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?