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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Weather Extremes and Public Policy

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a story yesterday about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s choices while the NJ coast is rebuilt post-Sandy.  As a scientist, I agree with other experts that planners need to incorporate climate change projections in their work.  As a scientist transitioning to public policy, I agree with Gov. Christie that the causal link between climate change and Sandy doesn’t matter to victims of the storm in the immediate aftermath.  What does matter?  Today’s infrastructure is clearly not capable of withstanding today’s weather extremes, as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy demonstrated.  Both disasters showed it doesn’t matter whether sub-standard infrastructure protects a location (New Orleans) or whether standard or better infrastructure (NY & NJ) does.  The first issue is our standards, not the weather.  The second issue is mitigation and adaptation to a changing climate.

Of course politics are involved.  Gov. Christie’s reelection is this upcoming November.  If victims think their needs are unmet or the NJ coast is not open for tourism this summer, his reelection chances will take a hit.  This political reality will butt up against physical reality.  Sandy occurred in today’s climate.  She wasn’t particularly strong at landfall as hurricanes go in the Atlantic basin (nowhere near Hurricane Katrina or other historic storms).  A unique set of weather events combined to amplify Sandy’s effects.

The mid-20th century buildup of human infrastructure along the coast with minimal consideration of severe weather effects drove Sandy’s costs.  Without buildings abutting the ocean, the storm surge would not have damaged anything but wilderness (which we evidently don’t value).  It is foolish to rebuild buildings  without consideration of today’s severe weather.  It is more foolish to not plan for tomorrow’s climate, but it is Gov. Christie’s prerogative to choose his own vision.  What should planners include?

Proper preparation could mean “hardening” infrastructure (moving power lines underground, for example), forbidding construction in flood zones, modifying building codes, and lifting homes off the ground onto pilings. It could mean relocating people to denser developments that are less flood prone or building sea walls on the coast.

If people want to build in flood zones, the rest of us should not bail them out post-disaster.  Risky behavior requires appropriate responsibility for engaging in that behavior.  Some areas might not be safely inhabitable.  It is the government’s responsibility to determine those areas’ locations and issue building permits and assign zones accordingly.  In addition to sea walls, planners should include natural barriers to storm surge.

If sea level rises an additional four feet off the NJ coast, what are the implications for NJ infrastructure (i.e., risk and cost)?  We build infrastructure to last 100 years, so we should require robust planning and construction.  How many citizens are put at risk with each foot of sea level rise?  Do New Jersey residents want to invest in the near-term to reduce long-term risk or do they want to confront that long-term risk at some undetermined point in the future?  What about the rest of Americans?  Our elected officials decided to spend $60 billion on post-Sandy work.  Is that the best use of that money?  Do we want to spend some of that $60 billion on adaptation measures, and if so how much?

The article includes this (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, Christie faces pushback from a significant interest group, environmentalists, who want a public planning process to determine the future of the Shore. They want decisions made based on science, not politics.

This is a classic environmentalist complaint.  Every decision includes politics.  Climate science is largely federally funded.  Decision makers are largely politicians.  Zoning is political.  There is no pure aspect of science that can issue a non-political decision.  The appeal to scientific purity is a trait of mainstream environmentalism, but it is just as biased as skeptics’ call for no climate science input into decision-making.  Science describes and politics prescribes.  The two are naturally different and intertwined in our technically advanced society.

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Colorado Infrastructure: Bad and Worse

Colorado infrastructure was graded by the Colorado chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. They gave the state’s infrastructure an overall grade of C+ in a report released two weeks ago, rating Colorado’s aviation system highest and its roads as the worst.  It also forecast that 10 of the 13 systems evaluated will deteriorate in the next two years: dam safety, drinking water, wastewater treatment, aviation, roads, environmental cleanup, bridges, education, energy and mass transit.  Billions of dollars in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades are needed.  The anti-investment folks have ruled the roost for a generation.  Now, the bill is coming due.  Will we do the right thing and decide to continue to invest in ourselves and our communities?

Not if the anti-investment crowd has anything to say about it.  They have put out a proposal for bridge “fixes”.

The plan hinges on essentially mortgaging out a number of public buildings to private investors, and the debt would be paid off over the next 10 to 15 years.

