Can democracies solve climate change?

James Lovelock, of Gaia Hypothesis fame, thinks we are too stupid to deal with climate change. He has also argued that democratic systems of government may be at fault:

But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

This touches on issues that have been discussed here frequently before, like just how radical a change we need in our political and economic systems. Still, it seems worth discussing.

Is there any chance whatsoever that the suspension of democracy could help deal with climate change? Or would such suspension simply perpetuate inaction, or make things even worse? Certainly, the more concerned any government is about remaining in power, the less seriously they generally take issues of long-term importance.

People are also discussing this on MetaFilter.

Complaints about ties and bad pockets

Perhaps more slowly than might have been expected, I am making the transition from almost exclusively owning comfortable, functional clothing of the sort that works well for climbing mountains to owning an increasing proportion of the kind of clothes I once owned in singular sets for the occasional wedding, funeral, or high table dinner.

I can’t say I object to the difference between wearing decent dress shoes and wearing $100 shoes I originally bought for a minimum wage position at Staples. Nor, living in Ottawa, can I deny the utility of long woolen coats for much of the year. I must, however, object to two intolerable aspects of formal clothing.

Impractical pockets

Firstly, I object to the pockets. There are too few of them, they are lacking in volume and ability to carry objects unobtrusively, and they are almost always too easy to lose things out of. In an ideal world, I should be able to carry all my day-to-day gear in the pockets of my jacket and trousers: keys, wallet, change, phone, iPod, headphones, point and shoot camera, liner gloves, earplugs (I like reading in silence), bus/security pass, miniature tripod, etc. In this ideal world, all of these things would also be in deep, zippered pockets that do not bulge horribly, when burdened with such necessary objects.

I have never found these desires to be satisfied by formal clothes. Keys seem absurdly capable of sawing through the pockets of dress trousers, leading to the loss of coins, phones, and other things. Jacket pockets are too few in number and too open and horizontal to be trusted. This is especially true when carrying electronic devices.

The silken noose

The other aspect of formal clothing to which I must object most forcefully is neckties. There are a number of reasons why Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a man worth taking seriously, and his hatred of neckties seems to me to be among the most convincing. The things serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Even worse, they inescapably cause frustration, annoyance, and discomfort – not least by obstructing both breathing and circulation.

I am truly glad to have been able to go many months now without wearing one, and devoutly wish to eventually find myself employed in such a place and manner that I will need to wear them only for funerals.

All the above being said, and in keeping with my earlier appeal for quality durable goods, those men who find themselves obliged to wear formal clothes often should subscribe to the blog Put This On, which is a good source of information and advice for those who have never been personally educated in such things.

1973 NSA cryptography lectures

For those with an interest in cryptography, and secure communication generally, a series of recently declassified lectures from the American National Security Agency are well worth reading. The moderately-to-heavily redacted documents from 1973 cover a number of engaging subjects. The first volume covers the importance and practicalities of secure communications, codes, one time pads, encryption systems for voice communication, various bits of specific American communication equipment, TEMPEST attacks (described as “the most serious technical security problem [the NSA] currently face[s] in the COMSEC world”), and more. The second volume includes lecture on operational security, issues around the number of sending and receiving stations, public (commercial) cryptography, the destruction of cryptographic equipment in emergency situations, and more. There are also some interesting tidbits on tropospheric and ionospheric scatter transmission systems, which bounce signals off of the upper atmosphere which are theoretically highly directional.

Originally classified Secret and ‘No Foreign,’ the lectures are well written, engaging, and illuminating. Some of it is overly technical and specific, but there is also some broadly applicable general information about cryptographic theory and practice, as well as the role of communications security organizations within governments and militaries.

Unfortunately, the PDF consists of non-searchable, and sometimes badly copied text. Still, the difficulties of reading it are minor. There are also some long gaps where entire sections have been redacted.

Food, energy, and fossil fuels

Yesterday night, I had an interesting conversation about energy, fossil fuels, agriculture, and human population. The key fact is that global agriculture is now deeply dependent on fossil fuels. They are needed for everything from running industrial farming equipment to producing fertilizer to operating the vast logistical networks through which food is processed and distributed. The key question is, what will the ramifications be when we inevitably transition from a global energy system based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable sources?

The transition is indeed inevitable, though it could happen in either of two ways. Either we can voluntarily cut back on using fossil fuels due to well-founded concerns about climate change – and awareness of the opportunities that exist in renewable energy – or we will draw down reserves to the point where it takes more energy to extract one calorie worth of fossil fuel than the fuel contains.

