Don't Burn the Crops

Want a quick recipe for reducing Arctic ice melt fast? Stop burning northern hemisphere farmlands and pasturelands.

New research finds that large-scale agricultural burning in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the US, Canada, and the Ukraine is melting Arctic ice.

The big contributor: Spring burning, when farmers torch crop residues and brush to clear new land for crops and livestock. The black carbon soot produced by these fires flows north, warms the surrounding air, and absorbs solar energy when it falls on ice and snow.

How bad is the problem? Springtime burning may account for 30 percent of Arctic warming to date.

The good news is there's an easy fix. Targeting these burns gets us a genuinely fast reduction in temperature over the Arctic. Plus we know how to control these pollutants right now. Just stop burning. Right now. Before the melting ice rewires the oceanic currents delivering us the climate we're used to.

The research is part of POLARCAT, an international effort to track the transport of pollutants into the Arctic from lower latitudes. Researchers were surprised to find 50 smoke plumes that analysis of satellite images revealed came from agricultural fires in Northern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia and from forest fires in Southern Siberia. The emissions from these fires far outweighed those from fossil fuels.

"These fires weren't part of our standard predictions, they weren't in our models," says Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard.

Although global warming is largely the result of excess accumulation of carbon dioxide, the Arctic is highly sensitive to short-lived pollutants like black carbon. Forest fires, agricultural burning, primitive cookstoves, and diesel fuel are the primary sources of black carbon.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Nevada on Tuesday to participate in a Las Vegas fundraiser for Sen. Harry Reid, who hopes to raise $25 million to fend off possible GOP challenges to his 2010 reelection campaign. The trip coincides with a sudden—and convenient—change of heart by Reid on the thorny issue of what to do with Guantanamo Bay detainees once the facility is shuttered.

Senate Democrats have clashed with Obama over his plan to close the prison and perhaps relocate some of the detainees to a facility in the United States. Last week, Reid was telling reporters in no uncertain terms that he rejected just such an idea, even though there is a long list of terrorists already in US prisons. David Corn and Steve Aquino explained the issue:

Senate Democrats, including Reid, moved to strip the Gitmo shutdown money after the Republicans initiated a scare campaign, warning that the worst will happen if Obama transfers Gitmo detainees to federal prison facilities in the United States. Looking for a winning political issue, Republican House members and senators have been sending letters to Obama and declaring, "Not in my state." Though Reid's home state of Nevada has no federal prisons, he joined this chorus, saying: "Part of what we don't want is [terrorists] be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

But in advance of Obama's visit to Sin City, Reid's singing a different tune. He told Las Vegas journalist Jon Ralston on Monday that he is open to moving some Guantanamo Bay detainees to US prisons. Here's the relevent portion of the transcript of Reid's conversation with Ralston:

"A maximum security prison in the United States, there has never been a single escape."

JR: "You think eventually the plan is going to be to put them in maximum security prisons here in this country, correct?"

"I think some. Keep in mind, Jon, there's so many different issues. There's no question that a number of these people who are there are not guilty of anything. The Uighurs, these are a group of Muslim Chinese who are guilty of nothing. They were arrested, put in there. They are there. They are doing nothing. We're going to have to find someplace to put them. We can't send them back to China. Should they go into a maximum security prison? Probably not."

Could the need to raise $25 million—and the prospect of more help from the extremely popular Obama—be influencing Reid's rhetoric on Guantanamo? If not, this is definitely an interesting coincidence.

(h/t Marc Ambinder)

Talk abounds of North Korea's decision to conduct a second nuclear test over the weekend. The old thinking on Pyongyang was that it was just a problem child that used nukes to get attention. But as Glenn Kessler points out in the Washington Post, in the form of the Obama administration Kim Jong Il has found a negotiating partner whose stated goal is to "demonstrate that engagement with hostile nations is more effective than antagonism."  That, apparently, is not enough to keep him from rattling his saber, and has intelligence analysts all over Washington working to attribute new motivations to North Korea's antagonistic behavior. For their part, the North Koreans issued an official statement, saying "the nuclear test will contribute to protecting the sovereignty of the country and the nation and socialism, and ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula and neighboring region." We'll see about that. South Korea and Japan certainly didn't view the test as a peaceful gesture. 

