Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where is the Climate of Ethics and Honesty?

By Bob Ferris

Winston Churchill once said during the early days of World War II: Never in the field of human
conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. When I think of this quote and our current situation with climate change a modification of this quote comes to my mind. Here is the current version: Never have so relatively few sewn so much misinformation and confusion that will damage so many. This, in short, is not mankind's finest hour. I may sound angry and on some level I am, because I am patently opposed to deceit, hypocrisy, and bullying.

When I started earning my science chops 25 years ago, I testified before a town hall meeting in the sleepy burg of Ben Lomond in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. The meeting was about whether or not to use a bacteria-laced pesticide to do in gypsy moths that were starting to show up in the San Lorenzo Valley. I did my research and evaluated the risks and came down on the side of "no," but could have been convinced to accept limited field trials and testing to see how it worked. I never made it through my presentation because the folks on the dais were convinced that this temperate rainforest was soon to become a desert and they collided with the folks in the audience in death masks chanting: Bhopal, Bhopal. The latter worked because Union Carbide was one of the potential suppliers of the mixture. It was an awful experience for me.

At the end of the presentation I was approached by a reporter who asked me to clarify some facts. I had not been interviewed by Fox News at this point and the Fairness Doctrine was still in force, so I trotted right in and spoke to the gentleman. The next day the story came out and the reporter managed to do three things. First, he correctly described my concerns and rationales as well as my credentials and the credentials of others he called for backup opinions. Second, he accurately described the feelings of the various parties. And lastly, he did a little research and artfully separated opinion from fact and experts from stakeholders. Good story that informed the public on all fronts.

Fast forward 25 years and we are in the midst of one of the largest town hall meetings of all time—the effort to negotiate proper and fair control of greenhouse gases. The qualified scientists—i.e., those folks who are currently working and publishing in peer-reviewed journals in the climate arena—have spoken and are speaking. Their basic message is that climate change is upon us, that we are in part responsible, and we need to do something to avoid serious, long term, consequences. They did not stutter. They did not use an overabundance of weasel words. And there is near unanimity within this group for this position. Moreover, there is not a single nationally recognized scientific organization that has taken a position in opposition to this set of premises.

On the popular and political front you have absolute and unmitigated chaos. Energy interests are funding and organizing contrarian scientists left and right—maybe just to the right. Conservative think-tanks that are cranking out steaming piles of self-published "research" are sprouting up as quickly as checks can be written and cashed. That is not to say that exaggeration and hyperbole are not coming from other sectors in the public debate, but there is a massive difference in terms of scale, outlandishness, and intent.

In addition, a collection of economists, fringe scientists, journalists, ex-TV weathermen, and politicians have grabbed the internet by the horns and anointed themselves climate change experts. Wearing proudly their labels as skeptics, doubters, and deniers they have ironically wrapped themselves in the hallowed flag of good science and are charging into the fray unarmored by any real or relevant credentials. It is simply amazing and tragic.

My point here is that the press and the public need to do a better job in separating the science from the politics and facts from opinions.

Jim Peden—Ego-gate

Below is an excerpt from the code of ethics of the American Physical Society. This document is like many others in the various scientific communities in that it lays out acceptable codes of behavior and loosely describes a code of ethics for folks operating within these disciplines. Pretty straight-forward stuff: Be honest and do not be deceitful. This is pretty basic and pretty easy to follow for nearly all of us.

The Constitution of the American Physical Society states that the objective of the Society shall be the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics. It is the purpose of this statement to advance that objective by presenting ethical guidelines for Society members.

Each physicist is a citizen of the community of science. Each shares responsibility for the welfare of this community. Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community. Acts of deception, or any other acts that deliberately compromise the advancement of science, are unacceptable. Honesty must be regarded as the cornerstone of ethics in science. Professional integrity in the formulation, conduct, and reporting of physics activities reflects not only on the reputations of individual physicists and their organizations, but also on the image and credibility of the physics profession as perceived by scientific colleagues, government and the public. It is important that the tradition of ethical behavior be carefully maintained and transmitted with enthusiasm to future generations.

