Climate, politics, campaign finance, media criticism

The Post ed board strikes out on clean energy

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The Washington Post had two editorials dealing with climate change yesterday, “Nuclear haste” and “How D.C. can better deal with climate change”, that showed they don’t understand how a renewable-focused energy portfolio would work and that they are hopelessly naïve when it comes to how DC can help fight climate change.

The first offender? Nuclear baseload power

Here’s the Post’s take:

Can the world fight global warming without nuclear power? One major industrialized country — Germany — is determined to find out, and another — Japan — is debating whether to try. Both illustrate how hard it would be.

To date, nuclear is the only proven source of low-emissions “baseload” power — that is, electricity that’s always on, day or night, powering round-the-clock elevators in Tokyo or office buildings in Munich. Yet both Germany and Japan are poised to prematurely shutter their large nuclear sectors, giving up all of that guaranteed, low-carbon electricity generation in an anti-nuclear frenzy, on a bet that they can multiply their generation of renewable electricity within a decade or two.

Here’s the problem: in any economy with a proportion of renewables anywhere even close to the amount required to prevent the worst of climate change, “baseload” power is not a virtue, but a vice. In a renewable-centric energy portfolio, energy sources that take days to start up or stop and can’t adjust their output easily are simply out of place.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are what is known as “intermittent” power, varying in strength based on how sunny it is, windy it is, or what have you. Too much intermittent power stacked on top of too much baseload and you can have way too much energy at times with nothing to do with it — a giant waste.

Instead, what is needed is a smart grid with “dispatchable” power that can be easily ramped up or down quickly based on how productive renewables are at the moment. There is some progress toward storing large amounts of renewably-produced energy in molten sands or synthetic natural gas, but for the moment, the best source of dispatchable is regular old natural gas. (Grist’s David Roberts has a much more thorough explanation of the interplay between these three types of energy and why Germany is ditching the concept of baseload power). Obviously we’ll need to move away from all fossil fuels, but it’s a necessary step for the overhaul from baseload to renewable/dispatchable.

Now, the Post has a point in that fossil fuel use has risen in the short term in Japan, where the shutdown of nuclear plants was in response to a disaster rather than the result of a conscious long-term plan. Ideally, we’d want to phase out fossil fuel baseload plants (coal in particular) first and only eliminate nuclear once renewables held a large share of the portfolio.

Ultimately, you can get to a low-carbon economy via a nuclear-dominated energy portfolio or one with high amounts of truly clean renewable energy, such as geothermal, wind, and solar, but to my eyes, the two strategies are basically incompatible. France has already tried the first; I for one am glad another country is proceeding with the second.

Offense number two: carbon pricing nirvana

The Post’s ed board also came against D.C. council member Mary Cheh’s (D-Ward 3) proposal for cutting the District’s carbon emissions. The editorial mainly complains that the city’s climate policy is too complex. After criticizing Cheh’s attempt to remove a tax disincentive for local solar power production, the Post writes:

Ms. Cheh’s bill would also require stores to keep their doors closed while their air conditioning is switched on. Preventing such waste is obviously appealing. But the best way to lower emissions is to put a price on carbon or to set top-line goals without prescribing precisely how businesses must achieve them. This allows businesses to make their own decisions about the most efficient ways to save energy.

The fight against climate change requires government to intervene, creating incentives for cleaner energy. But in that process, it’s easy for government to get too involved in deciding how we derive and use energy. If city leaders worry that the District isn’t moving toward green energy fast enough, they should first press for a more aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme or to modify the city’s renewables mandate.

This is a great example of the nirvana fallacy, a logical fallacy of comparing an actual option against an obviously better, but implausible alternative, discrediting the plausible option in the process.

Clearly, pricing carbon is a desperately needed step to take away the unfair advantage fossil fuels have by polluting for free. And a regional agreement would be necessary to reduce the amount of carbon leakage that happens from “regulatory arbitrage” (think going over the state line to buy cheaper gas or cigarettes).

But, umm, what magic wand is the council supposed to wave to get an “aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme” in place? Pressure from the city’s leaders is very unlikely to push other states to do much of anything. If it weren’t, DC might have, oh I don’t know, real voting rights.

