Entries Tagged as 'science'

Confessions of a Climate Change Convert

April 19th, 2011 at 11:00 am 134 Comments

I was defeated by facts.

It wasn’t all that long ago when I joined others on the right in dismissing concerns about climate change. It was my firm belief that the science was unsettled, buy viagra that any movement associated with Al Gore and Van Jones couldn’t possibly be trusted, recipe that environmentalists were simply left-wing, online anti-capitalist kooks.

It wasn’t until after I read Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina’s book Disconnect (2009) that I started to reconsider things. Fiorina noted that while environmentalism is now considered the domain of the Democratic Party, for many years it was the GOP that was identified with conservationist concerns. I was curious as to how the political climate shifted with regard to environmentalism—and whether there was something to all this talk about climate change.

I’m very fortunate to have acquaintances in the environmentalist movement, and I began discussing my concerns with them last fall. One friend recommended that I read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting that it might resolve some of the questions I had about the science behind climate concerns.

I began reading the report with a skeptical eye, but by the time I concluded I could not find anything to justify my skepticism. The report presented an airtight case that the planet’s temperature has increased dramatically (“Eleven of the last twelve years [1995-2006] rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]”), that sea levels have undergone a dramatic and disturbing increase since the 1960s (“Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003”) and that climate alteration is having an unusual impact on avian and sea life (“…recent warming is strongly affecting terrestrial biological systems, including such changes as earlier timing of spring events, such as leaf-unfolding, bird migration and egg-laying…observed changes in marine and freshwater biological systems are associated with rising water temperatures, as well as related changes in ice cover, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation”).

The report highlighted the key role carbon emissions played in climate alteration, noting, “The largest growth in GHG emissions between 1970 and 2004 has come from energy supply, transport and industry, while residential and commercial buildings, forestry [including deforestation] and agriculture sectors have been growing at a lower rate” and that “[c]hanges in the atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system and are drivers of climate change. They affect the absorption, scattering and emission of radiation within the atmosphere and at the Earth’s surface.” I was stunned by the report’s claim that “[t]he observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.”

If carbon-fueled climate alteration continues at its current rate, the report noted, we will bear witness to unprecedented health horrors: “The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events…increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and the altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.” In addition, “For increases in global average temperature exceeding 1.5 to 2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric CO2 concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species’ ecological interactions and shifts in species’ geographical ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services, e.g. water and food supply.”

The report did provide some hope, noting that “[s]ocieties can respond to climate change…by reducing GHG emissions [mitigation], thereby reducing the rate and magnitude of change… Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.”

I came away from the report convinced that climate alteration poses a critical threat to our health and way of life, and that “policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon” are in fact necessary, from an economic and a moral standpoint, to mitigate that threat. Such policies—most notably the much-maligned concept of cap-and-trade—should not be considered job-killers but life-savers.

There’s a part of me that understands why libertarian pundits seem to have so much scorn for those who support state action to combat carbon emissions. Modern libertarianism is suffused with skepticism of government, and supporting state regulation of carbon emissions requires, on some level, a belief in government to get things right. Is it even possible to be a libertarian and an environmentalist—or a conservative and an environmentalist, for that matter?

I’m a bit skeptical myself. I’d argue that conservatives and libertarians should strongly support regulation to reduce carbon pollution, since pollution by one entity invariably infringes upon the rights of others (including property rights), and no entity has a constitutional right to pollute. It does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.

Since reconsidering climate science, I’ve had a number of debates with conservative and libertarian friends, who oppose government regulation of carbon emissions in part because they believe those regulations will cost too much. Of course regulations cost; limiting ecological damage and preserving public health requires money. The issue is whether those costs are moral to impose. If no entity has a constitutional right to pollute, and if the federal government has a compelling interest in reducing carbon pollution, then how can those costs not be moral?

In the months following my acceptance of the conclusions in the IPCC report, I’ve had a change in my emotional climate. I go back and forth between disappointment and hope—sadness over seeing Republicans who once believed in the threat of climate change (such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) suddenly turn into skeptics; optimism about efforts by such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection and Citizens Climate Lobby to sound the alarm about the need to combat climate pollution. I struggle with the urge to give in to cynicism and bitterness, to write off the American right for its refusal to recognize scientific facts. Thankfully, there’s a stronger urge—an urge to keep working until the American right recognizes that a healthy planet is required to have the life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness.