So let me tell you a story that applies to the above. A little over 40 years ago when Gaylord Nelson and Denis Hayes were plotting the launch of the environmental movement—you remember back when Republicans and Democrats worked together on environmental issues—a young man was working on his PhD in Pennsylvania. He was building on promising work having completed a BS in Physics and Mathematics and a Masters in Experimental Physics. (I was a double major as an undergraduate myself and know that is a tough route.)

Then he started publishing first as a junior author in the prestigious Journal of Chemical Physics and then as a solo author. His second outing a year later was in Industrial Research and his brilliance was evidently ignored, because his last peer-reviewed article has never been cited in a single peer-reviewed publication in four decades. Our student disappears from the publishing and academic scene at this point. It is a common and honorable path, you take what you have learned and use it in industry or wherever else you can apply it. Lots of us did it.

Nearly forty years later we find our once intrepid student living in rural Vermont and serving as a web guru and host. Certainly honorable work, but he also has a side avocation as a climate change denier complete with blog posts, op-eds, and serving as an active poster on a number of forums. But now he bills himself as an Atmospheric Physicist in spite of the fact that he has not worked anywhere near this realm for 30 years and has never published a single peer-reviewed article on atmospheric physics or climate change. Yet in the blogosphere where everyone has a voice he self-publishes a rambling rant about climate change which has been roundly discounted for inaccuracies as well as mischaracterizations (please see here  and here).

The story would be fairly pedestrian if it ended here as all of us who work in the general field of science know folks who regret not continuing in their chosen field or taking it to the next level. You know the type: people who are constantly trying to demonstrate how smart they are. Often they are intellectual bullies who cannot complete a conversation without mentioning their Mensa membership or their long ago but very dated science accomplishments. Most of these folks are annoying but manage to keep the train on the track. Not so for our web guru, he needed the recognition and when it did not come by virtue of his accomplishments and gravitas he had to push the envelope and step over that ethical line that true people of accomplishment never cross: He started being his own cheering squad and he did so anonymously and with deception.

I have three examples, but given this gentleman's need for attention and validation, I suspect there are many, many more. The first involves a poster identifying himself as "ecojunkie" who praised Peden's tired and discredited piece and sang praises about the credentials of the author. This effort was fairly transparent and set off a whole discussion about the ethics of posting anonymously about your own work because the poster in question was identified as James A. Peden himself. On some level I would say that this sort of action speaks volumes about a person's character and personal psychology, but lots of people do silly, immature things to get attention. But, for me, it is definitely a violation of the code of conduct expected from scientists practicing in a certain discipline.

So Peden might actually get a pass on this if it weren't for the following: On March 3, 2008 a poster with the handle "Kodiak" posted a topic on a forum called Star Destroyer—a site that caters to science fiction aficionados with an interest in science. The post had to do with the very same self-published editorial on climate change that was being circulated and praised by our friend above. There was a little bit of an exchange between folks who were clearly regulars on the site pointing out the piece's good points and bad as well as offering advice on where to get clarification and additional information. It was a nice supportive dynamic and then came the following post from "ecofan":

As a Physics Professor who teaches at a major west-coast university (graduate level gas dynamics, among others) I happened on this site while some of my students were researching the author of the piece you are discussing.

In fact, I've been aware of the editorial for a couple of weeks now, it appears to be sweeping the globe in "viral" fashion. Because the editorial is now being quoted on everything from MSNBC to the London Daily Telegraph and the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It's having a wide-spread effect and that always makes me a bit nervous

Since I always like to first know the credentials of folks who are opining on this highly controversial issue, I set a group of some of my most clever students out to find everything they could on the writer. I have some very clever students, including a few whose mastery of the internet would amaze you. Offering them some extra credit for the best research results set them to work like a beehive.

For example, we learned that "Kodiak" - who started this thread - has a 95% probability of being employed at a company whose name starts with "N" - and his CEO is a fellow named Hill, who actually has 3500 employees instead of the 3000 quoted. Don't worry, Kodiak - your secret is safe with us.

