Just a decade ago, clean energy champions talked almost exclusively of the familiar wind, solar, and biomass energy generation options. Since the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom just a few years ago, the clean energy debate has become a bit muddied. Beyond arguing that domestic natural gas production is good for energy and natural security, proponents of fracking and natural gas have been appealing to those concerned about climate change, arguing that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to a lower carbon society.
But skeptics of this line of reasoning are numerous. A new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that fugitive (uncaptured or accidental) natural gas emissions from fuel extraction and processing are much higher than previously thought, bolstering natural gas skepticism.
For a bit of background, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions consist primarily (84% as of 2011) of carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane and Nitrous Oxide (yes, laughing gas) make up the majority of the remainder contributing 9% and 5% to total emissions respectively. Used as a substitute for gasoline and diesel, compressed natural gas primarily consisting of methane has lower greenhouse gas emissions and much lower CO2 emissions in particular. Moreover, electricity generation from natural gas can be run either to cover base load demand or with variable output, a key characteristic to be compatible with intermittent electricity sources like wind, solar, and other renewable energy generation methods.
As a result, even MIT’s Energy Initiative center and our now Secretary of Energy advocated the natural gas was a low-carbon alternative that should be pursued to bridge the country toward renewable energy and to slow global warming.
But low-carbon energy is misleading. When it comes to climate change, a gas’s warming potential is of key importance. Using a relative scale, CO2 has a global warming potential of 1 and all other gasses are compared to CO2’s ability to trap heat and warm the planet. Methane – the primary component of natural gas – has 25 times the warming potential of CO2. In other words, not fully combusted, natural gas is worse for climate change.
The new report, demonstrating that methane emissions are actually higher than previously thought, calls to question where the “bridge” built by natural gas is actually leading us. Though the EPA recently decided to cut its estimates of these fugitive emissions, the report argues that these emissions are actually 2-8 times higher than the EPA originally estimated. Many of these emissions come from fuel extraction, including natural gas drilling and fracking.
Moreover, other articles have argued that an increase in natural gas use hasn’t really been seen as connected to more renewable energy. Renewables only account for around 8% of total energy consumption in recent years, most of which comes from large hydropower which is not new nor considered renewable by many environmental organizations.
As a nation, we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels. In Minnesota, this primarily means using less coal. The debate over clean energy shouldn’t be muddied with half-truths about natural gas. It’s still a fossil fuel, it’s still non-renewable, and under current regulations and practices, it could be much worse for climate change even if it can claim to be low carbon. Instead, Minnesota and the U.S. in general should start focusing on investing more in renewable technologies and giving nuclear options a closer look.
In all the uproar over for-profit colleges, the one question that rarely gets asked is why? Why are Minnesotans enrolling at such high numbers in for-profit colleges when the state, especially the Twin Cities, has such a robust, affordable community college system?
MnSCU is a tremendous Minnesota asset, which should have drastically limited for-profits' need.
Yet, as MinnPost reports, "[o]ne in seven Minnesotans who sought education beyond high school turned to a for-profit institution in recent years," according the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Rasmussen alone has grown 500 percent within the last decade. With attendance higher than ever, scrutiny of these institutions is vital.
Part of the reason for growth is the aggressive marketing, especially in communities with high concentrations of first generation college students.
Rasmussen, for example, dedicated 18 percent of its revenue to marketing. Capella spent nearly 30 percent—well above the for-profit average—on marketing, according to a detailed U.S. Senate report on this issue.
Recruiters employed by for-profit institutions outnumber career and student service employees. In fact, the senate report found that among the thirty schools it examined, in total there are nine times the amount of recruiters as career-services staff. At Rasmussen College, the number of recruiters matches the increase in students while the career services remains stagnant as enrollment climbs. (Go to page 16 on the .pdf)
One of the greatest criticisms of for-profit colleges and universities is their inadequate job placement statistics. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education produced “Gainful Employment” guidelines. The regulations aimed to ensure students are receiving solid preparation for a good job. A federal judge, however, struck down the regulation, and the USDOE is back to the drawing board.
Gainful Employment rules would limit many of the aggressive and misleading marketing tactics for-profits tend to utilize. Students both, traditional and nontraditional, must be aware of the affordable community college options that would provide a better frame of comparison if they're headed to college.