So, what might the post-fossil-fuel world look like? To get one idea, we can consider the world as it existed before the Industrial Revolution brought about large-scale fossil fuel use. Back in 1500, there were about half a billion people alive on Earth. The energy they relied upon was overwhelmingly from renewable sources, such as the embedded solar energy in plants. It seems plausible that returning to that kind of an energy system would return the planet’s capability of sustaining human beings to about the level that existed then: a bit higher, perhaps, because people now live in more places, and a bit lower, perhaps, because of the damage we have caused to the planet in various ways.

For an alternative, we need to consider an enhanced renewable-backed future that includes clever approaches to harnessing renewable sources of energy: solar, wind, wave, geothermal, etc. It seems to me that if we are going to have a world that does not use fossil fuels and which sustains something like as many billions as are alive now (to say nothing of in 2050 or later), such technologies are going to need to be deployed on massive scale and the world’s agricultural systems will need to be adapted to rely on them.

Fossil fuels have been an enormous energy boon for humanity. Quite possibly, they have allowed us to far overshoot where we would otherwise have been, in terms of energy use and population. Quite possibly, both of those will need to fall substantially in a post-fossil-fuel world. If there is any chance of that not taking place, it will depend on the massive deployment of the kind of advanced renewables that are already technologically feasible. That deployment will take dedication, foresight, financing, and energy. Indeed, there is surely no better use for whatever proportion of the world’s remaining fossil fuels we choose to burn than in making the solar and wind farms that will need to form most of the future energy basis for all human civilization.

Cleaning house

Not to direct this at any particular organization, but it seems to me that if you want to start repairing your credibility after giving shelter to child rapists for decades, it is pretty clear how you should start. First, admit that you have entirely failed to prevent criminal abuse through your internal processes. Second, openly encourage civil authorities around the world to prosecute your members and affiliates just as they would any other criminals. Third, make all your internal records available to assist them in securing arrests and convictions. Fourth, encourage the prosecutions of those involved in covering up known crimes, as well as those who actually committed them.

Anything less than that and you can be rightly accused of just perpetuating the aiding and abetting of vile crimes, and continuing to utterly fail to act as an ethical or responsible organization.

As for those looking into the matter from outside, it is time to stop allowing organizations to hide behind pathetic euphemisms and false contrition.

[Update: 12 Apr 2010] Things are heating up, rhetorically at least: Richard Dawkins calls for Pope to be put on trial.

Lifetime cost labels

To me, it seems problematic that people are excessively moved by the initial purchase price of various goods, giving much less consideration to total cost of ownership. For instance, when I used to sell printers at Staples, I observed that a $10 difference in price would often be enough to make a person choose one machine over another. My sense was that this encouraged printer manufacturers to make ever-shoddier products, hoping to capture the business of those who apparently care a lot more about the initial impact on their chequing account than on how long and well the product will serve them.

The same phenomenon is observable everywhere – in everything from clothes and shoes that fall apart in a few months to houses where corners have been cut in construction, at the expense of their efficiency, lifetime, and other factors.

I wonder if there is any way a labeling system could be devised to better express the real cost of products. For goods that have been available for many years, it seems like it should be possible to calculate the average length for which they remain in good working order, as well as tally up maintenance costs. Alongside the price, a label could display both the average number of years for which a product is likely to be useful, and the total cost of ownership divided across those years. The labels would have to be developed by some outside independent rating agency, somewhat akin to the analyses that are performed on automobiles.

Some will surely object that such ratings would be some kind of restriction on the free market. I argue that they are just the opposite. Rational choice models of economics hold that consumers have effectively perfect knowledge about what they buy, including factors like probable lifetime and upkeep costs. Actually providing this information in an effective and accessible way would help people to make rational economic choices. In so doing, it would mean that more people found themselves using more durable goods of higher quality. That, in turn, would cut down on total resource use and waste accumulation.

Such a system could be implemented in a number of different ways. Most ambitiously, it could be a national requirement, with a public agency producing the figures. A less elaborate option would be a voluntary rating system run by a non-profit entity which manufacturers could submit their goods to for evaluation. That would at least offer manufacturers of quality products a way to demonstrate their value through an independent estimate. Another approach would be for a quality-conscious retailer to implement such a system themselves. One example that comes to mind is Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-Op. They could collect data from their members and produce estimates for durable products like tents, sleeping bags, stoves, climbing gear, etc.