As to the author of the piece, we learned that he was originally a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying under Dr. Wade L. Fite, one of the giants in his field and a past Secretary of the International Union of Pure and Applied Scientists And indeed, the author's claim to have first published in the Journal of Chemical Physics ( the absolute top journal of its type on the planet ) was also true - which amazed us, because getting a first publication in that journal is like hitting a grand slam homer your first time up at bat. (See Farragher AL, Peden JA and Fite WL 1969. J. Chem. Phys. 50. 287-93) It's also true he was a co-recipient of the IR-100 ( given to the 100 most significant developments of the year) just one year out of school, another amazing accomplishment. We also learned that in addition to Physics, he was quite an accomplished mountaineer in his youth, having parachuted into the Arctic Circle with the noted explorer Dr. Ivan Lloyd Jirak, and in 1976 organized, trained, and led an expedition to climb and ski the highest active volcano in the world - El Cotopaxi, in Ecuador. He also holds a commercial pilots license with single and multiengine instrument ratings and held a flight instructor's certificate on top of it all, according to FAA records. I told you my boys were sharp... and I was generous in my extra credit to the student who dug all this up.

I also set another group loose critiquing the article itself - and these are some talented fellows when it comes to physics of the upper atmosphere. They went over the editorial with a fine-tooth comb, and concluded that the simplified science was not only a perfect simplification for the average layman to digest, but obviously a "worst case" analysis - and a brilliant application of the principle of Occam's Razor. By first proving the "worst case" scenario ( using a square wave spectrum instead of a gaussian distribution, including the two lesser peaks which are insignificant, and ignoring the energy distribution of the black body spectrum itself ) he gives every opportunity to err on the high side and subsequently support the warming panic. He's a generous fellow who, in the end, banged another bases loaded homer right out of the box, and thus doesn't have to do anything more complex than what he did.

It appears that most of the commenters above didn't read the article very closely, or perhaps just weren't clever enough to pick up on the subtle details . "Darth Wong" complains that it looks like it was written by a High School student, completely missing the point that it was written for students. My researchers learned a lot about Mr. Darth, as well - he's a Canadian engineer with a less than distinguished career and serious anger management issues - but we'll keep the details secret on that, as well.

The new bastion of the Global Warming Hoaxters is "Climate Modeling". Models can be created to produce any desired result, and "modeling" in this particular issue is so primitive it is currently classified as "Junk Science" at least in the field of atmospheric physics. We found it interesting that "D. Turtle" immediately steered you to and quoted Michael Mann, Caspar Ammann, and Gavin Schmidt as pillars of the community. Mann was the guy who's mathematically botched PCA program started the whole panic, and Ammann and Schmidt are climate "modelers" who couldn't make an accurate model to predict their next lunch even if they had eaten baloney sandwiches every day their whole life. Turtle has managed to steer you all to some of the most unreliable "science" in the whole spectrum.

So gather around, students, here's your grades:

"Kodiak" gets an A+ for starting the thread and even coming back with a personal observation based on a more careful reading. His boss, Mr. Hill, would be proud of him.

"D. Turtle" gets an F for even suggesting you'll find anything other than religious hysteria at "Real Climate"

"Darth Wong" gets a C because he still can't sort the wheat from the chaff but at least he has some seemingly original thought and admits that there are still a ton of unanswered questions out there.

And all my students who put an enormous amount of work into researching both the science and authorship of the editorial all get 10 extra credit points. ( Which they really don't need, since virtually all of them were former honors students in undergraduate school anyway ) Special thanks to Matt who wrote most of the above summary stuff for me so I didn't have to spend so much time on the keyboard. Hey, surf's up on the California coast, I have another life too....

Ok, a "professor" wades in. An expert shows up and all is explained. What a relief; an adult enters the discussion. At first there is some minor chattering and then the critique starts. The other posters on the site are not buying the claims in the editorial and they are not buying the professor. And then one of the posters is smart enough to look at the purported professor's IP address ( which indicates that the "professor's" comment came not from sunny and surfing California but from Shoreham,VT the home of Jim Peden the author of the op-ed and our former promising student.
The whole episode is as one poster characterized it: Creepy. I am not a psychologist but it strikes me as one thing to anonymously praise your own work, but really a whole other thing to do it by creating an alternative reality of what you wish you were and are not. There is a certain sadness in hearing about the much loved professor he never became and the relationship he portrays with students he will never have. But that is something for him and his therapist to speak about.

