2009 - %3, September

Picture of the Day

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 1:46 AM EDT

This is a spectacular gold scabbard boss with inlaid garnets, circa 700 AD, part of a huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver discovered recently in Staffordshire:

The first scraps of gold were found in July in a farm field by Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detector who lives alone in a council flat on disability benefit, who had never before found anything more valuable than a nice rare piece of Roman horse harness. The last pieces were removed from the earth by a small army of archaeologists a fortnight ago.

....Leslie Webster, former keeper of the department of prehistory at the British Museum, who led the team of experts and has spent months poring over metalwork, described the hoard as "absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells".

....[Kevin] Leahy said he was not surprised at the find being in Staffordshire, the heartland of the "militarily aggressive and expansionist" 7th century kings of Mercia including Penda, Wulfhere and Æthelred. "This material could have been collected by any of these during their wars with Northumbria and East Anglia, or by someone whose name is lost to history. Here we are seeing history confirmed before our eyes."

More at the link.  Enjoy.

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Climate Change: Even Worse Than You Think

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 12:11 AM EDT

Juliet Eilperin reports in the Washington Post:

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world's leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of climate change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

That's odd.  This is 3.5 degrees Celsius.  A couple of hours ago that same story said 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius.  But if you click on the link and read the UN report, neither of those numbers appears.  At least, not that I can find.  What's going on?

Robert Corell, who chairs the Climate Action Initiative....collaborated with climate researchers at the Vermont-based Sustainability Institute, Massachusetts-based Ventana Systems and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do the analysis. The team has revised its estimates since the U.N. report went to press and has posted the most recent figures at ClimateInteractive.org.

The group took the upper-range targets of nearly 200 nations' climate policies — including U.S. cuts that would reduce domestic emissions 73 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, along with the European Union's pledge to reduce its emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 — and found that even under that optimistic scenario, the average global temperature is likely to warm by 6.3 degrees.

Ah.  The number comes not from the UN report, but from Robert Corell.  And it's been updated, which presumably accounts for the Post story being updated.

Except that if you go to ClimateInteractive.org, their graph still says 4 degrees Celsius.  And it seems to be based on a model called C-ROADS, not the UN report.

So color me confused.  Except for one thing: both the UN report and Corell's analysis agree that climate change is much worse than we thought even a few years ago.  Virtually every measure of warming is increasing faster than our models predicted — something that regular readers of this blog already know.  From the first chapter of the UN study:

The climate forcing arriving sooner-than-expected includes faster sea-level rise, ocean acidification, melting of Arctic sea-ice cover, warming of polar land masses, freshening in ocean currents, and shifts in circulation patterns in the atmosphere and the oceans.

....In early 2008, a team of scientists published the first detailed investigation of vulnerable Earth System components that could contain tipping points. The team introduced the term ‘tipping element’ for these vulnerable systems and accepted a definition for tipping point as “...a critical threshold at which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system...”

The nine tipping points are below.  Three of them could happen within ten years, and two more are possible within 50.  Time to quit mucking around, folks.

UPDATE: The ClimateInteractive folks now seem to have updated their graphs to show warming of 6.3°F/3.5°C.  Graphs are here.

Lowered Expectations for Climate Talks at G20

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 8:20 PM EDT

Hope for a major breakthrough on climate at the G20 has faded in the environmental and international NGO community, and many are dubious about what might come out of the summit Friday.

"Expectations have really fallen in the past few weeks," says Kirstine Hughes, head of the public policy and advocacy for Oxfam Great Britain. After less-than-breakthrough meetings of the G8, G20, Major Economies Forum, and the United Nations this past year, she speculates that people are now "summited out." "It's almost as if there are too many meetings, too many overlapping agendas." And there are still more questions than answers on Obama's anticipated pitch to end fossil fuel subsidies, the other major climate-related topic this week.

There may yet be signs of progress—if leaders emerge with specifics. With several major summits to go before the big climate talks this December, including two meetings of the Major Economies Forum and a meeting of finance ministers in November, solid commitments from leaders now could still lead to a deal in Copenhagen.

On financing (which Rachel Morris covered in an excellent post this morning), Hughes argues that leaders will need to come up with some dollar figures this week, even if it's only for the near-term. And any financing plan has to acknowledge the historical responsibility of developed nations for emissions, as well as their responsibility to help poorer nations transition. "If you're serious, you actually recognize that a deal needs money," says Hughes. "It's not the end of negotiations tomorrow, but if you want to get the negotiations going, you have to put some credible financial offer of some sort on the table."

Boxer-Kerry Climate Bill Expected Next Wednesday

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 7:10 PM EDT

After weeks of waiting, it now looks like the Senate will see a climate bill next week after all. At an event in Pittsburgh ahead of the G20 summit, bill cosponsor John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced that the bill will be released next Wednesday.

Kerry said the bill, which he is cosponsoring with Energy and Public Works chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), will have a strong and broad coalition backing it at release. He also said it will be a "thoughtful, innovative, far-reaching solution" and "will take a more comprehensive approach to dwindling oil reserves than any prior legislation."

