30 November 2007

Bad News for Climate Change

They're sitting down in Bali to try to save the world. And while I'm completely on board with more drastic emissions cuts, the inclusion of the U.S. and developing countries, and transfers to poor farmers and low-lying countries to help offset the ill effects anthropogenic climate change has already produced, in the priorities the EU is bringing to the table I also see the expansion of folly.

Still, in addition to helping poor countries deal with climate change, the UNFCCC also wants to help them take their share of the burden. While industry in most developing countries still doesn't emit much carbon dioxide relative to the world's biggest polluters, deforestation has developed into a major problem. Not only do healthy forests serve as "carbon sinks," absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in its place, but deforestation in tropical countries now accounts for 20 percent of the carbon released into earth's atmosphere each year. A study released in August concluded that current programs to cut emissions, including the Kyoto Protocol, provide little incentive for leaders of tropical nations to keep their forests intact.


One such incentive would be to funnel funding to nations with tropical forests through an international carbon trading market. In such a system, richer, higher-polluting nations would be able to fund the preservation of carbon-rich forests to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union is piloting a similar emissions trading scheme, and according to UNFCCC, trading on that market was worth $30 billion in 2006.
We've already seen perverse effects of the carbon trading regime, most notably perhaps in the short-run, often chaotic, and under-regulated mechanism of planting trees as carbon offsets.* Now to add the preservation of existing forests to this scheme strikes me as a little disastrous; that is, it is a measure that will be taken to give the short-term appearance of "doing something" that is actually a suboptimal long-term solution.

If this brief blurb accurately describes what policymakers might have in mind, what I see is some sort of institutionalized "save a tree" scheme in which emitters will be able to purchase parts of, say, the Amazon rainforest to save it from destruction. Now, I have nothing against such a "save a tree" scheme and think it an unadulterated good that individuals and companies should spend money on such activities. Should such activities be allowed as carbon "offsets" though? I think it is prima facie an idiotic idea that we should equate preventing the destruction of an existing tree with reducing emissions - this is, after all, what the carbon offset scheme is supposed to be doing.

Sure, deforestation contributes to global carbon emissions and preventing it would then lower emissions, just as planting new forests is supposed to increase the sequestration of atmospheric carbon (moving us in the opposite direction). But to institutionalize paying states or owners of forests to protect forests as an "offset" makes the assumption that the forests would otherwise completely disappear. This is not a terrible assumption, given the alarming rate of deforestation.

However, it allows a rich state (say, Canada) to "offset" its emissions by X over the period of the agreement (say, between 2012 and 2020). Canada buys from Brazil enough trees cover X emissions. But over that 8 year period the requisite number of trees have a probability P < 1 of being cut down (P being the "natural" rate of deforestation in Brazil compounded over the 8 years). Do you see what I'm getting at? Brazil's emissions from deforestation, without the credit scheme, would have been PX < X.

Obviously this is so perverse that it can't be what policymakers have in mind. But then what do they have in mind? The obvious solution would be to discount the value of the offset so that Canada can only offset its emissions by PX, now where X represents emissions from cutting down all the trees Canada would buy. But then we have to decide on a baseline rate of Brazilian deforestation (P). Would we hold Brazil's rate of deforestation to an average over a prior period, and then allow countries to pay Brazil to deforest itself at a lower rate? Would they allow countries to pay Brazil not to cut down trees that they "otherwise would"? I just can't think of a satisfactory way to do this without creating perverse incentives and effects. I'm sure the technocrats who have developed carbon offset schemes have a very acceptable answer in mind. Still, I'd be pleased to hear somebody explain how this might work (admitting that my rudimentary reasoning above might be completely off base).

Besides, whatever the effects of such a scheme, it would not itself create new incentives "for leaders of tropical nations to keep their forests intact." It only creates incentives for rich countries to preserve tropical forests; it assumes that the leaders of "tropical" countries are indifferent between taking the cash and cutting down the trees. The only way to create incentives for anybody to quit deforestation is to bind them to an emissions-reduction scheme (or a more targeted anti-deforestation scheme).

*One of the PhD candidates in my department makes this argument as part of a larger project.


