to stay silent as they once again destroy reform.

We're not going to let that happen. That’s why the Courage Campaign is joining with Wendell Potter to deliver a letter to the new president of Anthem Blue Cross, Pam Kehaly, to demand that she and her company stop trying to undermine the health care reform law in California. Will you add your name to the letter now?
Dear Ms. Kehaly,

We're paying attention. We're not going to let you get away with your efforts to undermine the federal health care reform law.

We demand that you and Anthem Blue Cross drop your opposition to AB 1602 and SB 900, the bills that set up the state-based health insurance exchange that is at the heart of the new law. We want the state of California to manage these exchanges, negotiate for affordable rates, and provide Californians with the affordable health care that the federal law offers.

We are not going to rest until every California has affordable health care. And that begins with passing these bills to implement the federal law.

Friday, August 20, 2010

CEOs explain why they're not hiring despite cash, rising profit

Is this really news?
Many Democrats say the economy needs more stimulus. Business lobbyists and their Republican allies say it needs less regulation and lower taxes.

But here in the heartland of America, senior executives say neither side's diagnosis fits.

They blame their profound caution on their view that U.S. consumers are destined to disappoint for many years. As a result, they say, the economy is unlikely to see the kind of almost unbroken prosperity of the quarter-century that preceded the financial crisis.
The question is how to fix it. It seems to me that the Democrats are closer to the answer than the Republicans. Stimulus will create jobs and that will create more demand. It's not a matter of over-regulation or too high taxes. Krugman is right. It's that people don't have work.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Backlight: Quant: The alchemists of Wall Street

From (Mainly in English with Dutch subtitles.)

Get Microsoft Silverlight
Of bekijk de flash versie.
From VPRO, part of Netherlands public broadcasting. From the Backlight series.

Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014

The world of newly entering freshmen. There are 75 items in the list. These are the ones I liked.
2. Email is just too slow, and they seldom if ever use snail mail.

19. They never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone.

28. They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.

32. Czechoslovakia has never existed.

62. Having hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch has always been routine.

68. They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Terrible Situation Am Into (NEEDS YOUR HELP)

Apparently the latest scam. I got the email below. My wife got a similar one but signed by someone else. In both cases these are people we know, but not very well.

I'm sorry i didn't inform anyone about my short vacation with my
family to London, England. Unfortunately we were mugged at the park of
the hotel where we stayed. Mobile phones, all cash, credit card were
stolen off us, but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.

We've been to the embassy and the Police here, but they're not helping
issues at all and our flight leaves in few hrs from now, but we're
having problems settling the hotel bills. We already suggested to
postpone the bills but the hotel management insisted we should
contacts our friends at home to send funds our way to settle the bills
and also have extra money to return home. We are anxiously waiting for
your reply.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Solar Roadways

Seems like a neat idea. In two parts.

Part 1.

Part 2.

You can also vote for them on a GE ecology site: Solar Roadways - Vote.

Friday, August 13, 2010

If you're running for the Senate you should understand the Constitution

I should be doing some work, but as a distraction I'm posting this instead.

How can someone running for the Senate be so uninformed about how the US Constitution works?
Fiorina splits with Boxer on gay marriage ruling - San Jose Mercury News: "SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina says she disagrees with a federal judge's decision overturning California's gay-marriage ban.

Fiorina says California voters spoke clearly against same-sex unions when a majority approved Proposition 8 in 2008.
It isn't a matter of favoring gay marriage or not. The constitution protects individual rights no matter what the people say. If California approved a proposition that said that newspapers had to have their stories approved by the governor before they could be printed would Fiorina criticize a judge who said that was unconstitutional because the people had voted for it? I hope not. The point of the Constitution is to protect us from the excesses of our fellow citizens. But she doesn't seem to understand that.

She must be reasonably intelligent to have gotten herself into the position of head of HP. But a stupid comment like that just shows that she has no respect for the principles of our government. Either she knows what she is saying is foolish, but she believes it will help her with a certain segment of voters. In that case she is dishonest and can't be trusted. Or she is too uninformed to understand what she is talking about. In that case, she certainly can't be trusted to represent us in Washington.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Third World America