Creationism Gains Ground in Tennessee

April 8th, 2011 at 2:43 am 74 Comments

Tennessee House Bill 368, buy the creationist friendly legislation that we have previously covered on FrumForum, help has passed through of the Tennessee House on a vote of 70-23. The Senate is expected to take up the bill for a vote on April 20th.

As many observers had feared, the bill passed successfully on a near-party line vote. 8 Democrats joined with 62 Republicans and one independent to vote in favor of the bill, while 22 Democrats voted against it.

WPLN News has a good collection of some of the statements that were made in support of the bill by lawmakers:

Anti-science rhetoric was common as the House debated the bill. Williamson County Representative Glen Casada says science proponents are intolerant of dissent.

“But there’s now the new religion of evolution. And they in turn are now trying to suppress questioning and free thought.”

Representative Sheila Butt, Republican from Columbia, says things she was taught in high school turned out to be untrue.

“I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.

Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.”

Representative Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, called the bill a return to common sense.

“And ever since the late ’50s and early ’60s, when we let the intellectual bullies hijack our education system, we’ve been on a slippery slope.”

Dr. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, says a scientific theory is…well, more theory than science.

“Every theory is… just that, it’s a theory. And many scientific theories that we’ve heard from, that people claim, every scientist believes a certain theory, that’s certainly not true.”

One Republican did vote against the bill however, Representative Bob Ramsey. According to his website, Ramsey also holds a B.S. in Biology.


Creationism Makes a Comeback

March 30th, 2011 at 5:00 am 163 Comments

The wave of Republican victories in state legislatures has led to a more favorable environment for creationist friendly legislation to advance.  Most of those bills will die in committee but one that has the best chance of passing is an “Academic Freedom” bill currently being debated in the Tennessee legislature. The bill will empower and protect teachers who want to go off their curriculum and teach creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms.

Tennessee House Bill 368 is similar to a Louisiana “Academic Freedom Act” that became law in 2008. It passed out of the Tennessee General Sub-committee on  Education on March 16th with a near party line vote, site with eight Republicans and one Democrat voting for and four Democrats voting against. The bill was also approved in the House Education Committee on March 29th. Observers are concerned that the bill could become law if it continues gaining support along party lines.

The bill works on the assumption that teachers who want to explain the controversies in topics such as evolution are being bullied or suppressed. The bill’s main sponsor, stuff Representative Bill Dunn told FrumForum:

“It says to teachers, ‘if there are strengths and weakness in the theory or hypothesis you are teaching, and the weaknesses are based on scientific facts, you don’t deserve to be bullied because you present them.”

This is the key language from the bill which allows creationists to go off-curriculum:

Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught. …

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Steven Newton, a Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education believes that teachers sympathetic to creationism will learn of this law and use it as cover to bring creationist material in their classrooms: “Imagine a teacher who tells their class, ‘This textbook we’ve been using discussed the strengths of evolution, now we will discuss the weaknesses of evolution with the help of this video from the Discovery Institute.’”

For anyone who cares about teaching good science in schools, this law is obviously troubling but the real outrage is that Tennessee currently has an awful science curriculum. According to a study by NCSE, Tennessee gets a “D” grade for the quality of its science curriculum. The study notes that the Tennessee curriculum has an “improved treatment of evolution” (in 2000, the state received a grade of “F” when the Fordham Foundation measured it) but the study also adds that the state currently teaches “no human evolution.”

The irony is that in the past, creationist institutions and advocates used to be allies of laws and reforms which would give a stronger role for a parents choice in their child’s education, whether through voucher programs, charter schools, or even homeschooling. There is a logic to this approach: rather than tear towns and communities apart over protracted and agonizing legal battles, simply give parents the power to choose what education their child can have.

Laws such as HB 368, and other “academic freedom” bills are not about giving parents more options about where they can get their children educated. They are about empowering and protecting those creationists who are already in the public education system and are waiting to be given the legal cover to evangelize and teach bad science.

Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahkgreen


NASA Budget Grounds Space Probes

March 10th, 2011 at 8:00 am 8 Comments

For decades, generic there was debate among space exploration proponents about the relative merits of manned versus unmanned missions. Enthusiasts of sending astronauts argued that manned missions captured the public imagination in a way that robotic probes never could, decease besides serving the grand purpose of building a human future in space.