28 November 2007


It is probably a symptom of my feeble and simple mind that I find the following video endlessly fascinating:


27 November 2007

Guerilla restoration

This is the most outstanding thing I have seen in considerable time.
(via Crooked Timber)


23 November 2007

Canada: the worst of the Commonwealth

So, with Australian PM Howard on the ropes in an election he's likely to lose, Harper is the only remaining Commonwealth leader refusing to bind his country to greenhouse gas reductions. Maybe we should be a bit more charitable; after all, we can't be sure whether, if Pakistan hadn't been suspended, Musharraf would have been in Canada's corner. Great.


20 November 2007

Tomorrow's itinerary

A long journey tomorrow: below the fold. As you can see, public infrastructure in North America is abject. But I will be able to get considerable work done.

1. New Jersey Transit: Princeton Shuttle ("Dinky")
5:26 Princeton
5:31 Princeton Junction
2. New Jersey Transit: Northeast Corridor
5:37 Princeton Junction
5:51 New Brunswick
5:55 Edison
5:59 Metuchen
6:04 Metropark
6:20 Newark Penn Station
6:27 Secaucus Junction
6:42 New York
3. Amtrak: Maple Leaf
7:15 New York
7:39 Yonkers
7:58 Croton-Harmon
8:37 Poughkeepsie
8:52 Rhinecliff-Kingston
9:15 Hudson
9:45 (ar)-10:00 (dp) Albany-Rensselaer
10:23 Schenectady
10:40 Amsterdam
11:39 Utica
11:53 Rome
12:40 Syracuse
1:58 Rochester
2:56 Buffalo-Depew
3:09 Buffalo-Exchange St. Sta.
4:10 Niagara Falls, NY
4:30 (ar)-5:45 (dp) Niagara Falls, ON
6:07 St. Catharines
6:25 Grimsby
7:00 Aldershot
7:15 Oakville
7:44 Toronto


High Stakes in Canadian Trade Policy!

Algerians rejected potatoes unfairly, PEI exporter says


18 November 2007

Numbers numbers numbers...

I've been following the polling for the Democratic race for the presidential nomination ever since this absurdly long campaign got kicked off. Now, I know next to nothing about American politics, but that doesn't seem to stop anybody else from gassing off about it, so here's my best shot, in brief.

First of all, many of the polls continue to include Al Gore in the results. This strikes me as somewhat confusing. Numbers are available excluding Al Gore as well, and those numbers by my calculation are not simply a matter of dumping every respondent who chooses him; rather, when they knock him out of the numbers they must be distributing his supporters' second choices. I don't think it makes sense for pollsters to keep including Gore as an option, except as a normative choice to keep voters thinking about global warming (which, unfortunately, I don't think is the primary motivation here).

Judging by a lot of recent polls, even pooling Obama and Edwards' supporters together doesn't top Clinton, though I presume it puts them within the margin of error. On that note, the N for most of the polls seems pretty small, so the margins of error are substantial (for example, the most recent Gallup poll has a margin of +/-5%). All this to say: Obama'd better hope that some of the other candidates throw in the towel and jump on his bandwagon before too many primaries are decided. As for Edwards, if I were facing these numbers I'd start shopping around for a VP deal.

On the plus side, maybe, for Obama (and Edwards), the latest polls show undecideds at 9, 10, 12, 14, and so on. In general, these numbers are for Democrats/Democratic leaners. Which brings up a final interesting point: I hope somebody is watching the numbers for all likely Democratic primary voters in the states that allow Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries.


16 November 2007


From Der Spiegel's Zeitgeist section, a heartwarming article about Petra, the black swan that last year "fell in love" with... a plastic white swan paddle boat.

I love that Der Spiegel online has a Zeitgeist section. (As far as I can tell, this is only a feature of the International, English language part of the website.)


14 November 2007

Best in the World!

Normally, I'm not particularly sympathetic to Canadian regional resentment of any kind, but when I see articles like this, I get it. The actual content: the City of Toronto will announce a plan to refurbish Union Station, which will be good for commuters but which is not as elaborate as a previous proposal by architect Jack Diamond. But no, we can't just say that. Diamond advises us that "we could have probably the best interconnected, intermodal transit terminal in the world, in the centre of Toronto". City councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby is a bit more modest, proposing only that "Union Station should be recognized as the premier multi-modal transportation hub in North America".