Beneath all the hub-bub, though, is an interesting statistic. The AP reports that nuclear weapons have been detonated 2,054 times since 1945. How many will it take for North Korea to catch up with the the world's most prolific tester of doomsday weapons, the United States? Answer: 1,030. Consider the AP's numbers:

UNITED STATES - 1,032

RUSSIA (SOVIET UNION) - 715

FRANCE - 210

CHINA - 45

BRITAIN - 45

INDIA - 3

PAKISTAN - 2

NORTH KOREA - 2

Gay Marriage in California

The latest on Prop 8 from the LA Times:

The California Supreme Court today upheld Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage but also ruled that gay couples who wed before the election will continue to be married under state law.

....Although the court split 6-1 on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the justices were unanimous in deciding to keep intact the marriages of as many as 18,000 gay couples who exchanged vows before the election. The marriages began last June, after a 4-3 state high court ruling striking down the marriage ban last May.

This doesn't surprise me on either count.  The argument that Prop 8 was a constitutional "revision" requiring a two-thirds vote, not a constitutional amendment requiring a majority vote, never seemed legally defensible.  At the same time, all the marriages performed prior to Prop 8 were as legal as church on Sunday.  I don't know if even an initiative could retroactively annul them, but at the very least it would need to do so specifically and directly, which Prop 8 didn't.

But it might soon be moot anyway.  Prop 8 passed by only a bare majority, and public sentiment is continuing to change.  An initiative to legalize gay marriage might well pass in 2010, and if it doesn't it certainly will by 2012 or 2014 at the latest.  Time is on the side of the good guys.

Is Trojan Squeezing Out The Competition?

Condoms are not things people tend to linger over before buying, comparing prices and such. Unlike greeting cards, these purchases tend to be more of the grab and go variety. So the condom maker that can command the best real estate on store shelves is definitely going to have the upper hand. A quick survey suggests that the ubiquitous Trojan wins that battle, hands down. Apparently, this is no accident.

According to the trade pub FTC: Watch, the Federal Trade Commission wants to know whether Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan condoms, has made illicit deals to ensure that its battery-powered vibrating rings and other products get the best possible store placement. The FTC is investigating whether the condom maker is unlawfully squeezing out Lifestyles and other smaller competitors through such arrangements.  Who'd a thought a company so perennially linked to safe-sex campaigns and public restroom quickies could also be a ruthless corporate actor? If the FTC finds the condom-maker violated anti-trust laws, condom-buyers everywhere might be treated to a better variety of latex behind the counter at their local 7-11--without having to linger.
 

Breakdown of Prop. 8 Decision

At 10 a.m. this morning, the California Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 to uphold Proposition 8. In doing so, they ruled that the 18,000 gay marriages already performed in California would be valid, but that going forward, "marriage" in California will only be between "a man and a woman." The judges' decision is about 50,000 words, so in summary, they said they based it on two main issues: 1) whether Proposition 8 was a constitutional amendment or a constitutional revision, and 2) if Proposition 8 would significantly infringe upon gay people's constitutional rights.

In the first issue, the court referenced the large number of amendments to the California constitution that have been passed since the 1800s and determined, using the requirements for both a revision and amendment, that Proposition 8 was just one of many amendments, not the larger, rarer, revisions. (You can read the entire decision here). The second issue is far more contentious. The judges found that allowing only opposite-sex partners to have the designation of the term "marriage" was not in itself an abrogation of gay citizen's rights. As they wrote:

"Contrary to petitioners’ assertion, Proposition 8 does not entirely repeal or abrogate the aspect of a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right of privacy and due process that was analyzed in the majority opinion in the Marriage Cases—that is, the constitutional right of same-sex couples to “choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage”  (Marriage Cases, supra, 43 Cal.4th at p. 829). 

Essentially, the judges said that because same-sex couples have so many rights in California already, they don't need the official designation of "marriage." Protection of gay people's rights under California law, the judges ruled, "has not generally been repealed or eliminated by Proposition 8." While the judges did say that they understood same-sex couples' desire for the term "marriage," they emphasized that their task was "not to determine whether the provision at issue is wise or sound as a matter of policy or whether we, as individuals, believe it should be a part of the California Constitution."

The crowds in San Francisco, however, who started gathering at the city's Civic Center early this morning, were not satisfied with the judges' opinion that they don't need the term "marriage" to define their unions. As of about 30 minutes ago, 200+ protesters were blocking traffic in downtown San Francisco. Protesting is all well and good, but what's next? Most likely, a new ballot measure in 2010 that would overturn Proposition 8. One good thing from the ruling: now that the judges have ruled that Proposition 8 was an amendment, next year's pro-gay marriage ballot measure would also likely be ruled an amendment and could supplant Proposition 8. For the 90-second YouTube explanation of what's next, filmed on location in San Francisco, click here.

