One More Lesson from the Presidential Election: Ignoring Rigorous Number Crunchers Is a Bad Idea

Nov 9, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It is a dangerous thing to ignore very smart people who are using rigorous methods of analyzing data. This is true when discussing elections, it is even more true when it comes to thinking about the earth’s climate.

Consider the case of Nate Silver, whose computer forecasting tools have been making spookily accurate predictions about the outcome of elections over the last five years. Silver’s models, which uses public opinion polls, with adjustments for various effects, over the last year showed a presidential election that was very stable with a consistent reality of the incumbent President maintaining a small but clear lead on the national level and a slightly larger but even more consistent lead in key “swing states.” The bottom line prediction of the model was a moderate (60%) to high (92%) probability that the outcome would be the re-election of Barack Obama. He was, of course, impressively accurate.

And yet, leading up the election, Silver’s work was reviled by many – principally those who saw this quantitative approach as undermining their business of dispensing qualitative analysis of elections and, even more vehemently, by those simply could not accept the results of the modeling because they just couldn’t accept the re-election of the President as a potential likely outcome. This phenomenon of folks in denial projecting their own warping of science and analysis on to analysts and scientists who they disagree with is very familiar in the climate context.

For a very long time those who find the truth of global warming to be inconvenient have claimed, amongst other things, that climate science is skewed and political, accusing scientists of suffering from confirmation bias and leaning towards evidence and models that confirmed their political beliefs. Dark, and totally unsubstantiated, accusations are made about how it is “convenient” that the scientist are reaching conclusions that line up with expectations of agencies providing funding. But, of course, these same climate change deniers are the greatest case study of confirmation bias that one could ever find.

So who is the climate equivalent of Nate Silver? Who is a clearly disinterested and objective outside observer coming in from a different world, like Nate Silver came to politics from sports forecasting, and employing sophisticated analytical tools imported from another context?

I would suggest the prudent accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) are making a very strong audition for that role given their Carbon Disclosure Project and very specifically with the issuance just last week of a sobering analysis: PwC Low Carbon Economy Index 2012: Too late for two degrees?

That analysis makes it very clear that drastic action, both in terms of emissions reduction and in reshaping our infrastructure and society, is needed if we are going to avert total disaster. As a partner at PwC said in a press release about the report, “This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths. We’re heading into uncharted territory for the scale of transformation and technical innovations required. Whatever the scenario, or the response, business as usual is not an option.” Indeed, the levels of global warming pollution that PwC tells us will flow from “business as usual” matches up with the levels that scientists tell us will make the land on which half of humanity resides uninhabitable.

PwC is not alone in delivering this message of cold, sober quantitative analysis delivering hard (and frankly terrifying) conclusions about our climate trajectory.  Lord Nicholas Stern has delivered a similar and powerful message, most famously as an adviser to the British Government. In that role, in 2006, he authored a very influential report starkly demonstrating that the cost of failing to address global warming far outstrips the cost of acting to reducing the emissions that are the source of so much of the problem.

The good news (and it yes, I am following apocalyptic statements with good news) is that here in New England the message of these number crunchers is being heard, and bits of action, designed to respond to this threat, are being seen.  The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act provides a binding legal mandate that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts address the causes and effects of global warming pollution.  And, the changes in the complexion of state legislatures across the region (detailed on this blog by the CLF state office directors) suggest that we may be able to make more progress on this front across New England. Finally, the rise of clean energy champions in our congressional delegation (notably the election of former wind energy developer Angus King as a Senator from Maine) means that our representatives will continue to rise up as voices of sanity on energy and climate on the national stage – and sanity is what is needed if we are going to heed the message our number crunchers are sending us.