Arianna Huffington's column tells the same story as Krugman's—immediatley below. (She seems to use the same sources as well.)
Hawaii has gone beyond laying off teachers and has begun laying off students -- closing its public schools on 17 Fridays during the last school year. In the Atlanta suburb of Clayton County, the entire bus system was shut down. Colorado Springs turned off over 24,000 of its streetlights. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Camden, New Jersey is soon to permanently shutter its entire library system. And last month the Wall Street Journal reported on the trend of cash-strapped states and counties giving up on the idea of maintaining paved roads, allowing them instead to turn back into gravel. And those localities that can't even afford to put gravel down are just letting the roads, as the Journal put it, 'return to nature.' A seminar at Purdue University on this trend was entitled 'Back to the Stone Age.'
Huffington is starting a "Third World America" section of the Huffington Post. I wonder to what extent the picture they both paint is credible. I'm not doubting the stories, and I believe that Krugman in particular is pretty careful about what he writes. The charge that the country is devolving into the status of a third-world economy is quite serious. To what extent will it come true. I guess we'll see. It's certainly useful for that idea to be out there. It's now something that people can point to and focus on as a characterization of what's wrong with where we're going.

The Huffing Post "Third World America" section has a Google map of the country with icons for troubled areas. Interestingly the troubles seem to be concentrated in three specific regions: California, the old manufacturing states such as Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (the "rust-belt), and Florida. The rest of the country looks like it's not in too bad condition—at least based on the distribution of icons.

I will be very interested to see how this perspective develops. A year from now will we be talking about how much further down the road to Third World America we are, or will we have pretty much forgotten that idea?

Monday, August 09, 2010

America Goes Dark

Great column by Paul Krugman. (I liked it so much that I copied the whole thing.)
The lights are going out all over America — literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.

Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

And a nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.

And the federal government, which can sell inflation-protected long-term bonds at an interest rate of only 1.04 percent, isn’t cash-strapped at all. It could and should be offering aid to local governments, to protect the future of our infrastructure and our children.

But Washington is providing only a trickle of help, and even that grudgingly. We must place priority on reducing the deficit, say Republicans and “centrist” Democrats. And then, virtually in the next breath, they declare that we must preserve tax cuts for the very affluent, at a budget cost of $700 billion over the next decade.

In effect, a large part of our political class is showing its priorities: given the choice between asking the richest 2 percent or so of Americans to go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing the nation’s foundations to crumble — literally in the case of roads, figuratively in the case of education — they’re choosing the latter.

It’s a disastrous choice in both the short run and the long run.

In the short run, those state and local cutbacks are a major drag on the economy, perpetuating devastatingly high unemployment.

It’s crucial to keep state and local government in mind when you hear people ranting about runaway government spending under President Obama. Yes, the federal government is spending more, although not as much as you might think. But state and local governments are cutting back. And if you add them together, it turns out that the only big spending increases have been in safety-net programs like unemployment insurance, which have soared in cost thanks to the severity of the slump.

That is, for all the talk of a failed stimulus, if you look at government spending as a whole you see hardly any stimulus at all. And with federal spending now trailing off, while big state and local cutbacks continue, we’re going into reverse.

But isn’t keeping taxes for the affluent low also a form of stimulus? Not so you’d notice. When we save a schoolteacher’s job, that unambiguously aids employment; when we give millionaires more money instead, there’s a good chance that most of that money will just sit idle.

And what about the economy’s future? Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward.

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

So the end result of the long campaign against government is that we’ve taken a disastrously wrong turn. America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Posting published works

Rebeca Saxe of MIT has this notice on her Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory website along with PDFs of her papers.
Electronic versions are provided to ensure timely dissemination of academic work. They can be downloaded for noncommercial purposes. Copyright resides with the respective copyright holders as stated in each article. The files may not be reposted without permission from copyright holders.
Why doesn't everyone do this?

She also has a nice TED Talk from a year ago.

Kseniya Simonova's sand painting

As described by mental_floss.
The story in Simonova’s winning animation travels through the German invasion of the Ukraine, from a couple under a starry sky through warplanes and chaos to the Ukrainian monument to their Unknown Soldier and ending with a mother and child saying goodbye to a soldier. WWII was an especially sorrowful time in Ukraine’s history—the country lost between 8 and 11 million people, approximately 25 percent of its population.
Quite an amazing drawing/animation. She is drawing in sand on a light box.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Krugman is terrific!

Paul Krugman is angry. He has been criticizing Paul Ryan about his economic proposals—and the supposedly "serious" people who have been taken in by them. Ryan is apparently a nice guy. But that's not the point. He is, according to Krugman, intellectually dishonest. Krugman continues about other intellectual dishonesty and how we have been taken in by them.
Long ago — basically when I started writing for the Times — I decided that I would judge the character of politicians by what they say about policy, not how they come across in person. This led me to conclude that George W. Bush was dishonest and dangerous back when everyone was talking about how charming and reasonable he was. It led me to conclude that Colin Powell couldn’t be trusted, back when everyone said his UN speech clinched the case for war. It led me to conclude that John McCain was unprincipled and self-centered, back when everyone said he was a deeply principled maverick. And yes, it led me to conclude that Barack Obama was a good man, but far less progressive than his enthusiastic supporters imagined.