This fits Harry Frankfurt's definition of bullshit in the strictest sense. Unlike the liar, who knows and consciously disregards the truth, the bullshitter has no regard for truth or falsity at all. None of these people actually thinks that it's important or likely that Union Station be a "better interconnected, intermodal transit terminal" than the newly refurbished St. Pancras, or the Gare de Lyon or Shinjuku Station. Nobody is going to actually assess whether Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station are only North America's "secondary multi-modal transportation hubs". The point is not to assert anything meaningful at all, but merely to express the feeling that Toronto is better than you. You only have to read the Toronto Star or listen to our city council for five minutes before you'll hear an utterance of this kind. No wonder the rest of the country is sick of us.


13 November 2007

It Takes One to Know One

"Let's face it, there's no whore like an old whore. If I'd been in Bryce's place, I would have been the first with my nose in the trough, just like all the rest of them."

-Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on the 1984 appointment of Liberal Bryce Mackasey as Ambassador to Portugal, as reported by CBC journalist Neil Macdonald


Pronunciation and the Art of Faking It*

So, it appears that academics and academic-wannabes including grad students are susceptible to impostor syndrome, also known as that-sinking-feeling-you-get-every-day-because-you're-worried-that- higher-ups-will-realize-you're-an-incompetent-hack. Sometimes the syndrome is no pathology: you genuinely have little grasp of that which you are currently talking about / the article you were supposed to read but were instead blogging / your professor's highly respected research that you just wrote an essay on.

Or, take another case: those sub-sub-subfield-specific terms that are not quite jargon but not far from it, and the pronunciation thereof. There's not quite anything like the feeling of fraudulence that comes from that relatively simple yet sophisticated term that you just stumble over every time you encounter it (often because there is more than one way to pronounce it - one for the vulgar and one for the noble.) "Operationalization." "Constitutive." "Purposive." "Hobbesian." You know what the words mean, damnit. You just can't pronounce them with the easygoing flow of... a non-phony.

*Bears no relation to Strauss, Leo. 1952. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Glencoe: Free Press. (I have not even read this book).


11 November 2007


A few readers have voiced concerns that the majority of posts here at Hoboken Group are incomprehensible. To prove that our blog should be accessible to most of our readership, I submitted the site to a (respectably scientific, I'm sure) online readability test. Its certification:

EDIT: John has noted that the our blog's readability rating seems to be endogenous to... itself. Or, the rating is reactive to our acknowledgment and publicization of it. That is, my posting of Hoboken Group's readability seems to have bumped us up one level of comprehensibility. Therefore:

cash advance


10 November 2007

The rich get richer...

Alumni and friends gather to kick off $1.75 billion campaign
Good to see it's going to the component of the American education system most in need of extra funds.


09 November 2007

The Name of the Rose

On Wednesday, Mississauga city council declared the Hazel McCallion rose - "a pink mini-floribunda with shades of soft white on the petals and a mild fragrance" - the official flower of Canada's sixth-largest city, a bastion of North American suburban culture.

On the same day, Mississauga city council also passed - after an hour of debate and by a vote of 9-2 - a five percent property tax surcharge, on top of a four percent property tax increase.

This in a country where raising taxes is supposed to be political suicide, where Canada's largest city - Toronto - can't lift a finger to increase revenue without it being bitten off.

Hazel McCallion, the Mayor of Mississauga, is 86 years old. She hasn't been pilloried for claiming to need the money - if anything, her fellow suburban mayors are protesting that McCallion's new "Cities NOW" campaign to pry infrastructure money out of the federal government is weakened by McCallion's move to try to Mississauga's budget issues on its own. In other words, they seem to be advocating McCallion deliberately expose the city to financial crisis - which was what everyone was criticizing Toronto Mayor David Miller for doing three months ago.

Hazel McCallion, to paraphrase a quote about Napoleon, is the only politician in Canada - apart from Stephen Harper, and possibly Danny Williams - who wills and acts. If only a few other people in positions of political authority had balls like hers.


08 November 2007


Upon closer inspection, the following do not exist in Columbus, OH:

Club Monaco
H&M (Women's store only, automobile necessary)

There is, however, a Brooks Brothers... at the airport.

(I also believe that I will have a problem with sizing in this state/region/country.)


07 November 2007

Corn (or, How I Learned to Embrace Terrible Public Policy and Love the Crop)

A bookforum post today links to several interesting items on corn and biofuels (and why corn makes Americans fat, why corn makes America evil, why corn is evil, corn evil corn corn corn).