Vermonters Vote For More Livable, Sustainable Communities

Nov 8, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Like many other states across the nation, and similar experiences in other New England states, Vermont had its first trial by fire with the expanded influence of “Super PACs.” In fact, one super PAC, Vermonters First, poured more than $1 million into several Vermont political races and issues. The right-leaning PAC was almost entirely funded by one person described by VT Digger as “a wealthy and somewhat reclusive Burlington woman named Lenore Broughton, who in just a few months has made herself the most influential Republican in the state.”

Vermonters First promoted a limited government message in several statewide races including the hotly contested races for state treasurer and auditor. In the race for treasurer, Vermonters First poured over $100,000 into television and radio commercials attacking Democratic incumbent Beth Pearce. Similarly, the Super PAC promoted the candidacy of Republican Vince Illuzi in the auditor’s race. Lastly, Vermonters First weighed in heavily in opposition to Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger’s effort to pass a “Fiscal Stability Bond” to stabilize the city’s finances including restoring the city’s ability to proceed with long-delayed, major water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades.

In the end, this unprecedented influx of seemingly limitless cash didn’t carry the day. (According to The Washington Post, this is true not just in VT, but across the US.) Beth Pearce was reelected to the Treasurer’s post, Vince Illuzi was defeated for Auditor, and the Burlington bond vote was handily passed.

‘‘You can spend a lot of loot. You can buy a lot of those out-of-state ads,’’ said Gov. Peter Shumlin in this AP story, who easily won re-election on Tuesday. ‘‘But in the end, Vermonters judge you by who you are, what you stand for and whether they meet you, whether you knock on their door, whether they look you in the eye and decide whether your character and your vision is the right thing for Vermont.’’

After looking the candidates in the eye, Vermonters confirmed their commitment to a government that plays an important role in making our communities and state livable and sustainable. Vermonters don’t want a flood of money in their politics, they want further preparations against future floods – they want a safe, stable and thriving state.

After breathing a sigh of relief, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) will be pressing our elected leaders to solve the state’s major environmental issues including cleaning up Lake Champlain, protecting our public lands, embracing a sustainable and efficient energy future, and prioritizing livable communities.

We look to our elected leaders to lead on the most pressing environmental issues of our day. Silence, like that adopted at the national level during the campaign, will not be acceptable. We cannot afford further delay on issues like climate change. Now, more than ever, is the time to lead.

Averting the Climate Disaster Will Require Science and Courage, Not Politics

Nov 8, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

On September 26, 2012 I posted a blog called Thune For Thought, in which I wrote:

“At 2 a.m. on September 22, 2012, the United States Senate voted by unanimous consent that   U.S. airlines could choose to ignore the European Union’s requirement that all airplanes landing in the EU reduce their carbon pollution that is causing global warming. Either climate change is happening or it isn’t. But, once you look at the data, once you subscribe to the opinion that it is happening, you have an affirmative obligation to take all reasonable steps to responsibly address the problem. I understand that this is election season, and some of the Senate races are tight, and airlines can be powerful lobbyists, but, it is 2012 and an anti-climate emissions control bill is passing via unanimous consent in the United States Senate? Either climate change is really happening or it isn’t.”

Our climate champions across the nation abandoned their science-based advocacy about the reality of climate change and the extreme price tag that comes with our collective failure to act. They abandoned that advocacy immediately prior to the election, and disappointingly, during the election. They abandoned that advocacy even in the aftermath of the one-two punch of Super Storm Sandy and Nor’easter Athena.

Not a single elected official in Rhode Island, from the Governor to the delegation, has uttered the words climate change in any of these contexts.

After the November 6, 2012 election, nothing much has changed in Rhode Island or for the country in terms of political representation. Our delegation in Rhode Island remained the same: Reed, Whitehouse, Langevin, and Cicciline; our Governor remained the same: Chafee; our President: the same; and, the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives remained the same: blue majority in the Senate, red majority in the House.

The take home message is simple: Averting the climate disaster can’t be about party politics. We all lose if that is where the battle lines are drawn on the single most important issue facing our country. Averting the climate disaster requires science and the courage to act on it.

