Monday, February 8, 2010

Audi, the Schindler of our eco-totalitarian future

If you're like me, Audi's Green Police ad during yesterday's Superbowl was sort of a high point of creepiness -- and not just for its boomerific revival of a classic Cheap Trick song. No, the celebration of the right car purchase -- a "clean diesel" -- as a get-out-of jail-free card for a totalitarian eco-state sort of ruined car shopping for you while also hinting a bit too strongly at the direction in which the world is inching in its intolerant, lemming-like way.

Our friends in Britain already have to worry about government snoops pawing through their garbage and forcing their way onto private property to make sure residents of that unfortunate country are separating their glass from their plastic and doing business in officially approved ways. Maybe ... just maybe ... we're not that far off from the day when buying the the "correct" brand will count as a pass at roadblocks staffed by armed recycling fanatics.

I guess the only question is whether Audi thinks this potential Brave New fluorescently lit World is a good thing, or whether the company is warning us that it, Schindler-like, is our only hope.

The Audi advertisement glimpse of our eco-conscious (or else) future is below.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Climategate emails -- now in easy-to-peruse format!

If you're interested in those East Anglia Climategate emails, but don't want to download and dig through a zipped file of documents, there's now an easier alternative. The emails are all online in searchable format at


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blinded by science

There's much buzz this week -- rightfully -- about emails and documents hacked from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. While the emails aren't likely to settle the debate over whether human actions are affecting the world's climate, they do call into question the ethics of some of the leading advocates of global-warming theory. The insights they provide into how some scientists seek to manipulate data and even suppress opposing views raises important questions about the wisdom of allowing politicians to draw on such experts in order to declare debates to be over, with control over far-reaching, intrusive policies awarded to the victors.

It should be emphasized that the hacked emails don't "debunk" climate change theory. There's no smoking gun in there suggesting that mad scientists manufactured the idea out of whole cloth. And the bulk of the emails consist of academic exchanges of information and data sharing.

But the emails (download them here or here) also include exchanges strongly suggesting that some scientists manipulate data in order to reach stronger conclusions than is warranted, lean on scientific journals to prevent the publication of papers by scientists who are skeptical of climate change, withhold data from rivals and even destroy correspondence so it can't be revealed by Freedom of Information requests.

That science can be politicized is no secret. In one recent email from the hacked archive, a British university department head writes:
Since [name withheld] retired I am a lot more free to push my environmental interests without ongoing critique of my motives and supposed misguidedness - I've signed my department up to 10:10 campaign and have a taskforce of staff and students involved in it.... Every now and then people say to me sotto voce with some bemusement, 'and when [name withheld] finds out, how will you explain it to her ...!
Actually, "politicized" may be putting it kindly. "Theologized" could be a more appropriate term. At times, perusing the emails, the degree of loyalty to a specific theory and rejection of dissenting views seems less like debate among rival scientists and more like priests excommunicating heretics. Tellingly, Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit, wrote to a colleague about excluding papers questioning human-caused climate change from a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
"I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report," Jones writes. "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"
Other times, the emails discussed boycotting journals that published papers by scientists whose views are at odds with their own. That's important, given the emphasis that many of the advocates of global-warming theory put on critiques of their position not being peer-reviewed -- a status they had actively sought to deny contrary views.

The emails also discuss denying data to researchers who they consider to be less than convinced of human-caused climate change "because he'll distort and misuse them" as they said of one request from a prominent skeptic.

Overall, the impression is one of a very messy and human process that is far from being as rigorous and open to debate as advertised. It also seems that, while many climate scientists passionately believe that human activity is causing the world to become warmer, they are well aware of and troubled by occasionally contrarian data that they can't explain.

That's to be expected, of course -- the world rarely hands out pat answers wrapped with a bow. But politicians want pat answers, and some researchers appear to have been all too willing to play along with the pretense that all questions have been resolved and now is the time for even the most extreme, state-empowering policies to be implemented in response.


The Department of the Treasury revealed (PDF) in September that the cap and trade scheme touted by the Obama administration would cost Americans between $100 billion and $200 billion every year -- money that would pour into government coffers. It would, of course, require extensive enforcement mechanisms in order to extract that cash.

Enforcement is also the order of the day in the UK, where government officials have begun to paw through people's trash to see what they are throwing away. Green-jacketed inspectors in Britain with the power to enter private property are checking up on CO2 production by private businesses.

Maybe the world is warming and maybe humans are a major part of the case. There's nothing in the hacked emails to say it's not, and someday, if the science is properly followed, we may know for sure. What we do know now, though, is that a lot of power is being accumulated by government officials based on conclusions arrived at through a process that looks a little more rough-and-tumble than we were led to believe.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Authoritarianism is contagious

In 1918, when the Spanish flu raged across the word, frightened officials in many communities responded with tough restrictions on public assembly and even personal interactions. Newspapers were censored, whole towns quarantined and beloved pets slaughtered in a pointless effort to stop the spread of illness. As the words "swine flu" begin to dominate headlines, it's worth remembering that nothing fuels restrictions on liberty like fear, and few things are scarier than mass outbreaks of deadly disease.