All of the posted stories are worth reading, but my personal recommendation is the Mother Jones teaser (a subscription seems to be required to actually read the article), because of its awesome infographic. You can't argue against a well-composed infographic.


04 November 2007

The day after the recoup


The New York Times says that this is the latest disaster for the Bush administration (and, adds the BBC, the British). Peter Howard seems to agree. Indeed, the state of emergency makes Bush's support for Musharraf look unfortunate if not tremendously foolish. But isn't all of that a little beside the point?

This is probably a good time to worry first and foremost not about how X crisis in Y third world nominally-democratic autocracy affects the fortunes of Western governments. (Though, I can't help adding, the contradiction between what the White House and 10 Downing Street want and the reality in Pervez Musharraf's state of emergency does highlight quite elegantly the remarkable tension facing sovereignty today - a subject that's the quotidian whipping boy of this particularly unimaginative blogger).

We might be mildly concerned that this is at some level a nuclear crisis. We might wonder where Benazir Bhutto will stand in all of this, and how Musharraf will react to her reaction. We might even wonder whether Musharraf will get through the state of emergency (or, at least, whether a mildly democratic Pakistan will get through it). We might want to ask Bruce BdM to figure out how it's all going to go down. All this before speculating on how much this damages Z or W Western government.


01 November 2007

Podhoretz v. Zakaria on Iran

Time to join the bandwagon of bloggers who've posted this video. One does get the sense that Prodhoretz is fighting the last, last, last war (I mean, come on, how long is appeasement going to keep getting the bad rap it does?) Zakaria gives a pretty boilerplate Realist deterrence spiel. Throughout, Prodhoretz seems to miss the point; deterrence and appeasement are simply not the same thing. Of course, Zakaria sort of misses a point as well: what the Americans are doing in North Korea is not (just) deterrence, but also (a bit of) appeasement in the form of (a lot of) fuel oil.

Dan Drezner, while going nowhere near endorsing the idea of attacking Iran, worries that we're not dealing with a situation as simple as deterring Iran, but avoiding spillover into an all-out Mideast arms race and the uncontrolled proliferation that might result.

True enough, the situation with Iran is not Cold War bipolarity - or even a regional bipolarity like India-Pakistan (where, I would be happy to argue while my Realist hat is still on, I think we indeed see higher stability because of nuclearization). Israel's - and the United States' - deterrent threats would prevent Iran from using its potential nuclear capability, but that would not necessarily dissuade Iran's other neighbors from going nuclear as well. And deterrence may not actually prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities, because pre-emption might not be a credible existential threat. Especially if (admittedly reasonable) positions like Zakaria's are overtly taken by decision-makers.

But does any of this matter? Keeping the Realist hat on for a few moments, even if the whole Middle East goes nuclear, I don't think the world would be necessarily more unstable or that any of these weapons would actually be used, unless the United States or Israel first lose their cool and break the nuclear taboo (Realist hat off, momentarily for rhetoric's sake).

This is true even if Ahmadinejad is actually evil or, in better IR Theoretical terms, a revisionist. If Iran is a revisionist or revolutionary state, whether it or any other non-nuclear Middle Eastern country acquired nukes or not, it will still be deterred from using them, by the assurance of destruction by the United States. Iran can probably revise Middle East politics in important ways, but can't pose an existential threat to anybody. Now, if Ahmadinejad is actually crazy (doesn't value his own existence, political position, his fatherland, or his coreligionists) we have far greater problems on our hands.

So even though, as Drezner says, there's a possibility that some Middle Eastern countries will transform their nuclear energy desires into nuclear weapons desires, nothing seems to say that this is a problem for the world. (Oh, and in case anybody was worried about nuclear terrorism, read this working paper by John Mueller of OSU.) The real policy prescription in all of this - especially if we choose to maintain our (healthy?) level of fear about a nuclear Iran - would be controlled nuclear proliferation. But that's stretching out my Realist hat a bit too much.

Anyhow, in light of all of this, I find this BBC article pretty interesting, all the more so if the initiative had any hope of getting off the ground.

[Edit: It looks like Obama's making more sense on foreign policy, according to this NY Times article. Not talking to leaders has never been a smart foreign policy move. Ever.]