Sunday, December 11, 2011

12/10 and 12/11

Agreeing to eventually, maybe, possibly consider thinking about deliberating upon the idea that it might eventually be a good idea to cut emissions isn't enough to fight climate change if we actually want to limit warming to two-degrees:
"Powerful speeches and carefully worded decisions can't amend the laws of physics," notes Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The atmosphere responds to one thing, and one thing only: emissions. The world's collective level of ambition on emissions reductions must be substantially increased, and soon."

America doing what America does best — exporting our environmental ills elsewhere:
The rising flow of batteries is a result of strict new Environmental Protection Agency standards on lead pollution, which make domestic recycling more difficult and expensive, but do not prohibit companies from exporting the work and the danger to countries where standards are low and enforcement is lax.

Mexican environmental officials acknowledge that they lack the money, manpower and technical capacity to police a fast-growing industry now operating in many parts of the country, often in dilapidated neighborhoods like the one here, 30 miles northwest of Mexico City.
But the good news is that the score of health issues caused by environmentally irresponsible e-waste recycling could be solved relatively easily:
So while you should feel good about recycling and make the effort to do it, we need to ask more about how our castoffs are processed. In much of the world the Basel Convention restricts or regulates the export of hazardous wastes to poorer countries. The United States never ratified that treaty.

Many environmental problems are incredibly hard to solve, like lowering greenhouse gas emissions. But ending the export of your used lead batteries to environmentally unsound plants in Mexico could be achieved pretty easily, by several means.

The government could simply ban used battery exports, as Slab Watchdog suggests. Or it could require that Mexican factories processing used batteries from the United States meet our environmental standards and undergo inspections. The Food and Drug Administration inspects foreign factories that make drugs imported into the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency could take on a similar role for battery recycling plants.

And in the meantime, consumers can get into the act, just as they have with sweatshop-free clothes or fair-trade coffee. Your old batteries have value and you can choose where to recycle them. So before you turn one in, ask where it will be recycled. Maybe then we’ll start to see signs in auto shops announcing: “100 percent of batteries recycled to U.S. EPA standards.”
It's not just waste recycling that's an issue. Our never-ending demand for more, more, more means that fragile ecosystems are also being put at risk:
If you dig just a few feet beneath the Salar de Uyuni, mix the earth with some water, and let it evaporate, in a couple of years you’ll be left with a pile of lithium crystals—the very stuff that powers your phone, your laptop, and other assorted portabilia. It may even power your next car, if it’s an electric one. Indeed, we owe the very mobility of our mobile gadgets to this third element on the periodic table.

Worldwide demand for the metal is sure to increase in the coming years—to unprecedented levels if electric cars line our roadways. Some experts predict that current suppliers of lithium could deplete known deposits and stores within a few decades. And if the world turns to Bolivia’s salt flats for its lithium fix, Bolivia’s flamingo rookery could be in trouble.
Though there's good news here, as well: increased demand, combined with limited supply means the search is on for alternatives to lithium, and even to the battery itself.

Alex Steffen re-posts one of my favorite pieces of his, reminding us of the importance of envisioning the future we find desirable, and being optimistic in the face of the those proclaiming inevitable environmental doom:
Some older environmentalists (most prominently, James Lovelock) have suggested that the fact that no future now awaits us in which our planet is not greatly depleted means the game’s over. Lovelock in particular seems to enjoy saying it’s too late to do anything to save humanity, but he’s not alone among his generation. These “it’s too late” doomers look ahead and see a world full of deserts and empty oceans, dying forests and dead coral reefs, and they say, “we tried to warn you…” and walk away.

The problem is, the children of 2050 will look at that future world, with all its problems, and see home: and they’ll look at the choices they have in front of them, and see the future. And since the choices we make in the next forty years will decide what choices our descendants are left with — a thriving society engaged in centuries of restoration and planetary repair, or a gradual desperate retreat towards the poles — giving up now because we don’t like the choice set we face is pathetic cowardice.


The irony is, we already have the ability to solve or at least address the planet’s most pressing problems. We don’t have every solution we’ll need, not yet. We do, though, have the technological capabilities, the design genius, the scientific ingenuity, the entrepreneurial zeal, the policy acumen, the community-building skill, and the educational and cultural wisdom. It is not that we are not capable of sustainable prosperity. We have never had more or better ability to build a better world. What we seem to lack is a belief that we can actually use those powers to change anything, and we lack that belief precisely because the future has been ripped out of our cultural debate.

