Archive for September, 2005

Washington Post online discusses climate change

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

While the media have devoted far less time to climate change information and controversies (over nuclear power, not whether climate change is occurring, whether it’s our fault, and whether it’s important — all that has been decided) than its importance warrants, the Washington Post has been particularly neglectful.

This week, Emily Messner in her blog The Debate addresses hurricanes and climate change, differences in the Bush and Clinton perceptions of whether addressing climate change will benefit or cost our society, and so on.

The numbers I’ve seen indicate that to address climate change, really address it, will be expensive. The more we change our lives, the more we accept that living with less does not necessarily mean living a diminished life, the less expensive the other decisions.

We need to weigh these financial costs, the work to change ourseleves both in the policies we advocate and the way we live, against the enormous costs of failing to tackle climate change. After all, the recent hurricanes (increased intensity rather than increased numbers) may or may not be the result of a relatively small amount of climate change. The decreased amount of ice in the Arctic, and the current belief that this decrease is now self-sustaining because ice that isn’t there used to reflect rather than absorb energy, is the result of a relatively small amount of climate change. The full implications of the carbon we’ve added to date won’t be seen for decades, possibly centuries.

So check out the Washington Post discussion, and encourage the Post to add reporters to the environment beat. Also read the comments, many of which add to the discussion.

Changing Views of Nuclear Power

Saturday, September 24th, 2005

Even while only a few environmentalists argue for nuclear power, there has been a shift in public opinion. The latest Rasmussen poll “finds that Americans support the nuclear power option by a more than 2-to-1 margin (55% to 24%).” This is also true of Democrats: “By a 52% to 26% margin, [Democrats] support building more nuclear power plants. In the previous survey, a plurality of Democrats were opposed.” Unfortunately, 2/3 believe that conservation is not as important as developing new energy sources, a misunderstanding that all of us need to confront.

This poll was taken before two category five hurricanes formed within a month and then hit the US (after weakening). At RealClimate, a site maintained by climate scientists (and so a wee bit technical at times), a posting on Hurricanes and Global Warming – Is There a Connection? explains that no one category 5 hurricane can be credited to climate change, because (to paraphrase), if twice as many 5s are rolled on five sided dice, we can tell the dice are loaded, but not that any particular roll wouldn’t have produced a 5. (Unless a 6 is rolled on a five-sided die, as was true with the heat wave that killed tens of thousands of Eurasians in the summer of 2003.)


Saturday, September 24th, 2005

Someone who opposes nuclear power wrote me, “[T]here is no safe level of radioactivity: if I understand it correctly, there is an elevated death rate merely from living near granite, and people regularly die from cancers attributed to cosmic ray damage – and that’s the radioactivity we can’t control.”

It is a common belief that if a lot of something is poisonous, so is a little of something. This is true in spite of what we know about the need for small amounts of salt, fat, and chocolate. Possibly the difference is that if we see a need for a substance, we categorize its dangers differently.

High doses of radioactivity can kill. According to David Bodanky’s Nuclear Energy, intense radiation exposures kill many cells immediately, and lead to death within a short time, at most months. About half of victims of the Hiroshima bombing who receive a dose of at leasst 3 gray (Gy) died (see the end for an explanation of units). Seven out of 23 better-fed Chernobyl victims exposed to between 4 and 6 Gy died. Between 1 and 4 Gy, people usually suffer from radiation sickness, but below 1 Gy, there are usually no clinical symptoms.

People receiving high exposures, even below the 1 Gy level, are more susceptible to cancers. Among the survivors of Hiroshima, by 1990 there had been 421 more deaths from cancer than would have been expected; this number is larger today. No increase in birth defects appeared to have occurred. In the areas around Chernobyl, nine children died from thyroid cancer. In both cases, the doses were high and were delivered in a short period of time.

We are exposed to radioactivity constantly. In the US, radon gas is responsible for the majority of exposure, 2 mSv/yr out of 3.6 mSvy/yr average. In some areas of the US, exposure is much greater, due to the types of rocks, or more cosmic rays due to the height above sea level.

There have been several explorations of the effects of low exposure, this is just one (pdf). The highest measured terrestrial dose, 26,000 mrem/yr, occurs in Ramsar, Iran. Other high annual terrestrial doses occur in areas of Brazil and India (3,500 mrem), China (1,000 mrem), Norway (1,050 mrem), and Italy (438 mrem). The areas in Iran, India, and Brazil are associated with high concentrations of uranium and thorium in the soil. Epidemiological studies of the people in these areas have been made to determine, what, if any, affect these high radiation dose levels have on health. To date, no radiation related health effects have been found. [UNSCEAR 1993; NCRP Report #94] Note that exposures are over a year.

So what might protect us from low doses? From an article by Zbigniew Jaworowski: Each person’s DNA breaks some 70 million times per year due to thermodynamic decay processes and to reactive free radicals, about 5 times/year because of radioactivity. If we did not have a well-developed repair mechanism, our health problems would be considerably larger than they are. (Species with poor repair mechanisms usually live a certain number of breaths, so active flies live a much shorter time than inactive flies. People who get plenty of exercise, on the other hand, have a slightly longer life expectancy.)

On the other hand, low doses may have a protective function (do not do this at home!) See for example The October 17, 2003 Science magazine for two articles on hormesis: Sipping from a Poisoned Chalice (pp 376 – 9) and the embedded A Healthful Dab of Radiation? (page 378). “Low doses of many chemical toxins, from cadmium to pesticides to dioxin, appear to have paradoxical and possibly beneficial effects on organisms—Dioxin is a poster chemical of a bold campaign: to rehabilitate the old saw that poisons or radioactivity at low doses are good for you. The concept (is) known as hormesis.”

“Some studies have found a slightly lower incidence of cancer in people living in places such as western China and Colorado, where natural background radiation levels are three to four times higher than the global average”. In the mid-1980s, … cytogeneticist Sheldon Wolff of the University of California, San Francisco, offered one explanation: When his team “tickled” cells with a low dose of radiation, waited a few hours, then applied a high dose, the cells showed fewer DNA strand breaks than did cells hit only with the high dose. (Read the entire articles for more discussion and caveats.)

So current thinking and evidence points to no harm without a large dose of radioactivity. It also points to tens of thousands of Americans dead from coal power and the transportation fuels in particular. Every year. And then there’s climate change.

If we are to cut carbon emissions 70% worldwide, more than 90% in the US, over 20 tot 25 years, it makes sense to quit worrying about small amounts of radioactivity and worry more about enormous amounts of carbon. If you are a typical American (babies included), you are responsible for 5.5 metric tonnes of carbon emissions per year – that’s just the carbon part of the carbon dioxide molecule. If you are European or Japanese, you’re responsible for almost half this much, and also need to cut back.

*The absorbed dose is the rad or gray: 1 gray is one joule absorbed per kg in the absorber, 1 gray = 100 rad

Dose equivalents are used because some particles drop more of their energy in a short distance, and so do more damage. In particular, alpha particles and neutrons deposit their energy in a shorter distance and do more harm as a result than beta particles with the same amount of energy. It is obtained by multiplying the dose by a quality factor, from Q =1 for x-rays and gamma rays to Q = 20 for alpha particles and fission fragments. One sievert (Sv) is one gray multiplied by a quality factor of 1, while 1 Gy of alpha particles corresponds to 20 Sv. 1 sievert = 100 rem.

m (milli) indicates 1/1000

CA Smart Growth links

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Please recommend links to national discussions.

California Futures Network looks at how California can accomodate many millions more people and become more liveable at the same time. If this is to occur, it is necessary to address transportation, city design (mixing commercial and residential buildings), and housing affordability. We need to produce designs that all of us, rich and poor and in-between, can agree to. Start with their links page.

Transportation and Land Use Coalition
says, “The Bay Area expects a surge of 1.7 million new people over the next 25 years. We can’t just build a few model communities. We need a regional approach that taps the tremendous potential to focus new growth in walkable communities.” California is especially dependent on Smart Growth NGOs because we have perhaps the weakest central government in the US.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Steve points out in his comments on mass transit that I ignore enormous subsidies for cars (and airplanes). Innovative Pricing Strategies to Support Transit examines, in part, large subsidies for drivers for road construction and maintenance, parking costs, and pollution — both direct pollution that kills many hundreds of thousands of Americans each decade, and greenhouse gases . The article also examines how the way we pay the cost of driving often confuses drivers as to how much they pay per mile.

Unrelated Links (to either the environment or Quakers)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

For those interested in military affairs, see William Arkin’s blog, Early Warning, at the Washington Post site. He begins with a focus on Hurricane Katrina.

Most all of you already know about Juan Cole’s daily posting on Iraq and the Middle East.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Bob makes some important points with his Smart Growth comments in response to the posting on improving mass transit. Please read them. I will read more on the subject and post more later.