The next (but not last) example is what happens when Mr. Peden plays with his peers on Physics Forum. Here again, his paper gets introduced by "Art" and then ecofan charges in to sing the praises of Jim's thinking. Only this time he is playing with studying and working physicists not just knowledgeable folks. The end result is that he gets his hat handed to him by a poster indentified as Gokul43201. Peden via his alter ego "ecofan" is clearly fishing for complements in this thread but below is the respect he gets from his peers.

Here is the excerpt from the ecofan post clipped by Gokul43201:

Originally Posted by ecofan
Check this out

Farragher A L, Peden J A and Fite W L 1969 J. Chem. Phys.50287-93

I think that's the same guy ( Peden ) from the SRCC in Pittsburgh. If it is, the paper in question was a landmark paper that is still being quoted in the literature today, many decades later. He must be an old fart by now - the paper is dated 1969. And the Journal of Chemical Physics sure ain't Science magazine...

Gokul43201's comment on that excerpt:

1. This only makes it more embarrassing that this person has to now explain how his name is on an peer reviewed paper, when he seems to be lacking in high school level physics/chemistry fundamentals.

2. Being a second author on a paper is not absolute proof of any real knowledge of the subject matter. A second author could be a person that builds instrumentation, makes samples, writes computational algorithms, etc. Very often, the first author (likely the person that did all/most of the actual work) and the last author (likely the PI on the project) are the names that can be counted on to be knowledgeable about the paper. This is not to say that Peden was not knowledgeable about the content of the paper, though I find this a little hard to believe. In any case, if this person was knowledgeable in physics and chemistry 40 years ago, he is showing very little sign of it today.

3. I do not intend to downplay the importance of this paper, but AIP says that the above paper has exactly 3 citations amongst all peer-reviewed work. People that have written papers with 300 citations don't describe their works as "landmark".

4. Dr. Farragher and Dr. Fite show up as having authored dozens more papers, but J. A. Peden appears only with this one paper.

With all the "-gates" out there this "tempest in a teapot" scandal should probably be known as Ego-Gate. Here is a fellow so grieved that he is not a legitimate part of this debate that he discards the ethics of his profession and does everything he can—save the one thing he knows he should do (i.e., submit his ideas and comments for peer-review)—to make his voice heard. I suspect that his story is not unique in the world of the deniers which makes the criticism this crowd heaped on Phil Jones and the CRU folks all the more inappropriate.

So why do I care about this fellow and his sad little climate change side show? Normally I wouldn't take time with this save for two reasons. First, this gentleman is a relentless and mean blogger who regularly bullies his way across the discussion groups. He pours out vitriolic comments and marches over folks whose only sin is trying to figure out what is going on with our planet.

My second is because this is the person hand-picked by Marc Morano of Senator James Inhofe staff as an expert and mentioned repeatedly before Inhofe's committee on climate change and on his website. Is this really the best the climate skeptics have to offer? And should climate policy really be influenced or driven by a person who regularly resorts to childish trickery? Folks like Jim Peden have no business influencing Congress on climate change, period. He does not work in the field and publishing a blog critiquing other people's work is not the same as conducting research and publishing peer-reviewed articles in ISI-listed journals. Using him as an expert on climate change is a lot like asking a junior varsity football player to accurately describe what it is like to play in the Super Bowl.

Sorry Jim, but given all the grief heaped by you and your cronies on the CRU folks for doing nothing wrong, you have to expect that some might come flying back in your direction when you actually do something wrong. I thought that I actually took it pretty easy on you. I didn't mention the fact that you often make mistakes like confusing Kornbluth's work with Heinlein's. Oops I guess I did. But it indicates a certain lack of accuracy and detail characteristic of your work.

