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Personal Carbon Credits

I just saw this on the BBC. I have to say that as a pointy-headed leftie, I agree with those who think a straight carbon tax is the simplest and most effective way to go. But the carbon credit idea may actually be politically feasible, and it would be way better than nothing (and way, way better than the SUV subsidies the US currently has).

The idea is the same as corporate carbon trading. Everybody gets their allotment, those who use less can sell what they don’t need, and those who use more have to pay for it. The environmental part comes in because the allotments shrink over time to meet carbon reduction targets. Suddenly, there will be consumer pressure for devices that actually turn all the way off, for “moneymaking” cars, for public transportation. (Hyperventilates)

It’s worth reading the details. The concept started with David Fleming and “Tradable Energy Quotas.” The Tyndall Centre in the UK is applying the idea to Britain, in work done by Richard Starkey.

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Copyright, copyleft, copy everything

Ownership vs. creativity. We’re going to have to decide why we protect intellectual property. Is it to own ideas? Or is it to reward creativity? Copyright and patent law are supposed to do both, but new technologies make them do neither. Worse yet, technology is making creativity incompatible with the ownership model.

As a creative type, I’m supposed to be all for ownership, and yet I find the concept of owning ideas ridiculous. All ideas stand on a stage built of other ideas, even when they’re as great a breakthrough as Einstein’s famous equation. Yet the partial interest of the “minority shareholders” is not recognized. How can a property right be justified that is based on stealing other people’s property rights? On the other hand, if having a hand in creating something does not confer rights, then the main creator doesn’t have any either.

The absurdity of treating ideas as property is evident in other ways. There is no relation between the usefulness of an idea and its level of protection. The equivalence of mass and energy was never patented, but one-click shopping was not only patented, it was litigated. This is not a simple matter of one being a discovery and the other an invention. Genetic engineering is based on decoding DNA. Not inventing it. Decoding it. The discoveries of the genetic engineers have been patented for no other reason than the widespread ignorance about what workers in white coats actually do. People were at least as ignorant about what Einstein was doing, but he didn’t think to hire a team of lawyers because of it.

Further, if an idea can be owned, what does that mean? If a piece of music is sold, some part of the rights used to be sold under what was called the “fair use” doctrine. The buyer had control over it similar to their other property. But recently a “no use” doctrine seems to be gaining currency. You may buy it, but every time you want to use it, you should pay again. Ownership becomes meaningless.

There is neither rhyme nor reason regarding which ideas become property, which don’t, what they cost, or who pays for them. The operating principle seems to be, “You pay for it because I grabbed it first.” This may be expedient, but it is not valid. Capitalism is not actually supposed to be a criminal enterprise based on might making right.

Creations are, in essence, ideas trapped in three dimensions. They’re really more like thoughts than things, and they share the traits of other intangibles, such as hope, love, truth, beauty, or justice. These simply are not property, they can’t be owned, and any attempt to buy them changes them into something worse than worthless. Information doesn’t just want to be free. It has to be.

Beans can be counted. Ideas can’t. The ownership model suffers from the delusion that in a perfect world there would be a one-to-one correspondence between payment and product. But when the product is an idea, you might as well try to count moonbeams. Creations travel with the speed of thought, literally so in an electronic age. Slowing them down enough to corral them and limit their spread reduces the number of people who can benefit from them. This is not in the interests of consumers, who lose out, nor is it in the interests of creators, if they’re paid based on how many people use their product. The only reason it seems like a good idea is that we don’t know any other way to do it. That is a failure of imagination, not a proof of effectiveness.

The actual point behind payment for intellectual property is that the most useful “properties” should yield the greatest return. Our current system is very far from giving the biggest rewards to the people who create the value. The artist or inventor is generally the last one in the food chain that depends on their work, and as often as not they miss out on the distribution entirely. If our current system can miss its point so badly, and yet be seen as having merit, then any distribution of royalties that does a better job of accruing to the creator, even if it is imprecise, would be an improvement. As a matter of fact, it is *easier* to reward creativity if the ownership model is abandoned in favor of limited creator’s rights.

What we need is a method of figuring out how widely used a product is. That is a *census* issue, not a sales issue. Methods of estimating flows have grown very sophisticated. Wildlife biologists have techniques to estimate migrating populations of animals. Traffic engineers do the same with cars. Telephone companies have ways of estimating the flow of calls.