This is exactly why I identify them as Cons.  This is a shell game: selling buildings that the public owns will constitute a one-time cash infusion.  That’s great for this year.  What about next year?  Sell more buildings?  Eventually, the public owns nothing, private “investors” own everything and they’ll charge the public to use the places the public used to own.  What the state needs is a regular inflow of money to keep and maintain the property it’s supposed to keep and maintain.  This situation is exactly what Grover Norquist, Douglas Bruce and the rest of the Cons wanted to create.  They wanted to force the issue of whether the public gets to keep its property.  Automobile registration fees should be fair game.  The gas tax hasn’t increased in 17 years, while number of vehicle-miles driven has skyrocketed, placing ever-increasing pressure on the bridges in question.  That’s the other thing the Cons want: something for nothing.  Too bad life doesn’t work out that way.


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Better Place – Introduction

WIRED’s big article in its August issue was about a major effort to make the electric car’s future more robust.  Shai Agassi has launched Project Better Place, a company that is working with governments, car companies and energy companies to birth a system that will support millions of electric vehicles.  Not hybrids: fully electric vehicles.  How does he propose to do this?  By treating car batteries of the future more like the gasoline of today.  In addition to being able to charge a car battery at home, Agassi’s plan is to have battery charging stations as part of a country’s infrastructure.  Okay you say, there’s nothing new about that.  And you’re correct.  So how about this – the plan includes battery replacement centers.  Instead of waiting to charge a battery, you could drive up and have it automatically replaced.  Additionally, Agassi wants recharging stations where people work and shop.  How would the electricity be paid for?  More flexibly than gasoline: it would work more like cell phone plans, actually.  Unlimited electricity, pay as you go, and the like.

Agassi has come up with a fairly robust business plan to date.  He has agreements to develop infrastructure worked out with Israel, Denmark, Australia, and most recently, California’s Bay Area.  He also has agreements worked out with Nissan and Renault to produce the electric vehicles.  Isn’t that interesting: GM, Ford and Chrysler don’t seem to be interested in electric vehicles on a mass scale.  But they sure want sub-market loans from the government, don’t they?

Agassi has developed some financing from the following: VantagePoint Venture Partners, Israel Corporation, Israel Cleantech Ventures, Morgan Stanley, Acorns to Oaks II, Esarbee Investments Canada, GC Investments LLC, Musea Ventures, Ofer Group, Vyikra Partners, Wolfensohn & Co. and Maniv Energy Capital.  Project Better Place has raised over $200 million so far, with the potential for another $1 billion or more in the relatively near future.

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In The News 10/24/08

A campaign volunteer for John McCain in Pittsburgh, PA made up a story about being robbed at an ATM, then being assaulted by the robber once the 6’4″ black man figured out she was driving with a McCain sticker on her car.  The story was ludicrous when it first came out, but that certainly didn’t stop propaganda outlets like Fox from running with the story as hard as they could.  Ashley Todd made up this disgusting story.  She filed a false police report after inflicting the wounds on herself.  Seriously, what has happened to the Republican party?

Lots of economic news again today.  First up: OPEC’s supply decision.  OPEC will cut production by 1.5 million barrels per day.  They think there’s too much supply in the system.  What they’re really saying is that $140 oil makes them more money than $70 oil.  That might sound like a “Duh” type of statement, but it should serve as a lesson to the pro-drilling crowd.  Any additional supply the U.S. might bring to market in 10 years will simply be taken off the market by OPEC.  That means we’ll pay more for gas (not less!) because OPEC wants more for its oil.  The drilling fetish folks are looking to grab some of the profit along the way.  What do we get out of it?

“Too-big-to-fail” insurance giant AIG has not just already blown through the original $85 billion loaned by the government (corporate welfare with taxpayer money), it’s nearly blown the additional $37.5 billion extension loan too.  It doesn’t stop there: AIG may ask for even more money.  Remind me again why American taxpayer dollars are bailing out firms when we’re not allowed to know where the money is really going.

Foreclosures are up 71% over last year’s level.  Nationwide, nearly 766,000 homes received at least one foreclosure-related notice in the last quarter, as reported by RealtyTrac.  Remember, RealtyTrac isn’t keeping track of foreclosures in 900 rural counties nationally.  The numbers could have been worse.  Many states have initiated foreclosure-delay programs.  Without additional work, I expect an artificial ‘explosion’ of foreclosures in this quarter.

Meanwhile, the number of new applications for unemployment insurance rose to 478,000.  People without jobs cannot pay their mortgages.  Corporations continue to announce massive numbers of layoffs.  The economy is going to continue to get worse before it gets better.

Cry me a freaking river.  The recession is beginning to hit rich folks’ golf communities.  People that live in the communities are not that upset about the decrease in their home values.  They’re upset because they can’t golf everyday.  They’re upset because they can’t hang out in the clubhouse all day.  These are some of the same people that are upset over inheritance taxes.  They don’t provide labor to the economy, and they think they’re so much better than the rest of us that they shouldn’t have to pay for their fair share of the nation’s infrastructure that they use.  Meanwhile, middle- and lower-class families are becoming homeless and jobless.  The fact that this article was even written is sad commentary on the state of our society.

