2009 - %3, September

Should America Talk to Iran? Hamas? Hezbollah?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 7:01 PM EDT

At the UN's big shindig in New York this week, President Obama finds himself dealing with two Mahmouds—Abbas and Ahmadinejad—in radically different ways. Yesterday, the prez met privately with Palestinian leader Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge them back toward the negotiating table. But Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, and upon whose cooperation any Palestinian peace agreement will likely hinge, is persona non grata here. Obama's handlers are likewise doing their best to avoid any chance encounter in the UN halls between Obama and Ahmadinejad, although low-level diplomatic talks are expected on the nuclear issue.

Engaging with groups like Hamas, and with the likes of Ahmadinejad, isn't easy. Least of all after the guy warms up to a visit on your home turf by spewing provocations and denying the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as Iran's president has done these past days. And least of all following the regime's brutal crackdown on Iran's post-election protests. But with a nuclear Iran and peace in the territories hanging in the balance, many observers (including the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski) believe that maintaining some level of engagement with our foes is the wiser path.

But former British spy Alastair Crooke, profiled by David Samuels in the latest issue of Mother Jones (see "The Spy Who Loved Hamas") would like to see the West go much further. Crooke runs Conflicts Forum, a Beirut-based organization that nurtures a back channel for communication between Western officials and militant Muslim factions such as Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which operate under the umbrella of Iran.

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Scientists Say: Color Inside the Lines

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 6:31 PM EDT

Twenty-eight internationally renowned scientists propose setting global biophysical boundaries based on our scientific understanding of Earth's systems—defining a "safe planetary operating space" where we can thrive for generations to come.

Why? Because new approaches are needed to help us deal with climate change and other global environmental threats of the 21st century lest we fail more dismally than we already are.

The paper in Nature makes a first attempt to identify and quantify a set of nine planetary boundaries—including climate change, freshwater use, biological diversity, and aerosol loading.

Hat tip to Nature for making this article open access. Not to mention for consistently framing the big debates of our time and connecting the people to the science.

An important thread of this latest research is based in the global project known as IHOPE: the Integrated History and future Of People on Earth—a project designed to understand the interactions of environmental and human process over 10 to 100 millennia. That's because the rapid expansion of human activities since the industrial revolution has generated a global geophysical force equivalent to some of the great forces of nature.

"We are entering the Anthropocene, a new geological era in which our activities are threatening the earth's capacity to regulate itself," says coauthor Will Steffen of the Australian National University.

Fitting statement on a day when Sydney is smothering in a dust storm of Mad Maxian dimensions... I'd argue with the *entering* part of that statement—seeing this has been underway since the onset of agriculture.

Planetary boundaries is a way of thinking that will not replace politics, economics, or ethics, explains environmental historian Sverker Sörlin of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. "But it will help tell all of us where the dangerous limits are and therefore when it is ethically unfair to allow more emissions of dangerous substances, further reduction of biodiversity, or to continue the erosion of the resource base. It provides the ultimate guardrails that can help societies to take action politically, economically. Planetary boundaries should be seen both as signals of the need for caution and as an encouragement to innovation and new thinking of how to operate safely within these boundaries while at same time securing human well being for all."

Lead author Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, said: "The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical 'hard-wired' thresholds in Earth's environment, and respect the nature of the planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes. Transgressing planetary boundaries may be devastating for humanity, but if we respect them we have a bright future for centuries ahead."

In Swedish this means: Just color inside the lines, dammit.

The nine boundaries: climate change; ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone depletion; nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; global freshwater use; land system change; biodiversity loss; atmospheric aerosal loading; chemical pollution.

But what didn't even get an honorable mention? Human population growth. The toughest coloring book of all.
 

Roving Wiretaps

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 6:29 PM EDT

Via Atrios, here's Al Franken giving one of Obama's assistant attorney generals a hard time over the question of whether to extend a provision of the PATRIOT Act that's due to expire at the end of the year:

Franken, who opened by acknowledging that unlike most of his colleagues in the Senate, he’s not a lawyer, but according to his research “most Americans aren’t lawyers” either, said he’d also done research on the Patriot Act and in particular, the “roving wiretap” provision that allows the FBI to get a warrant to wiretap an unnamed target and his or her various and changing cell phones, computers and other communication devices.

Noting that he received a copy of the Constitution when he was sworn in as a senator, he proceeded to read it to [David] Kris, emphasizing this part:  “no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“That’s pretty explicit language,” noted Franken, asking Kris how the “roving wiretap” provision of the Patriot Act can meet that requirement if it doesn’t require the government to name its target.

Great stuff.  So liberals, who normally believe in a living constitution that changes with changing times etc. etc., are now hauling out black letter critiques of longstanding federal law.  (Roving wiretaps have been legal for several decades.  The PATRIOT Act merely extended them to national security cases.)  At the same time, you can revel in, for example, Peter Thomson of the Federalist Society, blandly affirming that a Ninth Circuit Court (!) opinion was "based on solid legal ground" when it reasoned

that the particularity requirement of the “place” to be searched may be substituted with that of the “person” in a roving wiretap setting. Thus, a roving order authorizing a wiretap over all telephones used by a subject does particularly describe the “places” or telephones to be searched, albeit in an unconventional manner.

Italics mine.  Not the sort of reasoning the Federalist Society usually approves of, but any port in a storm, I suppose.

Personally, I'm inclined to stick to basic principles on this.  I really do believe in a constitution that adapts in obvious ways to changing times and technologies, and the framers pretty clearly didn't anticipate wiretaps of any sort, let alone wiretaps on mobile phones or worldwide packet networks.  "Place" has one meaning when the state of the art in communication technology is paper and quill pen, which can exist only in specific, well-defined locations, but quite a different meaning when you're tracking electronic signals through a globally distributed network and the access point to that network is entirely arbitrary and can exist literally anywhere on the planet.  Adapting to that reality doesn't strike me as constitutional overreach.  (Conversely, warrantless wiretaps are fundamentally corrosive regardless of type, but that's not an issue in this case.  Roving or not, these taps all require a judge's permission.)

There are some obvious safeguards that ought to be in place with roving taps, and I don't have any problem with tightening up the language if that needs to be done.  But given the reality of how technology has evolved, my instinct is that roving taps are a reasonable and constitutional response.  If I'm wrong, feel free to school me in comments.

UPDATE: It looks like I screwed up here.  Franken's issue is apparently not with roving wiretaps per se, but with "John Doe" wiretaps aimed at individuals who are described but not specifically named.  Sorry about that.

DEP Issues Citation to Pennsylvania Driller as a Third Spill Occurs

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 5:25 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Pennsylvania environment officials have charged Cabot Oil and Gas with five violations after nearly 8,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing solution spilled from a pipe system in two separate incidents near the town of Dimock last week. The department reported that a third, smaller spill, occurred at the site Tuesday morning.

According to the state, Cabot failed to prevent a fracturing fluid discharge, failed to keep that discharge from escaping into the environment and from entering a creek, and inappropriately dammed that creek after the spill, among other violations. The company could face fines topping $130,000.

Chart of the Day

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 5:02 PM EDT

From the CDC, here are the latest estimates about the accessibility of healthcare in America.  The share of the population that was forced to go without needed medical care during the past year because of cost has gone up from 4.5% in 1997 to 7.3% so far this year.  USA! USA!

Paul Kirk to Fill Ted Kennedy's Vacant Seat

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 4:05 PM EDT

FOX News correspondent Major Garrett reported on Twitter today that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick will appoint Paul Kirk as a temporary replacement for the late Edward Kennedy's vacant Senate seat. Kennedy's wife Vicky and two sons Patrick and Edward Jr. have endorsed Kirk for the position.

Kirk served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the late 1980s and worked closely with Ted Kennedy as a special assistant from 1969-1977. Since, Kirk is best known for his role as the co-Chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the body that organizes debates for leading Presidential candidates. Under Kirk's leadership, critics have said that the CPD waters down policy discussion (or avoids it altogether), pretends to be non-partisan despite heavy party control, and is fueled by corporate lobbyists. In 1988, the League of Women Voters withdrew sponsorship of the CPD debates after George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis agreed to cut fringe candidates out of the debates, saying the pact "would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."

Earlier this week, the Massachusetts State Legislature voted that Gov. Patrick could appoint Kennedy's replacement, despite voting in 2004 that former governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, could not appoint Sen. John Kerry's replacement if he were elected President.

The announcement is expected tomorrow.

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Obama Comes Through On Nukes

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

President Obama's climate speech to the United Nations may have been a big letdown, but he has come through in one key area: nuclear disarmament. In his address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama promised to introduce a draft UN resolution later this week that would herald a significant shift in American nuclear policy compared with the Bush administration, which let the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty wither unratified in the Senate and stymied other important arms control initiatives. Obama's resolution indicates that the US will renew efforts to ratify the treaty, and, among other things, proposes that a country's right to use nuclear energy should be contingent on meeting its nonproliferation obligations. (That would currently bar Iran, for instance, from enriching uranium.) Later in the week, the president will head a UN Security Council meeting on nuclear nonproliferation—the first time an American president has done so.