Our love affair with driving has hardly been more reflected and confirmed than by the long-running popularity of a radio show devoted solely to maintaining cars. For more than two decades, Click and Clack, the brothers Magliozzi, have regaled motorists with a weekly supply of jokes and automotive advice on NPR's "Car Talk," now on episode No. 1349.
No disrespect to the grease-stained jesters, but for a more intellectually nutritious and just as entertaining program about automobility, check out a new Freakonomics podcast titled "The Most Dangerous Machine."
In just over a half hour, host Stephen Dubner and a lineup of experts explore the past, present and future of auto safety—or, more properly, auto peril. The car, Dubner tells us, "has changed the way we think about distance," but it's also "a deathtrap," killing 1.2 million people worldwide every year.
Even so, the show isn't a downer. There's plenty of comic relief, as in the multi-distracted driver caught on a researcher's video talking on two cell phones while smoking a cigarette, driving though a work zone and running a yellow light. Or the fun fact that the inventor of the first gasoline-powered car in America, John W. Lambert in 1891, also precipitated the nation's first auto crash.
And did you know that seat belts are among "the most cost-effective life-saving devices ever invented"? Compared with air bags, they deliver 60 times more bang for the buck, Dubner notes.
There's plenty more to amuse and inform on the podcast, but I won't let slip any more spoilers. Check it out yourself.
A curious statement appeared in the press release from conservative legislators regarding last week’s November forecast. That forecast marked a $1 billion plus improvement in state finances, the full pay-back of the K-12 education funding shift, and a projected $825 billion surplus for the current FY 2014-15 biennium. In response to these developments, Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie stated “This surplus calls into question the wisdom of burdening the economy with higher tax rates.”
With little difficulty, one can imagine what Senator Hann’s quote would have been if the November forecast had revealed a large deficit instead of a large surplus. In fact, all you have to do is substitute the word “deficit” for “surplus” and you get the right wing quote for this alternative universe. If there’s a surplus, it’s the fault of the tax increase. If there’s a deficit, it’s the fault of the tax increase. Since every forecast reveals either a deficit or a surplus, conservatives were guaranteed at least one problem that they could pin on the progressive tax increase enacted during the 2013 session.
The fact of the matter is that the “no new tax” clique at the State Capitol was predicting job losses, business flight, plague, and pestilence if the income tax increase on the top one percent of Minnesota households was enacted. However, the November forecast projections reveal the opposite: Minnesota job and income growth is among the most robust in the nation and our unemployment rate is two-thirds the national average. While the November forecast is only a projection, it is based on the best information currently available—and that information casts major doubt on right wing predictions of doom.
Folks in the heart of a major metro typically don't have the “last-mile" transit problem—those times when the bus takes you most of the way but there's that last stretch where you have to walk. In some cases it's a few blocks, but in suburbs or exurbs it could actually be a mile or two.
Attracting more transit riders and growing the network is much easier when more people feel like the network reaches where they are and where they’re going. Generally, people will use transit only if they think it’s better (on cost or convenience) than how they get around currently. That's why it's important we continue working the last-mile issue.
Making it easier to use foot power for the journey's unmet leg is an important step for travelers. Around the cities, bike-share programs like the Twin Cities’ NiceRide are poised to make spontaneous transit trips easier, but two-wheeled travel will be a lot safer and more appealing with some infrastructure upgrades. Including more physically separate, curb-protected bikeways around the cities would be a real boon to transit---and the same goes for the suburbs too.
A few infrastructure alterations can really go a long way, even in less dense communities. Better connecting the south metro's Red Line and upcoming Orange Line BRT stations, by bike, with the areas around them is a particularly good investment in making transit more convenient to people who might not yet be considering it. Towns should be looking at the small but potent alterations they can make to cul-de-sac communities and surface-lot-intensive business areas, such as more direct walking and biking paths leading to transit stops.
Smaller-scale transit that can actually work in tandem with longer-distance lines like new light rail or BRT can also be a real help for less dense communities, especially when “reverse” commuters are taking those longer-distance lines to work—one way that the Southwest LRT is meant to operate. Emeryville, California lies just off the Bay Area’s longer-distance BART train system, but in the 1990s it was starting to get passed by economically. A far-sighted collaboration between local government and businesses created a shuttle between Emeryville workplaces and the BART, to cover that pesky last leg of the commute. The businesses saw the clear benefit in being more accessible to employees, and they funded the shuttle through business improvement districts, which has kept it free to riders.
