Political MoJo

Down with Air-Conditioning?

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 4:47 PM EDT

Over at Alternet, Stan Cox has an interesting two-part article about air conditioning, and how its rise has transformed the United States. Granted, his section on how A/C has helped make the country more conservative—by allowing more and more people to move to those sprawling, Bush-voting, water-guzzling Sun Belt regions—seems a bit overstated. He never really explains why hotter regions are so conservative (because they have more senior citizens living in retirement communities?). Anyway, I'm more interested in these assorted statistics:

The United States devotes 18 percent of its electricity consumption just to air-condition buildings. That's more than four times as much electricity per capita as India uses per capita for all purposes combined. ...

About 5.5 percent of the gasoline burned annually by America's cars and light trucks—7 billion gallons—goes to run air-conditioners. ...

Fifty-six percent of refrigerants worldwide are used for air-conditioning buildings and vehicles. North America, with 6 percent of the world's people, accounts for nearly 40 percent of its refrigerant market, as well as 43 percent of all refrigerants currently "banked" inside appliances and 38 percent of the resultant global-warming effects.So air conditioning is destroying the planet. And the cherry on top:

Better insulation and 'green' energy can never be enough to satisfy the nation's summer demand for A/C. Just to air-condition buildings—and do nothing else—would require eight times as much electricity from renewable energy as is currently produced.
That doesn't mean it couldn't be done, of course. But might Americans just have to use less A/C and learn to suffer through the heat if we want to convert to renewable energy, lower our carbon emissions, and have any hope of staving off global warming? Cox believes so, unless, of course, someone invents some sort of ultra-efficient air conditioner (the EPA recently raised energy-efficiency standards for A/C units by 30 percent, but even if all current units were replaced overnight, which they won't be, that would only mean a scant 5 percent reduction in power used for A/C).

Now as strategies for reducing emissions go, I'd prefer to focus on making more fuel-efficient cars and bolstering public transportation before killing the A/C. But what if we had to use less air conditioning? Our economy currently depends quite heavily on it, especially in warmer parts of the country. No one's going to go to a sweltering movie theater in June, after all, or spend hours in a mall buying lots of stuff, unless there's air conditioning to keep people cool. And without air conditioning, worker productivity would plummet during the hotter months (long summer vacations, of course, are out of the question—that's crazy socialist talk). Fun little dilemma we have here...

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The Coming Ballot Meltdown

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 4:32 PM EDT

Thought the Help America Vote Act (prompted by the realization that the U.S. electoral machinery was barely up to banana republic standards) solved our balloting problems? Oh, please. Andrew Gumbel--a veteran reporter not given to alarmism--raises the curtain on..."The Coming Ballot Meltdown" in The Nation. Read it and weep.

Celebrating 50 years of interstate driving (and crawling)

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 4:05 PM EDT

While we're making bulleted lists about America's cars, here's one to mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. interstate highway system. From McLatchy (formerly the late, lamented Knight-Ridder):

  • Interstates make up just 1 percent of total U.S. road miles, but they carry a quarter of all traffic and 40 percent of all truck traffic.

  • About 60,000 people ride over the average mile of interstate highway daily

  • Pre-interstate, drivers could cover about 250 miles in a dawn-to-dark day on the road. Interstates doubled that

  • Why do interstates feel more congested these days? Because they are. In the past decade, their traffic volume increased 29 percent. Total interstate lane miles increased just 4 percent in the same period.

  • Interstates today have a fatality rate of about 1 per 100 million vehicle miles. That compares with 2 per 100 million vehicle miles on other roads. Curved exit ramps (versus right-angle turns) and minimum speeds get much of the credit

  • Freight distribution by truck has been growing 12 percent a year since 1956

  • What state has no interstates? Alaska. Hawaii has highways that are considered interstates because they're paid for out of the same federal fund and built to the same standards, but they're designated with an H instead of an I

  • Which cities have the worst interstate access? Buffalo, N.Y.; Dover, Del.; Fresno, Calif.; Jefferson City, Mo.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Tulsa, Okla., according to the Federal Highway Administration

The interstate system is a great thing, no question about it. But clearly it hasn't proved an unequivocal good, as notes the party-pooping Washington Post:

Unsightly stretches of asphalt sprawl now surround virtually every major U.S. city. The continent-wide delivery system that allows Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Gap, 7-Eleven, Blockbuster and Holiday Inn to offer identical products and services in identical stores from coast to coast has turned a richly diverse nation into a standardized single market -- changing the shape of towns across America. ...

With the number of drivers increasing much faster than highway mileage, a system designed to save travel time has become a chronic waste of time for millions of commuters. A study for the Federal Highway Administration found that drivers using interstates in and around large cities spent about 25 hours per year in traffic jams in 1982; by 2002, the annual waiting time was more than 60 hours.

Are "Vets for Freedom" a PR Ploy?

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 4:00 PM EDT

From the annals of propaganda news: Apparently a group called Vets for Freedom, which bills itself as "America's largest non-partisan organization," has been trying to convince newspapers to run stories by two of its combat veterans who are now embedded reporters in Iraq, on the theory that their reporting will offer "balanced and credible viewpoints." But it turns out the group has ties with the Bush-Cheney public relations team, as first reported by the Buffalo News. And a former Bush spokesperson, Taylor Gross, has been hyping the group to newspapers without mentioning that he's a former political operative.

