2009 - %3, December

Ahmadinejad on MoJo Contributor Shane Bauer

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 12:13 PM EST

In an interview with ABC New's Diane Sawyer that aired Monday night, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad walked back his promise to help three American hikers—including Mother Jones contributor Shane Bauer—detained in Iran.

Bauer and his companions, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd, accidentally wandered into Iran while hiking in Northern Iraq on July 31, their traveling companion, Shon Meckfessel, explained in a statement in early August. But in the interview with Sawyer, Ahmadinejad suggested that he didn't believe that story. "How do you know they have accidentally crossed into Iran? How do you know they were looking for waterfalls and forests?" Ahmadinejad asked Sawyer in response to her questions about the hikers. He also refused to say he would release the three Americans. You can watch the full interview here.

Bauer and his companions have been charged with espionage and face trial. Want to learn more? Their families have a website where you can follow the story and help out.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Forecast for Alaska: Extreme Weather

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 12:09 PM EST

After the major emitting countries agreed to the hastily made Copenhagen Accord late Friday night, President Barack Obama rushed onto Air Force One and jetted back across the Atlantic. He was presumably eager to get to Washington, DC before the big winter storm that was due to arrive on Saturday. The president made it back just in time. But perhaps the US would have been better served had he hung around Copenhagen a bit longer.

As the UN climate conference wound down overseas, two corners of this country were buried by unusually heavy snowfalls. In addition to the foot and a half of snow that closed public schools, federal buildings, and many offices in the Capital (the DC bureau of Mother Jones excluded), Valdez, Alaska, experienced record snowstorms that dumped over 76.5 inches. The town located six hours from Anchorage along the state's rugged southern coast managed the blizzard better than DC—amazingly, its 33-year streak without snow-day school cancellations lives on. But as the latest story from Mother Jones contributor Ted Genoways makes clear, the danger in Valdez isn't passed until after the snow has melted.

Last May, a record-breaking heatwave caused the meltwater-swollen Yukon River to spill its banks. The resulting flood nearly wiped Eagle, Alaska, the oldest town in the interior of the state, off the map. Over the years, Eagle has captured the imaginations of explorers, writers, and romantics—among them, Jack London, John McPhee, and Genoways. In the "Last Breakup" (web head: "Will the Yukon River Claim the Alaskan Frontier"),  Genoways travels back to the historic town to tell the story of one heroic couple's struggle for survival and to render a dramatic illustration of the danger climate change poses to even the most hearty and isolated Americans.

Skeptics are always keen to note that no single weather event can ever be directly linked to climate change. But the compelling body of anecdotal evidence from places like Eagle and Valdez only serves to bolster the rock-solid scientific and economic cases for taking immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If the Copenhagen Accord proves a misstep on the path to preventing catastrophic climate change, citizens of Alaska and elsewhere should brace themselves for more extreme weather.

UN to Reform Climate Negotiations

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 8:01 AM EST

Only a few days after the Copenhagen climate conference ended, the UN announced plans to overhaul its climate negotiations process. That's because if the recent climate talks illustrated anything, it's the extent to which the current treaty framework—an unwieldy process in which consensus among the 192 participating countries is near impossible—no longer serves its intended purpose of guiding nations toward meaningful, rigorous emissions reductions. "We will consider how to streamline the negotiations process," said UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon on Monday. "We will also look at how to encompass the full context of climate change and development in the negotiations, both substantively and institutionally." 

The world has changed considerably—economically, ecologically, socially, etc., etc.—since the existing UN treaty process was set into motion after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit where countries drafted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty that each subsequent Conference of the Parties, or COP, attempted to build on and improve. (Copenhagen was the 15th conference, hence the COP15 moniker.) But whereas the original UNFCCC treaty got away with carving the world into overly simplistic categories—essentially, a) industrialized countries, b) developed countries, and c) developing countries—the world has evolved considerably since then; across a country like India, where "development" is the decades-old rallying cry, you'll find economies and societies industrialized, developed, and developing, all within one nation's borders. Rigid categories like the UN's, then, hardly capture the complexities of today's global economy.