And so I don’t care how Paul Ryan comes across. I look at how he has gone about selling his ideas, and I see an unscrupulous flimflammer.

Amazing—and distressing—story about working conditions in China

After slavery was abolished in 1833, Britain's GDP fell by 10 percent—but they knew that cheap goods and fat profits made from flogging people until they broke were not worth having. Do we?
Johann Hari: And the Most Inspiring Good News Story of the Year Is...
The staff work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps ten workers, and each dorm houses 5000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with. A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm. Workers must report to their stations fifteen minutes ahead of schedule for a military-style drill: 'Everybody, attention! Face left! Face right!' Once they begin, they are strictly forbidden from talking, listening to music, or going to the toilet. Anybody who breaks this rule is screamed at and made to clean the toilets as punishment. Then it's back to the dorm.

It's the human equivalent to battery farming. One worker said: 'My job is to put rubber pads on the base of each computer mouse... This is a mind-numbing job. I am basically repeating the same motion over and over for over twelve hours a day.' At a nearby Meitai factory, which made keyboards for Microsoft, a worker said: 'We're really livestock and shouldn't be called workers.' They are even banned from making their own food, or having sex. They live off the gruel and slop they are required to buy from the canteen, except on Fridays, when they are given a small chicken leg and foot, 'to symbolize their improving life.'

Even as their work has propelled China towards being a super-power, these workers got less and less. Wages as a proportion of GDP fell in China every single year from 1983 to 2005.

They can be treated this way because of a very specific kind of politics that has prevailed in China for two decades now. Very rich people are allowed to form into organizations -- corporations -- to ruthlessly advance their interests, but the rest of the population is forbidden by the secret police from banding together to create organizations to protect theirs. The political practices of Maoism were neatly transferred from communism to corporations: both regard human beings as dispensable instruments only there to serve economic ends.

We'll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours. Here's just one: think of him as the Unknown Worker, standing for them all. Liu Pan was a 17 year old operating a machine that made cards and cardboard that were sold on to big name Western corporations, including Disney. When he tried to clear its jammed machinery, he got pulled into it. His sister said: 'When we got his body, his whole head was crushed. We couldn't even see his eyes.' &helip;

Last year, the Chinese dictatorship was so panicked by the widespread uprisings that they prepared an extraordinary step forward. They drafted a new labor law that would allow workers to form and elect their own trade unions. It would plant seeds of democracy across China's workplaces. Western corporations lobbied very hard against it, saying it would create a "negative investment environment" - by which they mean smaller profits. Western governments obediently backed the corporations and opposed freedom and democracy for Chinese workers. So the law was whittled down and democracy stripped out.

It wasn't enough. This year Chinese workers have risen even harder to demand a fair share of the prosperity they create. Now company after company is making massive concessions: pay rises of over 60 percent are being conceded. Even more crucially, officials in Guandong province, the manufacturing heartland of the country, have announced they are seriously considering allowing workers to elect their own representatives to carry out collective bargaining after all.

Just like last time, Western corporations and governments are lobbying frantically against this -- and to keep the millions of Yan Lis stuck at their assembly lines into the 35th hour.

This isn't a distant struggle: you are at its heart, whether you like it or not. There is an electrical extension cord running from your laptop and mobile and games console to the people like Yan Li and Liu Pan dying to make them. So you have to make a choice. You can passively let the corporations and governments speak for you in trying to beat these people back into semi-servitude - or you can side with the organizations here that support their cry for freedom, like No Sweat in Britain, or the National Labour Committee in the US, by donating to them, or volunteering for their campaigns.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Another great Lawrence Lessig talk

Of / by / 4

Watch it!

Didn't we always know it was all hypocritical?

From a column by Efraim Karsh, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London, in
[According to] a recent survey for the Al Arabiya television network … 71 percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks “This is an alarming indicator,” lamented Saleh Qallab, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. “The Arabs, people and regimes alike, have always been as interested in the peace process, its developments and particulars, as they were committed to the Palestinian cause itself.”

But the truth is that Arab policies since the mid-1930s suggest otherwise. While the “Palestine question” has long been central to inter-Arab politics, Arab states have shown far less concern for the well-being of the Palestinians than for their own interests.

