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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Ezra Klein is a global warming pessimist. In his own words, “we’re fucked.”projected climate change

While he gives several different reasons for this belief, the crux of it seems to be U.S. political institutions and parties (the Republicans). Yet he also concedes that other governments are not serious about climate change either.

Indeed, no government has taken serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent a greater-than-two-degree warming by 2100. The U.S., Canada, and Australia all either failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or dropped out. The EU, meanwhile, has not seen any significantly different fall in emissions from the U.S. since its regulatory structure came into effect. The biggest emitter, China, shows no interest whatever in any emissions cuts at all.

So why blame U.S. institutions or politicians specifically? Politicians worldwide are taking a wait-and-see approach to global greenhouse gas emissions.

I can think of two explanations for their nonchalance: 1) no government does a decent job of addressing this kind of problem; 2) the politicians know something about the problem that Ezra Klein doesn’t.

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We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)

How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.

It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?

While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to (more…)

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Whether one looks to the domestic or the international arena, it appears that little is working these days. Three issues I have been following:

1. The Affordable Care Act (formerly known as Obamacare): The difficulties in the ACA roll out persist and the circular firing squad continues to take aim at the guilty parties. Megan McArdle  adds a new dimension with her piece on “the illusion of omnicompetence” and Healthcare.gov. A fine quote:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress. Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

There are some useful lessons here on the limits of technocracy and planning more generally.

2. Our exit from Afghanistan: As the proud father of a Marine, I have particular interest in this story. I find it interesting that President Karzai is making more demands before accepting a long-term security arrangement. Absent an agreement, the US exits Afghanistan in 2014 with predictable results (you will likely get the same result regardless of when you exit). I am at a loss to understand (1) what makes Karzi believe he has a strong bargaining position, and (2) why we are not exiting Afghanistan immediately (other than the obvious: no president wants another “evacuation of Saigon” as part of his legacy).

3. Climate Change: If the negotiations over Afghanistan sound complicated, they pale in comparison to the attempts to find a path forward on climate change post-Kyoto. The 19th Conference of the Parties meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw generated little. As Alex Brown notes:

United Nations climate talks ended Saturday with a last-ditch agreement to set a timetable in the future to make goals that will hopefully one day comprise part of a future pact on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the 20th Conference of the Parties (next December in Peru) will resolve things.  Given the diversity of interests, the distribution of costs and benefits, the lack of powerful institutions, and the complexity of the underlying science, perhaps the best we can hope for is cooperation in adapting to a changing environment.

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A GMO Bet

There’s been a huge Facebook discussion over my post on why genetically modified foods are not a big deal. As usual, the discussion revolves around whether we should take one or two studies here or there that show possible health problems as conclusive, or instead rely on the vast majority of studies that show no evidence of a problem. I want to know whether anti-GMO activists are willing to put their money where their mouths are, so I’m devising a bet! Here’s a draft of the terms of the bet I would like to propose.

If by 2028, there is a body of literature (>5 peer-reviewed papers, using randomized trials on human beings) on the link between consumption of any GMO food and any non-rare disease (affecting more than 1 in 1,000 individuals worldwide or in the U.S.) showing an average (across all papers on the topic) positive correlation equal to or greater than a lifetime odds ratio of 1.5 per standard deviation of the independent variable (i.e., an increase in lifetime relative risk of disease of 50% or more due to a one-standard-deviation increase in consumption of the GMO), then I will pay $1000 to the other bettor; otherwise, the other bettor will pay me $1000.

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In its September 6 issue, Scientific American published an editorial supporting genetically modified foods and opposing GMO labeling:

Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health [see “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food”]. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result.

This last point is critical. In the absence of targeted genetic engineering, the way food scientists develop new strains of fruits and vegetables is to zap seeds with radiation in order to mutate their DNA, plant them, and see what comes out. I have not heard one peep out of anti-GMO activists about this method of random genetic recombination, even though it’s this latter method, if anything, that could cause unexpected consequences for human health. That fact, more than anything else, tells me that anti-GMO activists are driven by ignorance of science and irrational fear of technology.

