Saturday, February 24, 2007

Monday view: Cheap solar power poised to undercut oil and gas by half
Within five years, solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-generated electricity, even in Britain, Scandinavia or upper Siberia. In a decade, the cost may have fallen so dramatically that solar cells could undercut oil, gas, coal and nuclear power by up to half. Technology is leaping ahead of a stale political debate about fossil fuels.

Anil Sethi, the chief executive of the Swiss start-up company Flisom, says he looks forward to the day - not so far off - when entire cities in America and Europe generate their heating, lighting and air-conditioning needs from solar films on buildings with enough left over to feed a surplus back into the grid.

The secret? Mr Sethi lovingly cradles a piece of dark polymer foil, as thin a sheet of paper. It is 200 times lighter than the normal glass-based solar materials, which require expensive substrates and roof support. Indeed, it is so light it can be stuck to the sides of buildings.

Rather than being manufactured laboriously piece by piece, it can be mass-produced in cheap rolls like packaging - in any colour....

1.7 Million Veterans Lacked Health Coverage In 2003

1.694 million American veterans were uninsured in 2003, according to a study by Harvard Medical School researchers released today. Of the 1.694 million uninsured, 681,808 were Vietnam-era veterans while 999,548 were veterans who served during “other eras” (including the Persian Gulf War)....

...David U. Himmelstein, M.D., study author and Harvard Medical School Associate Professor, commented: “This administration professes great concern for veterans, but it’s all talk and no action. Since President Bush took office the number of uninsured vets has skyrocketed, and he’s cut VA eligibility, barring hundreds of thousands of veterans from care. Our president has put troops in harm’s way overseas and abandons them and their families once they get home.

“Like other uninsured Americans, most uninsured vets are working people. And uninsured veterans are denied the care they need – turned away because they can’t pay,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a study author and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. “We need a solution that works for veterans, and for all Americans – national health insurance.”...

Fun With Headlines
Reader Mark Janness sends two headlines, both pulled today from the liberal website Alternet:

· Private Health Insurance Is Not the Answer: Why are we keeping a hopeless, for-profit health insurance system alive?


· Walter Reed Is a Second Hell for Injured Vets: The American people must make clear their disgust with the way the Pentagon treats injured service members.

Translation: The government is incompetent! More power to the government!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Climate hysteria
Journalists seem to believe that no new report is enough unless it predicts more terrifying calamities than ever before.

You would have had to be stuck in deepest Mongolia to avoid hearing that the United Nations' climate panel, the IPCC, issued a new report last week. Perhaps even in the depths of Mongolia, you would have heard the dire warnings emitted by journalists.

You would have distilled from these agonised noises that the report concluded that global warming is worse than we had imagined, and that we need to take swift and strong action right now. You would have been misinformed.

The IPCC has produced a good report - an attempt to summarise what the world's scientists know about global warming. Unlike the Bush administration, caught downplaying the science, the IPCC squarely tells us that mankind is largely responsible for the planet's recent warming. And, unlike Al Gore, who has travelled the world warning that our cities might soon be under the oceans, it refrains from scaremongering.

But lost among the hype is the unexciting fact that this report is actually no more dire than the IPCC's last report, issued in 2001. In two important ways, this year's effort was actually less dire.

The report reflected the fact that since 2001, scientists have become more certain that humans are responsible for a large part of global warming. Otherwise, though, this report had a definite sense of déjà vu . Estimates of temperature increases, heat waves, and cold waves are all nearly identical to those produced six years ago.

The report did, however, contain two surprising facts. Both went unmentioned in most reports. First, the world's scientists have re-jigged their estimates about how much sea levels will rise. In the 1980s, America's Environmental Protection Agency expected oceans to rise by several metres by 2100. By the 1990s, the IPCC was expecting a 67-centimetre rise. Six years ago, it anticipated ocean levels would be 48.5 centimeters higher than they are currently. In this year's report, the estimated rise is 38.5 centimeters on average.

