Cliff Mass Blows Smoke about Wildfires

In this article, Cliff Mass claims the recent spate of wildfires (and wildfire smoke) in this region doesn’t have much to do with climate change, and that we’re merely returning to normal, smoky summers. Cited as evidence are statistics for area burned in Oregon and historical anecdotes about fires and smoke in Washington.

Missing is virtually any mention of fires in British Columbia. That’s highly significant, for two reasons:

  1. Most of the wildfire smoke the Seattle region has experienced in the last two summers has been from fires in BC, and
  2. In BC, unlike Oregon, the area burned is setting all-time records. This happened both last year and this year, in fact: 2017 set an all-time record for the province, and then 2018 bested 2017’s record.

It gets worse: there is plenty of evidence that the unprecedented size and severity of BC’s fires is related to global warming. The worst fires in BC are in the interior, in areas of lodgepole pine forest. Those forests are burning because they are full of diseased and dying trees. So many trees are diseased and dying because the population of pine beetles has exploded. The population of beetles has exploded because winters no longer have the extremes of cold that they used to.

Winters with fewer extremes of cold are precisely the sort of thing one would expect in a warming climate. Winter cold waves originate in the arctic and move south, and it is the regions closer to the poles whose temperature changes the most as global average temperatures change.

Yet despite all the above, British Columbia is almost completely absent from Mass’s blog post. I find this highly curious, to the point that I find it difficult to understand how it could be a chance accidental oversight.

Mass prides himself on being a political centrist, and I believe he has just illustrated how centrism is an ideology like any other, and centrists are subject to their political biases blinding them to obvious realities, just like those to the left and the right of the center.

The biggest problem with centrism is that if one side claims 2 + 2 = 4, and the other claims 2 + 2 = 5, you do not arrive at a correct answer by averaging the two and concluding that 2 + 2 = 4.5.

Dry-Erase Markers and Central Heating

The fomer requires the latter to work properly. If a room is colder than about 60 °F (15.5 °C) dry erase markers cease to dry-erase so easily.

Since my home doesn’t have central heating (it has individual space heaters in each room), and I’ve been trying to live like the British used to prior to the 1970s (typically heat the main room in the home only), my home office is typically around 50 °F (10 °C) in the mornings (yes, British houses used to get colder than that in the old days during cold spells, but my place is of fairly recent construction and is thus well-insulated).

Why do that? First, it saves money. It also promotes comfort while outdoors, since the temperature difference is not so great. Most importantly, it reduces my ecological impact. And no, it’s not any great amount of suffering. Cold is why blankets and layers exist. Plus, the propane heater in my living room kicks out a fair amount of radiant heat, so if I’m on the couch in front if it, I can feel plenty warm even if the room is on the chilly side.

So, How Harmful Is I-732, Anyhow?

Revisiting a previous post of mine, it’s time to answer the question asked therein:

The question to ask, I think, is: How much harm will the proposed law actually do [emphasis added]? Note that this is a very different question from asking how far it falls short in addressing race and class issues, even though global warming almost certainly will harm the disadvantaged more.

Addressing the latter really isn’t the purpose of the legislation. Such issues should be addressed, of course, but the proper way to address them is via other, separate actions. On the other hand, if the measure does itself do harm to the disadvantaged, then that is a valid argument against it.

I’m going mostly on three articles run early last month by the Sightline Institute, a voice I generally respect: one, two, three.

The answer to the question seems to be “Some, but overall not very much.”

The Sightline articles (particularly the second one) assume the measure will be revenue neutral, as much as can be ascertained. On that, I’m skeptical. I’m generally inclined to trust the Department of Revenue’s estimates more than Sightline’s in most (but not all) cases. In particular, Sightline is assuming an all-but-inevitable court challenge will go their way, when by their own admission according to history challenges of that particular nature generally do not. However, even given that, it must be pointed out that it’s a small revenue shortfall.

Yes, I-732’s drafters failed to reach out to the disadvantaged. Shame on them — to paraphrase a humorous work of fiction I once read, organized environmentalism is the whitest movement since the Klan. While that may be hyperbolic, it is the case that environmental organizations tend to be drawn from a very historically privileged background. But, while the drafters’ lack of awareness was shameful, it was not actual harm and thus falls short of the standards I set forth in my earlier post.