 

Waiting for the Meltdown

Leaving aside Jonah Goldberg's contention that Sonia Sotomayor is "the most left-leaning Hispanic possible/confirmable" Supreme Court nomination, this actually strikes me as an interesting point:

If Obama picked a centrist, opposition would have been principled, but pro-forma. By picking Sotomayor, conservatives will no doubt demand full-throated opposition, which plays perfectly to Obama's purposes (so long as he doesn't dump Sotomayor for some, any, reason). I don't think this was the key factor in his decision, but you can be sure the White House will love casting conservative opposition in those terms.

I also doubt that this was a key factor, but it wouldn't surprise me if a few people in the West Wing did indeed figure that this was a nice bonus.  The wingnut wing of the Republican Party seems hugely energized by Sotomayor's nomination and ready to go ballistic over it.  This might be good for them in the short term (it's a nice fundraising opportunity, brings internal factions together, etc.), but Obama, as usual, is looking a few moves ahead and understands that a shrieking meltdown from the usual suspects will mostly help the liberal cause: the American public already thinks the conservative rump running the Republican Party is crazy, after all, and this will help cast that feeling in stone.  Most normal people think empathy is a good thing, not a code word for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And Obama?  He gets to be the calm at the center of the storm, providing his usual striking contrast to the seething stew of preachers, radio screamers, and Gingrich acolytes who will be making themselves ever more tiresome to Mr. and Mrs. Heartland with their ranting jeremiads.  I don't blame conservatives for opposing Sotomayor even though they know that she'd only be replaced by someone equally liberal if they did somehow manage to derail her (liberals did the same with Roberts and Alito, after all), but if they're smart they'll realize that the usual shriekfest is playing right into Obama's hands.

But they're not smart, are they?

North Korea

Dan Drezner remarks on the DPRK's recent nuclear test:

I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans — get everyone to talk about something else.

That is novel — at least compared to the nonsense normally spewed by the Bush administration every time Kim Jong-il decided to yank their chains.  And in any case, if meaningless bluster isn't your thing, there aren't a whole lot of choices available:

The alternatives to the repeated short-term carrot strategy are even less appealing.  There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they'll only do this if they're sure it won't lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria.

In other words, there's really not a lot we can do about this unless China, against all odds, (a) finally tires of Pyongyang's antics, (b) beefs up its suprisingly porous border with North Korea, and (c) decides to cut off aid.  There's some evidence of (a), but not much for anything else.

The Sotomayor Nomination

Jack Balkin thinks that Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is likely to go smoothly:

Senators are just as aware of the politics of appointments as Obama is.  Obama will likely need one or two Republicans to avoid any threat of a fillibuster; a candidate who appeals to important constituencies that Republicans also need will be harder to oppose and can help provide the 60th vote. Also helpful may be the fact that Sotomayor was first appointed to the bench by a Republican and is being positioned as a moderate or pragmatic liberal. In this respect, the careful positioning of Sotomayor as not the most liberal candidate Obama was considering helps to make her confirmation easier and also helps establish Obama's own image as a non-doctrinaire pragmatist.

But if you prefer to be prepared for the worst, Tom Goldstein at ScotusBlog outlines the most likely lines of attack against her:

Opponents’ first claim — likely stated obliquely and only on background — will be that Judge Sotomayor is not smart enough for the job....The second claim – and this one will be front and center – will be the classic resort to ideology:  that Judge Sotomayor is a liberal ideologue and “judicial activist.”....The third claim — related to the second — will be that Judge Sotomayor is unprincipled or dismissive of positions with which she disagrees....Finally, critics will characterize her as gruff and impersonable, relying on excerpts from oral arguments and anonymous criticisms in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

There's more at both links.  In the end, I don't think Sotomayor will have any real trouble winning confirmation.

The economy is in the toilet, but there's at least one industry that appears to be going great guns (sorry...): the firearms business, particularly the firms that manufacture ammunition for American gun owners. You may have read Yasha Levine's piece about the surge in ammo sales in Victorville, California, where, Levine reports, fears of tighter gun regulations under the Obama administration have given way to a new kind of arms race.

The same phenomenon exists in Montana. According to the Missoulian, ammo is racing off the shelves at a record pace. Darren Newsom, owner of Bitterroot Valley Ammunition's three local manufacturing facilities, told a reporter that his company produces 300,000 rounds a day, but is still unable to meet demand. "We probably have about six months of back orders right now," he said, adding that he sold more than 300,000 rounds in just two hours at a recent gun show. "It's just unreal... Somewhere in lots of basements around the country, there are millions of rounds of ammunition being stored."