Climate change severity levels

In the interests of using language clearly and consistently, when talking about climate change, I have written up some personal definitions over at Specifically, I have defined what I mean when I talk about ‘dangerous,’ ‘catastrophic,’ and ‘runaway’ climate change.

I hope the post will serve the dual purpose of helping to encourage effective conversation – in which all participants understand one another clearly – and of reminding people just what a serious problem we are dealing with, when it is necessary to define such terms and consider the implications of such phenomena.

Tracking what is in the atmosphere

The Economist recently published an article lamenting how little funding is devoted to tracking the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. States do produce bottom-up records of emissions, based on what various facilities and vehicles emit. But it is also possible to track the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere directly, and to infer things about emissions from regional variations in concentrations and from isotopic ratios which can help to identify the sources of gases like CO2 and methane. As explained in the article, little of this is being done, largely because of a lack of funding. The unfortunate destruction of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory is also a contributing factor.

It is both saddening and surprising that so little funding is devoted to collecting this basic information, especially given that it could provide the earliest signs of significant changes in the functioning of the carbon cycle. For instance, it could identify things like the rate of methane release in the Arctic, or changes in the world’s carbon sinks. Greenhouse gases affect the climate system, regardless of whether they are released directly by human beings or whether humans merely induce their release indirectly. As such, top-down tracking is vital for developing and maintaining a comprehensive sense of what is going on.

In Canada, at least, the state of climate science funding seems to be worsening. While promises of a ‘High Arctic Research Station’ continue to be made periodically, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) is being shut down for lack of funding, and Canada’s climate scientists remain muzzled.

Sherlock Holmes and Huckleberry Finn

During the past week or so, I listened to my first two audiobooks ever. Previously, I had been quite skeptical. To me, podcasts and the like seem to require too much concentration for use when doing anything complicated, but to not really be engaging enough to hold your attention when you are doing nothing else.

Both issues have been problematic sometimes, when listening to the free copies of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I got from the excellent iTunes U section of Apple’s music store. I sometimes had to rewind (what an anachronistic term!) and re-listen when something distracted me. Much more rarely, I found the contents insufficiently engrossing, though Ernest Hemingway is surely correct to say that the last few chapters of Huckleberry Finn are a severe disappointment.

Both books are part of the University of South Florida’s Lit2Go collection, and they are well (though I think not professionally) read. Each is read by a single person, without much attempt made at voices or radio-play style effects. I found that both books lent themselves well to this treatment, owing perhaps to their relative simplicity and the charming datedness and foreignness of the voices in them. The books can be downloaded here and here, as well as through iTunes.

I doubt that the audiobook treatment would be as well suited to something really complex and intellectual, of the sort where you frequently need to make notes or refer back and forth through the book. Nonetheless, the audiobook medium does seem like a good one for the casual enjoyment of relatively light fiction.

Obamacare and climate change

Now that the Democrats have had a success on health care reform, my thinking turns naturally to what this means for climate change legislation. In one sense, it looks as though an obstacle has been removed. Important as it was to reform health care (and imperfect as the solution that has emerged is), it had clearly become the top priority of the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress. That inevitably meant less attention for an issue that will ultimately be much more important, given that it may substantially affect the habitability of the whole planet.

While Democrats in Congress may now have a bit of confidence, born from success, and a bit more openness in their schedules, there does seem to be reason to think that climate change legislation will be a very tough sell. Health care only seems to have passed because Senate agreement was secured while the Democrats still had their slim super-majority. Furthermore, while Congresspeople may thunder on about how health care reform will prove the death of liberty, that remarkably science-averse institution will find far more reason to complain about anything that restricts the emission of greenhouse gases. Regional interests are certainly a lot stronger on this matter, though it is ironic that the regions that suffer most from the environmental effects of things like coal mining nonetheless have representatives who will fight tooth and claw to protect that filthy industry.

What do readers think? Will success on health care embolden Democrats, or make them even more timid on account of upcoming mid-term elections? Is there any change of Waxman-Markey or some similar cap-and-trade bill succeeding in Obama’s first term? What about a more novel carbon pricing scheme, such as one based on tax-and-dividend? What about regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? Will that provide an alternative to Congressional action, or will it not prove a potent enough tool to make a difference? Also, might Congress close off that option as well?