Similarly, software usage, movies, music, games, and anything that moves over the net could be censused as it goes by. Product headers (such as the “created with the Gimp” embedded in graphics files made with that program) are another source of usage data. Automated spot check queries could go out to computers, phones, or wifi players asking users if they would mind a poll of the software in use on their machine. There could be self-reports, like the Nielsen ratings for tv, to estimate usage of other popular items.

A program that is used daily, a song that is shared all over the world, all kinds of increased usage then help rather than harm the creator. Users don’t have to pay each time their eyes rest on a screensaver, but the most popular screensavers provide more money anyway. People whose function is packaging rather than creating, movie producers, publishers, agents, and the like, could contribute to a finished product the same way they do now, although their strategic significance in the process would probably change.

Payment. How would the user pay if usage and payment are separated? The answer seems obvious to me: by including a royalty fee in the sale of anything involved in using or enjoying the fruits of someone’s creativity. Memory, computers, displays, phones, routers, the list is quite long, and some percentage tacked on to each one could provide the funds that are then divvied up based on the census. This has seemed like the logical solution to me for years, and I heard somewhere that the Dutch are actually trying it. However, they missed on one important point. Artists who want to participate have to sign up and pay a fee. Needless to say, the type of starving artists who need the system most are not in it.

A census method would solve almost all of the problems that plague the current system. Ever since the printing press made it easier to share ideas, sharing has been known to generate incalculable social value. If information were set free, we could concentrate on creating that value instead of bogging down in futile attempts to count usage by hijacking computers. Creators could concentrate on creating instead of wresting royalties out of megacorporations. It’s true that people would not get paid for every single copy of their work, but they don’t now, either. Under a census system, most people would get paid a lot more than they do now. As a matter of fact, the only ones who would lose big are the megacorporations themselves. And that, of course, is such a minor objection that we should see an open and rational system in place any day now.

Update, March 5, 2006

Dream we dream together is reality. (Yoko Ono)

From the BBC report on French filesharing legalization:

MPs introduced an amendment which would authorise internet file-sharing by setting up a “global licence” system.

Users would pay a few euros a month to download as much music or film material as they wanted, with proceeds going to the artists.

Socialist MP Patrick Bloche helped draft the amendment.

He argues it makes no sense to treat several million French internet users as potential offenders.

“Rather than outlawing, punishing, and paradoxically maintaining to a certain extent an illegal system,” he says, “let’s make a different choice: authorising peer-to-peer downloading, but in return, putting in place a system allowing artists to be paid.”

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Do we need it? Yes. Is California the place to start? Hell, no. As Brad Plumer pointed out (here and here), Texas is carved out into something that helps the Republicans control the whole national House of Representatives. Meanwhile, in California, we’re supposed to go all impartial.


If redistricting is important–and it is–then let’s start in the places with the worst abuses. They’re not hard to find. At a minimum, start with Texas. Then we’ll talk.

Redistricting was intended as a way of adapting to changing numbers of voters. It has turned into a travesty of democracy where the voters no longer choose the politicians. The politicians now choose their voters. (Discussed also in an earlier post, Democracy Doesn’t Work.)

That obviously has to stop, but who should be drawing the new districts, if not the corrupt politicians who caused the problem?

Redistricting is a mapping problem that uses statistics. What you’re really trying to do is find the most compact regions that have approximately equal numbers of voters, with allowances made for geography, ease of access to polling places, and the like.

Retired judges (who were to be the experts in the California initiative Prop. 77) don’t necessarily know anything about mapping or statistics. I’m not sure why anyone would consider that districts drawn by one set of amateurs (judges) will be better than those drawn by another set (politicians).

Districts should be redrawn by mousy bureaucrats in the US Geological Survey, people who actually do this sort of thing for a living, people who know how to use GIS (geographical information systems). To make sure the scientists haven’t been suborned in some fashion, one could have three sets of redistricting maps: one by the USGS, one by left-leaning GIS experts (Harvard?), one by right-leaning GIS experts (Brigham Young?), and then let the retired judges choose between them.

Note that nobody will do it this way. It doesn’t allow enough wiggle room away from the original intent of the framers of the Constitution.

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Global Warming: the dog that doesn’t bark

Inspector Gregory: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The analogy to global warming is that those who can understand the evidence, even when it doesn’t make obvious noise, understand the problem. Those who don’t, don’t.

Where’s the proof?

