Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: environment (page 1 of 2)

The New York Times on power consumption at data centers

Data Centers Waste Vast Amounts of Energy, Belying Industry Image

This is an area where the Internet industry could use improvement. Here’s the damning statistic:

But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

We can do better than that.

Update: You should read this rebuttal of the article as well. (Chris posted a pointer to it in the comments but it should get top billing.)

In defense of Corexit

I happened to pick up a dead trees copy of the New Yorker this week and found in it a massive article on the BP oil spill written by Raffi Khatchadourian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were working on a book on the same subject. In it, he brings the perspective that only the passage of time can give to a situation that was very hard to judge at the time.

Not only did the public not really understand the full scope of what was going on, but neither did anyone who was actively involved in the response to the spill. Khatchadourian’s article is what you might call the first revisionist history of the spill response.

As a liberal and an environmentalist, I found the article really valuable because it caused me to take a hard look at some of my biases and the role they played in my reaction to the response to the spill. A huge portion of the article is devoted to the role dispersants (like Corexit) played in the spill response.

Heavy use of the dispersants was highly controversial for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. The bad reason was that many people reported that Corexit was highly toxic and worse for the environment than the oil itself. That turns out not to have been true — Corexit is the most widely tested chemical dispersant available, and in the aftermath the EPA has found that it is less toxic than the oil being spilled. Fears (mostly unfounded) about the toxicity of the Corexit prevented it from being used as widely as it could have been.

The spill response team also started using Corexit at the wellhead to break up the oil as it was emerging from the blowout in addition to applying it using sprayers from the air. This had never been tried before and thus caused a lot of worry about what would result.

And also, nobody has used dispersants in the amount that they were used in the BP spill response. These last two fears were better founded. It’s important to look at the risks when you’re trying something new.

Ultimately, the dispersants were the most effective measure used by the spill response team, and the disinformation that was passed around about the dispersants probably reduced the effectiveness of the spill response.

Fundamentally, a lot of the negative impression of the use of dispersants resulted from people seeing the use of them as something that BP was for and the EPA was against. In truth, the spill response was coordinated by the most experienced and knowledgeable oil spill experts in the world, and the scientists working on the response ultimately agreed that using the dispersants made more sense than not using them.

That’s just one example of how people’s realtime impression of who was calling the shots affected public opinion, in turn making it more difficult to clean up the spill.

The article covers only one aspect of the spill — cleanup of the oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. It didn’t cover the events leading up to the spill or the efforts to contain the blowout. It makes a powerful argument that in the end, technocrats and experts are our best bet at getting the job done, and that public opinion and politicians mostly tend to make things worse.

Why is the government is blocking access to oily beaches?

I’ve been reading stories about the government at every level blocking access to areas affected by the oil spill pretty much since the oil spill started. Just this weekend, Duncan Davidson reported on new restrictions on journalists documenting the effects of the spill in, Should it be a Felony to Cover the Oil Spill? Glenn Greenwald rounds up news of law enforcement officers working with BP personnel to prevent journalists from covering the spill. He also notes that this pattern of behavior precedes the spill — law enforcement previously detained a freelance photographer for photographing a refinery in Texas City, Texas. The reasons why the government might not want people to see how bad it is on the Gulf coast these days are obvious, but the calculus is depressing. The government sees the costs of harassing journalists who are trying to document the spill as being lower than the costs of people seeing the effects of the spill.

Dan Froomkin on Obama’s oil spill speech

This sentence from Dan Froomkin pretty much says it all when it comes to President Obama’s speech on the oil spill:

How unmoored from reality are Obama and his top advisers to think that some pretty words with so little substance could accomplish so much?

The words weren’t even that pretty.

My deeper fear is that President Obama’s limited reach still exceeds the nation’s feeble grasp. Is there a great untapped willingness to take on the challenge of climate change or even moving to cleaner fuels for other, less politically toxic reasons? I don’t see it.

The externalities of gasoline

Ezra Klein’s Washington Post column today is about the externalities of gasoline:

Most of us would call the BP spill a tragedy. Ask an economist what it is, however, and you’ll hear a different word: “externality.” An externality is a cost that’s not paid by the person, or people, using the good that creates the cost. The BP spill is going to cost fishermen, it’s going to cost the gulf’s ecosystem, and it’s going to cost the region’s tourism industry. But that cost won’t be paid by the people who wanted that oil for their cars. It’ll fall on taxpayers, on Gulf Coast residents who need new jobs, on the poisoned wildlife on the seafloor.

That means the gasoline you’re buying at the pump is — stick with me here — too cheap. The price you pay is less than the product’s true cost. A lot less, actually. And it’s not just catastrophic spills and dramatic disruptions in the Middle East that add to the price. Gasoline has so many hidden costs that there’s a cottage industry devoted to tallying them up. At least the ones that can be tallied up.

Humans are too stupid to save the planet

I think this is true:

Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades. This is the stark conclusion of James Lovelock, the globally respected environmental thinker and independent scientist who developed the Gaia theory.

At one time, nuclear proliferation was the greatest threat facing mankind. A very short series of bad decisions could have quickly led to the extinction of the human race. I think that the global warming is the single most serious existential threat to humanity right now. It may not wind up bringing down modern human society, but I think of all the threats we face, it’s the likeliest one to do so. And yet, at a political level, few people treat it with that level of seriousness. That’s stupid.

Enjoy your fresh, farm-raised salmon

Andrew Leonard on a Salmon farming disaster in Chile:

Who could have predicted that the mass forced farming of an exotic fish to please the Wal-Mart low-price palate would result in a horrific virus-borne plague of anemia?

I don’t eat farmed salmon if I can help it.

Fighting global warming the way we built the Internet

Ed Gerck has a really provocative post on Dave Farber’s Interesting People mailing list on the failure of the Copenhagen conference on global warming to produce an agreement that would eventually become legally binding. (The best rundown of the Copenhagen summit comes from BBC environment reporter Roger Harrabin.) In it he argues that had countries tried to come together and hammer out a legally binding agreement on the creation of the Internet, there wouldn’t be an Internet. Perhaps an understanding among countries that they will work together will lead to more substantive progress than a treaty that most countries will refuse to ratify anyway.

Of course, the problem is that there was a lot of interest in developing the Internet for economic reasons, and we haven’t seen technical breakthroughs that offer similar returns for fighting climate change. Right now countries see what they have to give up (coal-fired power plants, for one) and the short term costs of taking strong action to fight climate change expose any leader to political risk that they probably won’t find acceptable. But given that reality, a binding legal requirement was never in the cards anyway.

Infographic of the climate change argument

Information is Beautiful: Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus.

I researched this subject in a very particular way. I deliberately chose not speak directly to any climate experts or leading scientists in the field. I used only publicly available web sources.

Why? Because I wanted to simulate what it’s like for people trying to learn about climate change online.

Put a dollar figure on carbon emissions

Matthew Yglesias makes a pretty convincing argument that the most effective path to slowing down climate change is putting a price on carbon. Right now, carbon emissions are untaxed, so there’s no market mechanism to reward a reduction in carbon emissions other than the price of using energy. Unfortunately, energy prices are largely decoupled from their environmental impact.

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