Space probe proponents, including many scientists, emphasized the lower costs and far greater scientific payoff of robotic missions. They also noted the daunting difficulty of sending humans to Mars, let alone to the outer solar system where probes already travel.

The debate is now effectively over, and both sides have lost. A cherished notion long held by many probe advocates — that cutting back human space exploration would free up money for the robotic version — turns out to have little practical meaning.

NASA’s manned space program is under much-noted budget pressure. The space shuttle fleet is winding down to its final missions, plans for a human return to the moon have been scrapped and it is unclear what combination of governmental and private-sector activities will enable human access to orbit in the coming years, or how successful such efforts will be.

The robotic space program, meanwhile, also faces a future of fiscal squeezes, political uncertainty and diminished expectations. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal foresees NASA’s annual planetary science funding dropping from its current $1.36 billion to less than $1.2 billion in 2016. The Obama 2011 budget had projected the figure to rise to $1.6 billion by 2016.

Congressional Republicans show little interest in defending robotic space exploration. Rather, their focus has been on cutting NASA’s budget overall (and, with particular zest, slashing Earth climate science) or, among NASA defenders (often based in states such as Texas and Florida with large NASA facilities), on preserving funding for manned space missions. Space probes don’t show up as vividly on the political radar.

The National Research Council, which advises the government on science policy, just released a report setting priorities in planetary exploration. The report raised the possibility that NASA may need to scrap one or both of its “flagship” missions: the Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher, (MAX-C), aimed at determining the Red Planet’s past or present suitability for life; and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), focused on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which evidently has an ocean beneath its icy surface and thus too is a candidate for possible life.

Of course, times are tough all over and space probes cost money. Before taking the budget ax to robotic space exploration, though, consider how much it costs and what it achieves. Planetary science accounts for less than 10 percent of NASA’s budget, which in turn accounts for about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. For every $100 in federal spending, NASA gets about two quarters, and puts less than a nickel into space probes.

Until a few decades ago, humans knew little about the rest of the solar system. Now we have a wealth of data and images from Mercury to Neptune. The Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977 for a tour of the outer planets, is still returning data from the edge of the solar system. Beginning with the Viking missions in 1976, we have been getting information directly from the surface of Mars, a place once relegated to science fiction. Probes have physically touched Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s moon Titan, among other celestial sites.

Gaining such knowledge and up-close pictures of our cosmic environs is unprecedented in history. Besides being enlightening, it provides practical benefits, such as technological advances (as when digital image processing for probes helped give rise to CAT scans) and insights into Earth science (as when Venus’ greenhouse effect raised questions about our own). Furthermore, robotic space probes are vital for building human capital. What kind of scientific and technological workforce would the U.S. have without the educational tools and interest in science generated by planetary exploration?

Don’t let space probes get crushed in Washington’s gravitational field.


Will GOP Give Climate Science a Fair Shake?

March 8th, 2011 at 10:59 am 22 Comments

House Democrats persuaded Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to hold a hearing today on climate science. At a time when bipartisan gestures are hard to come by, I suppose that this hearing should be viewed as a positive development.

It’s too bad that any credible testimony on climate science is likely to fall on deaf ears in a subcommittee that is stacked with a veritable who’s who of GOP climate change skeptics and shills for fossil fuel interests.

Chief among these is Joe Barton (R-TX) who last week summed up his view on carbon emissions by saying:

I expel carbon dioxide at about 40,000 parts per million … so how in the world can that be a pollutant?

Perhaps someone should point out to Congressman Barton that he, like everyone else, also emits methane and fecal coliform bacteria. Would he use the same logic to argue that those are not pollutants?

There will be a few well-respected climate scientists on hand, such as Dr. Richard Somerville and Dr. Christopher Field, who could set Mr. Barton straight—unfortunately they were invited by the Democrats.

The Republican witness list includes two well-worn contrarians, Dr. John Christy and Dr. Roger Pielke, who basically assert that predicting future climate change is a futile and worthless endeavor, or that there is nothing mankind can do to effectively address it. Thankfully their “can’t do” attitude was not shared by scientists of the past who have cured diseases, sent men to the moon, or helped solve past pollution problems.