Hurricanes, fires, and droughts notwithstandng, the evidence for global warming lies in statistics. No single weather event can be pinned on global warming, any more than a specific price increase at a specific grocery store indicates inflation. Next summer could be the coldest one on record, and yet it would neither prove nor disprove the existence of global warming. Because specific events can always be found that contradict the general trend, it feels like statistics prove nothing, and since statistics are the only evidence for global warming, it feels like global warming has no proof.

But, actually, statistics do sort of prove things. Let me explain.

Statistics aren’t proof in the common meaning that there is 100% certainty. However, in day-to-day life we make almost every decision without proof. Which college to go to, which presidential candidate to vote for, which house to buy, which job to take, these are all things with elements of uncertainty where we place bets and hope for the best.

Depending on the consequences of betting wrong, we’re less tolerant of risk. If my house turns out to be on top of a superfund site, and that means I have 20% excess chance of getting leukemia, I won’t wait till I get leukemia before moving out. That kind of certainty, I don’t need.

Statistics can indicate which bet we’re likeliest to win, and it can do so to a much, much higher degree of certainty than we have in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives. How many people wait to invest in a mutual fund until they are sure it has a better than nineteen to one chance of exceeding its previous returns? That’s the standard of acceptability in biological sciences. After the study has been confirmed many times, it’s considered very likely to be right. “Very likely” in that case would be more like several hundred to one. That kind of certainty about a mutual fund would make it a better bet than US Treasury bonds.

On the other hand, statistics can also be used as in the phrase, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” This, however, isn’t the fault of statistics, any more than Latin is at fault when a priest puts one over on us by speaking authoritative gobbledygook. The difficult part, for those of us whose statistical abilities are nonexistent, is to evaluate when the numbers are being used truthfully, and when not.

It’s not as difficult as it might seem, although you’re on your own to figure it out. The media don’t help at all. Dramatic tension, which packs in the viewers, requires opponents, so the media will find opposing points of view even if there’s only one and a half scientists on one side, and 99,999 on the other. (Yes, I’m thinking of the “intelligent” design vs. evolution debate.) Although the media ignore it, the consensus among independent scientists is the main indication of whether scientific conclusions (which are always based on statistics) are lies or good guesses. Keep an eye out for boring statements like “95% of scientists think X, 3% think Y, and 2% are on sabbatical.” X stands an extraordinarily good chance of being true in that case. With that kind of informed consensus on a stock market tip, you could bet the farm and win.

In the case of global warming, there are two layers of statistics. There are the numbers concerning temperature, ice melting, ocean currents, carbon dioxide sequestration, and so on and on and on. Then there are the numbers of scientists who are convinced by the research that global warming is in progress, and that it is due to human activities. In recent years, the number of scientific specialists convinced by the research has grown vast. It’s near 99%. You can bank on that type of consensus, especially when the opposing voices are loudest among those funded by Big Oil.

Global warming is happening, and it’s due to human activities.

What does global warming mean?

The other problem with perceptions of global warming is the inability to understand what it means. We hear numbers like “five degree average rise in global mean annual temperature,” and our eyes glaze over. Five degrees? Good grief, we think. We won’t even have to turn up the a/c.

Not so.

Keep in mind that the last Ice Age represented approximately 7C drop in temperature. Mean annual temperature is a meaningless number, just as the average height of human beings tells you little about the height of, say, your uncle. The mean rise is composed of much warmer temperatures in the hot, dry interiors of continents. Texas, for instance, could go from having summer highs of 105F to 120F. That’ll do a lot more than raise electrical bills, or even than increase deaths among vulnerable people. Crops won’t grow well in that kind of heat, and will require massive irrigation. Cattle will die. And wildlife will be decimated. Before you think that’ll be the least of our worries, remember that insects are wildlife too. And if the natural enemies of, say, mosquitoes, are gone, we’ll have clouds of mosquitoes and of the diseases they carry. Start with malaria, go on through dengue, and you start to get the picture.

Ocean levels will rise, even if there is no ice melting (and there is ice melting). Air expands when heated, and so does water. The effect is miniscule on the scale of a pot of water, but it is huge on the scale of an ocean. Expected rises in temperatures are projected to lead to about a meter rise in sea levels, based on thermal expansion alone. This is not a calm process where every year things just seem to get a bit damper underfoot if you live in Miami. What happens is that one day a storm blows through and floods occur where they didn’t before. There is no effect if the flood doesn’t happen to soak you. If it does, your whole livelihood, even your life may be destroyed.