This is especially interesting since it fundamentally rejects one of the most harrowing scenes from Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. In graphic detail, Mr Gore demonstrated how a 20-foot rise in the sea level would inundate much of Florida, Shanghai, and the Netherlands. The IPCC report makes it clear that exaggerations of this magnitude have no basis in science - though clearly they frightened people and perhaps will win Mr Gore an Oscar.

The report also revealed the improbability of another Gore scenario: that global warming could make the Gulf Stream shut down, turning Europe into a new Siberia. The IPCC simply and tersely tells us that this scenario - also vividly depicted in the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow - is considered "very unlikely". Moreover, even if the Gulf Stream were to weaken over the century, this would be good, as there would be less net warming over land areas.

So why have we been left with a very different impression of the climate panel's report? The IPCC is by statute "politically neutral" - it is supposed to tell us just the facts and leave the rest to politicians and the people who elect them. This is why the report is a careful and sensible document.

But scientists and journalists - acting as intermediaries between the report and the public - have engaged in greenhouse activism. Elsewhere calling for immediate and substantial cuts in carbon emissions, the IPCC's director even declared that he hoped the IPCC report would "shock people, governments into taking more serious action".

It is inappropriate for somebody in such an important and apolitical role to engage in blatant activism. Imagine if the director of the CIA published a new assessment of Iran, saying: "I hope this report will shock people, governments into taking more serious action."...

Man Busted For Cursing Agent's Mother
FEBRUARY 12--A New York man, enraged that his girlfriend had been ensnared in a drug probe, is himself facing a felony rap for a vulgar telephone tirade directed at the parents of a federal agent. ...

...And while the recorded rant could have been dismissed as the frustrated ravings of a guy whose girlfriend is facing judicial peril, prosecutors opted to charge Haggerty with a felony count for threatening to "assault a member of the immediate family" of a federal law enforcement officer. Haggerty, who has been in custody since February 8, is scheduled for a bail hearing this morning at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dangerous When in Power
Does government protect us from hazardous products, or does it put us in harm's way?

...Asbestos exposure has been a genuine public health calamity, having caused much death and disability among exposed workers. Much of the early journalistic coverage, taking its lead from Paul Brodeur's early series in The New Yorker, has treated the episode as a case study in the callousness of private enterprise, which is said to have exposed workers to the lethal mineral for decades until at last brought to heel by the efforts of public-health activists, government regulators, and trial lawyers. That's consistent with the wider conventional view, which treats hazardous products as a sort of standing reproach to capitalism: Businesses foist such products on us in search of profit, the narrative goes, while government protects us from them. And there is much in the asbestos debacle that does reflect discredit on private companies' actions.

Yet the government, our alleged protector, has done much at all levels to promote products later assailed as needlessly unsafe, from tobacco to lead paint, from cheap handguns to Agent Orange. Often the state is at least as aware of the risks as the businesses that distribute the product, and in at least as good a position to control or prevent them. But-shaped and propelled by the incentives provided by our litigation system-our process of organized blame hardly ever puts the government in the dock....

...What's hard to escape is the feeling that we often judge private risk-creators by vastly more demanding standards than public ones. As we've seen, government generally cannot be held to account for exposing individuals to injurious products even when, as is so common, less lucky private parties are being made to pay damages over the same incidents.

Maybe it's time to discard the caricature still so much favored in some circles, in which profit-making entities wear the black hats and public servants the white. We shouldn't jump to the conclusion that governments necessarily do worse than businesses in preventing risk to the public. But there isn't much evidence that they do better.

Western Guilt, Again
WASHINGTON—For half a century, Western guilt made the lives of the poor even worse by propping up despots and corrupt bureaucracies through foreign aid. A new form of Western guilt, environmental fundamentalism, is making the lives of the poor even worse in Mexico after triggering a huge rise in the price of corn—the chief component of the tortilla—thanks to a government-induced increase in the demand for ethanol in the United States.