Post script: Since I wrote this original piece and then set it aside, I had an e-mail conversation with Jim and confronted him on the surfing California professor string. He was anything but contrite and dismissed it as a mind game that folks in Mensa played. I talked to the Mensa folks about this and found that the local chapter was not amused when he published a 6-page climate change rant as an opinion piece in their newsletter when he served as editor. He was asked to keep his politics to himself and not do it again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Three Weeks in B’ham Does Not a Hamster Make

Today marks our third week in Bellingham. We celebrated with a cupcake at Katie's and dinner at Milagro's (yes, I got the order right). This is also the end of my first week at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. I am feeling more comfortable and am starting to trundle downstairs to talk to folks in the RE Store. They tend to love the store and have a great time shopping there but few understand that it is a part of a larger non-profit that also includes the North Sound Baykeeper, Youth Education, and the Sustainable Living Center. Hopefully, they will soon.

Tomorrow Carlene and I will travel to Birch Bay State Park and hang out with RE Sources' Beach Naturalist Doug Stark and Baykeeper Matt Krogh for the -1.39 tide which should expose a whole lot of sub-tidal beasties and a little vegetation. Twenty five years ago or so I worked as a docent in several coastal parks in California. It will be good to see some old soggy friends and meet some new ones in our new home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sometimes a Bad Notion

By Bob Ferris

Forty years ago tough-guy character actor Richard Jaeckel appeared in the movie adaptation of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion along with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda (see above link). On many levels it is a fairly forgettable film but Jaeckel’s last scene is still etched in my mind. He played a logger whose lower body was pinned under a log next to a rising tidal river. He was not in unbearable pain, just pinned. But the water kept creeping up and in spite of the best efforts of Newman’s character, he simply could not free himself and the water was still rising. The scene was perfect and went from almost comical to deadly serious as Jaeckel’s upper body and then head slowly and steadily became submerged beneath the surface of the water.

Forty years later, Richard Jaeckel is played by all those who make a living from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the rising water is played by the BP oil spill which is roughly at the halfway point towards becoming as large as the Exxon Valdez disaster. The scene is such an apt metaphor for our current situation both in the Gulf and in our lives.

In the movie, Jaeckel dies laughing. Hopefully, we can pick and execute a better path in the Gulf and in our lives. But to do that we have to make radical changes and end our addiction to oil and fossil fuels in general. A tall order for sure, but better than watching us killing one supportive ecosystem at a time.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wolf Runs in the Family

Rehydrating one of the wolves bound for Yellowstone in 1996. 

By Bob Ferris

In 1994 I joined the staff of Defenders of Wildlife heading up all their species conservation programs. This was on the eve of the first reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Within a few weeks of taking the position I was told that there was an upcoming board meeting and asked did I have a “big” idea to present. Hmmm.

The next day it came to me, Yellowstone was a wonderful effort but far removed from most folks who support wolves. So my question to myself was: Is there a place in the East that had road and population densities low enough to support wolves? The answer to that was: Yes, the Adirondacks. At 6 million acres it was roughly three times the size of Yellowstone and I even had our slogan: NY ♥ Wolves. At the board meeting the Adirondack idea drew head nods and the slogan groans, but Defenders’ efforts to return wolves to the area within the fabled Blue Line were born on that day.

Sixteen years later and there are still no true wolves in the New York wilderness; do I see that as failure? The simple answer is: No. The New York idea was soon supported by a conference in Albany to look at this issue as well as other wolf issues. That initial conference was such a success that it eventually morphed into an internationally recognized biennial carnivore conference that is still a popular and impactful event today.

Likewise, the thinking that led to looking for other places spawned the idea behind Defenders’ award-winning publication Places for Wolves in 1999 that looked for similar areas throughout the US. Now in its second edition, the publication is often used in college classrooms and was instrumental in helping folks open up their thinking on potential wolf recovery sites and their views on the possible. I think it is safe to say that wolves are likely in more places and in larger numbers because we expanded the vision and planted flags in the dream areas.

Do I still think that wolves should be returned to the Adirondacks? Yes. And, yes, I understand about the brush wolves and all the complications and muddiness of wolf genetics. Obviously there has been some niche overlap and swapped genes between coyotes and wolves in the Northeast, but the fact remains that some of these same or similar arguments were made in Yellowstone. Yet we have lived to see the wondrous benefits of their reintroduction and we have not seen any hints of the Armageddon painted by wolf restoration opponents.

