2009 - %3, September

The Politics of Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 11:03 AM PDT

Did you see prediction guru Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Jon Stewart last night?  He's the guy who claims that the CIA says his judgments are accurate 90% of the time.  Fellow forecasting guru Philip Tetlock describes his methodology:

Bueno de Mesquita declares that, once we have mapped the option space, we simply need to follow his four-step formula for making accurate predictions. First, get the best-possible experts to identify every individual or group with a “meaningful” interest in trying to influence the decision. Second, get the experts to estimate as accurately as possible which options each of the identified players is advocating in private — that is, what they want. Third, get experts to estimate how big an issue this is for each of the players — how motivated they are to prevail. Fourth, get experts to estimate the relative political clout or influence of each player in this issue domain.

OK then.  So what does Bueno de Mesquita think about the odds of getting any kind of serious global action on climate change?  Our own Michael Mechanic asked him:

MJ: What's the outlook for Copenhagen?

BBdM: Our analysis shows that the Copenhagen setting will be used to put together what I would describe as a feel-good agreement without teeth....The analysis shows that over the first few years there will be improvement, and then commitment will erode steadily and move away from enforcing the agreement. At the same time, technology changes will be pushing in a positive direction. The other thing this shows is that if the US were committed to a fundamental change in greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn't need Copenhagen; it doesn't need an international agreement. This could be done unilaterally. If Congress decided that it's gonna put a fixed tax on gasoline to ensure that gas doesn't fall below some optimal price, say $5 a gallon, people would change their behavior. There's nothing stopping the US from doing that.

MJ: So somebody has to commit political suicide to make this happen?

BBdM: That's probably correct. Every sensible politician will be in favor of something happening off of their watch: Yes, we will commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions starting year X — X being the year they're no longer in office.

MJ: Was anything surprising about these results?

BBdM: What surprised me is that support built a head of steam, but it collapses quite dramatically within 5 to 10 years. I was surprised at how quickly and sharply it erodes.

Well, that sucks.  The only glimmer of good news here is that Bueno de Mesquita didn't do this analysis himself.  A bunch of his undergrad students did it.  They were "a particularly smart group of kids," he says, but still.  Undergrads have been known to be wrong before, haven't they?

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Eating Your Own Dog Food

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 10:32 AM PDT

Wall Street has a demonstrated aptitude for bundling up and securitizing pretty much anything: mortgages, credit card debt, parking meter collections, naked swaps, bundles of bundles, etc. etc.  So why not put this ability to good use as a way of motivating ratings agencies to care about the accuracy of their ratings?  A reader emails with this elegant suggestion:

Require them to sell collateralized rating obligations. The idea is that they will bundle tranches of ratings together into a form of a put. If the tranche of, say, AAA ratings fail at a rate greater than whatever the published risk of default of the class is, they will be forced to pay a contracted amount to the purchasers.

I like it!  There's no income stream associated with ratings, which is a problem, but surely one that Wall Street can solve.  Instead of paying a fee for getting their securities rated, maybe issuers should instead be required to set aside 0.1% of the income stream from each of their products to be bundled into a Ratings Backed Security.  Agencies would be allowed to sell half the RBS immediately, but would have to hold on to the other half for a set period of time related to the maturity period of the underlying securities.

Or something.  Details are left as an exercise for the reader.  But I like the out-of-the-box thinking here!

Chart of the Day

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 9:25 AM PDT

Republicans took their best shot at sinking healthcare reform over August, but it turns out that public support for their position was sort of a like a convention bounce: sharp but short-lived.  At least, that's the takeaway from the latest Kaiser poll, which shows that support for healthcare reform has already recovered from the beating it took during the summer townhalls.  This is pretty much what I expected all along, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see public support creep back into the low 60s if Obama and the Democrats continue to lower the temperature and work steadily to produce a solid, defensible bill with demonstrable benefits for the average consumer.  With this level of support, healthcare reform is decidedly doable.

Warning: Don't Tease the Prosecutors

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 8:41 AM PDT

I've managed to avoid blogging about Roman Polanski before now, but I have to admit to sharing some curiosity about the timing of this whole affair.  After all, Polanski has been flitting around Europe for decades and owns a home in Switzerland.  So why did prosecutors in Los Angeles suddenly feel the need to go after him now?  The LA Times thinks it has the answer:

Sources have told The Times that Polanski's attorneys helped to provoke his arrest by complaining to an appellate court this summer that Los Angeles County prosecutors had made no real effort to capture the filmmaker in his three decades as a fugitive.

The accusation that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was not serious about extraditing Polanski was a minor point in two lengthy July court filings by the director's attorneys.  But the charge caught the attention of prosecutors, who had made several attempts to apprehend Polanski over the years.

