Saturday, February 25, 2006

Global warming, the trend

Sometimes, all the words and numbers just get in the way and what’s needed is an image, so just the other day I was searching for a graph depicting historical global temperature trends, when lo, my copy of NewScientist arrived with just what I was looking for. Below is a graph that NewScientist derived from a report in Science, to which NewScientist added their prediction for future temperatures, which I’ve deleted (which is why this graph is “adapted from,” rather than a straight copy of the original).

The NewScientist graph helps to show that the current warming is a sustained period of increased temperatures with no historical precedent, but the original graphs from Science are far more detailed, and to my eye, alarming. I do not claim to understand all of the authors’ notes regarding their data collection or interpretation; for that I must defer to the peer review process. But assuming these graphs are an accurate representation of reality, we seem to be headed for completely new, and frightening, territory.

Everywhere you look, there will be repercussions to a sustained warming trend, including the already documented increased severity of storms, destruction of coastal habitats (human and otherwise), increased numbers of extinctions for species unable to adapt quickly enough to sustained warming, and impacts on food production (from storms, reduced pollinators, droughts and flooding, temperature extremes, lengthened fire seasons).

It’s hard to understand the seeming complacency that greets this information, the general unwillingness of most people to change their own behavior in the slightest, most trivial sort of way, to try to stave off such grim scenarios. It’s hard to understand how people are willing to bequeath such a grotesque disaster onto their innocent descendants. It is unfathomable to me that people professing to be religious have such contempt for God’s creation as to besmirch and destroy it in the space of little more than a generation.

Being without progeny, I am tempted at times to a feeling of relief that I “have no dog in this race,” but really I do. Life, all life, is such a precious and miraculous phenomenon, that I cannot but mourn the destruction of its tiny oasis, the “skin” of this little orb spinning through space. If, as many climatologists believe, the current warming is but the beginning of a destructive overheating of the planet, we are on the verge of a mass extinction that will make all previous extinctions look like picnics. But go ahead: crank up that big SUV, and heat your big house to 80°F in winter, and cool it to 65°F in summer, and cruise in your big motor boat, and fly in your big jet plane, because none of it matters. We’re all gonna die anyway. Might as well take the rest of them with us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It’s baaaaack.....

He has spoken.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

No money, no life

Genentech is pricing its unique life-saving drugs well beyond the means of the vast majority of Americans, merely because it can:

“Until now, drug makers have typically defended high prices by noting the cost of developing new medicines. But executives at Genentech and its majority owner, Roche, are now using a separate argument—citing the inherent value of life-sustaining therapies. If society wants the benefits, they say, it must be ready to spend more for treatments…”

One of the treatments in question is the use of Genentech’s Avastin for lung or breast cancer, with a yearly price of nearly $100,000. What percentage of cancer patients are in an income bracket that could find $100,000 per year for just one of their medical costs? And how many insurance company formularies will include such a costly drug? Even when the drug is covered by insurance, the copays can run $20,000 per year, hardly affordable by most people who find themselves on disability insurance. It may be the “best” drug for many patients, but what does that matter if it’s kept out of reach of the vast majority of patients?

There is a basic problem with Genentech’s argument in any case. To begin with, Genentech is behaving as if they are the only ones with any rights to this (or any other Genentech) drug when in fact, vast amounts of the research leading to this drug discovery were taxpayer-funded, as was most of the education that was provided to their researchers.

Charging whatever the market will bear for lifesaving therapies violates the principles upon which the field of medicine is based, while pharmaceutical corporations still lay claim to their role as valuable medical participants. As a society, we have demanded that life be valued above the pursuit of profits, as in the case of hospital emergency rooms being mandated to provide lifesaving therapies even in the absence of a patient’s ability to pay.

The biotech industry has a real image problem at the moment, and it will hardly be helped by such greed-inspired pricing of their products. If the company’s intent is to only provide care to the wealthy, perhaps they should refund the tax dollars the rest of us have paid to enable their product development? They should also be denied any and all corporate tax breaks they may presently be receiving, and should repay any tax deferrals they received for the development of this and similarly-priced drugs.

The notion that companies such as Genentech and Roche are working for the good of society, or for the good of humanity, should be put to rest too; Genentech’s only intended customers are the wealthy, and the rest of us should just die quietly. After we pay the freight for their discoveries, that is.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Forgive me if I fail to comprehend the abject incompetence of our legal system, while for more than four years our government has been torturing and murdering people in off-shore prisons without being called to account for this illegal, immoral and completely unethical and inhumane behavior. Are they all asleep at the wheel? What does it take to get them to act in a meaningful and effective manner?

Laws are being broken, and will continue to be broken, apparently forever, on the orders of just one man? This is not the way this country is supposed to operate.