Obama also announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the Test Ban conference this week—a glaring contrast with the Bush administration, which didn't even send a delegation to the last four meetings. Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton huffed to the National Review that this meeting would be an "incredible waste of time for [Clinton]." (He also thought Obama's speech to the UN was too "UN-centric.")

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons has long been a pet cause for Obama—he spoke about them on the stump while running for the Senate way back in 2004. Later, he forged a close relationship with Sen. Richard Lugar on the issue, accompanying him on a trip to Russia to inspect weapons facilities and co-sponsoring legislation to secure loose nukes. "If we fail to act," Obama told the UN on Wednesday, "we will invite nuclear arms races in every region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine."



 

  

Newsweek's Green Biz Rankings: Gutsy or Greenwash?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

Newsweek has just released its first-ever environmental ranking of America's 500 biggest companies. And the winner is...Hewlett-Packard. The mag gives HP props for e-waste recycling, renewable energy use, and its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. OK, but what about those annoyingly wasteful printer cartridges? More on that in a sec. But first, a few selected rankings: Dell is #2, Johnson & Johnson #3, Starbucks #10, McDonald's #22, Wal-Mart #59, Whole Foods #67, Halliburton #169, and Monsanto #485. Energy and oil companies bring up the rear, with ExxonMobil down at #395 and Peabody Energy coming in dead last.

As interesting as it is to pore over the rankings, do they mean anything, or are they—like US News and World Report's college list—just another exercise in self-reported accomplishments, stat rigging, and brand polishing? Green business guru Joel Makower says there are undoubtedly rough spots in Newsweek's methodology, but overall he's impressed: "I'd rather step back and admire this first effort, however imperfect, and salute the team for doing what hadn't previously been done, or done well: brought together a wealth of data on a broad spectrum of the world's biggest companies to provide a snapshot of the green business world." TreeHugger's David DeFanza is more skeptical, noting that the rankings seem to emphasize a company's green "intentions" over its real-world impacts, creating "an unsettling discrepancy between environmental-friendliness and 'greenness.'" 

Dan Brown Sells 100,000 e-Copies of The Lost Symbol

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:42 PM EDT

Although it's barely into its second week of sales, more than two million copies of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's long awaited thriller The Lost Symbol have flown off the shelves. Not surprising, considering the Da Vinci Code sold an absurd 81 million copies (compared with 17 million for the entire Twilight series).

What is surprising is just how many of those copies were electronic: Roughly 100,000 e-copies of The Lost Symbol sold last week, which is about five percent of the book's total global sales, and close to nine percent of its US sales. Amazon won't release its total e-book sales figures, but Brown's book is locked in at No. 1 on the Bestseller list. 

One thing is for sure: If you analyze Amazon's best selling e-books side by side with the New York Times best sellers list, the dead tree readers seem a bit smarter and a lot more liberal than the e-readers.

Observe: No's 4 and 5 on the Amazon e-list are Glenn Beck's Arguing with Idiots and Common Sense, respectively, followed by Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption, an out-and-out attack of the Obama administration. Of course, Kindle doesn't have a monopoly on the conservative treatise market—Bill O'Reilly's latest offering clings to the NYT list at No. 8, but it's sandwiched between Tracy Kidder's new book about a medical student caught in Burundi's civil war and Nick Kristof's latest about the trafficking of women in Asia and Africa, both decidedly more highbrow than anything in the Kindle's top ten. 

Once again, the internet's wealth of data has compelled us to compartmentalize our interests and narrow our worldview. We no longer browse. It's an unfortunate trait to bring to the world of books, and if the Kindle bestsellers are any indication, one that won't disappear soon.

Saving the Planet

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

Via Brad Plumer, Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times gets an early look at the upcoming World Energy Outlook report:

In the first big study of the impact of the recession on climate change, the IEA found that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels had undergone "a significant decline" this year — further than in any year in the last 40.

....Falling industrial output is largely responsible for the plunge in CO2 , but [...] for the first time, government policies to cut emissions have also had a significant impact. The IEA estimates that about a quarter of the reduction is the result of regulation, an "unprecedented" proportion. Three initiatives had a particular effect: Europe's target to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020; US car emission standards; and China's energy efficiency policies.

Europe's cap-and-trade system didn't start out very strongly, but the fact is that nobody really expected it to.  Phase 2, however, is working better, and Phase 3 will be better still.  If we learn from their experience, we can avoid the early stumbles and put in place a decent (and steadily improving) program right out of the gate.  Ten years ago would have been a good time to start, but failing that, this year will have to do.