Dear President Obama, start acting on climate change.
Dear Senator Reed, start acting on climate change.
Dear Senator Whitehouse, start acting on climate change.
Dear Representative Langevin, start acting on climate change.
Dear Representative Cicciline, start acting on climate change.
Dear Governor Chafee, start acting on climate change.
Dear Rhode Island House and Senate Leaders, start acting on climate change.

We need science and courage, not politics.

What Sandy Can Teach Us About Adapting to a Changing Climate

Nov 5, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

We’re still counting the casualties and costs, but one thing is sure: after a second “hundred year” event in the last two years in New England (last year’s Hurricane Irene and this week’s Sandy), we need to pay some sober attention to building our region’s capacity to roll with the climate punches.

“Adaptation,” “adaptability,” “resilience,” “adaptive capacity,” and “vulnerability” are all part of the emerging vocabulary that seeks to describe a basic and simple question: what prudent steps should we be taking to ensure that we can lower the risks and minimize the effects of severe events linked to climate change even as we strive to lessen greenhouse gases? In the wake of this week’s destruction, it’s worth considering how best to engage our communities in the kind of thoughtful planning and action that can prevent or offset the worst effects of events like Irene and Sandy, and then enable us to bounce back.

As noted by my colleague Tricia K .Jedele in Rhode Island on this blog, many coastal communities like Matunuck sustained significant damage to their beaches, seawalls, and jetties. The storm surge temporarily returned Manhattan to being a real island, cut off from the mainland, and stranding millions without power and transportation. The economic cost of replacing damaged public infrastructure and people’s homes will certainly be in the billions of taxpayer, insurance, and private dollars, not to mention the economic damage done when a region is brought to a standstill.

Anticipating and planning for potential problems associated with climate change makes a difference. New York City, for example, has been working for several years already to implement a climate adaptation plan that will make its transportation system less vulnerable to precisely the kind of effects that Sandy brought about this week. Similarly, Groton, CT has engaged in a local effort to calculate how best to use its resources to minimize the local economic impact of sea-level rise and storm surge.

Protecting New England’s fresh and ocean waters has been a CLF program priority since the organization’s beginnings. Hurricane Sandy has caused wide-spread runoff of farmland and urban pollutants into our streams, as well as sewer overflows from inadequate and damaged urban treatment plants and systems. In some places, like Wells, Maine, local decision makers are including climate considerations into the kind of choices all towns face, in this case the replacement of an aging sewage treatment facility that will not function adequately as sea levels rise.

Deciding how repair, rebuilding and replacement take place can either repeat the mistakes that brought us here, like allowing houses to be rebuilt in shoreline flood zones, or make significant progress toward lessening the effects of future storms. For example, the coastal towns of New Hampshire, and five municipalities in southern Maine, are each working together to establish common regulatory standards that will protect lives and property as the shoreline reacts to climate change. Hurricane Irene’s destruction of stream and river banks in Vermont in 2001 resulted in wide-spread damage, but as we noted recently, also demonstrated the importance of preserving and enhancing wetlands as a way to mitigate some of those effects.

George Santayana’s dictum, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” together with Einstein’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” should lead us to consider what we can learn from these events, and then act with our elected leaders and communities to build resilience that can prevent or mitigate the effects of a changing climate on New England.

Superstorm Sandy Leaves a Lot of Questions

Nov 2, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

President Barack Obama hugs Donna Vanzant, the owner of North Point Marina, as he tours damage from Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The full impact of this hurricane is still becoming known. The storm has taken at least 94 lives, including those of two small boys who were recovered after several days of searching. As a father of two young children this sent a shock wave through my psyche. I feel very fortunate that my extended family and friends along the Atlantic seaboard suffered no more than a power outage and a few lost roof shingles.

As if the floods of early 2010 and Hurricane Irene weren’t enough, the latest photos and news accounts from New Jersey and the New York City area create a smashing realization that the really massive hurricane disasters, the Katrina-like disasters which take years to recover from, aren’t just relegated to the Gulf coast and the Deep South. New England, New Jersey and the other Mid-Atlantic States, and even inland towards the Great Lake states, are all going to have to create new contingency plans for hurricane season.