The bottom line is that there’s a solid array of options for working the last-mile problem, and by taking strong steps to deal with that problem, we will multiply the effectiveness of the transit network we already have. Park-and-rides are important, but the ideal transit system eliminates more and more of the need to even get in a car.
The passing of Nelson Mandela is a chance to reflect both on his life, a great and admirable one, but also on how we as a nation have interpreted his loss. Repeatedly, Mandela was referred to in the United States as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. This is, of course, correct. Before Mandela’s election in 1994, white South Africans had been electing Prime Ministers since 1931. The problem was that the majority of South Africans, who were not white, were denied political power and faced savage levels of racial discrimination. So on one level, South Africa was a democracy in 1931, in the same way that the United States was in 1919, a democracy in name only.
Strangely, we in the United Sates would never say that Warren Harding was the first democratically elected president, even though it was only in 1920, when the passage of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote that a majority of Americans could participate in elections for the first time. Nor would we think to say that Richard Nixon was chosen in first democratic elections held in the United States even though he was the first president elected after the passage of the 1965 voting rights act that enfranchised millions of African Americans in the southern United States.
How nations remember their history is important. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is rightly understood as representing the long struggle to bring democracy to his nation. This is true even though voting and party systems in South Africa preceded his election by some three generations. In the United States, we attribute democracy to “the Founders,” all of whom were white men and many of whom owned enslaved Africans.
How different we would be as a nation if we adopted South Africa’s understanding of democracy. If that were the case, we would honor Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Frederick Douglass, and Fannie Lou Hamer as representatives of the movements that created American democracy.
In 2012, Minnesota reaffirmed its commitment to democracy by rejecting a restrictive voting rights law and turning back a proposed constitutional amendment that would have permanently made GLBT Minnesotans second class citizens. Like the South African long walk to freedom, the "NO" campaigns of 2012 were grassroots efforts committed to democratic principles. In Minnesota and the United States, real democracy was created by the people who were left out by the founders but who still felt inspired by their vision and were possessed with a spirit of activism. Only if we tell the story of American democracy this way can we truly honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Posted in News & Notes
Raising Minnesota's minimum wage to $9.50 by 2015 would boost wages for an estimated 357,000 workers, helping increase purchasing power in the state by an estimated $470 million. Minnesota 2020 took these figures a step further to show what impact a $9.50 minimum wage would have in certain parts of the state.
Based on the number of low-wage workers in each senate district, we created the interactive map below. Click on your area to find the estimated number of people who would receive a raise and the estimated purchasing power boost.
Click on the map to view district numbers. Use + and - to zoom. View map in a new window.
Estimated Economic Impact of Minimum Wage Increase by Senate District:
Let’s take a trip to Huntsville, Alabama. In the hope of increasing students’ ACT scores, the district is offering students up to $300 for doing well on the popular college admissions test. The money is split up into $50 blocks for hitting targets in each of four sections, plus a $100 bonus for a composite score of 22 or higher (on a scale up to 36).
This plan neatly illustrates two major, well-documented limitations of incentives. The first is that incentives only work for behavior that people know how to control. This makes intuitive sense. If you offer me $500 to read your car manual, I know how to do that. If you offer me $500 to build a replica of your car, you probably shouldn’t drive what I put together. In education, you can pay kids to read specific books, and they’ll usually do it. Paying them to increase their test scores doesn’t work, except for the small group of kids who can do well but haven’t bothered.
This lets us make two predictions. First, Huntsville will probably see an increase in the percentage of students taking the ACT. Only about 15% do right now, and many know (or will be shown) how to sign up for the test. Second, Huntsville probably won’t see a substantial increase in the scores of students on the ACT. If I don’t know the math, I still won’t hit the target, no matter how much I want the fifty bucks.
The second concern about incentives is what happens when they go away. Let’s say Huntsville gives this experiment a try for two or three years, doesn’t see the scores they want, and decides to stop wasting money on the project. After they cancel it, students who were expecting a shot at money from the test are now being asked to do it for free. We could expect motivation and test participation to drop. Eventually, a new wave of kids will come in without the expectation of an incentive, but it’s a lot of time and money to spend for not much by way of gain.