There is no comfort in the fact that even awful local disasters are overcome, in time. The point with global warming is that there will be more frequent and larger disasters, and sooner or later, nobody will be immune. After Hurricane Katrina, Rita would not have weakened (because the warmer water near Texas would have sustained it). Then a Category 5 would have taken out Galveston. Imagine, a week later, if another Category 5 had taken out Miami. At 200,000,000,000+ in damages for each one and the two major centers of energy production decimated, there would have been a national recession. That would affect everyone.

So far, I’ve sketched out famine, pestilence, and flood as consequences. War wouldn’t be far behind. The people displaced by catastrophe will try to move to places where they can survive. Other people will try to replace resources lost in disasters by taking them from someone else. People who lose their living may become entrepreneurial robbers or meth cooks. The politicians will be “realistic” and “tough-minded” and will make the “hard choices” involved in dealing with the situation “as it is now.” They’ll be too busy selling wars to waste money on switching over to non-carbon energy sources and to removing carbon from the atmosphere. (If you can think of current examples of these future scenarios, there’s a good reason for that. The process has begun, and the future has arrived.)

Not all places will grow hotter. Some will become colder. There are several indications that global warming could cause the Gulf Stream to stop flowing. Europe would look like Newfoundland, or colder. That would have a massive economic and agricultural impact. It wouldn’t mean much to them that the global mean annual temperature was actually up.

And that was the good news.

The bad news is what happens if global warming spirals out of control. Venus is described as a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect. Earth is too far from the sun to have a surface temperature of 890F. But 200F would be plenty bad enough. Vast quantities of carbon are fixed in arctic peat bogs. The permafrost there is starting to melt, and they’re starting to exhale their carbon. Coral reefs sequester masses of carbon into limestone where it stays for millions of years. Warmer oceans would be more acidic, which dissolves limestone faster, which liberates increasing amounts of that carbon back into the atmosphere. Just because we stop behaving like idiots, doesn’t mean the feedback loops we’ve set in motion will stop too.

That means that if we don’t prevent global warming before the symptoms become acute, flood, fire, famine, pestilence, and war could look like nice problems to have. What we are doing here is taking the chance on making our whole planet unlivable. Is that outcome likely? No. Does it therefore make sense to take the chance? Only if you’d be happy raising your kids on top of a superfund site. We’re okay with other people having to take that chance, but nobody on Earth, speaking for themselves, would say anything but, “Hell, NO.”

We have only this one planet. The loaded gun isn’t pointed at someone else. It’s pointed straight at my head. And yours.

What to do?

There is really only one thing to do. Start reducing carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions now. We’re past the stage when we had the luxury of tapering off slowly. We’re even past the stage when we could afford to hold levels constant and reduce gradually. The exhaling peat bogs and quietly bleaching coral reefs are telling us that. Even the Kyoto accords are too little too late. We have to start reducing, and we have to start now.

That means coordinated, global programs away from coal, oil, and all fossil fuels, even nice, clean-burning natural gas. Biodiesel, ethanol, and other biomass energy sources aren’t in that group because the carbon they release is carbon they fixed within the previous few years. They don’t reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but they don’t increase it either. Active carbon sequestration is a good idea, if done right, but, by itself, it couldn’t be done on a sufficient scale to reverse all the decades of carbon liberation. Nor is there any way it could compensate for continued carbon profligacy.

The main thing to do is to stop pumping carbon out. Solar, wind, tidal, and all clean alternative energies, as well as efficient mass transit systems, need to be perfected and promoted in nationwide efforts worthy of wars. This isn’t an exaggeration. Even the good news about global warming means that we’re fighting for our survival here. A war effort might be enough. We have to hope. Less than that probably won’t be.

It is also pointless to piss and moan about the expense. The expense of continuing our current course will dwarf anything we pay to switch to a nonlethal track. As a very minor case in point: The “impossible” cost of dealing with Louisiana’s levees, coastal erosion, and wetlands was around ten to twenty billion dollars. The price tag after Hurrican Katrina is at least two hundred billion, and that won’t get it back even to where it was before the hurricane, or pay for the lives ruined and lost. I am not joking or exaggerating or using poetic licence when I say that the expense of cures will only get worse compared to that of prevention.

Well, you may say, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to spend money they don’t have to. Just make the best of it.

Unfortunately, I agree with that. Unlike nuclear war, which terrified people, global warming sounds rather benign, especially as the northern hemisphere heads into the season of sleet and ice. I cannot imagine that enough people will wake up to our mortal danger in time to avoid it. I hope the real problem is my lack of imagination. But that’s why the original title for this piece was going to be: Global Warming: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

More information:
RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.

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