Best headline of year by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2010, 4:01 am
Filed under: Environment, Uncategorized

I nominate the Duluth NewsTribune for best headline of the year:

Bear obsession takes us down a murky path



An argument is not the same as a contradiction by mattsteinglass
March 9, 2010, 5:53 am
Filed under: Environment

Viscount Christopher Monckton of Brenchley reminds me of a Monty Python sketch.

[youtubevid id=”PMe5dOgbu40″]

But which one was it again? This one?

[youtubevid id=”teMlv3ripSM”]

No, wait, not that one. This one:

[youtubevid id=”TSqkdcT25ss&feature=related”]

“Britain need have no fear, with leaders of this caliber. If only a few of the so-called working classes would destroy themselves so sportingly!”

Baby, it's hot outside by mattsteinglass
January 7, 2010, 7:49 am
Filed under: Environment, Vietnam

Matthew Yglesias notes that as it’s been extremely cold lately in the eastern US, major American media organizations have been wondering where all the global warming has gone. Well, some of it has come here to Hanoi, where we’ve barely had any cold spells at all this winter, and where the Red River is now down to its lowest level in 108 years, according to the national meteorological center. Here’s what that looks like:

Dry Red River, Hanoi

Dry Red River, Hanoi

Yglesias notes that one other big hotter-than-average zone is the middle of the Pacific, location of the El Nino phenomenon that Vietnamese weather authorities say is responsible for the drought.

The carbon tariff looks pretty good to me by mattsteinglass
November 18, 2009, 9:36 am
Filed under: Environment

I’m hesitant to write this kind of thing when I blog on “Democracy in America”, because free trade is pretty much viewed as gospel over there. And I’m generally pretty pro-trade too. But lord help me, when I read this piece by Jake Schmidt at Grist about the modestly encouraging things Hu Jintao and Barack Obama agreed to say in their joint communique in Beijing the other day, it makes me think…that Lori Wallach and Fred Bergsten were exactly right the other day in their Washington Post op-ed calling for tough, enforceable carbon tariffs as part of the cap-and-trade bill the US Congress is considering.

Here’s the thing. Chinese leadership is quite serious about reducing carbon emissions, or rather reducing the carbon output per dollar of the Chinese economy. They take climate change seriously; they accept the logic, the science and the rhetoric. The same is true in Vietnam. But like Vietnam, the Chinese government has very limited ability to enforce its writ across China via the mechanism of law. So when Schmidt writes that he’s encourage that the joint Obama-Hu communique says the two countries “resolve to take significant mitigation actions and recognize the important role that their countries play in promoting a sustainable outcome that will strengthen the world’s ability to combat climate change,” I think: yeah, we’ll see what happens with that.

It’s not that countries like China and Vietnam lack the governing capacity to achieve results. In fact, when they identify top-priority issues, they can achieve vast results much faster and more sweepingly than a hidebound, rule-governed democracy like the US can. If China decides it wants to build 50 gigawatts’ worth of wind farms within 3 years, I have no doubt it will happen. But what countries like China and Vietnam can’t do well is rule-of-law stuff: enforcing pollution standards, tax regulations, and so on. And that kind of regulatory enforcement is exactly what emissions reduction schemes based on cap-and-trade or carbon taxes require. China and Vietnam respond incredibly effectively to monetary, commercial and strategic incentives. They don’t respond well to the challenge of making and enforcing rules.

So that’s why I think carbon tariffs would be so effective. If American and European agencies enforced tariffs based on measurable carbon emissions from Chinese industry, it would drive China’s export-oriented economy to reform with incredible speed. Global agreements on CO2 emissions reductions are goal number one, but carbon tariffs provide us with a way to trust, but verify.

How much is a coral reef worth? by mattsteinglass

I posted the other day at Democracy in America on Brad Johnson’s response to CBO head Doug Elmendorf’s scoring of the GDP impact of global warming. As an example of the catastrophic climate change Elmendorf seemed to underplay, Johnson listed “widespread coral reef mortality.” And that immediately seemed to me like a really wimpy argument that wouldn’t convince the average centrist American of the dangers of climate change. When you’re talking about strong government action to restrict CO2 emissions, the danger that more coral reefs will die probably just won’t move the average American focus group’s dials.

Why is that?

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Yesterday, I went out scuba diving with my wife in Nha Trang. Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay are being hopelessly overfished by thousands of small- to medium-sized Vietnamese fishing boats. At night, the spotlights of the boats lined up off the coast look like a superhighway. (They focus the lights on the water to attract fish.) But the provincial government has established a Marine Protected Area to preserve the local coral reefs, and they’ve largely succeeded in stopping the dynamite-fishing and cyanide-fishing that local fishermen used to practice. So the scuba diving off Nha Trang is still pretty nice. My wife and I went out with a group of about 16 people, organized by the very excellent Rainbow Divers, and we dropped down to 13 meters or so and saw a whole bunch of stuff that looked more or less like what you’d expect from “Little Nemo.” I did, in fact, see some Tomato Clownfish, along with trumpetfish, angelfish, two different species of lionfish, some crazy anemones that seemed to grow inside a protective bright-blue bag, and several species from a family of very strange bright-colored sea slugs called Nudibranches, which Vietnam is famous for.