The Tipping Point

Monday, September 19th, 2005

Scientists use the term tipping point in to describe the process by which we change from one type of climate to another. The comparison is to a boat – if you push it too much, and how much is too much depends on variables like waves and such – the boat tips over. If a system has large hysteresis, it will not readily switch back when should conditions revert to an earlier state, just like a rowboat needs a very large push to return to its original upright state.

An article in the Independent claims that we have already reached another tipping point in climate change, that four years of data show Arctic warming is moving Arctic climate to another state, one with much less freezing, that this will lead to inevitable melting of Greenland ice and the raising of sea level by several meters.

This particular report may or may not be true. I haven’t yet seen it in Science magazine or other formats scientists use to communicate what they are seeing, the Independent is not one of these formats. But even if this particular report is not true, it is how we will hear the information eventually: that several years of data show a change that became inevitable years or even decades or even many decades before. We will be hearing very old news, environmental harm that we are years too late to prevent.

Improve Mass Transit? Or Should We Take the Bus First?

Sunday, September 18th, 2005

Someone wrote asking why pay more attention to gas mileage than to subsidizing mass transit.

With a change in culture — we give up the ability to accelerate from 0 to 80 in 2.1 seconds on our crowded freeways, and even in locations where it’s possible — some big mandates on car mileage, and well, more big changes in culture — are we really cramped in a Prius? could we rent a pickup truck or pay the delivery costs when we buy sheet rock? — we could come close to doubling car mileage in the time it takes to turn over car stock.

How much oil/carbon emissions could we save by changing our car behavior? How much by increasing our subsidies of mass transit? I suspect it makes more sense for us to increase gas mileage and for us to start taking mass transit, rather than to emphasize increasing subsidies.

Right now (2003 statistics), we in the US consume 20 million barrels of oil/day, about 850 million gallons/day. In two decades, this is expected to be close to 30 million barrels of oil/day. Today’s use is just under 3 gallons/day per person. Some of that goes to your car, some is for air transit. (Figure one gallon/34 passenger miles if you fly, so if you fly from one coast to the other and back, that’s about 180 gallons; one bicoastal trip adds 1/2 gallon/day to your total.)

Remember, the goal is to reduce carbon emissions 70% worldwide, more than 90% per person in the US, to the level the oceans can absorb, and then to cut back even further to protect the oceans.

Currently (2001), we drive more than 3.7 million million miles/year, cars and light trucks, close to 13,000 miles per person (if there are two of you in the car, credit yourself with only half the miles). We fly almost 600,000 million miles/year (domestic only), about 2,000 miles per person. We take the bus (city bus + intercity bus) and rail some 90,000 million miles per year.

Obviously, the two biggest numbers to tackle are cars and light trucks, and air.

How much does subsidizing mass transit shift away from car use? Probably not much. Buses are a net loss, carbonwise, unless they are used. Most municipalities provide them as subsidies for children and the elderly, poor, and disabled, rather than for energy purposes.

The SF Bay Area smart growth group, Transportation and Land Use Coalition, analyzes local bus subsidies in one of the five major mass transit centers in the US (also, NY, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago).

“More than 6.8 million people live in the San Francisco Bay Area, making nearly 20 million trips every day, more than 80 percent of them by private automobile. Public transportation also plays a critical role in the region’s travel patterns. While only two percent of all trips in the U.S. are taken on transit, in the Bay Area this share exceeds six percent. And for commute to work trips, transit’s share is even higher — 9.5% in 1990.”

See their Table 2.5 for capitol and operating cost/passenger mile, and the share of that coming from the passenger and subsidies. AC (Alameda County) Transit is the East Bay, Berkeley-Oakland and points north and south. Muni is SF, and I am surprised to see it more expensive per passenger mile than AC Transit, perhaps it’s the underground trains. Golden Gate transit services wealthy Marin. SamTrans services wealthy San Mateo County, south of SF, and connects to SF. Santa Clara VTA services the even wealthier Santa Clara County south of San Mateo.

The total cost/passenger trip ranges from $0.87 to $5.55. The passenger share ranges from $0.21 – $1.45 – apparently buses are used mostly by children, seniors, and disabled users, or/and those with monthly cards. The subsidy/passenger trip ranges from $0.66 to $5.19.

Note: if you live outside the five major mass transit areas, the subsidies you pay are probably closer to the Santa Clara numbers than to the Alameda County numbers.

I think that most car drivers would be willing to chip in fifty cents to each bus rider, as it reduces congestion. But more than $5?