The plight of smaller, poorer countries is another matter crying out for change. Some, like the Group of 77, a bloc of impoverished countries, slammed the Copenhagen negotiations that they felt were dominated by wealthier nations. Tuvalu, a tiny, low-lying cluster of islands that could be an early climate-change casualty, was so fed up with the big nations' bullying that one of its negotiators jammed up the talks and introduced a tougher, legally binding treaty of his own. A few other smaller countries kicked up a ruckus as well—but in the end, it was a short, vague agreement hatched by the world's biggest countries that emerged from the arduous negotiations.

Perhaps, then, the best thing to come out of Copenhagen was clear evidence that the UN's treaty process is outdated and needs fixing. Any new negotiations framework should better balance the needs of the developing world against the developed, and streamline the process so that, like Kyoto before Copenhagen, the fate of a far-reaching, crucial, monumental treaty—that is, if we ever get one—isn't decided in the waning hours by a few world powers. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 22, 2009

Tue Dec. 22, 2009 6:47 AM EST

Afghan National Army soldiers pay their respects to two Marines from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, during a memorial service on Contingency Operating Base Sher, in Garmsir, Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2009. Lance Cpl. Nicholas J. Hand, an assaultman with Fox Company, and Lance Cpl. Jonathan A. Taylor, a rifleman with Fox Company, were killed in action while conducting counterinsurgency operations in Garmsir, Afghanistan. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dwight A. Henderson.)

Need To Read: December 22, 2009

Tue Dec. 22, 2009 6:45 AM EST

Today's must reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow Mother Jones on twitter! You can check out what we are tweeting and follow the staff of @MotherJones with one click.

Bernanke and California

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 2:39 AM EST

Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho have a nice story in the Washington Post today about the Fed's lackadaisical regulation of banks in the decade before the housing bust.  It's worth a read.  As a native Southern Californian, though, this passage jumped out at me:

In January 2005, National City's chief economist had delivered a prescient warning to the Fed's board of governors: An increasingly overvalued housing market posed a threat to the broader economy, not to mention his own bank and others deeply involved in writing mortgages.

The message wasn't well received. One board member expressed particular skepticism — Ben Bernanke.

"Where do you think it will be the worst?" Bernanke asked, according to people who attended the meeting, one in a series of sessions the Fed holds with economists.

"I would have to say California," said the economist, Richard Dekaser.

"They have been saying that about California since I bought my first house in 1979," Bernanke replied.

I suppose that's true.  But here's the thing: "they" were right.  California went through a housing bubble in the 1980s that burst in 1990.  I should know: I bought a house in 1989 and lost $40,000 on it before finally caving in and selling it four years later.  In all, it took nearly a decade for housing to regain its pre-bubble value — at which point, a brand new bubble was heating up.

It was myopic enough to believe in 2005 that housing wasn't overpriced on a nationwide basis.  But to specifically dismiss concerns about California even though it had been in the trough of a housing crash a mere 10 years earlier? That's just willful blindness.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

350 Still Too High

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 9:00 PM EST

Adding insult to Copenhagen injury, a new study shows that the increases in atmospheric CO2 taking place today could have a much larger effect on global temperatures than previously thought.

How so? Well, only a relatively small rise in CO2 in the Pliocene era 3 to 5 million years ago drove temperatures a whopping 3 to 4 degrees Celsius higher. Peak temperatures were reached at CO2 concentrations between 365 and 415 parts per million. Today’s CO2 stands at about 386 ppm.

The new findings in Nature Geoscience suggest that even the 350 ppm the science community has rallied around of late are likely too high.

The problems with the current models (and the resulting 350 target) is they take into account only the faster feedbacks, like changes in atmospheric water vapor and the distribution of sea ice, clouds, and aerosols.

The new study assessed long-term feedbacks, including changes in continental ice-sheets, shifting terrestrial ecosystems, and the impacts of greenhouse gases other than CO2. Lead author Mark Pagani tells Yale:

"This work and other ancient climate reconstructions reveal that Earth’s climate is more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide than is discussed in policy circles. Since there is no indication that the future will behave differently than the past, we should expect a couple of degrees of continued warming even if we held CO2 concentrations at the current level."