Coral reefs everywhere are threatened by global warming, with its attendant increasing sea acidity, rising water temperatures, and rising sea levels. The question Johnson and Elmendorf were clashing over, though, was the impact of such changes on GDP over time. Elmendorf had stated that it didn’t seem unreasonable to estimate that global temperature increases of 7 degrees Fahrenheit would lead to a maximum reduction in US GDP of about 3% by 2100. A rise of 11 degrees, well within IPCC estimates, might lead to a drop in US GDP of 5%, and global GDP of 10%. Johnson thinks this idea is crazy, and that economic impact would have to be higher.

But here’s the thing: killing all the coral reefs off Nha Trang wouldn’t really impact the global economy that much. My wife and I paid $50 each to dive for the morning. There were perhaps 20 divers on the boat, and some of them were paying for more expensive training dives; let’s say the boat was worth $2000 in revenue. Dozens of boats of divers go out in Nha Trang every day. Add in the hotel rooms, meals, and transit consumed by all of those divers, and you’ve got…an industry that still isn’t bringing in very much money. The entire tourism economy of Nha Trang is projected to bring in about 1.3 billion Vietnam dong, or a bit over $70 million, in 2010, according to (somewhat out-of-date but probably ballpark accurate) government figures. Vietnam’s GDP is just $85 billion or so, so that’s significant on a national scale, but not a global one.

So what are the reefs of Nha Trang worth?

They’re priceless. The inability to measure anything except in terms of dollar value in a retail consumer economy is a disease, a kind of contagious psychosis. It’s one that has invaded the global consciousness to an increasing degree over the past three decades. It’s time for that to stop. As I noted in the Democracy in America post, Iraq has recently been increasing its GDP by plundering its ancient ruins and selling off priceless antiquities. There is no way for a dollar-value calculus to make it look more profitable for Iraq to preserve the ruins of Ur than to sell them off piece by piece to the highest bidder. But if we now actually embrace a value system that says those ruins should actually be plundered and sold off, then we are a sick and degenerate society.

Towards the end of our first dive yesterday, our guide, Tran, motioned us over and began poking around under a rock with a length of PVC hose he carried for such purposes. There was something flat and spotted underneath, brown, green, and yellow; I couldn’t figure it out. Was it a big crab? After a few more pokes it started to move a bit, and then finally it launched itself out and began swimming away. It was a Hawksbill Turtle, about two feet long,  like the ones in “Little Nemo”. It looked back at me; I could almost hear it say “Dude!” And then it swam away, extraordinary, priceless, and contributing not a cent to the world’s GDP.

TV me by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 11:18 am
Filed under: Environment, TV, Vietnam

I will be on PBS’s “Worldfocus” tonight (Thursday), reporting on improved cookstoves to fight global warming in Vietnam. The show airs in New York on WNET-13 from 6-6:30 pm, for other times in the US consult the website.

The piece is a 3-minute short I produced with the excellent documentary filmmaker Ted Burger, whose work on Buddhism in China is completely amazing and hopefully will be available on the internet soon.

Add: Direct link to the segment here.

What libertarians think about urban planning by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 4:51 am
Filed under: Environment, Health, Libertarianism

One of the commenters on a recent post took a libertarian stance on government’s role in obesity-related issues, and that prompted me to reflect that I’ve never really understood what it is that libertarians think about government’s role in urban planning. For instance, yesterday Elana Schor had a nice post on the DC Streets blog about a recent national conference of metropolitan area planners. Here’s how she describes the focus of the conference:

Leinberger, an experienced land use strategist, described the core question as: “What kind of built environment do we want? Over the past 50 years, it has been imposed by a bureaucracy, either in D.C. or by the state capitals.”

But as more planners and local residents come to the (non-partisan) conclusion that “it’s time to be conscious about what kind of development our transportation choices spark,” as Leinberger put it, what can the federal government do to help local success go national?

A liberal position might be that the things metropolitan area planners should be doing include building out bicycle transit options so they’re safe and universal, doing more mixed residential/commercial zoning and development to encourage walkable neighborhoods, etc.

As far as I can tell the libertarian position would be that metropolitan area planners don’t actually exist and did not just hold a conference in Washington DC to discuss all the things they don’t do which don’t determine the shape of America’s built environment. Or else it’s that they shouldn’t exist and we should just eliminate the government’s role in building or regulating the country’s physical environment, and see how that works out for a while. I’m not really clear on this.