Actually, the word "Spanish" got hung on the influenza pandemic of 1918 entirely as an outcome of civil liberties violations. Most major countries at the time were caught up in the First World War and had used the hostilities as an excuse to impose press censorship. When the flu broke out, controls were imposed on reports of disease as well as on military affairs.

But Spain was neutral in the war and had no censorship in place. As a result, the growing pandemic received more press coverage there than in many other places that suffered as much or more from the flu. More headlines about the outbreak got the bug tagged as the "Spanish flu," and the sunny country suffered an unfair affiliation because of its relative respect for free speech.

But restrictions went well beyond censorship. In my state of Arizona, the city of Prescott early on closed theaters, saloons and pool halls, with all public gatherings soon forbidden. Nearby Jerome, a mining town which was especially badly hit, was quarantined by armed guards placed along all the roads leading into town. And in Phoenix, police shot dogs and arrested people who ventured outside without wearing gauze masks. Both measures were ineffective (dogs didn't carry the disease and viruses pass right through gauze), rendering the results unjust for the unmasked and tragic for the city's canine population.

There was reason for the fear, of course. As much as a third of the world's population fell ill. Once the pandemic ran its course, an estimated 50 million people around the world were left dead. Of those, at least 675,000 were Americans.

Obviously, given the sheer numbers of the afflicted, medical personnel were stretched to the limit. In Buffalo, New York, even former nurses who had retired from the profession were ordered to report for duty -- by what authority is anybody's guess.

Actions taken during the 1918 pandemic are still relevant today because public health officials continue to look to that catastrophe for guidance in what does -- and does not -- work during health emergencies. In "Local Governance and Pandemics: Lessons from the 1918 Flu," a law review article published last year, Harvard Law School's Jason Marisam examined varying responses across the country to the 1918 pandemic. He concluded by specifically favoring the tough measures taken in Arizona over more libertarian approaches elsewhere.

[S]ome liberal challenges to public health efforts may needlessly create political tensions and cost lives by delaying or prematurely ending valuable health measures. The corollary to this observation is that a strong and quick public health elitist response may best preserve order and health in an emergency.

Marisam does concede, however, that "such strong approaches may step on individual liberties and become harder to enforce as citizens become weary of the coercive behavior." He suggests public participation as a means of softening resistance, though only after an authoritative initial response.

Marisam draws heavily from "When Terrorism Threatens Health: How Far are Limitations on Personal and Economic Liberties Justified?," an earlier, much-cited article by Lawrence O. Gostin, of the Georgetown University Law Center - O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, who argued:

[A]sking whether the government should have liberty-limiting powers is the wrong question. ... The right question is, what powers should the state have to deal with each level of risk?

Gostin is, not surprisingly, a booster of the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, a measure intended to standardize responses to situations like a future pandemic. Already incorporated in whole or part into the laws of most states, the model legislation takes a decidedly authoritarian approach, allowing government to: control supplies of food, fuel, clothing, medicine and other commodities; to restrict people's movement; to impose quarantines; to seize property (with compensation); to draft medical personnel; and to take a variety of other measures not normally considered the prerogative of a limited state in a free society.

Don't like what was done to you and yours during the "emergency"? Too bad. Government officials can't be held liable for deaths, injuries or property damage inflicted during the enforcement of the law's powers.

Maybe that's what's necessary for dealing with another potential flu pandemic or a similar health emergency. Maybe. Hopefully, the swine flu outbreak of the moment will be another false alarm, and we'll never find out if authoritarianism is really what it takes to preserve public health.

But the lessons of 1918 are clear: fear of disease breeds restrictive government actions. Public health authorities today have taken 1918 to heart. If or when the next pandemic occurs, people will be frightened, government officials among them. Scared, they'll turn to quarantines, armed guards, restrictions on assembly and other tough measures that have already been codified into law.

With luck, we'll get a little safety in return for the lost liberty. But we'll certainly lose that liberty.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Die for the environment

According to Prof. Schpinkee's Greenhouse Calculator, offered up by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I should have died when I was 2.6 years old for the sake of the environment. Apparently, I ate my fair share of meat, burned my gas and spent my money all while I was a toddler.
I suppose it's possible that the people who created this fun little kid-friendly educational tool aren't actually sick-and-twisted human-haters who want to drive children to fling themselves from highway overpasses; maybe they're agents provocateurs who want to portray environmentalists in as negative a light as they can.

Anyway, give the calculator a whirl and find out when you should die. For my part, I'm going to eat a burger and burn some dead dinosaurs. I'm living on borrowed time, after all.