To their credit, I-732’s drafters did recognize how shamefully regressive Washington state’s tax structure is, and attempt to do something about it. Unfortunately, the law was overly simplistic and there’s cracks in the law through which some of the poor will slip (and thus end up paying in the order of hundreds of dollars more taxes per year).

I-732 also fails to actively spend more money on renewable energy and conservation. Given its revenue shortfall problem, that’s probably a blessing in disguise. Also, this again falls short of my standard of doing harm: sins of omission are not sins of commission. Finally, it’s not as if the economic incentives created by the taxes won’t alter behavior and cause private parties to make such investments (in fact, that’s a huge part of their purpose); the investments may not happen directly by government action but they will happen nonetheless.

So to sum up, the actual harm done by I-732 is that it:

  • Makes the state’s recurring budget crisis slightly worse by being slightly revenue negative.
  • Makes a minority of the poor end up paying more, not less, in taxes, even though most of the poor will pay less.

At this stage in the game, I do not think that the total harm outweighs either the good the measure will do, or the harm that rejecting it will do. The latter is likely to taint carbon taxes with a stench of failure, thereby causing even more delays in attempting to address the most profound crisis that mankind has ever faced.

She’s Still Lying; They Knew the Danger

No, I don’t have any hard evidence to back up that suspicion, but I feel pretty safe concluding that Christe Todd Whitman is lying when she claims nobody knew how dangerous the air was in Lower Manhattan 15 years ago. The reason is asbestos.

I remember being astounded at the time that people weren’t super-concerned about asbestos contimanation. The towers were built at a time when asbestos was still a very popular material. Aside from its carciogenicity, asbestos is a wonderful material with many advantages (fireproof, excellent elecrrical and heat insulator, not subject to decay), one which one can obtain for literally just the effort of digging it out of the ground. So quite naturally it found wide use.

I was once system and network manager in a building that was built before the nasty truth about asbestos became widely known. It made running new network wiring a constant headache; one couldn’t so much as drill through most walls in that building without spending thousands of dollars to protect against liberating asbestos fibers.

Those towers were obviously full of asbestos-containing building materials, so naturally so was the dust left by their collapse. Any claims the dust was not hazardous were obviously baloney. If any initial measurements indicated a lack of hazard, that was reason not to abandon extreme caution but to suspect the quality of the measurements.

Conflicted on I-732

Voices I normally respect a great deal are chiming in against the carbon tax initiative in Washington, I-732, because of race and class justice concerns. This leaves me conflicted, because global warming is clearly the most profound danger we face, thus urgently needs to be addressed, and a carbon tax appears to be one of the most simple and logical steps we can take to this end.

The question to ask, I think, is: How much harm will the proposed law actually do? Note that this is a very different question from asking how far it falls short in addressing race and class issues, even though global warming almost certainly will harm the disadvantaged more.

Addressing the latter really isn’t the purpose of the legislation. Such issues should be addressed, of course, but the proper way to address them is via other, separate actions. On the other hand, if the measure does itself do harm to the disadvantaged, then that is a valid argument against it.

A Particularly Stupid Wish

Wishes like this are just plain stupid:

But Lord Rees added that there is also cause for optimism. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.”

This is the case for a variety of reasons. Here’s a few:

  • The more technologically sophisticated a society is, the more it is dependent on specialized knowledge.
    • Extreme specialization is a form of repression; our minds evolved to deal with a world in which we performed a variety of tasks. Already, most people are dissatisfied with their jobs, despite having a freedom of choice in a career; this is because the allowed choices simply have no good answer for most.
    • A society more dependent on specialization is more difficult to understand and question in toto, thus such societies are more difficult to successfully rebel against. Since revolution is the ultimate guarantor of freedom, such societies are highly unlikely to remain free.
  • The possibility of creating transhuman intelligence raises the possibility that those intelligent beings would treat humans the same way humans treat animals: with a range of options between vermin to be exterminated, farm animals to be ruthlessly exploited, or companions to be doted on and controlled like small children.
  • It is the rich who could best afford to transform themselves into long-lived or immortal transhumans, thus crystallizing the capitalist class hierarchy into a permanent evolutionary outcome.
  • Immortality, while at the first glance appealing, is probably the worst of all possible outcomes, as it raises the spectre of a ruling elite that could last indefinitely. Gone is the presence of death as the great equalizer, from whom even the worst tyrants and plutocrats cannot escape.