So why is all of this on my mind? Last month my wife and I went to see Drums Along the Mohawk a classic John Ford film depicting the battle for American independence in New York’s Mohawk Valley. Pretty standard fare for 1939 with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, that also portrays the social ecology of the Dutch, English (Tory and Rebel), and Indians of that time. It moves me because in a very real sense it is my history too. My father’s family is from New York and is a Dutch-English soup that has been brewing for nearly 400 years. Our family tree sap flows with Van Rensselaer and De Peyster blood as well as that of Morris and Chandler.

But what ties this all together for me are the Douws. My ancestor, Petrus Douw, was born in the late 1600s and married Anna Van Rensselaer in 1717 when he was 25. In 1740 he built a country estate on the eastern side of the Hudson across the river from Albany. Family histories describe the house as a wonderful place but also very much frontier with gun ports and surrounded by a tall wall of sharpened timbers. It was a place of love and respect also as Petrus and Anna carved their initials in a stone that was still visible early in the last century and Petrus never remarried in the two decades following her death. The marriage produced nine children and established the estate as the home for my branch of the family for many generations.

Life was lively there with horse races on the frozen river in winter and frequent interactions with Indians who often “slept inside the stockade wrapped in their buffalo robes.” The site teemed with wildlife including wolves that apparently used the Douw property shoreline so frequently as a place for drinking water that Petrus and Anna named their country estate Wolvenhoek or Wolf Point.

Who knows how much this act of honoring of the wildness of wolves influenced their great-great-great-great-great grandson roughly 250 years later, but I suppose on some level it did. The interesting thing is that I did not learn about Wolvenhoek until I stumbled onto it while looking through a pile of genealogical material five years after that initial board meeting. It is funny how life turns out.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Whooping for Water

By Bob Ferris

I was reading about the plight of the federally endangered Whooping Cranes of the Central Flyway the other day. These amazing five foot tall birds with seven foot wing spans migrate between Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas each spring and fall. Magnificent birds with a call that fills one with awe and a mating dance that is often copied by humans when things get a little light and frivolous

Hard work in being done to save the roughly 260 birds that remain in this population segment. For example, there are captive breeding programs and cross-fostering efforts to have the more numerous Sandhill Cranes raise young Whooper chicks and teach them the migration route. And there is a similar level of effort put into maintaining habitat in migratory rest stops along the way like around the North Platte River in Nebraska. But in spite of all these efforts the birds are still in trouble and the cause, in part, is likely water and our wasteful ways.

When Whooping Cranes arrive at Aransas they are likely tired and hungry and they also need to “bulk up” for their flight back north in the spring. One of their favored meals when they get to Texas is the blue crab. But blue crab populations have been severely impacted by a lack of freshwater flow from the Guadalupe River caused both by drought and water diversion for human use.

This issue is being discussed in Texas because a coalition led by The Aransas Project recently sued to preserve more of the flow for wildlife and fisheries. Following the filing of this suit, I saw one blog comment that basically said let the Whoopers die because water for humans was much more important. That comment struck me as a little like blaming the thermometer for a heat spell.

So what would be a more rational response? The answer to that is easy: Water conservation. And that means drought tolerant landscaping, low-flow shower heads, smaller toilet tanks, washing only full loads of laundry, and literally a hundred more similar and simple actions

It could also mean aggressively targeting big users in the Texas Hill Country like Lance Armstrong and others who take $2000 monthly water bills in stride. I know Texans are not about control and taxation but there should be a mechanism that gets folks who are using 10-40 times what their neighbors are to turn off a few faucets and do with a few less lawns, fountains, and swimming pools. Everyone has the right to make and spend money in ways that bring them pleasure, however, that freedom likely should not include purchases and lifestyle choices that ruin wildlife habitat for endangered species and put hard working fisherman out of work. Live a good life and save some water for the Whoopers.