The GOP list also curiously enough includes Dr. Donald Roberts. Dr. Roberts is not a climate scientist, but rather a professor of tropical medicine who happens to be a huge fan of the pesticide DDT.  He actually wrote a book on DDT called The Excellent Powder and blames the environmental movement for its banning in the U.S. and sparse use around the world.

Ideally, congressional hearings should represent an honest search for facts by open-minded lawmakers who want to make informed policy decisions.

At a House Science Committee hearing last November, then Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) encouraged climate scientists to welcome the coming GOP led hearings, saying:

Those will be difficult hearings…But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.

The only hitch in that wise advice is that teachers need students who are willing to learn.

In all likelihood today’s hearing will be nothing more than an adversarial dog and pony show where scientific facts meet impenetrable hard heads, narrow minds and ill-conceived smoke screens.

For all of the efforts of GOP lawmakers to wrap themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they fail to emulate the resolve for problem solving and thirst for knowledge that led him to heed the warnings of climate scientists and address ozone depletion.

Reagan fully understood his obligations as a public servant and what the stakes were. He articulated this well in his famous 1964 A Time for Choosing speech:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If the Republicans at today’s climate hearing want to justify their brief moment here, a nice step in the right direction would be to open their minds and learn from the real climate experts in the hearing room—no matter who invited them.


More Flak Jackets, Less Flack

September 4th, 2009 at 2:34 pm 10 Comments

George Will is rightfully dismayed and revolted by American casualties in Afghanistan. Thus he begins his most recent column, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” by lamenting the death of two young Marines. One of the young Marines stepped on a landmine and lost both his legs; the other took a bullet to the head.

 

I think withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a serious mistake, because it would all but guarantee the collapse of the Afghan government while ensuring the continued and indefinite presence of al-Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan. However, I certainly share Will’s revulsion at horrific, life-scarring casualties and the needless loss of American life.

 

Unfortunately, Will and his critics never ask the question that, to me at least, seems obvious: What can we do to better protect our ground forces — our boots on the ground — to ensure that their casualties are kept to a bare minimum?

 

The kneejerk Washington answer is always to cut and run and to find excuses for failure; but the right and appropriate answer, it seems to me, is to find a way to win. Casualties may be inevitable, but they also can be significantly reduced, both in number and in scope.

 

And in fact, because of our investment in high-tech gear and equipment — as well as the military’s adoption of better tactics, techniques and procedures — U.S. military casualties have been significantly reduced. Indeed, when considered in light of the pace and intensity of military operations, fewer Americans are killed and injured today than at any time in U.S. military history.

 

Moreover, casualties aren’t necessarily integral to victory, even in ground-intensive operations. As the late great General George S. Patton explained, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

 

With that in mind — with winning in mind – several ideas are worth championing:

 

First, spend more on defense. When Democrat John F. Kennedy was president, the United States spent nine percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. Today, by contrast, the United States spends just four percent of its GDP on defense. And, if the Obama administration has its way, that figure will decline soon to just three percent of GDP — an historic low at a time of war. When that happens, soldiers and Marines will suffer; they will be forced to do more with less.

 

At different times, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones, have called on policymakers to maintain defense spending at no less than four percent of the GDP. Otherwise, they say, we likely will shortchange our nation’s security.

 

If we are serious about protecting our soldiers and Marines in harm’s way, then we must ensure that defense spending is not crowded out by other competing demands on the federal budget. This means ensuring that the defense budget is protected from politicians more interested in the next election than in the next war.

 

Too many American servicemen, after all, have died in past wars because the politicians in Washington have failed to adequately fund our nation’s defense. Recall, for instance, the lack of body armor and uparmored humvees at the beginning of the Iraq War.

 

That must never happen again. As General Jones said in 2003 when he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Four cents on the dollar for the national security and the global relationships that this country has seems a modest price to pay for the freedoms [that] we enjoy.”

 

Second, spend more on weapon systems and weapons procurement. Obama administration supporters like to point out that defense spending will increase by four percent this year. This may be true; however, it is also misleading. That’s because an increasing share of the defense budget is being consumed by personnel and benefit costs.

 

Military healthcare costs, for instance, have increased by 144% since the year 2000, according to defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

 

Thus, weapon systems are being cut to accommodate an artificially constrained and underfunded defense budget. Among the casualties: the Transformational Satellite program and eight new Army combat vehicle types, all of which are integral to modernizing U.S. military capabilities for 21st-Century irregular warfare.