Inside Colorado, a successful sale of bonds by the state will finance 12 construction projects on college campuses across Colorado:

1. University of Northern Colorado: Butler-Hancock Renovation

2. Colorado Northwestern Community College: Academic Building, Craig Campus

3. Colorado State University at Pueblo: Academic Resources Center Remodel

4. Colorado School of Mines: Brown Hall Addition

5. CSU Fort Collins: Clark Building Revitalization

6. Auraria Higher Education Campus: Science Building

7. Western State College: Taylor Hall Renovation and Addition

8. Mesa State College: Wubben Hall Expansion and Renovation

9. University of Colorado at Colorado Springs: Renovation of Science Building

10. Morgan Community College: Nursing, Technology & Science Building

11. Front Range Community College, Larimer Campus: Science Classroom Project

12. Fort Lewis College: Berndt Hall Reconstruction


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In The News 10/23/08

Deregulation and conflict of interest juxtapose in very dangerous territory.  News is slowly coming out that the credit raters knowingly gave their best rating to securities that didn’t deserve it.  Bond and securities issuers pressured rating agencies like Standard & Poor, Moody’s and Fitch, Inc. into issuing AAA ratings that they shouldn’t have.  Not surprisingly, those corporations made very large profits, in no small part because with excellent ratings, securities rose in value and more could be issued … with excellent ratings.  It was but one positive, though artificial and unethical, feedback cycle that kept driving housing prices through the roof in the 1990s and 2000s.  Also in the article: a severe admonishment from Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  I had a lot of respect for Rep. Waxman coming out of the 2006 election cycle.  The past two years has shown me that he’s too ready to issue his rebukes but he hasn’t really exercised the oversight for which his committee is responsible.  I suppose getting beat up by the right-wing for decades will do that to you.  Will Waxman push for enforcement of regulations under an Obama presidency?  Time will tell.

Have people really adopted more efficient driving habits?  Will the money saved on falling gas prices go instead to reducing household debt, which runs into the trillions of dollars?  Here again, time will tell.

More economic stimulus is being discussed within Washington.  Should taxpayers get more cash or should the money instead be spent on infrastructure projects?  I vote projects.  They’re not as quick to enact, but they will deliver longer-lasting and more substantial economic growth.  Make a good portion of the projects related to renewable energy development and you’ll knock a whole bunch of birds down with one stone.  A more sane energy policy, mitigation of human forced climate change, improved domestic security, more jobs, a stronger economy.  Giving people checks that they spend once is the weaker solution.  Adding to the already enormous national debt with no medium- to long-term plan just doesn’t make sense.

Comcast is going to start making even more money to provide internet service … that might be only 3rd best in the world … in up to 10 U.S. markets.  Comcast is going to roll out service that will offer speeds up to 50 Megabits per second (Mbps).  At that speed, a movie could be downloaded in 5 minutes.  It takes 2 minutes to download the same movie in Japan right now.  Oh, the Japanese pay the same amount every month that we in the U.S. do for service that is 30 times as fast.  To get the better service, customers will be required to also subscribe to Comcast’s cable service.  What a joke.

India launched its first mission to Earth’s moon.  Chandrayaan-1 will map the moon in greater deatil than what was done by the Apollo missions in the 1960s, by the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft (launched last year), or by China’s Chang’e-1 spacecraft (also launched last year).  Chandrayaan-1 cost $80 million.  The U.S. is planning on sending the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the moon next year.  That spacecraft will cost $500 million, but will provide even greater mapping resolution than Chandrayaan-1.

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Random Pieces 7/28/08

George W. Bush continues to set record after record. Five of the worst deficits? They’re Bush’s and his extremist allies in Congress. This year’s deficit will amount to around $482 billion. Bushies are of course trying to spin the number, citing two worse deficits in our history, based on percentage of GDP. There’s a lot of that going around as the economy tanks and businesses post record-setting losses themselves. It’s only the third worst yearly deficit ever! Brought to you by folks who convinced voters they were fiscally responsible. One more reason not to vote for McCain and dozens of other candidates.

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One out of five bridges in the US is 50 years old or older, according to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Why is 50 years worth mentioning? Engineers design bridges to last 50 years. And the amount of traffic using those bridges far exceeds what was estimated 50+ years ago. Last year, a bridge collapse in Minnesota killed 13 and injured 144 people. And yet the same conservatives who have run up record deficits continue to argue that we shouldn’t invest in our national infrastructure. Indeed, immoral corporations like Halliburton and Exxon are gleefully accepting corporate welfare while our infrastructure edges closer to failure.