Lesson of the day: keep an eye on your lawyers.  Sure, they're clever, but sometimes they can be a little too clever.

A Way Out for Obama on Iran?

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 8:08 AM PDT

Obama seems to be walking into an either/or trap with Iran: convince China and Russia to back tougher sanctions on Iran that are not likely to persuade the thuggish regime of Tehran to give up its nuclear program or engage in military action that would not put a permament end to Iran's nuclear ambitions but could destabilize the region (especially Iraq). What to do?

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both former National Security Council staff members, propose a third way in a New York Times op-ed. They write:

Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.

On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.

Not demonizing Iran? That may be tough, given how easy it is to demonize a government led by repressive brutes who suppress dissent and deny the Holocaust. But the Leveretts effectively sum up the lack of good choices. Essentially, their point is that sometimes you have to work with someone who doesn't deserve the time of day. If sanctions may not succeed (other than to cause hardship on an Iranian public that the Iranian regime obviously doesn't care that much about), and if war is too uncontrollable and messy (and it is), then the United States might have no other alternative but real and comprehensive engagement.

The Leveretts write:

Some may say that this is too high a price to pay for improved relations with Iran. But the price is high only for those who attach value to failed policies that have damaged American interests in the Middle East and made our allies there less secure.

But even if such a course makes sense policy-wise, selling it to the public—while the Iranian government is in the hands of mullahs and tyrants—will be a tough task. The Leveretts don't suggest how Obama do so. That's above the pay grade.

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Australia's Climate Chaos

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 4:04 AM PDT

Exactly a week ago the people of Sydney, Australia, awoke to find that their normally deep blue sky had gone bright orange. One resident told a radio reporter for the Australian Broadcasting System that when she first looked out her kitchen skylight that morning, it was as if Armageddon had arrived.

What had arrived was the most massive dust storm in nearly a century. A dust cloud nearly a thousand miles long and two-hundred and fifty miles wide engulfed the city in millions of tons of fine red dust from the drought-stricken interior.

 

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 29, 2009

Tue Sep. 29, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Chief Warrant Officer 4, Terry Polwort, from Enid, Okla., an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter instructor pilot in Company A, 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division - Baghdad, reads through his checklist during a preflight inspection of an Apache at Camp Taji, Iraq, Sept. 24. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, September 29

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

What's up in environmental news here at Mother Jones and elsewhere:

Corn con: Think corn-state representatives won big last week when the EPA said pending biofuels rules will reflect "uncertainty" around indirect emissions from land-use change related to biofuel production? Not quite.

Digging for health care dirt: Two investigative pieces make the case for health care reform.

Green labels are Greek to consumers: With more than 400 labels on the market, shoppers don't quite know what to make of all their eco options. [Treehugger]

Greener continents: Elisabeth Rosenthal on why Europe is better at conserving than America [Yale Environment 360]

Another one bites the dust: The largest electric utility company in the US vows that it will not renew its membership in the Chamber of Commerce because of its opposition to global warming action.

 

Need To Read: September 29, 2009

Tue Sep. 29, 2009 3:59 AM PDT

Today's must reads would remind you that Roman Polanski raped a child:

Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does awesome new MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

*Corrected. Sorry.

Cute Animal in Danger: Pygmy Tarsiers

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 3:56 AM PDT

The pygmy tarsier, one of the world's most endangered primates, was thought extinct until 2000, when one of them accidentally ended up dead in a rat trap. The pygmy tarsier lives 7,000 feet above sea level in the Indonesian jungle, and weighs only 50 grams: about the same as three tablespoons of sugar. These pint-sized mammals have such huge eyes that they can't turn them very well: instead, they can turn their heads 180 degrees. Some have called the big-eyed animals "real-life gremlins," thought pygmy tarsiers definitely eat after midnight (they're nocturnal, and like insects and fruit) and have specially dense fur to keep them dry and warm in their moist, cool climate.

In 2008, a two-month expedition by Texas A&M researchers used 276 nets in an attempt to capture a pygmy tarsier. Eventually, they netted three (one got away) and fitted them with tracking devices. It didn't go smoothly. "I have the dubious honor of being the only person in the world to have bitten [by a pygmy tarsier]," the expedition's lead researcher, Sharon Gursky-Doyen, told LiveScience. "I was attaching a radio collar around its neck and while I was attaching the radio collar he bit me [on the finger]." That particular tarsier, the researcher reported, was later eaten by a hawk.

Gursky-Doyen has said that she hopes the team's research will help nudge the Indonesian government to protect the species. “They [tarsiers] always look like they have a perpetual smile on their face, which adds to the attraction."