That’s why if we care about the planet, the most important thing we can do is start showing how good a future we still can have. That’s why, right now, optimism is a political act, and a radical one at that.
Steffen's idea of bright green environmentalism is a hopeful, yet realistic path that can stave off environmental collapse. And once again, his recent Twitter-ings have been great; a sampling of the best of the bunch from the last few days:
  • No swap in tech that will work fast enough: but larger systems redesign is still entirely possible...but we need to stop lending credibility to the idea that car-dependent, high-consumption lives are maintainable.
  • We can live prosperous, low-carbon lives, but we can't simply slap a few technologies on 20th C suburbia & still save the climate.
  • If we can't even plan out what it would take to be carbon zero, then our only other path is to prepare for appalling savagery.
  • We should start by acknowledging that "adapting" to a world where 4C becomes 5C becomes 6C is an illusion.
  • Vital to remember that "realism" in climate action almost entirely political definition. If willing to change anything, huge cuts easy.
  • If people who want climate action do just one thing, I'd have them refuse to accept frame of powerless "realism" in any public debate.
  • We are *choosing* to alter the climate. We have other choices that're entirely practical, but would lose powerful people money.
  • Yes, we need to commit to massive change. Yes, if we're smart, that change can improve the world. Realism & optimism both.
  • My point is that all talk of climate "realism" in wealthy world occurs in a frame of the unquestioned continuation of status quo.
  • Frame itself is completely unrealistic, except in the eyes of men w/ lots of $ sunk in biz-as-usual investments+ no plan to be here in 2040.
  • People, as G Clinton sez, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." Have to be able to think it before you can fight for it.
In a somewhat similar argument of optimism in the face of environmental change, science writer Emma Marris and a group of global environmental change experts tells us to embrace the Anthropocene, but to keep fighting to protect the Earth's ecosystems:
We can accept the reality of humanity’s reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon. We can restore once magnificent ecosystems like Yellowstone and the Gulf of Mexico to new glories — but glories that still contain a heavy hand of man. We can fight sprawl and mindless development even as we cherish the exuberant nature that can increasingly be found in our own cities, from native gardens to green roofs. And we can do this even as we continue to fight for international agreements on limiting the greenhouses gases that are warming the planet.

The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism. It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.

I spend much of my time thinking about unsustainable water use, particularly as it relates to expanding urban areas in the US — in this context unsustainable means overuse of water — so it's always useful to be reminded that for more than one-third of the world's population, the problem of water and sustainability is that basic needs can't be met:

An estimated 2.5 billion people live without a toilet or safe and sustainable place to take care of business. And a child dies as a result of the water-borne illnesses that arise from poor sanitation every 20 seconds, according to the U.N.

“Every year, more people die from the consequences of unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war,” said Gleick, co-founder and president of the California-based environmental think tank the Pacific Institute.

“What’s most alarming is our continued failure to meet basic water and sanitation needs,” and our failure to meet the Millennium Develop Goals for water, Gleick said.

The Millennium Development Goals are a series of economic development targets set by the U.N. in an effort to alleviate poverty around the world. One of the eight goals is related to environmental sustainability and aims to halve the number of people globally who lack access to adequate and safe drinking water and sanitation.

We’re nearing the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium goals, and while we’re more on target with drinking water access, sanitation goals seem “to be out of reach,” according to the U.N.
Here in America, where the problems of sustainability and water revolve around overconsumption and an inability to think about reducing demand, rather than increasing supply, zombie water projects (“large, costly water projects that are proposed, killed for one reason or another, and are brought back to life, even if the project itself is socially, politically, economically, and environmentally unjustified”) are rising from the dead. But as Peter Gleick says, it needn't be that way:
There are many smart water investments to be made, in industrial and agricultural water-efficiency technologies, better wastewater treatment plants capable of producing the highest quality waters, improved piping and distribution systems, lower energy desalination systems, improved monitoring tools, low-water-using crop types, and much more. But wasting precious time and scarce money on water zombies will not lead to a sustainable water future.
Fortunately it's not all water zombies; there are signs of success on the smart water front. Gleick's Pacific Institute highlights success stories in California agriculture here.

Returning to an era in which we have more tax brackets and higher marginal rates on the uber-rich would bring in significantly more revenue, as well as being far more equitable and just:
Between 1958 and 1981 (the last year with rates above 50 percent), the average effective tax rate on brackets above 35 percent was 49 percent. That is to say, the total tax paid in those brackets came out to 49 percent of the taxable income in those brackets, compared to 35 percent under the current rate structure.