 

Meanwhile, the threats that confront our soldiers and Marines are intensifying, what with the proliferation and ubiquity of technology. America’s military-technological edge, especially for our ground forces, is being eroded and undermined. That edge must be restored and significantly strengthened. Weapon systems cuts enacted by the Obama administration must be reversed.

 

For example, instead of cutting Army procurement accounts by some 14%, or $3.5 billion, which is what the Obama administration has done, Army procurement accounts should be replenished with significant funding increases.

 

Third, spend more on infantry forces and on ground combat units. In theory, this is what Defense Secretary Gates is trying to do: better equip our soldiers and Marines to win the wars we are in. But in reality, as I’ve just noted, Army procurement accounts are being cut, and as a result, Army modernization initiatives are in jeopardy.

 

Indeed, the Defense Department is telling the Army that it must choose between more troops on the one hand and more modern gear and equipment on the other hand.

 

This Hobson’s choice should not be forced upon the Army, which is bearing the brunt of the burden in this long war. The Army, and the nation, need more troops and more modern gear and equipment.  Modern-day conflicts “demand a ground presence,” explains the Commander of the Joint Forces Command, Marine Corps General James N. Mattis.

 

Yet, Washington defense analysts haven’t been arguing about how to modernize our ground forces. Instead, they’ve been arguing about whether to build more F-22 fighter jets! But the F-22 has not been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan and is of dubious value in irregular warfare. Yet, irregular warfare is dominating, and undoubtedly will continue to dominate, the early 21st Century.

 

Then, too, there has been a longstanding gross inequity in the defense budget, which has been badly biased against the ground forces.

 

For example, according to the former commandant of the Army War College, Major General Robert Scales, since the early 1990s, some 70% of the American defense investment, or more than $1.3 trillion, has been earmarked for missiles and fixed-wing aircraft. Yet, as General Mattis observes, 89% of U.S. military casualties since 1945 have been suffered by infantry units.

 

There has been, quite clearly, a longstanding and historic mismatch between U.S. military requirements and U.S. military budget appropriations. It’s long past time to remedy this mismatch, and to direct a greater share of the American defense investment to where it is most needed and will do the most good, and that is with our infantry forces and our ground combat units.

 

Fourth, spend more on conventional infantry forces and not just Special Forces. Policymakers and the media love U.S. Special Forces because, they think, U.S. Special Forces can achieve military success on the cheap, with few casualties, and without a lot of attendant adverse publicity and political headaches. Thus George Will’s facile idea to withdraw conventional U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan and employ instead “small, potent Special Forces units.”

 

Special Forces are superb, but they are not a military panacea nor a catch-all military solution. They occupy a specialized niche, and thus are appropriate for only a limited set of military missions and objectives.

 

The idea that we can achieve all U.S. military aims and objectives with Special Forces and not conventional forces is simply ludicrous; it ain’t gonna happen. For many missions and objectives — and certainly for counterinsurgency missions — you really do need boots on the ground. You need a visible and armed presence of trained and ready (conventional) combat forces.

 

Again, as General Mattis observes, “The idea that we are going to be able to fight future wars without having soldiers on the ground, or [by] just having a few Special Forces — I think that’s a pipedream.”

 

Spending on U.S. Special Forces has skyrocketed in recent years, and that is all for the good. Special Forces, after all, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden in the war on terror. Indeed, these guys are constantly deploying.

 

But policymakers and the media must realize that for many military objectives, conventional ground forces — infantry units, boots on the ground — are required as well. And our conventional ground forces must be equipped with the very best gear and equipment. This to stay ahead of an adaptive and resourceful enemy who is not standing still, either militarily or technologically.

 

Fifth, spend more on research and development, science and technology. From the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War, American technological superiority has always been an integral part of U.S. military success; it has saved countless American lives.

 

But America’s military-technological superiority cannot and must not be taken for granted. It was achieved through a concerted, long-term investment in basic science and technology, research and development. Yet, the Obama administration is cutting funding for these crucial long-term investments.

 

One thing is certain: One way or the other, we will pay. We will either pay now in dollars invested, or we will pay later in lives lost. Most Americans would rather pay in dollars than in lives. Me too.

 

That’s why, I think, if George Will had taken the time to study these issues, he would have written a different column. Instead of writing “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” he would have written “Time to Invest in America’s Ground Forces.”