But the Buffalo story hasn't received much broader attention. Meanwhile, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post have all run op-eds by Vets for Freedom "without any reporting on who they actually were."

SUV's emit as much CO2 as 55 coal-fired plants! And the U.S. is the worst offender...

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 3:45 PM EDT

Via the Guardian, the Environmental Defence watchdog group has a new report out showing that...

  • Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population but drive almost a third of its cars

  • Americans' cars account for nearly half the carbon dioxide pumped out of exhaust pipes into the atmosphere each year

  • U.S. cars play a disproportionate role in global warming because they're less fuel efficient than passenger vehicles used elsewhere in the world; they emit 15 percent more carbon dioxide because they're less fuel-efficient and are driven across America's wide open spaces (see "sprawl," "exurbs"...)

  • The average U.S. passenger vehicle has a fuel economy of less than 20mpg
  • Overall U.S. fuel consumption will continue to rise in the next few years

  • More SUVs are still sold in the U.S. than any other type of car. (This has been true since 2002.)

  • SUVs "soon will be the main source of automotive CO2 emissions", emitting the equivalent of 55 large coal-fired power plants.

Ethanol, anyone? Read the full report here.

Net Neutrality Bill Falters in Senate

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 2:39 PM EDT

Things don't look good for net neutrality:

In a dramatic tie vote Wednesday, a U.S. Senate committee rejected an amendment that would have preserved the status quo of equal pricing for all Internet traffic, an issue known as network neutrality.

Although the net neutrality amendment did not prevail in the committee, the issue could be revived. The amendment that failed was part of a larger telecommunications bill that passed the committee and now heads to the full Senate. A similar amendment could be reintroduced into the larger bill before that vote. Tim Wu wrote an essay in Slate recently about why people should care about network neutrality—"The future of the Internet depends on it!"—so go read that for a good backgrounder.

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Scientists want libraries? What next?

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 2:00 PM EDT

Here's a bright idea: Close he EPA scientific libraries so regulators can't get at the science that, under law, they are supposed to base their decisions on. No worries, a flack told the Washington Post--all that stuff is going to be digital anyway. Except that there's no money for that either. All but eliminating the agency's library network saves $2 million; according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the EPA estimates that "providing full library access saves an
estimated 214,000 hours in professional staff time worth some $7.5
million annually."

Hamdan to Rein Bush In?

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 1:57 PM EDT

Marty Lederman has commentary on the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision today, ruling that the military tribunals set up at Guantanamo are improper, over at SCOTUSblog. Among other things, the Supreme Court has apparently ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to all detainees captured in the conflict against al-Qaeda. That seems to mean, if Lederman's right, that torture and "coercive" interrogation tactics will no longer be allowed, period. The CIA's interrogation tactics are "officially" illegal, and methods such as waterboarding and inducing hypothermia are now "officially" war crimes. The Court also ruled that the president does not have the power to ignore or violate congressional law.

This looks very significant indeed, and short of convincing Congress to pull out of the Geneva Conventions, perhaps, it certainly looks like the Bush administration has been reined in. What this means in practice, though, still seems very much up in the air—presumably Congress could respond by setting up new tribunals at Guantanmo, or modifying the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or granting the administration other new powers, or so forth… So we'll see what happens.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has a useful discussion here.

UPDATE II: The Court also seems to have rejected one of the administration's legal rationales for its illegal wiretapping program.

The Day Senator Bunning Read the Newspaper

| Thu Jun. 29, 2006 1:40 AM EDT

So Kentucky's Sen. Jim Bunning says he doesn't read newspapers, but he did pick up a copy of the Times long enough to read the financial-surveillance story, and he knows treason when he sees it.

Bunning equated the Times' story last week on the bank records to publishing the phone number of Osama bin Laden, saying the al-Qaida leader would be tipped and change his number immediately.

"In my opinion, that is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, therefore it is an act of treason," Bunning said of the story, which detailed how the government is analyzing a massive database on international money transfers.

Let the record reflect that to suggest that terrorists would have had no way to suspect that their records might be surveiled--through an agency that out and out advertises its cooperation with law enforcement), you have to assume that they're pretty damn obtuse. But no matter: Bunning's point really is that, as Ari Fleischer would have it, "people need to watch what they say, watch what they do."

"What you write in a war and what is legal to do for the federal government, or state government, whoever it is, is very important in the winning of the war on terror."

Asked if that could be a recipe for government abuse of civil liberties, Bunning responded: "It could be."

And the Next Secretary General Is...

Wed Jun. 28, 2006 6:00 PM EDT

Forget betting on sports events; for my money, the most fun thing to gamble on these days is over who will be the next Secretary General of the UN. Kofi Annan is due to retire on December 31, and the battle to replace him has been raging for months.

A few weeks ago, Foreign Policy listed descriptions of all the major contenders, and their odds of replacing Annan, but that article appeared too early to take account of India's recent nominee, Shashi Tharoor. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, has come out in favor of dark-horse candidate Bill Clinton, although seeing as how most countries believe in the principle of regional rotation and share a bias for candidates from small countries, a Secretary General Clinton faces tall odds (1000 to 1, according to Foreign Policy). To keep abreast of the action, check out this spirited blog maintained by a University of Maryland grad student.