2009 - %3, November

Don't Let it All Unravel

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 7:05 PM EST

I'm one of the many who can truly say that knitting keeps me sane. So this animation about the state of our world appeals on two fronts, with double the terrifying power. Don't Let It All Unravel appears, among other places, on Facebook's The Ice Bear Project.

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Coming Soon: Obama's Copenhagen Plans

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 3:40 PM EST

The White House will announce soon whether President Barack Obama will make an appearance at the Copenhagen climate summit in December.

The administration also expects to be able to announce a target for US emissions reductions before the meeting. The figure will likely fall somewhere between the targets set by the House climate bill (which mandates a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020) and the Senate measure (which calls for a 20 percent reduction over the same time period.)

Whether Obama shows up at the summit or not, the administration is working hard to convince observers that his administration has already made significant progress on the climate front, despite Congress' failure to enact legislation before the international talks begin. "We have done more than anyone could have ever expected us to do in a relatively short time frame," a senior administration official told reporters on Monday. "[Obama's] turning around an ocean liner and he has done an extraordinary amount to turn that ocean liner around."

 

On to Copenhagen

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 2:59 PM EST

The latest news from the White House:

The US will announce a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before next month's UN climate summit, according to a White House official.

The target is expected to be in line with figures contained in legislation before the Senate — a reduction of about 17-20% from 2005 levels by 2020.

This is no big surprise: 17% is the figure in Waxman-Markey and it's close to the figure in the various Senate bills.  Overall, it's a pretty modest target, but Obama could hardly pledge anything more under the circumstances.  At least it's something.

(I think this is going to be my motto for the next four years: "At least it's something."  Kinda sad, isn't it?  But at the moment we're still pretty plainly not willing to face up to reality on a whole bunch of different fronts.  So we do what we can.)

Uranium Contaminates Nevada Wells

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 1:13 PM EST

New testing has revealed that drinking water wells in the town of Yerington, Nevada are contaminated with uranium released by a nearby copper mine. Early this year, I covered the mine, originally opened in 1941 by the Anaconda Copper Company, as an example of how outdated federal mining laws have left behind a toxic legacy. There are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the US and cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion. In Yerington, fears of groundwater contamination long ago convinced 150 families to stop drinking from their taps. The company that most recently ran the mine, Arimetco, went bankrupt in 1997, leaving taxpayers to foot part of an environmental bill that could reach $50 million. (Meanwhile, Arimetco's former CEO now runs International Silver, Inc., which is seeking to mine 1,300 acres of federal land in California's Mojave Desert.)

A mining reform bill that is currently stalled in the US Senate would impose stricter national bonding requirements on mining companies. Yet as it stands, says Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, mining poses a risk not just to rural outposts like Yerington, but also to the burgeoning metropolis of Las Vegas. Its water supply could be at risk of contamination from mining on any of the more than 1,200 uranium claims staked along the Colorado River (the Obama administration recently halted new claims in the area). Federal mining rules need to change, she says, not to punish miners, but to protect people who live near mines. "To begin to look at the law and ask, 'How does it function in a Western setting with far more cities, with much greater stress on water supplies?' I think, is highly appropriate."

Quote of the Day

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 1:03 PM EST

From Ezra Klein, on the likely course of healthcare reform:

I once heard an activist say that leadership is the process of managing your constituency's disappointment. If that's accurate, then the next few months are going to offer ample opportunities for leadership.

Yep.  The opt-out public option is almost certainly toast, and we'll end up instead with something closer to Olympia Snowe's trigger idea — assuming we even end up with that much.  And there's no telling what other amendments are going to get tacked on and then make it through the final conference report.  Whatever happens, though, it's not going to be pretty.  Watching sausage getting manufactured never is.

Mass Production Heart Surgery

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 12:40 PM EST

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece about Devi Shetty, an Indian heart surgeon who is revolutionizing the practice of heart surgery:

Dr. Shetty, who entered the limelight in the early 1990s as Mother Teresa's cardiac surgeon, offers cutting-edge medical care in India at a fraction of what it costs elsewhere in the world. His flagship heart hospital charges $2,000, on average, for open-heart surgery, compared with hospitals in the U.S. that are paid between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the complexity of the surgery.