This constitutes poignant evidence that the drive for carbon reduction can be costly. And not just for the poor: The majority of European countries, who attacked the United States savagely when it refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, will not meet their goals in terms of reducing emissions by 2012 because they have discovered what a high school student could have told them: Life is one constant trade-off. Meeting the Kyoto goals would mean sacrificing the economic well-being of many Europeans at a time when fewer and fewer people are sustaining an ever-growing number of retired citizens.

Environmental fundamentalism has made it a sacrilege to even raise a brow at some of the premises of those who predict an apocalypse if massive carbon reductions are not made mandatory. Even though a number of scientists indicate that global warming is not as bad as is generally assumed and that historical precedent points to recurring patterns, it is now very hard to argue that a much more thorough debate is needed before any drastic action is taken and that governments need to carefully weigh the consequences of the mandatory caps that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is proposing....

...Now the guilty minds of the West are telling everyone that if we sacrifice 1 percent of the world's GDP every year, about $500 billion, we will save the planet in the next few decades. The same body that sponsored the recent IPCC report on the environment, the U.N., told us a few years ago that if the rich gave out $75 billion to underdeveloped countries annually, poverty would be extinct before long. These two competing forms of guilt are mutually—and absurdly—exclusive. Implemented together, they would amount to making the world poorer in order to make it cleaner, so that the rich could continue to have a planet in which to send unproductive money to the poor so that the poor could continue to pollute the Earth because they will lack the wealth to invest in clean energy—and therefore end up extinguishing the planet anyway.

It gets so absurd that, according to Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, if we take into account various scientific estimates, the cost of global warming in the next 100 years would be pretty much the same as the cost of implementing Kyoto, which would have a very small effect on greenhouse gases anyway....

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Are politics in your DNA?
...Alford and Hibbing reanalyzed this data with an eye to political orientation, calculating a simple index of conservatism or liberalism based on the spread of yes or no responses, and constructing a measure of political opinion by looking at how many neutral responses were given. They calculated that between 40% and 50% of variation in political orientation was genetic, and almost none of it resulting from parental socialization. On the other hand, when they examined a specific question about political party affiliation, the results were nearly the reverse: Heritability had little to do with it, while shared environment was key....

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Swiss low-tax policy irks EU
The row was triggered by the decision, late last year, of the French rock star Johnny Hallyday to leave France and take up residence in the Swiss Alpine resort of Gstaad.

Hallyday, who has complained publicly about the high taxes in France, will now pay tax not on his multi-million-dollar income, but on the value of the fairly modest chalet he has built himself in Gstaad.

All he has to do in return is promise to live in the chalet for at least six months of each year.

In France, where Hallyday is a national icon, there is anger. Advisers to the French presidential candidate Segolene Royal have accused Switzerland of "looting" its neighbours.

Many high-earning celebrities, among them Charles Aznavour, Michael Schumacher and Tina Turner already live in Switzerland for tax reasons, and it is rumoured that the British pop star James Blunt will be the next to arrive. ...

The dark side of green

Q: On a more serious note, how did environmentalists contribute to the disaster in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina?

A: They blocked the building of large steel and concrete floodgates around Lake Pontchartrain that the Corps of Engineers, the ... state congressional delegation, and the New Orleans levee board had all endorsed as being able to provide the best protection against storm surge from hurricanes.

The gates were similar to the folding "seagates" that were being built, and now have been built, in the Netherlands that only close during North Sea storms. Like those, these gates would have only closed during severe storms -- blocking water from getting into Lake Pontchartrain and flooding New Orleans. Renowned hurricane experts say these gates would have likely prevented most of Katrina's devastation in New Orleans. But the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense) and the Louisiana group Save Our Wetlands persuaded a federal judge to halt the gates in 1977 because of the alleged damage they could do to fish, even though the project had already been granted a thumbs-up in a review from the Environmental Protection Agency.