It's expected that the bill Kerry and Boxer release will still include some placeholders as senators continue to work out the details on issues like permit allocation. Boxer has promised to hold hearings on her draft, which sources close to the debate say will start the week of Oct. 5. Markup is expected to begin in mid-October.

One notable development, reported by Greenwire, is that Boxer's draft will likely include an emissions reduction target of 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The House bill had a 17 percent target, and Boxer's environmental allies have been pushing her to improve it. One argument she is expected to make supporting the increase is a recent study from the Energy Information Administration that found that the US is on track to come in at 8.5 percent below 2005 levels of carbon dioxide by the end of this year. Most of the decrease is due to the recession and some utilities switching to natural gas, but it is exactly halfway to the emissions cuts outlined for 2020 in the House bill–meaning a larger cut won't be quite as challenging as once thought.

Plain Vanilla

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 6:47 PM EDT

I've been mulling this over ever since I first read it.  It's from a story about Barney Frank's decision to jettison one part of Obama's plan for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

An Obama proposal that Mr. Frank rejected would have required banks and other financial services companies to offer so-called plain vanilla products, like 30-year fixed mortgages and low-interest, low-fee credit cards.

That proposal set off criticism by Democrats and Republicans, some with close ties to the banking industry, that it was the first step toward having government bureaucrats approve and disapprove an array of products.

The more I mull, the more pissed off I get.  Yes, this would be a very direct government intrusion into the financial market, but that's the whole point.  That's exactly why it might actually work and exactly why politicians "with close ties to the banking industry" don't like it.

Look: the finance lobby would prefer that this bill — and especially the CFPA — simply go away.  Failing that, they'd like the CFPA's writ to be so circumscribed and its rules so intricately written that they can figure out easy ways to ignore it.  As we know all too well, they're pretty good at that.  The only way to keep this from happening is to write some very plain, very clear regulations that simply can't be evaded.

And why shouldn't we?  Forty years ago Congress passed the Truth in Lending Act which, among many other things, limited consumer liability for stolen credit cards to $50.  That was a pretty direct intrusion into the financial market, but it worked: it was a plain and simple requirement with no wiggle room and no loopholes.  If you offer credit cards to consumers, you're responsible for all losses above $50.  And guess what?  The credit card industry seems to have done pretty well for itself despite having the TILA jackboot on its throat all this time.  And consumers have been saved billions of dollars.

(Plus there's this bonus: because banks are responsible for losses over $50, they've put a ton of time and energy into figuring out how to limit losses.  They make sure their customers have fast and easy access to 800 numbers to report stolen cards.  They have sophisticated transaction monitoring software and they call you proactively if they see spending patterns that suggest fraud.  They have reward programs for merchants who confiscate cards.  Etc.  Do you think they would have done any of this if you were on the hook for bogus charges?  Nope.  Instead, they would have spent the past four decades claiming that stuff like this simply wasn't economically feasible and consumers needed to be more careful with their credit cards.)

The "plain vanilla" requirement would accomplish something the financial industry hates: it would make it easy for consumers to compare products.  Even if you're planning to buy something non-vanilla, the price of the vanilla product provides a baseline that makes it easier to compare companies to each other and easier to see exactly how much you're paying (and what extra terms you're agreeing to) for the more complex products.  That's good for consumers.

And it's something we wouldn't have been afraid to insist on 40 years ago.  So why are we now?  Felix Salmon answers: "There’s no good reason for this capitulation, except for the financial lobby has so effectively captured Congress that no reform would be able to get through with such a common-sense provision in place....I fear that by the time Congress is done, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency won’t be able to protect consumers at all — and that’s assuming it’ll even exist."

UPDATE: A eulogy here from Rortybomb.  Worth a quick read.

tck tck tck Barack Obama

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 6:15 PM EDT

tck tck tck. Barack Obama are you listening? Are you a leader or a motivational speaker? Are you gonna do the hard work or Neville Chamberlain your way into the world records of spectacularly unwise mediations? tck tck tck.

 

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Palin Talks Tough to China

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 5:39 PM EDT

In Sarah Palin's speech at a conference of investors in Hong Kong, she made a number of unorthodox moves. One was to deliver sweeping criticism of President Obama in a country with which the US has a rather sensitive relationship. Another was to attack a policy embraced by her running mate in last year's election, John McCain. In the speech, Palin lambasted the Obama administration's decision to end production of the F-22 fighter jet. McCain (along with Carl Levin) championed this decision in the Senate, playing a leading role in bringing down the plane. But still that wasn't the only graceless note Palin struck. At a speech in Hong Kong, Palin says she opposed ending the F-22 program...because of the military threat posed by China:

Despite the need to move men and material by air into theaters like Afghanistan, the Obama Administration sought to end production of our C-17s, the work horse of our ability to project long range power. Despite the Air Force saying it would increase future risk, the Obama Administration successfully sought to end F-22 production—at a time when both Russia and China are acquiring large numbers of next generation fighter aircraft. [emphasis mine.]

Video: 20,000 Detergent Bottles Under the Sea

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

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.

Today in Climate Maneuvering

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 4:20 PM EDT

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 4:06 PM EDT

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."