For more information on the topic of freshwater check out the March 2010 special edition of National Geographic on Water. Very timely indeed.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

President Obama Thinks Climate Change is Imaginary

By Bob Ferris

“…. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -– because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

President Barrack Obama’s State of the Union Address January 2010As a scientist and one who has dealt extensively with energy efficiency, the above quote makes real sense. You do not have to believe in climate change to understand that investments in energy conservation are good. And the President even graciously acknowledged that there are folks out there who doubt the science behind climate change. All good and proper.

But when I visit some of the climate change doubter’s websites, the above gets paraphrased (and broadly circulated) into: Obama said in a recent speech climate change is worth fighting for even if it’s imaginary. The weird thing was that the first place that I ran into this interesting interpretation of the above quote was on a site with the URL

It is ironic that the President’s courtesy nod to climate change doubters would be used to cast doubt on the underpinnings of the science. And I am sure in the evolution of things that at some point this interpretation will be further distilled to: President Obama thinks climate change is imaginary.

This is all testimony to the sadness of the “public debate” on climate change which is a universe away from the debate in scientific circles. Some of this is no doubt due to the complexity of the topic. Some of this is also due to a public untrained in science, but well schooled in opinionating. And then there is the internet and what is at stake. But I would lay most of this at the feet of the energy companies and their allies.

The energy bloc has invested heavily in preserving their right to continue business as usual and externalizing the costs of their enterprises in terms of human welfare, economic stability, and the health of our global ecosystems. And in the process they have created political systems, conservative schools of thought, deceptive modes of behavior, and environmental conditions that will haunt us and future generations for the foreseeable future.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Aliens Ate My Brain

By Bob Ferris

Japanese Knotweed
Alien invasive species are a huge problem worldwide. So big in fact that they are the number two cause of biodiversity loss globally. As a result Zebra mussels, Japanese knotweed, flying Asian carp and a laundry list of stowaway species are in the news constantly. At the same time, the US is facing issues of energy security and madly looking for new fuel sources to cut our dependence on foreign oil. And maybe the existence of these two challenges is part of the reason I am not 100% behind proposals such as jet fuel from algae.

I should probably preface my comments by saying I am a little dubious about all bio-fuels because they are a little like methadone in that they replace an element of our addiction rather than cure our addiction. If the single issue facing us was energy security I would salute these solutions right up the old flag pole, but we have also got that global warming thing as well as human and ecosystem health issues associated with the internal combustion engine and fuel burning. So when I look at bio-fuels I tend to favor those approaches that solve problems rather than create new issues for our well-being or the health of our agricultural or natural systems.

As I put the algae proposal through the above screen, I think it probably makes sense to harvest algae from existing systems such as sediment ponds, catchment basins, and sewage treatment areas, but if the plan is to build large-scale ponds on existing wildlife habitat or crop land, I would probably look askance at those proposals. All of this brings us back to alien invasive species. (Obviously. Right?)

So what if the ten-pound brains at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) started searching around for feed-stocks based on alien invasive species such as knotweed, kudzu, hydrilla, or water hyacinth? I am aware that these might not have the requisite oil content, but these are approaches that at least head us in the right direction. If they prove absolutely unworkable, then DARPA could at least look for ways that algae production could be used in conjunction with biological nutrient reduction programs at sewage treatment plants or perhaps in synergy with factory farming operations for cattle, pigs, or chickens to reduce waterway and air pollution. Lots of design options that will make good brain work better for all life on the Planet.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science, Law, Corporations and Barking Dogs

By Bob Ferris

In statistics there is a custom known as “scope of inference.” Basically, this rule of operation holds that if you analyze A and B you cannot make broad inferences about C. In other words, you have to confine your comments and conclusions to the relationships and universe you actually examined. You can broaden the scope of inference by including sampling across a broader spectrum of conditions or characters, but the rule pretty much limits allowable statements and assumptions. This is generally how the science lens deals with issues.