The immense size and increasing ferocity of the storm’s descent on New England could be both felt and measured. On Monday afternoon a little before 1:00pm the wave height at Cashes Ledge, as indicated by its resident weather buoy 80 miles off the coast of Portland, registered 15.1 feet. About one hour later the wave height was up past 23 feet. This was about the time the trees outside my office in Washington DC started to shed small branches and the same time I’m on the phone with colleagues in Boston over 400 miles away and we are all experiencing the same storm. Do the effects of climate change create a storm such as Sandy or only increase its size and strength? Is that even a pertinent question anymore?

After a decade and a half of the issue of climate change slipping further off the edge of the political and public debate, we see media outlets this week claiming its resurgence. Bloomberg Businessweek gets the full story. The Washington Post has two columnists noting that the climate change issue is back. And, is if timed to make a couple of points, Mayor Bloomberg himself made climate change the centerpiece of his endorsement of the President. Will Sandy really help shift the dialogue, or will the climate deniers and polluters just double down?

Our reaction in the wake of the Superstorm can provide a clear indication of the future and how quickly we can embrace a more realistic, mature approach to crisis management and recovery. Can we start with an honest assessment and some better planning? Or are we going to be stuck – still – in the blatantly self-serving political posturing that avoids real measures to address climate change and its exceptionally well-predicted impacts? There are number of us in New England who both love the ocean and love to use it, and believe that better scientific information and a better process to site new and replaced infrastructure is a great direction to go. We need to develop clean energy sources. We need a healthier ocean and protected habitat. We need existing and new coastal businesses and ocean industries.  The National Ocean Policy is now ready for full implementation. Is there better time to start?

Really Cool Event About “Doing the Math” and Taking on the Fossil Fuel Forces of Doom

Oct 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There comes a time when you just have to say that enough is enough.

That is where we are in the world of climate advocacy.

As Bill McKibben laid out in his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math we can no longer ignore the deep and fundamental need for action to save our climate, our families, our communities and our environment from catastrophe – and that there are powerful, entrenched and well-financed forces who will do just about anything to thwart our efforts.

The primary tools that CLF employs in the fight for climate protection are law, science and economics.  We fight for a thriving New England in court and work with smart business people to build markets for renewable energy like wind farms and to foster energy efficiency, the clean resource all around us.  And we are fighting to ensure that the governments of the region live up to their pledges to create great places where there is more walking and less driving and more of the remaining cars pollute less. We know that this work is essential if we are going to win the war to save our climate.

Courtesy 350.org

But sometimes we need to do more. One thing we need to do, in addition to our calm and civil lawyerly work, is to get angry and push back in the right ways at the right times and in the right places.  This is the spirit behind the Cape Wind Now! campaign that CLF and its partners have launched to call out the fossil fuel powered interests fighting against renewable energy. It is also the driving force behind the Do The Math tour and campaign led by 350.0rg.

And now it is coming to a concert hall near you. This event is a unique blend of “multimedia lecture . . . organizing rally [and] live musical performance” that is not to be missed. CLF has helped to arrange for this important effort to land at the historic Orpheum Theater in Boston on November 15 – tickets are still available!

Before coming the Boston the tour stops in Portland Maine on November 13 and then off on a cross-country odyssey from New York to Los Angeles, to Seattle and then Colorado and many stops in between and on the way.

This Week on TalkingFish.org – July 21-27

Jul 27, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

July 24 – Local Summer Fisheries – Lobster – In this latest edition of Local Summer Fisheries, read about the biology, management, and regulation of the American lobster in New England, learn about the current lobster price plummet in Maine, and find the simplest, most delicious lobster salad recipe around.