Most transit districts and Amtrak could absorb a doubling or even greater increase in bus and train ridership without increasing their own costs (this is not true of long distances buses such as Greyhound, which would have to run more buses, though at a lower marginal cost). Doubling mass transit use in this country would dramatically affect mass transit finances. Doubling bus ridership would only require a small percentage of drivers to shift their habits.

If we change our behavior, driving less, driving smaller, more fuel efficient, less powerful cars, if we check the tires and drive at more reasonable speeds, if we fly less, we will cut back on oil consumption. If we shift away from cars and plane towards the train and bus, then the subsidies become reasonable and justifiable to the taxpayer and we can ask for more funds for mass transit. But it does much less good to talk about subsidizing mass transit while continuing to drive.

I prefer to live more cheaply sans car, more restfully sans car. This can lead to longer trips, but I prefer reading to fighting traffic, and usually find reading less stressful than a shorter commute by car. Often the trips really aren’t any longer if I consider the time to pay for the car. On the other hand, commutes to San Francisco by BART are often considerably faster — by a factor of 2 or more — than commutes by car. (Yet people drive, and occasionally tell me that it’s faster to drive!!)

More on Smart Growth

The population of greater SF is expected to continue to grow rapidly, from 6.9 million in 2000 to 8 million in 2020. It isn’t practical to add new lanes (tear down houses to expand the freeways?) Some people are going to need to get out of their cars.

Locally, people are trying to find solutions. For example, mixed commercial (first floor) and residential buildings very close to mass transit, particularly BART (the local metro), have attracted people willing to pay more in order to live without a car. Some BART stations apparently are putting a second story parking lot and then apartments on top of the BART parking.

The population of greater SF is expected to continue growing rapidly for the next two decades and more. Thank goodness Transportation and Land Use Coalition and other smart growth groups, and local governments, are addressing the rapid changes. But we could make their job more doable if we consider the financial, time, and environmental costs of our transportation systems, and begin shifting to a reduced dependence on the car.

The details above are local, but the concept applies elsewhere – solutions must involve a willingness to change our behavior, and must involve structural changes that will encourage others to change theirs.

Science Education

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

I’m taking microeconomics this semester, the one that requires two years of calculus and linear algebra and is much harder than the other microeconomics class. I knew that our society had been ceding these classes to Asians (some are Asian American), but it’s still somewhat startling to see how few whites and other minorities there are in the class.

Yesterday I tutored someone for the chemistry SAT test, and I was shocked, seeing the test for the first time, to see how little of the material is covered by the majority of teachers at our local school. The student I was tutoring is exceptionally bright, but he hadn’t been taught the material.

So my first thoughts are the familiar ones, my usual education rant: our kids need to be learning more, much more thoroughly, at a younger age, facts and concepts and the ability to communicate them. Some of this is practical stuff, not just book stuff, lots of experiments beginning in elementary school and especially in junior high. Way less TV, video games, jobs to pay for gasoline. Etc. Test-driven education? – think SAT and tests at a good university, tests both to get into rigorous courses and to be able to excel once there.

My experiences learning science, from teachers and Scientific American when I was young, from professors and Science magazine now that I am older, is the magic of learning causes for what I see in everyday life (yes, we walk by using our leg muscles, but we can’t move forward unless something outside our body pushes us forward; the sky is blue and the sun is yellow, more yellow than people in outer space would see, so what does our atmosphere do to sunlight?) Especially for those of us from chaotic homes, the magic of causality is powerful. It is the magic of learning concepts impossible to perceive in the world we live in, a world of middle lengths and middle speeds and middle mass, like Goldilocks’ world, not too much or little of any of those – because the worlds of small masses or high speeds or significant masses and accelerations are very different from any world we can easily understand. That word magic is a strong part of my experience, along with rigorous requirements that models explain observations, and make successful predictions if they are to be accepted by scientists, if I am to feel comfortable with the models myself.

Then I opened the newspaper to see what is the really large educational issue today, even larger than No Child Left Behind: whether to dilute science education even further.

The Soviet Union had two types of science, to oversimplify, Lysenkoism and other. To be hired into the Lysenkophile fields of science, one had to agree to ideology, and generally one could not be Jewish. In the “other” categories, the Soviet Union often excelled, sometimes it was preeminent.

So Lysenkoism is working to establish a toehold in the US, as the battles over creationism continue.