Regulations like requiring stores to keep their doors closed in the summer might not be as ideal as a carbon tax, but if we just sit around debating what the perfect policy response would look like, we’re going to end up roasting. Imperfect action now beats the hell out of Washington Post ApprovedTM solutions that either are never implemented or get put in place decades down the line after irreversible tipping points in climate change are already reached.



Written by rethoughtblog

April 25, 2012 at 1:41 am

Posted in climate, media

Out of sight, out of mind for carbon emissions?

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A new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting “How dirty is the cloud” looks at the massive, energy intensive data centers which are needed for remotely hosted (“cloud”) applications like Dropbox or Gmail. Many of those are powered with coal, the most carbon intensive of popular fuel types.

A fear I have is that as more and more computer services are remotely hosted in these data centers, people become less aware of the energy they’re using and less inclined to conserve. If you have to have a server running in your closet to power your applications, it’s pretty obvious they’re using a lot of energy. But when you access Gmail on your phone or computer, you just click a button and a magic email fairy serves up your data. Never mind that the fairy lives in a huge data center and feeds on coal.

This is just one example of a larger trend. Individuals in wealthy countries (which have the most climate pollution emissions) have had more distance put between their actions and climate pollution, as their countries have essentially outsourced their carbon-intensive industries to China and other less developed countries. As the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer writes:

A handful of countries, including Sweden, France and Belgium, have managed to become more carbon-efficient largely by using cleaner forms of power. The rest, however, seem to have largely decarbonized through the process of transforming into service economies and shifting their industrial and agricultural needs abroad.

This means that things are even gloomier than they seem and that even the modest successes that nations have had cutting climate pollution deserve a fat asterisk next to them. It seems to me that in the absence of a binding international climate agreement, that boosting clean energy sources is more effective than trying to impose limits on dirty energy as there will be carbon leakage and the “balloon effect.”

One possible improvement is carbon labeling, which has been piloted in the UK and other jurisdictions. This would at least require consumers’ ignorance to be willful. Small steps…

All in all, one more reason why a collective action problem like fighting climate change requires a collective (as in global) response.

Written by rethoughtblog

April 19, 2012 at 2:56 am

Posted in climate, media

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Unexplained issues for Mooney’s “Republic Brain” thesis

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Journalist Chris Mooney recently came out with a new book called The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, which he was in this weekend’s Washington Post talking about in an article titled “Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently”. (I also just got an invite to the book release party, but that’s neither here nor there…).

Liberals and conservatives have access to the same information, yet they hold wildly incompatible views on issues ranging from global warming to whether the president was born in the United States to whether his stimulus package created any jobs. But it’s not just that: Partisanship creates stunning intellectual contortions and inconsistencies. Republicans today can denounce a health-care reform plan that’s pretty similar to one passed in Massachusetts by a Republican — and the only apparent reason is that this one came from a Democrat.

None of these things make sense — unless you view them through the lens of political psychology. There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.

I’m excited to read the book soon, but wanted to raise a few points I felt the Post article left unanswered.

His argument is fairly simple: genetically influenced psychological differences in how people process the world largely determines their eventual political ideology. Those on the left are characterized by a greater openness to the new, including, very significantly, new ideas. Conservatives, on the other hand, prioritize structure and order, and have a need for certainty and “cognitive closure”.

Someone with a high need for closure tends to seize on a piece of information that dispels doubt or ambiguity, and then freeze, refusing to consider new information. Those who have this trait can also be expected to spend less time processing information than those who are driven by different motivations, such as achieving accuracy.

Mooney’s hypothesis is intriguing – all the more so because of the taboo against linking ideology to any immutable psychological characteristics (especially anything resembling intelligence!). A taboo like that typically signals to me that there may be a hidden uncomfortable truth. However, while I recognize he might address these fully in his book, his column raised several unanswered questions that I’d be eager to see explored more fully, including on some of the central phenomena he says he is aiming to explain.


“… at a time of unprecedented polarization in America, we need a more convincing explanation for the staggering irrationality of our politics. Especially since we’re now split not just over what we ought to do politically but also over what we consider to be true.”

Here Mooney is saying that America’s polarization is “unprecedented” and that the disagreement over what is true is also new. But the immutable psychological characteristics he says are so critical seem like the exact sort of thing that would fail to explain sudden shifts in political discourse. Evolution, after all, is a slow process. The task for Mooney seems to be explaining what new factors are interacting with unchanging psychology to produce our unprecedented level of polarization.