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So someone went to a church in Tennessee with a shotgun and killed two people while injuring seven others.  Who is this person?  Another psychotic white male.  He was pissed off at “liberals and gays” and frustrated he couldn’t find a job.  He believes that all liberals should be killed.  Where did he get such crazy thoughts?  Unsurprisingly, his reading included Bill O’Reilly, Mike Savage and Sean Hannity.  Their writings and general use of language, along with other extremist right-wingers, have been identified as infused with violence.

I recommend reading Jeffrey Feldman’s “Outright Barbarous” to get a clearer idea of this – he takes a short stroll through right-wing pundit-land and examines their rhetoric.  His conclusion: that the level of violence in their rhetoric prevents any real discussion of the issues we all face today.  I’m actually surprised even more outbursts like this haven’t been seen.

I’m curious if Jim David Adkisson will be charged as a terrorist.  Based on the fact that he’s not brown and doesn’t have a Muslim-sounding name, I doubt it.

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Random Hits 6/14/08

First, a story from Wednesday about drilling for fossil fuels in shale: Salazar blocking oil shale development. The second part of the headline is just as interesting: GOP Senators tell Fortune magazine. And although my previous post displayed my displeasure with Sen. Salazar’s overall job performance, I applaud him for standing up on this issue. This quote shows that, with regard to energy anyway, Sen. Salazar gets it:

“We need to face the reality that the American people have been living in a mythical world of energy. We cannot, in my mind, drill our way to energy independence.”

What does Sen. Salazar get for all of his work to establish a “bipartisan” working relationship when the hyperpartisan U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Supreme Court Justices were being confirmed?

Salazar, said Sens. Wayne Allard and Orrin Hatch, Republicans of Colorado and Utah, respectively, has turned the regulation process on its head and stymied development.

He gets unfairly attacked in the media, regardless of the medium. Which leads to another reason I will not support his reelection: Sen. Salazar and too many other Democrats haven’t figured out that modern-day Republicans don’t want to compromise with them. Republicans have been hard at work trying to permanently wreck the Democratic Party. You can only let someone attack your work so many times before you stop offering them the opportunity to do so.

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17 percent of Colorado’s bridges have significant deterioration or don’t meet current design standards. Ten percent were functionally obsolete in 2006. So said Gov. Ritter’s Blue-ribbon Transportation Panel. They have encouraged Colorado elected officials to locate funds to repair roads and bridges. The 2008 legislative session unfortunately did not secure a funding source. Republicans have continued to stymie viable solutions in the form of taxes in favor of selling our public infrastructure to private corporations. Will a bridge have to collapse in Colorado before the public requires officials to actually do something productive?

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The housing market isn’t getting any better: foreclosures jump 50%.

The number of U.S. homeowners swept up in the housing crisis rose further last month, with foreclosures up nearly 50% compared with a year earlier, a foreclosure listing company said Friday.

Nationwide, 261,255 homes received at least one foreclosure-related filing in May, up 48% from 176,137 in the same month last year and up 7% from April, RealtyTrac Inc. said.

One in every 483 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing in May, the highest number since RealtyTrac started the report in 2005 and the second-straight monthly record.

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Oil, gas drilling tax exemption closure opposed by Denver Chamber of Commerce. The closure exists as an initiative voters will be able to vote on this November. Something that’s not widely known: Colorado is the only state to grant such exemptions. The $200 million generated per year would go to college scholarships. If Sen. Allard wants to keep talking about things not moving being subsidized, let’s talk about the oil and gas corporations drilling in Colorado.

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In a related decision, the Chamber voted to oppose the anti-union measure (Amendment 47), also planned for this year’s ballot.

The chamber’s board of directors voted Thursday to fight the union-restricting measure, saying that existing Colorado labor law provides balance for businesses and unions. “Support of ‘right to work’ is not worth the risk to the health of our economy, our business climate and the competitiveness of Colorado,” Blake said.

Amendment 47 supporters quickly lashed out:

Kelley Harp, a spokesman for Amendment 47, blasted the chamber’s position. “It’s unfortunate that the Denver chamber bought into the unions’ threats and dissuasion campaigns and decided to put political expedience in front of principle,” Harp said.

I disagree that there is a balance right now between unions and businesses – unions are incredibly weak in Colorado. Harp’s comments demonstrate that spokesmen get paid to make ridiculous statements.