HT: Jacob Levy on Twitter

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My blood boiled this morning when I saw some propaganda for trap-neuter-return programs being shared around Facebook. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a method of dealing with feral cat populations by spaying and neutering them and then releasing them back into the wild. Conservation biologists have found that TNR fails to reduce populations of cats. As an alien predator subsidized by humans, free-roaming cats kill between half a billion and a billion birds a year, as well as an untold number of reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and insects in the United States alone. Furthermore, free-roaming cats spread diseases harmful to humans, including toxoplasmosis, implicated in fetal death, brain cancer, and schizophrenia.

Despite these facts, the TNR industry is well-funded and boasts a national activist army. It’s easy to exploit the emotions of cat lovers to fund the innumerable, frequently torturous deaths of chipmunks, chickadees, and butterflies. What everyone ought to find truly galling, however, is that the taxpayer subsidizes this destruction. Alley Cats, the major national promoter of TNR programs, is a tax-exempt charity with a staff of 30. (They claim that TNR works to reduce feral cat populations over the long term, but the only studies they can cite are a small handful of short-term, single-case studies carried out by veterinarians, not biologists. There is now a large body of peer-reviewed research conducted by biologists finding that TNR does not reduce feral cat populations, especially when compared to the traditional trap-kill method. See links above.) As a 501(c)(3) organization, Alley Cats is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, which means that the taxpayers of the United States are effectively subsidizing donations to this organization. This is rather as if someone were to form a “charity” dedicated to dumping heavy metals into the water supply or to “solving” Third World “overpopulation” by poisoning wells and stealing bed-nets. So long as you have noble intentions, apparently, the IRS will allow you to obtain charitable status. Charities often have secondary ill effects, as when foreign aid inadvertently promotes corruption or distorts local production, but this is one of the few cases I can think of in which a charity is actually doing first-order harm — and getting recognition and support from the government for it.

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Will global climate change increase resource-based conflicts around the world? Journal of Peace Research has a special issue on the topic, looking at how weather variability has already influenced the rate of conflict. The issue is free to the public until the end of February. Most of the studies find that weather variability does not cause conflict. Indeed, the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 actually led to a quick, apparently durable peace agreement between secessionist rebels in Aceh and the Indonesian government. Here’s the abstract from the introductory essay by editor Nils Petter Gleditsch:

Until recently, most writings on the relationship between climate change and security were highly speculative. The IPCC assessment reports to date offer little if any guidance on this issue and occasionally pay excessive attention to questionable sources. The articles published in this special issue form the largest collection of peer-reviewed writings on the topic to date. The number of such studies remains small compared to those that make up the natural science base of the climate issue, and there is some confusion whether it is the effect of ‘climate’ or ‘weather’ that is being tested. The results of the studies vary, and firm conclusions cannot always be drawn. Nevertheless, research in this area has made considerable progress. More attention is being paid to the specific causal mechanisms linking climate change to conflict, such as changes in rainfall and temperature, natural disasters, and economic growth. Systematic climate data are used in most of the articles and climate projections in some. Several studies are going beyond state-based conflict to look at possible implications for other kinds of violence, such as intercommunal conflict. Overall, the research reported here offers only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erik Gartzke notes that if knee-capping development in middle- or low-income countries is the price of preventing climate change, it is those policies to address climate change that will produce conflict, since development is associated with peace:

The analysis here also suggests that efforts to curb climate change should pay particular attention to encouraging clean development among middle-income states, as these countries are the most conflict prone. Ironically, stagnating economic development in middle-income states caused by efforts to combat climate change could actually realize fears of climate-induced warfare.

If curbing carbon emissions is indeed the only way to stop drastic climate change (natural forcings don’t continue to counteract the human effect, and geoengineering doesn’t work), this argument suggests a possible rationale for having high-income countries pay the biggest initial price.

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