For starters, these prisoners have been detained for more than four years, without trial. But that is only for starters. No amount of trials, show or otherwise, could ever justify torture, of any sort. Torture remains illegal to this day, and constitutes a grave crime against humanity, no matter the circumstance, no matter the convoluted rationalization. Not even the deaths of those tortured (i.e., those who are murdered, slowly and painfully) can seem to rouse the justice system from its deep slumber.

Why is no one being called to account for these nightmarish violations being done in our names? Mark Kleiman of The Reality-Based Community blog makes the case most tersely:
“Torture is a power that no human being, or institution composed of human beings, can be trusted to possess. For associating my country and its flag with these atrocities, I can never forgive George W. Bush and his partners in crime. Impeach Bush? Hell, no! Ship the bastard off to the Hague and put him on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
I have to wonder why we bother with laws and governments at all if all it takes is one madman to violate the most fundamental of human rights with impunity. Why sign treaties, why write laws, why create the framework of a legal system, why bother with any of it, if persistent violations result in no action whatsoever?

Yes, Mark, you are exactly correct: Bush belongs in the dock of the Hague, and the crimes he and his cronies have committed are crimes that are unforgivable. But what does this matter if no one seems to care?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

We’ve passed the tipping point

According to a report by The Independent (UK), global warming has now passed the point of no return, by exceeding the “tipping point” of 400 parts per million (ppm) “equivalent concentration of CO2” (which includes concentrations of other warming gases such as methane and nitrous oxide), a figure arrived at by a UK government conference on “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” held in 2005. A leading expert on climate change, Dr. Keith Shine, when asked recently to calculate current equivalent CO2 concentration based upon data from 2004, arrived at a figure of 425 ppm (379 ppm CO2, plus an equivalent of 40 ppm from methane, and 6 ppm from nitrous oxide).

Does this mean that global warming is truly “unstoppable,” as suggested by the scientists attending the UK conference? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, James Lovelock (of “The Gaia Hypothesis”) wrote last month in a piece that comes mournfully close to being his eulogy for the planet, that “as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees Centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics” and if that doesn’t sound like a lot to you Fahrenheit folks, it is a 14.4°F increase in our neighborhood, and it will wreak havoc on all climate systems; on that the climate scientists are agreed.

I do not pretend to be a climate expert. I have not critically evaluated the data supporting global warming, but I do pay close attention to the sources of my information. In this, I give by far the most credence to scientists who have spent their working lives focused on research and data evaluation and who have published their work in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals. When the vast majority of working scientists present a collective opinion about how the world works, I pay attention.

Sometimes, though, my wishful thinking takes over, and I just hope that George Bush and his 20-something non-credentialed appointees are the ones who will be proved correct in their persistent contention that global warming is a myth. It would also be nice to find a humongous gold nugget among the dirty laundry as I’m sorting it into lights and darks, but I don’t plan my life around that as being a highly likely event...

Then again, maybe none of this will matter....

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Maybe we should all work for free?

Listening to the constant drumbeat of the business press, one would think that rising healthcare costs are the root of all corporate and economic ills, and that if only medical costs could be reined in, say by eliminating people’s ability to sue for malpractice, we could return once again to the golden age of rising tides floating all boats. Well that would all be well and good, if only it weren’t a baldfaced lie.

As Kristen Gerencher notes in MarketWatch:
“At this stage of most past recoveries, companies distributed 25% of their income growth to profits and 75% to compensation. But this time appears to be different, with the split closer to 60-40. Companies are putting 59% of income to profits and 41% to worker compensation, according to EPI's analysis.”
This is not merely “different,” as Gerencher describes it; it’s a near reversal. This is nothing less than a complete sea change. Where once 75% was given to total employee compensation costs, it has now become a mere 41%, a reduction of nearly half. Is it any wonder that consumer spending, so important to the health of the nation’s economy, cannot muster any sustained strength?

Other business press reports continually lament a dearth of personal savings and the meager amounts that workers manage to put aside for retirement. But when real spendable earnings decline year after year for the vast majority, while the cost of everything continues to climb, the concerns expressed by the business gurus ring hollow.

As long as “compensation costs” continue their decline, the corresponding trend will be toward increasing income inequality, and the consumer economy will continue on its staggering, stumbling trek to perdition. Regardless of what the moneyed class believes, a vibrant consumer economy is a precondition to a functional economy and stable polity. Stockholders who thrill to the continual reductions in compensation costs really ought to be careful what they wish for...

As if lives matter

In my earlier entry about the Sago mining disaster, I noted that the miners died because the mine’s owner chose not to spend the money on available technology that could have saved them. Now, the Canadians show us how it’s done, how to run a mine as if the miners’ lives matter.

At the Mosaic postash mine near Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, miners were trained in how to respond to fires and given the means to save themselves, exactly proving my point: all of the technology already exists that could have saved the Sago miners, and as such things go, it’s pretty low tech. Air, food, and water.

I cheer the Canadians and their successful mine rescue, and I wonder when we Americans will behave as if the lives of our workers are also worthy of such affordable investment. I am not holding my breath.