Right on schedule (a bit early in fact), today dawned foggy.

The first summer I lived on Bainbridge Island, when August rolled around I got a surprise: What I had thought of as the autumn fog season was the late summer/autumn fog season in areas closer to the Salish Sea. It’s something I had been unaware of, never having lived on one of the islands before.

That year had an exceptionally foggy fall. I’m wondering if today’s weather is any sort of portent to that happening this year.

Self-Driving Cars, Again

I’ve become involved in a discussion about self-driving cars on an Internet forum, and the expected techno-utopian who thinks they will be a sea change which obsoletes mass transit has popped up. To summarize a past post, no, they won’t:

  • They will increase the capacity of existing freeways, but that’s nothing that building or expanding freeways doesn’t currently do, and such increased capacity falls victim to the induced demand problem. There is absolutely no reason to expect that the extra capacity furnished by self-driving cars will magically function differently than that furnished by more traditional means.
  • It’s actually worse than the above. By automating driving, self-driving cars will make driving easier. When you make something easier, the natural expectation is that people will do more of it. In other words, self-driving cars will themselves be a significant new inducer of demand for road space.
  • Some of the worst congestion is found on surface streets in commercial areas, where there isn’t much (or any) room for more cars on the existing streets. Self-driving cars will do nothing to alter this fact; automation does not repeal the basic laws of geometry. Quite the contrary; by increasing the capacity of freeways to deliver vehicles to such areas, they will exacerbate this congestion.

In fact, there’s a good chance that self-driving technology will make mass transit more relevant:

  • As demonstrated above, it will make congestion tend to get worse, thus increasing the need for alternatives to personal vehicles.
  • One of the largest costs for transit agencies (in fact, it’s typically the largest cost) is the labor cost for operating the transit vehicles. Self-driving buses will therefore enable significant savings for such agencies.
  • Labor costs are a big part of the reason why only big buses and not minibuses are used (the latter save very little money for agencies, because labor costs and not equipment or fuel costs dominate). By enabling minibuses to economically replace larger ones, self-driving buses will enable better, more frequent service to low-density areas that are difficult to serve well with traditional mass transit.
  • Self-driving cars will further help the ability of transit to serve low-density suburbia by making it easy for riders to get to train stations without requiring huge, expensive park-and-ride garages (which tend to fill up early). Riders can send the car back home after it drops them off; this won’t exacerbate congestion because travel will happen in the opposite direction, and residential streets (unlike freeways and commercial streets) typically don’t suffer congestion issues anyhow.

On top of all that, there’s energy efficiency and the need to reduce fossil fuel use. Self-driving cars still require several tons of steel to often carry just a single person around. The general wastefulness of the personal automobile remains unchanged.

Understanding Nathan Lewis

It took me a while to figure out what this guy is about. The home page of his site is full of all sorts of gold bug stuff, yet when you dig a bit you find all sorts of urbanist and ecological articles that are not what one would expect from the typical gold bug (who tends to be a fairly garden variety right-winger).

But Lewis is not a garden-variety right-winger. He seems to be what can best be characterized, without prejudice, as a reactionary: he generally admires earlier ways of doing things, be they building cities or establishing a monetary system, and wants to return to them.

In the case of cities, he has something of a point; many of the recent innovations in architecture and urban design have been pretty stupid. As someone who’s never traveled outside of North America (I think I should do a post on that soon), it was something of a revelation to me that every city I have experience with, with the possible exception of inner Santa Fe or Boston, is in a sense an example of dysfunctional modernist design.

With respect to the gold standard, not so much. Money is not an easy thing to get right, but I can’t see how that justifies a childlike faith that the amount of easily-mineable gold the Earth’s crust happened to be formed with is magically the correct amount of an exchange medium for an economy whose size keeps changing.

Just for openers, in the face of a growing economy a gold standard will simply reward and strengthen the social pathology of the class hierarchy; as money gets more relatively scarce, it gets more comparatively valuable, so those who already have a lot of it will get richer by doing nothing more than sitting around and watching their gold get more valuable. Why create and reward a class or rich idlers?

But still, some of the guy’s urbanist ideas are worth a read, at least if like me you don’t personally have experience with Old World cities.