Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 2:13 PM EDT

From Eric Kolchinsky, a former analyst at Moody's, a ratings agency, on why he's testifying before Congress today about abuses of the ratings process:

I was part of the process that did all this damage, and I feel I should try to do something now to make sure it doesn't happen again.

That's refreshing.  If you read the linked story, Kolchinsky basically says that it's business as usual at Moody's: they're giving high ratings to insanely complex debt instruments even when they know the underlying assets aren't really in very good shape.  It's yet another data point suggesting that Wall Street is already piling back into all the same practices that caused last year's meltdown.  And why not?  Unlike Kolchinsky, none of these guys really seem to believe they did anything wrong in the first place.  Hooray for bailouts!

Bernanke and Punchbowlism

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

Legendary Fed chair William McChesney Martin joked that the Fed's job was "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going."  Translated, he meant that whenever the economy started to really get going, the Fed was obligated to raise interest rates and slam on the brakes before inflation got out of hand.  This also killed growth and caused recessions, but he figured it was the only choice he had.

Brad DeLong is afraid that this sentiment will make a comeback:

Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation, but due to capture of legislatures by the banking sector they are unlikely to get it. Thus they are going to be driven to be always wondering whether they should be putting extra downward pressure on asset prices — with implications for employment and possibly growth.

The fact that "Punchbowlism" can be implemented by central banks by themselves makes it the default option.

"Central banks would prefer an effective system of regulation"?  You could have fooled me.  It strikes me that the Fed has been captured by the banking sector every bit as thoroughly as Congress has.  The Fed, after all, still has considerable influence.  If Ben Bernanke pulled out his shiniest, sharpest pitchfork and took to the podium with a really full-throated, sky-is-falling warning that we needed serious new financial regulations and then demanded that CONGRESS. MUST. ACT. NOW — well, Congress would probably act.  Not completely.  It's still Congress, after all.  But if Bernanke really put his back into it, he'd make some pretty serious waves.

But I have not, to put things delicately, noticed him doing any such thing.  On the contrary, he seems far more interested in protecting the Fed's turf, offering up weak-tea compensation proposals, slow rolling increased consumer protections, and pretending that a brand new committee devoted to "systemic risk" will somehow do what the Fed has never done before.  These are not the actions of a revolutionary who wants to remake the regulatory system.

I'm a Bernanke skeptic, so I guess my crankiness here can be discounted.  But I simply haven't seen any sign that he's really dedicated to root-and-branch regulatory reform.  I also rather doubt that he's very dedicated to "punchbowlism," frankly.  In fact, as near as I can tell, he's basically dedicated to getting us out of our current crisis (which is good!) and then tweaking the system just enough so that things can go back to the way they've always been (not so good).  I hope he proves me wrong.

Kent Conrad on Healthcare

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

This quote from Kent Conrad made the rounds of the blogosphere yesterday:

Let me just conclude for my progressive friends who believe that the only answer to getting costs under control and having universal coverage is by a government-run program. I urge my colleagues to read the book by T.R. Reid, "The Healing of America."

I had the chance to read it this weekend. He looks at the health-care systems around the world. And what he found is in many countries they have universal coverage. They contain costs effectively. They have high-quality outcomes, in fact higher than ours. They're not government-run systems in Germany, in Japan, in Switzerland, in France, in Belgium — all of them contain costs, have universal coverage, have very high quality care and yet are not government-run systems.

This has been sort of rattling around in my head ever since I saw it, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what I wanted to say about it.  But then I figured it out: it's completely, 100% batshit crazy.  I mean, is this actually breaking news to Conrad after (excuse me a moment while I google) 22 years in the Senate?  WTF?

Believe me: Conrad's "progressive friends" would be punch drunk with ecstacy if the United States adopted the healthcare system of (take your pick) Japan, France or Germany.  It would be beyond our wildest dreams.  Does Conrad really not know this?  Did he only find out this weekend that those other countries have terrific healthcare systems that contain costs, provide universal coverage, and boast very high-quality care?  What's going on?

Quote of the Day

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 12:38 AM EDT

From Noah Shachtman, summing up Robert Gates's influence on the Pentagon so far:

After three years under Gates, the Defense Department is finally learning the right lesson: You wage war with the enemies you have, not the ones you wish you had.

In other words, quit obsessing about theoretical future world wars with China or Russia and figure out how to win today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instead.  The rest of Noah's profile of Gates is good too.

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ACORN Strikes Back

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 8:30 PM EDT

ACORN has filed a lawsuit against James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, the two undercover filmmakers who taped ACORN workers providing advice about how to smuggle underage sex workers into the country from El Salvador:

The lawsuit asserts that neither O'Keefe nor Giles obtained consent from ACORN workers for videotaping them, as state law requires.

ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis told reporters in a conference call that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, does not support criminal activity and believes the filmmakers should have obeyed Maryland laws.

Points for chutzpah, I guess, but this is a bad idea on so many levels it hurts just to think about it.  All they're doing is extending the news cycle on this whole debacle, making fools of themselves with transparently petty arguments, and just generally showing less common sense than your average mafia don caught on a 60 Minutes sting.  At this point, ACORN needs to take their lumps, finish their internal investigation, and clean up their act.  In the meantime, the least they can do is avoid handing the Glenn Beck crowd free additional ammunition.  Fair or not, shooting the messenger isn't helping their cause.

Roving Wiretaps

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 6:29 PM EDT

Via Atrios, here's Al Franken giving one of Obama's assistant attorney generals a hard time over the question of whether to extend a provision of the PATRIOT Act that's due to expire at the end of the year:

Franken, who opened by acknowledging that unlike most of his colleagues in the Senate, he’s not a lawyer, but according to his research “most Americans aren’t lawyers” either, said he’d also done research on the Patriot Act and in particular, the “roving wiretap” provision that allows the FBI to get a warrant to wiretap an unnamed target and his or her various and changing cell phones, computers and other communication devices.

Noting that he received a copy of the Constitution when he was sworn in as a senator, he proceeded to read it to [David] Kris, emphasizing this part:  “no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“That’s pretty explicit language,” noted Franken, asking Kris how the “roving wiretap” provision of the Patriot Act can meet that requirement if it doesn’t require the government to name its target.

Great stuff.  So liberals, who normally believe in a living constitution that changes with changing times etc. etc., are now hauling out black letter critiques of longstanding federal law.  (Roving wiretaps have been legal for several decades.  The PATRIOT Act merely extended them to national security cases.)  At the same time, you can revel in, for example, Peter Thomson of the Federalist Society, blandly affirming that a Ninth Circuit Court (!) opinion was "based on solid legal ground" when it reasoned

that the particularity requirement of the “place” to be searched may be substituted with that of the “person” in a roving wiretap setting. Thus, a roving order authorizing a wiretap over all telephones used by a subject does particularly describe the “places” or telephones to be searched, albeit in an unconventional manner.

Italics mine.  Not the sort of reasoning the Federalist Society usually approves of, but any port in a storm, I suppose.

Personally, I'm inclined to stick to basic principles on this.  I really do believe in a constitution that adapts in obvious ways to changing times and technologies, and the framers pretty clearly didn't anticipate wiretaps of any sort, let alone wiretaps on mobile phones or worldwide packet networks.  "Place" has one meaning when the state of the art in communication technology is paper and quill pen, which can exist only in specific, well-defined locations, but quite a different meaning when you're tracking electronic signals through a globally distributed network and the access point to that network is entirely arbitrary and can exist literally anywhere on the planet.  Adapting to that reality doesn't strike me as constitutional overreach.  (Conversely, warrantless wiretaps are fundamentally corrosive regardless of type, but that's not an issue in this case.  Roving or not, these taps all require a judge's permission.)

There are some obvious safeguards that ought to be in place with roving taps, and I don't have any problem with tightening up the language if that needs to be done.  But given the reality of how technology has evolved, my instinct is that roving taps are a reasonable and constitutional response.  If I'm wrong, feel free to school me in comments.

UPDATE: It looks like I screwed up here.  Franken's issue is apparently not with roving wiretaps per se, but with "John Doe" wiretaps aimed at individuals who are described but not specifically named.  Sorry about that.

Chart of the Day

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 5:02 PM EDT

From the CDC, here are the latest estimates about the accessibility of healthcare in America.  The share of the population that was forced to go without needed medical care during the past year because of cost has gone up from 4.5% in 1997 to 7.3% so far this year.  USA! USA!

Saving the Planet

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

Via Brad Plumer, Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times gets an early look at the upcoming World Energy Outlook report:

In the first big study of the impact of the recession on climate change, the IEA found that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels had undergone "a significant decline" this year — further than in any year in the last 40.

....Falling industrial output is largely responsible for the plunge in CO2 , but [...] for the first time, government policies to cut emissions have also had a significant impact. The IEA estimates that about a quarter of the reduction is the result of regulation, an "unprecedented" proportion. Three initiatives had a particular effect: Europe's target to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020; US car emission standards; and China's energy efficiency policies.

Europe's cap-and-trade system didn't start out very strongly, but the fact is that nobody really expected it to.  Phase 2, however, is working better, and Phase 3 will be better still.  If we learn from their experience, we can avoid the early stumbles and put in place a decent (and steadily improving) program right out of the gate.  Ten years ago would have been a good time to start, but failing that, this year will have to do.