The above is in sharp contrast with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding free speech and corporate political involvement. The high court concluded that corporations were covered under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech language. In my limited scientific lens, I tend to think that the legal equivalent of the scope of inference for the Constitution starts and ends with “We, the People,” unless specifically expanded. Take the first amendment for example, there the “scope” is expanded to include the Press, which the framers clearly saw as different than the people. The framers made specific and measured reference to a non-We, the People entity. In other sections, the Constitution talks about other entities such as states and militias all clearly dealt with and brought into the fold of the clauses in question, but not beyond.

On the subject of corporations, the Constitution is absolutely mute—nada. The word “corporation” is not even mentioned anywhere in the document. Business is mentioned only in the context of the business of Congress and commerce jumps in only as something that Congress shall regulate. So how could anyone conclude from the Constitution that corporations have the right of freedom of speech? By this same logic I could argue that barking dog ordinances were unconstitutional because they denied noisy pets the right of free speech. And that would be silly wouldn’t it?

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll indicated that most—a super majority—of Americans wanted corporate political participation reined in ) and FaceBook sign-ups for pages that call for an end to corporate personhood and a constitutional amendment are gaining more and more support every day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stemming Waste from Wallets and Purses.

By Bob Ferris

I suppose on some level that I hate waste whenever and wherever I see it. Waste saps us of our resources and makes us less resilient to changes. I don’t quite foam at the mouth when I see it, but I do suspect that I suffer some form of physiological reaction in the presence of waste. And I will fully admit that the wasting of money—the abstract representation of our material wealth—makes me a little crazy particularly in two areas.

The first area that makes me shiver is the whole concept of investment (i.e., putting our funds into something that we are “vested” in). Few of us really do this rather we send our money far away and put it in something that we could really care less about beyond the income or gain. And how are we rewarded for this? We have companies that would rather invest in bonuses than dividends and think that stockholders should have little or no say in the matter. Moreover, we are whipsawed by gamesmanship from folks who make their living mashing together huge and unrelated businesses all in the name of economies of scale. Does a $15 billion corporation really have a competitive operating advantage over a $5 billion one? Sounds more like a plan to harvest corporate value and cut jobs. And where are examples of these types of arrangements that benefit stockholders rather than the deal-makers or high ranking executives?

The second area of waste that sends me over the edge is that figurative wall between operating and capital budgets. Say a progressive building designer wants to add solar panels to a design but cannot fit them into the cost envelope. There seems to be no way in public and sometimes corporate budgeting for that innovator to draft some share of future energy cost savings (operational monies) to help pay for this common sense investment. Too esoteric for you? What if you are a renter who is paying too much for electricity because you have a refrigerator in an avocado or harvest gold hue? You want the benefits of an energy star appliance but your landlord is “saving” money by keeping the classic. My guess is that adds $35 to your monthly power bill. The end result of both scenarios is that more money and resources are wasted when there might be viable alternatives waiting around the corner.

The solution to the first issue is easy: Invest locally, within arm’s length. Invest in local agriculture or other local businesses as advocated by the Slow Money Alliance. Lend some money to a young couple you know who want to buy a house. Don’t want the hassle of direct lending and the associated paperwork? Then put your monies in institutions that lend on the local level and do not assume that local banks lend like Jimmy Stewart’s character in the “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because they do not.

(Just so you know I tend to think of our financial system as a mountain peak where we all live at the bottom. When the peak gets too tall and far removed from us, financial mischief that benefits only a few happens in the cloud covered mountain tops. Local investment keeps the economic activity where we can see it and understand it.)

The second fix is a little more complicated. Here we either have to create a third type of budget category that bridges the gap between capital and operating budgets or create financing mechanisms designed to facilitate the use of equipment and other options that save money and resources. An example of the latter would be a program where a utility company would finance the purchase of an energy star appliance and include a repayment plan that recovers their investment yet cuts the renter’s monthly energy bill. Bonds or bond funds could certainly be created to finance these programs at no risk to the power companies and it would be wonderful if retirement monies from IRAs or similar instruments could be tasked towards these purposes. Everyone wins in this. The utility company is less likely to be forced to increase capacity which helps with that climate change thing. The landlord gets a new refrigerator, the renter lowered living expenses, appliance stores sell products, and the investor gets a return that might even keep pace with inflation. Make sense?