It’s good that Huntsville is worried about its students’ performance. They shouldn’t be chastised for caring. However, it’s important to resist the “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” impulse, because it sets us up for ineffective waste at best, and actual damage at worst.
Legislative leaders of both political parties stepped before the microphones last Thursday to give their spin on the newly released November forecast. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt made one remark that both progressives and conservatives should agree upon: “Minnesota families are making less money than they did prior to the recession, so now isn’t the time for a victory lap.”
Recent Minnesota 2020 articles and reports from other groups have emphasized growing income and wage inequality and declining median incomes in Minnesota. Adjusted for inflation, Minnesota median household income declined by 4.6 percent over the last decade.*
So what can be done to reverse the trend that doubt cites and improve the income and quality of life for Minnesota families?
- An increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 would be a good first step. A recent Raise the Wage Coalition report shows that over three-quarters of the people are over twenty years of age and over 100,000 statewide are married or parents. However, conservatives have generally opposed this simple and direct approach for increasing the wages of working Minnesotans.
- Investments in education are the best long-term approach to increasing the earning power of working Minnesotans. In 2013, state policymakers increased funding for early childhood education, a move endorsed by non-partisan experts and of particular benefit to low-income families. They also reversed a decade of real per pupil cuts in state funding for K-12 education and froze tuition at state colleges and universities, thereby making higher education more affordable for more Minnesotans. Conservatives staunchly resisted the income tax increases which made these investments possible.
- All families need affordable healthcare. In 2013, progressive state policymakers made major progress in this direction by enacting MNsure, which will enable nearly one million Minnesotans to obtain affordable, quality health insurance. Minnesota conservatives also opposed this.
It is encouraging that Minnesota conservatives are recognizing the reality of shrinking family income. It would be even more encouraging if that had the foggiest notion as to what should be done about it.
*Based on American Community Survey one-year estimates for 2002 and 2012.
The U.S. is doing terribly! China is beating us! It’s all the other guy’s fault!
It must be PISA time again. The once-every-three-years international standardized test has released its 2012 scores and rankings. Scores in the US are down, and our ranking remains middle of the pack, trailing much of the rest of the developed world. This has prompted a wave of consternation, much of which isn’t helpful. We’ll take a look at some of the common themes.
The U.S. is flailing.
Scores in the U.S. were down in 2012 (after having increased between 2006 and 2009). We can be embarrassed to have been bested by the likes of Estonia, Slovenia, and Latvia, and we share statistically equivalent company with Norway, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Hungary, among others. Leading the charts are Asian jurisdictions -- Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Japan -- with some small European countries like Switzerland and Liechtenstein for flavor.
Then again, the U.S. has always had mediocre test scores. Yes, we live in an increasingly globalized world, so there is some reason for concern that this will matter more than it has in the past. Still, our internal equity problems should probably be a bigger deal to us than persistent worries about our global competitiveness.
China’s much smarter than we are.
There’s a regular bit of sleight-of-hand that happens when we discuss PISA scores, in which the stellar scores from Shanghai are generalized to all of China. This, it turns out, is like generalizing the scores from 2012 Manhattan to the United States in the early twentieth century. Roughly two-thirds of China remains rural, and the top of the education reform to-do list is increasing attendance and access. These are issues we grappled with for much of the last century, but which we have since largely transcended.
Shanghai specifically is a city of college-going elites which excludes low-income migrant families from the schools assessed by PISA. It is in no way representative of China as a whole.
If only we did This Thing I Like, we’d be at the top of the charts, too!
All of the top-scoring and gain-making countries have national curricula, and we don’t! We should adopt one as soon as possible! Oh, hold on a second... pretty much all of the low-scoring and declining countries have national curricula, too. Hmm.
Say it with me: “Correlation is not causation.” Figuring out what thing, or two things, or five dozen things a country has done that impacted their PISA scores is much more complicated [PDF] than seeing what the folks on top are doing.
There are probably some useful lessons we can draw from a careful analysis of PISA data and the contexts and policies that shape those scores. We probably can’t do it in the two or three days after the scores have come out. Breathe, think, and be careful not to read too much into the early punditry.