....Then there are the Cayman Islands, where he plans to build and run a 2,000-bed general hospital an hour's plane ride from Miami. Procedures, both elective and necessary, will be priced at least 50% lower than what they cost in the U.S., says Dr. Shetty, who hopes to draw Americans who are uninsured or need surgery their plans don't cover.

A few notes: Shetty runs a for-profit business, not a charity.  He makes money at these prices.  And although a big part of his lower prices has to do with the generally low cost of living in India, his mass-production techniques have reduced prices more than 50% even compared to other Indian hospitals.

But although this may be cheap medicine, there's nothing cheap about his results: outcomes at his hospitals are at least as good as they are at the best American clinics, and probably even better.  It's the kind of thing someone ought to be trying here.  The whole story is worth a read.

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Investors Call for Companies to Disclose Climate Risk

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 12:34 PM EST

What will climate change cost the US economy? To date, the political debate has been fixated almost exclusively on fears that carbon regulations will impose heavy burdens on American companies. But what about the costs that companies will incur if climate change continues unabated? Or the new opportunities that a carbon cap may create for some businesses, such as firms that make windmills or solar panels? Faced with a lack of reliable analysis of the full costs and benefits of both climate change and climate policies, a group of major investors wants the Securities and Exchange Commission to step in. On Monday, the investors wrote to the SEC asking the agency to come up with guidelines to help businesses properly account for climate-related factors that will affect their bottom lines.

The letter was signed by 20 institutional investors from the US and Canada who represent $1 trillion in assets. Signatories include the state treasurers from Oregon, North Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland and Vermont, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, the Environmental Defense Fund, Ceres, a sustainable business coalition, and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the biggest public pension fund in the US. "CalPERS protects workers’ retirement benefits, and climate change poses both great risks and opportunities to these investments,” said CalPERS CEO Anne Stausboll in a statement. "The SEC should strengthen and enforce its current requirements so investors' decisions fully account for climate change’s financial effects."

Last month, the SEC issued new rules at the behest of Ceres and investor groups that require companies to disclose how climate regulation could affect their earnings, if investors request such information. But most companies haven't even started to assess these potential financial risks, in part because the tools for doing are still in their infancy. This latest investor request is an attempt to hurry up the process of ensuring that clmate change is factored into every company's balance sheet—and a sure sign that business leaders and investors believe some kind of climate regulation is coming, and coming soon.

Weatherizing Your House

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 12:17 PM EST

"Using energy more efficiently in buildings may be the fastest, cheapest way to substantially reduce carbon emissions in the short-term," says David Roberts, and I think my only quibble there would be with the word may.  But how do we get people to do it?  Most people don't bother with this stuff even if it already makes economic sense, so putting a price on carbon and raising the price of energy will probably have only a minor impact on getting people off their butts to weatherize their houses and buildings:

Evidence indicates that the elasticity of energy demand is weirdly low.  The price signals that already exist aren’t getting a rational response. People can already save lots of money by investing in efficiency, but they aren’t doing it. They absorb a lot of price pain before they adjust their behavior....Which raises the question: why should price-based policies be our exclusive focus? Why not instead, or in tandem, try to increase elasticity of demand? If the federal government wants to get good job and economic results from its stimulus investments—and it surely does—it should not only spend the money, it should start attending seriously to the project of meliorating the market and behavioral failures in efficiency markets.

How do we remove the barriers? It turns out we know a decent amount about them but comparatively little about how to overcome them.....We’ve had three decades of cheap energy, so there’s been little reason to focus on accelerating efficiency; our know-how froze in the 1970s.

What’s clear is that getting the most out of efficiency will not only mean federal policy but state and local policy,  public-private partnerships, new financing models, new models of information sharing, and much more creative thinking. Because we know so little, there’s a lot we can learn quickly with an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Part of the problem here is simple: inertia.  Or call it laziness if you like.  It's like the difference between opt-in and opt-out: people are far more likely to accept the status quo, whatever it is, than they are to actively seek change.  Look at me: I accidentally ordered a bunch of extra channels from my cable company a couple of months ago, but I still haven't gotten around to cancelling them.  Maybe I never will.  Inertia is powerful.