I would suspect the following two factors. The first I know Mooney has alluded to; I don’t know if he has addressed the second.

  1. Closed information ecosystems and information choice: It’s not just Fox. Mooney and others have talked about how Roger Ailes and others have embarked on a long campaign to discredit the very notion of “unbiased” news sources. Repeated attacks on an imagined “liberal media” have been a very conscious attempt to discredit centrist institutions and place all sources of information into an us/them (“fair and balanced” v. “liberal bias”) split.I would suggest technological change as at least an equal factor. No longer are people limited to reading their local daily paper supplemented by nightly news on one of three major networks. In their place is a wide variety of media that one can choose to access, either via cable or the internet. This certainly may interact with a desire for “cognitive closure” or a more basic desire for psychological comfort.No matter what one’s set of beliefs, one can find validation for it somewhere. In the case of Republicans, there is a set of news providers that at the very least resembles the “authoritative” institutions of the past, creating an entire information ecosystem, separate and almost wholly independent of other media. While some of this may reflect a concerted effort by right wing operatives or a conservative need for cognitive closure, I think much of polarization is due to the proliferation of niche media where one is unlikely to come across seriously challenging (not just contrarian Slate pieces) writing.
  2. Increased ideological homogenization of communities: Diana Mutz in her fantastic book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy argues among other things that those who have the most choice over what community they live in are least likely to be exposed to “cross-cutting” political discourse (This same phenomenon has been described as “the Big Sort”). In other words, they are unlikely to have their ideas challenged. Those with little geographic mobility, primarily the poor, nonwhite, and uneducated, are most likely to be “stuck” in communities where other, uncomfortable ideas are on full display.In addition to virtual communities online, Americans have shown quickly rising levels of geographic mobility and decreasing regional and community ties (although the aftermath of the financial crisis has put a reprieve on this trend). More choice over the community that one lives in has contributed to the Red State/Blue State divide and the further development of places like Portland, OR into liberal enclaves.Politicians have only increased this trend with gerrymandering districts into safely Republican or Democratic districts (homogenous political communities) with less chance of a political race prompting a true debate and competition of ideas.


If so much of ideology is due to innate traits, it’s curious that we would see such polarization. The majority of physical traits in humans, like height for instance, follow something like a bell curve, where most people’s traits lie in the center:

While it’s possible that cognitive tendencies don’t follow this pattern, but it seems like a challenge to using innate properties to explain polarization. Most physical characteristics tend toward the center.


I don’t see Mooney’s thesis as untenable. I’m just eager to see how he would address polarization (or how he does in his books – we’ll see soon!) these challenges to using innate psychology to explain the increasing divide in American politics. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as well.

There are other unsatisfactory aspects to Mooney’s argument in the column that I wonder if his book will address. The left/right divide is rather facile and doesn’t seem to map to a reality where American parties are tenuously cobbled together coalitions rather than monolithic entities reflecting two fundamental sets of psychological tendencies. If we think about the Political Compass, including an authoritarian v. libertarian axis as well as a left-right axis, how would Mooney account for Authoritarian Leftists or Libertarian Rightist? They seem to shatter his binary left/right plotting of ideology.


Written by rethoughtblog

April 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

What is Re:Thought?

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Welcome to my newest writing venture.

It’s hard to fully describe what this blog is because my hope is that its first few months will be an evolutionary process as the blog finds its own voice. Here’s a little background, though:

Much of the motivation for the blog is simple frustration at the state of today’s post-truth political discourse, consisting of little more than hackishly spouting liberal and conservative conventional wisdom, with precious little concern for intellectual honesty or having coherent ideas. Thus the first meaning of Re:Thought — a foundational principle of the blog is to step out from the ossified left/right debate and challenge the assumptions underlying it.

The second meaning of Re:Thought is a reference to the diversity of topics and thought to be addressed. I hope to engage with a wide variety of modes of thought, and a diversity of topics, including climate, politics, government ethics/reform, as well as how the news media’s coverage affects these issues.

I hope you enjoy!

Written by rethoughtblog

April 17, 2012 at 3:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized