2009 - %3, September

Video: 20,000 Detergent Bottles Under the Sea

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 2:27 PM PDT

After a month spent studying the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a vortex of waste twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean where there's a 36-to-1 ratio of plastic to plankton, the scientists behind Project Kaisei offered tours of their vessel and talked with Mother Jones' Sam Baldwin, Andy Kroll, and Taylor Wiles about finding lawn chairs and laundry baskets floating a thousand miles at sea. Environmental experts also weighed in on how all that junk got out in the Pacific, its impact on marine life, and why "benign by design" is a phrase to know. Watch the video below.

MoJo extra: Check out a slideshow of plastic items that Project Kaisei brought back.

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Today in Climate Maneuvering

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:20 PM PDT

Over at MoJo, our politics blog, we've had several updates today on climate-related machinations occurring in Congress or at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. Check 'em out:

The Senate is about to vote on David Vitter's amendment blocking the use of federal money for policy directives from the White House climate czar.

Is the G20 punting on climate funding for poor countries?

Obama made a big pitch to the G20 on cutting government subsidies to fossil fuels. But how far does he really want to go?

Murkowski's attempted end-run around EPA regulation of greenhouse gases fails.

 

Don't Know This Woman? Then You Don't Know the Future of Solar Power.

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:06 PM PDT

Around Arizona, it's been said that US Representative Gabrielle Giffords loves solar power so much that she married an astronaut just to feel closer to the sun.

OK, that's probably an exaggeration (and a slight to her husband, Captain Mark Kelly). But it's easy to see where the joke came from. The first issue with it's own link on her official House website is solar power. Earlier this month, the Tucson native spoke at the Solar Economic Forum where she complained that many of her colleagues "don't see solar power as serious energy. This view is mistaken."

 

Senate to Vote On Vitter's Anti-Climate Czar Amendment

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 12:40 PM PDT

GOP Sen. David Vitter recently tweeted that the Senate will soon vote on his amendment blocking the use of federal funds for any policies initiated by the White House climate czar (a.k.a. White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy director Carol Browner): "Vote on my amendment to block Obama czars in an hour. If your against Obama's czars let your followers know."

Vitter's measure is one of about 50 being considered as the Senate prepares to pass the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. If Vitter's right, the Senate should be voting on his amendment any minute now. We'll let you know what happens.

Update: The amenedment failed.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 11:13 AM PDT

From Eric Kolchinsky, a former analyst at Moody's, a ratings agency, on why he's testifying before Congress today about abuses of the ratings process:

I was part of the process that did all this damage, and I feel I should try to do something now to make sure it doesn't happen again.

That's refreshing.  If you read the linked story, Kolchinsky basically says that it's business as usual at Moody's: they're giving high ratings to insanely complex debt instruments even when they know the underlying assets aren't really in very good shape.  It's yet another data point suggesting that Wall Street is already piling back into all the same practices that caused last year's meltdown.  And why not?  Unlike Kolchinsky, none of these guys really seem to believe they did anything wrong in the first place.  Hooray for bailouts!

G20: Punting On Climate Funding for Poor Countries?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 11:00 AM PDT

The number one priority at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh this week will be the economy, for obvious reasons. But the assembled leaders had earlier signaled that they'd tackle another thorny subject with massive financial ramifications: raising money to help poor countries deal with climate change. This important negotiation now seems to be slipping further and further down the G20 agenda. But if world leaders don't address it soon, we'll get stuck with a bill that makes the bank bailouts look like chump change.

Adaptation financing is emerging as a key leverage point in the run-up to Copenhagen. Poor countries will try to make additional funding a condition for signing on to any deal. Rich countries will try to use the lure of money to get developing nations to make concessions.

This is a dangerous game, because money for adaptation is vital in its own right. McKinsey recently released a major study of the economies of countries that are especially vulnerable to global warming—and which are already losing up to 12 percent of annual GDP to existing climate events. Some areas in these countries will one day become unliveable. But the study found that between 40 to almost 100 percent of their national economic losses that are projected to be caused by climate change by 2030 could be averted by adaptation measures—like putting homes in flood-prone areas on stilts or improving irrigation and soil technology in drought-stricken regions.

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Murkowski's EPA End Run Fails

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 11:00 AM PDT

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's attempt to block EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is DOA.

Although Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be introducing her amendment to the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill on the floor of the Senate later today, Joe Romm reports that her attempt to undermine the Clean Air Act will not come to a vote. As Kate Sheppard pointed out yesterday, the legally questionable provision would have been another setback during what the UN is optimistically referring to as "climate week."

The provision was condemned not only by more than 30 environmental groups but also raised the ire of centrist legislators such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Yesterday at the Council on Competitiveness, Warner criticized the amendment for "simply putting off an inevitable decision." He specifically rebuked the supposed economic concerns Murkowski cited in proposing the amendment and suggested that it "not only sacrifices American leadership but—equally important—it sacrifices our ability to get on board with...what I believe would be the greatest wealth-creation sector and job-creation sector in the next quarter century."

The possibility of EPA greenhouse gas regulation has survived another day, but getting a comprehensive climate bill through the Senate before Copenhagen still looks difficult, if not impossible.

Bernanke and Punchbowlism

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 10:46 AM PDT

Legendary Fed chair William McChesney Martin joked that the Fed's job was "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going."  Translated, he meant that whenever the economy started to really get going, the Fed was obligated to raise interest rates and slam on the brakes before inflation got out of hand.  This also killed growth and caused recessions, but he figured it was the only choice he had.

Brad DeLong is afraid that this sentiment will make a comeback:

Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation, but due to capture of legislatures by the banking sector they are unlikely to get it. Thus they are going to be driven to be always wondering whether they should be putting extra downward pressure on asset prices — with implications for employment and possibly growth.

The fact that "Punchbowlism" can be implemented by central banks by themselves makes it the default option.

"Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation"?  You could have fooled me.  It strikes me that the Fed has been captured by the banking sector every bit as thoroughly as Congress has.  The Fed, after all, still has considerable influence.  If Ben Bernanke pulled out his shiniest, sharpest pitchfork and took to the podium with a really full-throated, sky-is-falling warning that we needed serious new financial regulations and then demanded that CONGRESS. MUST. ACT. NOW — well, Congress would probably act.  Not completely.  It's still Congress, after all.  But if Bernanke really put his back into it, he'd make some pretty serious waves.

But I have not, to put things delicately, noticed him doing any such thing.  On the contrary, he seems far more interested in protecting the Fed's turf, offering up weak-tea compensation proposals, slow rolling increased consumer protections, and pretending that a brand new committee devoted to "systemic risk" will somehow do what the Fed has never done before.  These are not the actions of a revolutionary who wants to remake the regulatory system.

I'm a Bernanke skeptic, so I guess my crankiness here can be discounted.  But I simply haven't seen any sign that he's really dedicated to root-and-branch regulatory reform.  I also rather doubt that he's very dedicated to "punchbowlism," frankly.  In fact, as near as I can tell, he's basically dedicated to getting us out of our current crisis (which is good!) and then tweaking the system just enough so that things can go back to the way they've always been (not so good).  I hope he proves me wrong.

Fiore Cartoon: Worldwide Domination

Thu Sep. 24, 2009 10:41 AM PDT

What if the world dealt with the Nazis of yesterday the same way we deal with the scourge of climate change today?

Watch Mark Fiore's re-vision after the jump:

When American Narcs (and British Bloggers) Just Say Yes to Drugs

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 10:39 AM PDT

If you're associated with drug enforcement and moonlight as a drug dealer, this month has not been easy on your kind. Last week authorities in Maryland busted up a $1.5 million cocaine ring. Among the 12 arrested, a former DC cop.

Earlier this month, the DEA arrested Richard Padilla, a high-ranking US official in the war on drugs, for serving "as a secret ally" to the drug lords of Mexican cartels. This from the LA Times:

"The charges underscore the corruptive might of the cartels, which have bought off Mexican politicians, police chiefs and military commandos. Drug lords have corrupted U.S. border inspectors and agents to help smuggle cocaine north. In 2006, the FBI chief in El Paso was convicted of charges related to concealing his friendship with an alleged kingpin."

Ah, the corruptive influence of Mexican drug cartels. That's the same point we made in our July/August cover story. And it doesn't stop in Mexico—but really now, who's surprised?

And finally, in other drug news, two amazing tidbits:

  • It must be hard out there for a narc, because after executing a drug raid, some cops in Tampa got a Wii bit distracted by the suspect's video games.
  • And... We so badly want to claim British blogger Andrew Sullivan as a fellow American that we don't care what he's smoking; he didn't even have to pay his $125 fine after getting caught with pot on National Park Service property. It just goes to show we DO like immigrants, and let them be naughty—or shill for the party, in the case of former GOP operative Michael Kamburowski—as long as they speak English well enough to write for The Atlantic.

Correction: Oops! In the original post, I misidentified Sullivan as Canadian. What was I smoking? Fixed.