But we also know that financing is a big part of the problem too.  Most of us don't have $10,000 to get our homes up to snuff, and if we finance the improvements via a loan, the payments need to be low enough that we see a net savings each month.  That might require government help.  Most of us also aren't willing to bother with this stuff if we think we might be selling our house in the next few years.  Creative financing that stays with the house, not the homeowner, can help here too.

But pure marketing is also part of the answer.  Many of us, I suspect, don't really believe all the claims about energy audits.  Even I don't.  Several years we bought a new refrigerator, and the energy savings on the model were plastered all over it.  What's more, the Energy Star program has gotten lots of publicity over the past decade.  And yet, I was still sort of surprised when we got the next month's electricity bill and it was about $20 lower than before.  In my heart, I guess I hadn't ever really believed that all the hype was true.  But the fact is that it really has paid for itself over the past five years.

So yes, this is low-hanging fruit from an economic point of view.  But to get the most out of it, we need a lot more work on quantifying the benefits, on marketing, on behavioral prods, and on financial programs.  Plus we need whatever stuff David is promising to share in a followup post tomorrow.  It'll probably be worth reading.

Dog Food Explained!

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 11:04 AM EST

So how did the Senate's provision forcing members of Congress to buy health insurance through the exchange end up in the final bill?  A reader emails to explain:

The provision in the health care bill was added by Sen. Chuck Grassley. He originally wanted it to cover all federal workers — not just the Congressional ones — and obviously that created a bit of a stir. Baucus tried to placate him by adding language to say that federal employees may enter the exchanges, but that didn't work. So then Grassley offered his amendment saying, members of Congress and their staffs must use the exchanges. Perhaps he thought this would lead to an embarrasing fight, but Baucus said, "fine," and then that was that. As far as I know, the House version just says, members of Congress may enter the exchanges if they want to.

So there you have it.  More here.

Gitmo Politics in Obama's White House

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 9:14 AM EST

Photo from the Obama-Biden transition team via flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.Photo from the Obama-Biden transition team via flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.Liberals have not done enough public wrestling with Massimo Calabresi and Michael Weisskopf's Time article on the ouster of White House counsel Gregory Craig. Perhaps that's because they don't want to deal with the article's troubling implications. As Kevin explains, Craig was "the White House lawyer tasked with dismantling Bush-era interrogation and detention policies. At first, Obama was on board with Craig's plans.  Then, reality set in."

By "reality," Kevin presumably means "political reality." Time says that as soon as Obama's positions on Bush era torture—releasing the torture photos, for example—became politically difficult, the president jettisoned them. He did this despite the fact that he had been "prepared to accept — and had even okayed" those same positions "just weeks earlier":

First to go was the release of the pictures of detainee abuse. Days later, Obama sided against Craig again, ending the suspension of Bush's extrajudicial military commissions. The following week, Obama pre-empted an ongoing debate among his national-security team and embraced one of the most controversial of Bush's positions: the holding of detainees without charges or trial, something he had promised during the campaign to reject.

But perhaps the most damning part of the Time piece is this sentence, near the beginning, that summarizes exactly what has happened in Obama's White House:

[Obama] quietly shifted responsibility for the legal framework for counterterrorism from Craig to political advisers overseen by Emanuel, who was more inclined to strike a balance between left and right.

Take a minute to think about how the left would respond to this if Obama was a Republican president. Obama delegated the responsibility for determining what to do about detainees to his political advisers. If George W. Bush had charged his political advisers, including Karl Rove, with crafting such policy, the entire blogosphere would have melted down from outrage overload.

Obama's actions here are deeply at odds with the public image he cultivated during his campaign—idealist, civil libertarian, constitutional law professor, someone who rose above politics. You can claim that the president is a "pragmatist," and always has been, but Obama draped himself in idealism and principle during the campaign. The left always complained that Bush let politics drive his policy decisions. But in this instance, couldn't Obama be accused of the same thing?