Of course, not only is policy discussing the wrong numbers, it's still discussing. The failure of Copenhagen makes me realize we need to look at ways to exit the rut of discussion and enter the age of meaningful action. Especially now that the 15 minutes of media coverage are over.
 

Healthcare Ping Pong?

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 8:52 PM EST

Should ping pong become the new liberal sport? That is, should the House just skip the conference committee on healthcare reform entirely and simply vote on the bill produced by the Senate?  This is, for some reason, known as ping-ponging, even though it doesn't really involve any kind of back and forth.  In fact, the whole point is to eliminate the back and forth. But whatever.  Is this a good idea?

I suppose institutional pride will prevent the House from agreeing to do this, but at this point I wonder just what they're likely to gain from a conference report? On abortion, the Senate bill is already better less atrocious than the House bill, its mandate penalty is smaller, and its defined benefit packages are more flexible.

The House bill has several advantages of its own, but among the big ticket items the public option is DOA and the others (somewhat wider coverage and more generous Medicaid expansion) would increase the price of the bill and are pretty clearly unacceptable to the centrist bloc in the Senate.  That leaves the funding mechanisms: an excise tax on high-cost healthcare plans and a higher payroll tax on the wealthy in the Senate bill vs. higher income taxes on the wealthy in the House bill.

The excise tax has a sound policy justification, but a big chunk of the liberal constituency dislikes it anyway and I could certainly see a compromise here: raise the limit on the excise tax so it hits only the very richest plans and then combine it with a smaller income tax hike.  Maybe that's worth going to conference for.  But it's hard to see any other substantial improvements that are likely to come out of it.

So: go to conference and risk another month of squabbling and possible defections?  Or take the imperfect Senate bill and get it passed for certain within a few days of returning from recess? Seems like a close call to me, but ping ponging doesn't look like a bad option at this point.

UPDATE: More here on some of the procedural issues.  Turns out that ping pong might be more likely than we think thanks to yet more Republican obstruction.

UPDATE: 2: Austin Frakt points out another drawback of avoiding a conference committee: there would be no chance to fix the Senate's terrible "free rider" employer mandate.

The Aging of Science

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 3:57 PM EST

Via Alex Tabarrok, here's sort of an interesting chart showing the age of NIH grant recipients over time.  In a way, it visually understates just how much recipients have gotten older.  In 1970, 61% of grants were given to researchers who were 35 or younger.  In 1980 that fell to 29%, in 1990 to 9%, in 2000 to 4% and in 2007 to 3%. That's a huge drop, and 35 isn't exactly spring chicken age, either.  Make of this what you will.

Bechtel Gets $128 Million "Small Business" Contract

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 3:52 PM EST

There are a bunch of things that happen pretty regularly in Washington that would probably outrage the average citizen but which both political parties don't really care much about. One example is the constant awarding of federal "small business" contracts to megacorporations. Defenders of the practice point out that the government has a small business contracting "target," not a requirement. (The target is 23 percent, but although it awards many of the "small business" contracts to businesses that aren't actually small, the government misses that goal anyway.) They also argue that some contracts are just too complicated or sensitive to be carried out by small businesses. But that doesn't make it sting any less when a Fortune 500 company like Bechtel Bettis is awarded an $128 million "small business" contract.

The contract in question seems to be for the Energy Department's Pittsburgh Naval Reactors Office, which is associated with the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, which is basically a joint DOE-Bechtel venture. (This isn't unusual. The public and private sector are inextricably intertwined throughout much of America's defense infrastructure. The people who work at the Bettis lab are Bechtel employees, not federal employees.)

Anyway, none of this is a good excuse for counting the deal as a "small business" contract. Sure, it could be an error, but it's probably not: In recent months, other "small business" contracts have gone to General Dynamics, Xerox, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, British Aerospace (BAE), and Dell, according to the American Small Business League. Maybe it's too much to ask that the federal government not rely on big corporate contractors for this kind of work. But it shouldn't be so hard for them to be honest about it.