In 2007, if taxable income in the 35 percent bracket had been taxed at 49 percent, federal income tax revenues would have been $78 billion higher (taking into account likely behavioral responses). That won’t solve the deficit problem, but it’s hardly chump change: an extra $78 billion would have increased 2007 income tax revenues by nearly 7%.

It’s clear that we can’t solve the deficit problem just by increasing taxes at the top. Unless we are willing to make massive cuts in retirement and health benefits that many American families rely on, our revenue needs will be too great to avoid broader tax increases. And higher taxes should come from a reformed – fairer, simpler and more efficient – tax system. But it may not be unreasonable to ask taxpayers at the very top of the income distribution, who have received most of the income gains over the past 30 years, to pay income taxes at levels comparable to those paid prior to the 1980s.
Much of Latin America has been through the obscene inequality thing before and it doesn't lead to good outcomes:
[A] question for the United States: why would you allow that to happen, when we in Latin America can show you how difficult it is to achieve the kind of exemplary middle class that you invented in the first place, and that gave you such economic power and social cohesion — at least since the 1920s? Especially when we all know its existence is crucial to preserving some of the best traits of your own national character.

Alexis de Tocqueville made the point nearly two centuries ago. Something in the American character had produced a far more egalitarian society than any in Europe, and something in that society was producing a different, more modern and exciting national character, with room for experimentation, cooperation and acceptance of differences. Americans cannot retain the tolerant, forward-looking and innovative national character they cherish if they give up the egalitarian middle-class configuration that comes with it.
And let's not forget that the wealth gap is even greater than the numbers on income inequality can adequately capture, since the plutocrats use loopholes to avoid being taxed on money that should be taxed as income:
The rate at which the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income actually paid federal income taxes --their so-called effective tax rate -- fell to about 18 percent in 2008 from almost 30 percent in 1995, IRS data show. That’s the tip of the iceberg, since much of their wealth never converts into income on a tax return, McCaffery said.

In the McCombs case, the billionaire entered into transactions known as variable prepaid forward contracts. He received about $259 million for lending an investment bank his Clear Channel shares with a promise to deliver the stock for good a few years later. The arrangement enabled McCombs to defer paying capital gains tax because he hadn’t sold his shares, lawyers for the billionaire said. The IRS deemed the transaction a sale since the bank paid McCombs cash and got the use of his stock almost immediately.
These loopholes, combined with the sorts of advantages that only the uber-rich have access to, mean that the wealthiest Americans are paying even less in taxes than me or you:
A wage is taxed automatically, but capital gains from stocks are only taxed when you cash them in. So Drucker found that many of the so-called super rich don't sell their investments at all. To buy cars and houses and groceries and clothes, they borrow money — often at very low rates.

Since 2003, the richest investors have been able to do even more, thanks to a rule change from the IRS. To avoid paying taxes, wealthy clients can make deals with investment banks for something called a variable prepaid forward contract.

"It basically [says]: 'I agree to give you my stock at a certain point in the future in exchange for cash now,'" Drucker says.

Drucker says the IRS doesn't necessarily consider that a sale of stocks, even though the bank may pay that investor hundreds of millions of dollars to temporarily own his shares. It allows the investor to avoid paying capital gains taxes, which right now are 15 percent.


"Very wealthy people are pretty regularly figuring out ways to cash out appreciated shares and appreciated real estate in ways that do not show up on tax returns," he says. "And the result of that is that the 17 percent rate that we hear often cited by Warren Buffett ... is probably much too high. In reality there are many folks paying effective tax rates that are much lower." Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who makes about an eight-figure income annually, says his tax rate this year was about 11 percent.

Rick Perry is a bigoted piece of shit. Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates say all that needs to be said about his ignorant, hateful nonsense. But did you notice that in addition to wearing a Brokeback Mountain jacket, the music playing behind Rick was a total rip-off of gay communist Aaron Copland?

Vermont governor Pete Shumlin joins Team Kale in its fight against the ridiculous copyright battle being waged by Chick-Fil-A.

I just can't get enough of the new song from Islands.

Speaking of new music, I'm posting my favorite songs of 2011 all month long over here.

And more of my favorites of 2011 in this constantly-being-added-to Spotify playlist.

Correlation or causation? You decide what these hilarious graphs really show in Heather's Happy Link of the Day™.

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