[(Primarily) leftist opposition to nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops, no matter what the facts are or may turn out to be, also harms society. Eg, many support environmental organizations that produce ideological “science”, actually policy papers that purport to depend on science. At the K-12 level, this may appear as a weaker push in math and science than our kids need to compete in the world of 2017, or even 2005. It leads to fighting the people who can describe the big environmental problems, to fighting those who can suggest the solutions. A friend who teaches third and fourth grade still hears arguments about whether to teach phonics and how that ignore all results from studies in favor of ideology.]

Nothing written here should be taken as a support of all science, no matter what, eg, procedures to let people create a baby for the purpose of providing a transplant to an older sibling. And we have to take much of science with skepticism, particularly medical tests on test tubes or paid for by drug companies.

That said, the general disdain for science, and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in biology classes which will presumably be followed by attacks on the teaching of geology (facts and experiments tell geologists that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old) and of astrophysics (facts and experiments tell astrophysicists that there was a Big Bang, despite the fact that no astrophysicist is old enough to have been there to witness the event), do not bode well for us spiritually or economically. Spiritually, it presages a world for many where they learn only what they already believe. Economically, it creates difficulty for companies that need people trained in science, trained to begin with the facts and then draw conclusions.

If our society is to be able to hear what are the major environmental and other problems which scientists warn us of, hear how serious they are, and help us find solutions, it is to be hoped that we can find a way to listen better. If we want society to be more economically competitive, we need to prepare people in science and math.

That can best be done if we find ways to include everyone in the joy of learning the lessons we can learn from a piece of rock, or the migration patterns and mating calls of birds, whatever is out there. It is a spectacular universe, a universe of mystery. It is a magical universe.

Science and Katrina

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

Science magazine online has made a number of articles available to all:

* Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath
* Climate Change, Hurricanes, and Extreme Weather
* Coastal Disaster Planning
* Louisiana’s Wetlands and Other Floodplain Issues


Thursday, September 8th, 2005

The 9/11 panel was bipartisan and sans Kissinger because a well-organized group of 9/11 families maintained the pressure on Congress over the entire process.

We could use a well-organized group from the affected community to play this role today. A group that is willing to go on the morning shows and the afternoon shows and Oprah and follow the proceedings in enough detail to know when to go on the shows again.

Most of those affected are trying to find loved ones, a place to live, enroll children in school. Hopefully, there are those who have the time and passion to see that our government accounts for its behavior.

It is unfortunate that this Congress and this White House avoid accountability with such passion.

Hurricane Katrina

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Four years ago, there was a horrific mass murder in the US and some people danced in the streets to hear of it. To help stitch society together again, the wise people wrote letters to the editors and spoke to us in our religious institutions, helping us cope, telling us stories, showing us our connection to all humans.

This time the letters to the editors are not of this kind. We as a nation are finding it difficult to tell stories of the wit and wisdom of those in their position because of cronyism, in spite of incompetence, and financial mismanagement and theft.

We see more clearly than we wish an image in the mirror of a society where the quality of life, the chance to live, depends on poverty, age, disability, and race. It is not a situation I have promoted, it is one that I have worked against, but I have profited from this inequality. I will find it necessary for myself to find some way to help remove this inequality.

In Democracy in America, written well before our Civil War, de Tocqueville discusses inefficiencies in the structure of US government – after all, our Constitution was the first, and others learned from us. As long as we remained a relatively unimportant country out of the center of action, such inefficiencies weren’t important.

Now the world’s only superpower has lost faith in its government, and we have no way to have a vote of no confidence. We are stuck with out current government until January 2009. The world is stuck with it.

We need to have national discussions about the function of government, whether protecting from environmental catastrophes is part of the role, if rescuing people should be privatized. Whether to allow the widespread custom of some government officials – primarily elected officials – to use government for patronage jobs and pork and the many profits that come with accommodating lobbyists. We need to revisit the role of race, class, and disability in society.

We may wish to consider if we have elected the best people for the jobs. The Bush Administration, and the Republican leadership of the House and Senate, have shown a striking disconnect from social mores. Credit is due so many: Bush who appointed incompetent people and went fundraising the first few days, Cheney who was absent, Rumsfeld who was absent, Rice who went shopping, and Governor Barbour and Senator Lott who praised the response of the federal government even while many communities still had not seen any national presence. But Roy Blount touched a special place in my heart, with his obsession this week that the estate tax be repealed and that the mistake was focusing initially on search and rescue rather than looting control – I apologize to him if he really did mention having a strong enough presence immediately so that people didn’t need to loot water, food, and diapers. Next time, we may wish to elect people who better reflect our values.

To those of you who are still stuck in the affected areas, stuck in limbo, still searching for news of loved ones, the heart of our nation goes out to you.