July 25 – Summer and Fall Seafood Festivals – Interested in eating local seafood and learning more about the fishermen who bring it to us?  Check out one of the many summer and fall seafood festivals taking place in New England. These festivals highlight all kinds of regional seafood

July 27 – Fish Talk in the News – Friday, July 27 – This week’s round-up of fish news includes a lot about lobsters, Hannaford’s Supermarket’s new comprehensive sustainable seafood policy, an update on the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program, efforts to rebuild Boston Harbor’s clam population, and opportunities to learn to fish in New Hampshire.

This Week on TalkingFish.org – July 14-20

Jul 20, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

July 17 – Local Summer Fisheries – Summer Flounder – Summer flounder, also known as fluke, can be found in New England’s shallow coastal waters in the summer months, when they migrate inshore from their deeper, offshore winter habitats. They have historically composed one of the most popular and important commercial and recreational fisheries on the east coast.

July 18 – A Tale of Two Cod – The almighty cod – the most legendary fish in our New England waters. Atlantic cod is greyish-green, and a renowned dweller of the Gulf of Maine. It is a staple of our traditional cuisine and a historic driver of our economy. You’ve seen an Atlantic cod, right? But have you ever seen a red Atlantic cod?

July 20 – Fish Talk in the News – Friday, July 20 – This week’s fish news includes: More news about the Maine lobster surplus; congressional delegates from New England states urge the House Committee on Natural Resources to use caution in determining 2013 groundfish quotas; innovative technology decreases environmental impact of sea scallop surveys; underutilized species may be key to sustainable seafood; Stellwagen Bank celebrates its 20th anniversary as a national marine sanctuary, New England Ocean Odyssey posts about red cod; marine mammal protection may play a role in perpetually low groundfish populations; controversy over the latest Georges Bank yellowtail flounder stock assessment; and a showing of the documentary Ocean Frontiers in Nahant, MA.

Energy Efficiency: A Regional Legacy of Transformation

Jul 12, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of Department of Energy @ flickr.com

In the past 25 years, our lives have become increasingly “plugged in.” We have an ever-increasing number of devices in our lives, our homes, and our offices that use electricity. What is amazing is that with our foresight and work during this same time period, our region now uses energy efficiently more than ever – reducing pollution, saving money, growing jobs, and cutting through partisan politics to succeed.

That’s a regional legacy to be proud of and one highlighted in the recent op-ed co-authored by former CLF President Douglas Foy. 

With the publication of “Power to Spare”  in 1987, CLF and others set forth the effective “out of the box” thinking that allows for reduced energy consumption while increasing economic growth. As the op-ed recounts:

“Our proposition was unique: To shift incentives that encouraged utilities to sell more power, to a new model that would reward them for promoting conservation. By putting efficiency on a level playing field with coal, gas, oil and nuclear, we would be able to lower demand, cut consumption, decrease total use and reduce pollution. We promised to boost the local economy at the same time through the job intensive investments in efficiency and by reaping the economic benefits of lower energy costs.”

And it’s been a success that continues.

Massachusetts passed the “Green Communities Act” and has grown energy efficiency jobs and lowered electric costs, with average rates for residential consumers dropping from the 4th highest to 11th highest place.

Rhode Island recently approved an aggressive efficiency budget and is expected to meet more than 100% of its anticipated load growth with energy efficiency, not through additional polluting electricity generation.

In New Hampshire, CLF Ventures recently managed a statewide project helping communities throughout the state identify ways to reduce energy consumption and costs through greater efficiency.

Vermont has its own efficiency utility that works statewide providing one-stop-shopping for businesses and residents to reduce costs and energy use with a budget designed to achieve over 2% annual savings.

Maine now has an independent energy efficiency authority which, in 2011, obtained state-wide energy savings equivalent to the output of a 110MW power plant by obtaining $3 of savings for every $1 invested by the program.

The transformation begun 25 years ago – that we are all a part of – continues. It provides a model for the country, and a model for further action to tackle climate change.

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