For example, it was common knowledge that the May 1948 pan-Arab invasion of the nascent state of Israel was more a scramble for Palestinian territory than a fight for Palestinian national rights. As the first secretary-general of the Arab League, Abdel Rahman Azzam, once admitted to a British reporter, the goal of King Abdullah of Transjordan “was to swallow up the central hill regions of Palestine, with access to the Mediterranean at Gaza. The Egyptians would get the Negev. Galilee would go to Syria, except that the coastal part as far as Acre would be added to the Lebanon.”

From 1948 to 1967, when Egypt and Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Arab states failed to put these populations on the road to statehood. They also showed little interest in protecting their human rights or even in improving their quality of life — which is part of the reason why 120,000 West Bank Palestinians moved to the East Bank of the Jordan River and about 300,000 others emigrated abroad. “We couldn’t care less if all the refugees die,” an Egyptian diplomat once remarked. “There are enough Arabs around.”

Not surprisingly, the Arab states have never hesitated to sacrifice Palestinians on a grand scale whenever it suited their needs. In 1970, when his throne came under threat from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein of Jordan ordered the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, an event known as “Black September.”

Six years later, Lebanese Christian militias, backed by the Syrian Army, massacred some 3,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar. These militias again slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in 1982 in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, this time under Israel’s watchful eye. None of the Arab states came to the Palestinians’ rescue.

Worse, in the mid-’80s, when the P.L.O. — officially designated by the Arab League as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people” — tried to re-establish its military presence in Lebanon, it was unceremoniously expelled by President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

This history of Arab leaders manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians goes on and on. Saddam Hussein, in an effort to ennoble his predatory designs, claimed that he wouldn’t consider ending his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait without “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine.”

Shortly after the Persian Gulf War, Kuwaitis then set about punishing the P.L.O. for its support of Hussein — cutting off financial sponsorship, expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers and slaughtering thousands. Their retribution was so severe that Arafat was forced to acknowledge that “what Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

Against this backdrop, it is a positive sign that so many Arabs have apparently grown so apathetic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For if the Arab regimes’ self-serving interventionism has denied Palestinians the right to determine their own fate, then the best, indeed only, hope of peace between Arabs and Israelis lies in rejecting the spurious link between this particular issue and other regional and global problems.

The sooner the Palestinians recognize that their cause is theirs alone, the sooner they are likely to make peace with the existence of the State of Israel and to understand the need for a negotiated settlement.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Making Sense of the Climate Impasse

Jeff Sachs has a new column on the climate change impass
All signs suggest that the planet is still hurtling headlong toward climatic disaster. The United States’ National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has issued its “State of the Climate Report” covering January-May. The first five months of this year were the warmest on record going back to 1880. May was the warmest month ever. Intense heat waves are currently hitting many parts of the world. Yet still we fail to act.

There are several reasons for this, and we should understand them in order to break today’s deadlock. …

[He discusses what he sees as the the most important factors.]

If we add up these three factors – the enormous economic challenge of reducing greenhouse gases, the complexity of climate science, and deliberate campaigns to confuse the public and discredit the science – we arrive at the fourth and over-arching problem: US politicians’ unwillingness or inability to formulate a sensible climate-change policy. …

When Barack Obama was elected US president, there was hope for progress. Yet, while it is clear that Obama would like to move forward on the issue, so far he has pursued a failed strategy of negotiating with senators and key industries to try to forge an agreement. Yet the special interest groups have dominated the process, and Obama has failed to make any headway.

The Obama administration should have tried – and should still try – an alternative approach. Instead of negotiating with vested interests in the backrooms of the White House and Congress, Obama should present a coherent plan to the American people. He should propose a sound strategy over the next 20 years for reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels, converting to electric vehicles, and expanding non-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind power. He could then present an estimated price tag for phasing in these changes over time, and demonstrate that the costs would be modest compared to the enormous benefits.

Strangely, despite being a candidate of change, Obama has not taken the approach of presenting real plans of action for change. His administration is trapped more and more in the paralyzing grip of special-interest groups. Whether this is an intended outcome, so that Obama and his party can continue to mobilize large campaign contributions, or the result of poor decision-making is difficult to determine – and may reflect a bit of both.

What is clear is that we are courting disaster as a result. Nature doesn’t care about our political machinations. And nature is telling us that our current economic model is dangerous and self-defeating. Unless we find some real global leadership in the next few years, we will learn that lesson in the hardest ways possible.

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