Backtalk, April 26, 2007

Ethanol: A Threat to National Security?

I normally like the articles by James Gordon Prather, but the latest one is confusing, and I have a PhD in physics. What the heck does the C-13/C-12 ratio have to do with anything? What the heck does it matter whether the deep hydrocarbons were organically produced? What matters is that Iowa corn or Brazilian sugarcane took CO2 out of our air, so burning it is carbon neutral. Deep hydrocarbons didn’t take CO2 out of the air during the entire human epoch, so burning it is not carbon neutral.

~ Dave Grossman

Gordon Prather replies:

There is a correlation over the past 200 years between the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere and the increase in the C-13 “deficit.” Since the IPCC assumes mankind is responsible for that increase in C-13 “deficit” – burning “fossil fuels” – the IPCC concludes mankind is almost certainly responsible for the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Go here to see this argument made.

If you have a PhD in Physics you probably realize that’s bad scientific reasoning. In the first place “correlation” does not imply “causality.” And in the second, if “fossil fuels” are in fact inorganic, then the burning of them could not result in a increase in the overall C-13 deficit in the atmosphere.

I doubt this letter would accomplish anything more if it was printed. I’m sending it because I want to improve the content and influence of, not because I want to score snark points against one of your columnists whose work I often enjoy. I must start out, however, by saying that I am very disappointed (perhaps embarrassed) regarding “Ethanol: A Threat to National Security?” I’ll use point form to inhibit the argumentative nature of what I would otherwise write.

1. The main thrust of this column (beginning about halfway through) is difficult to interpret. I think this is mostly due to factual inaccuracies rather than unusually bad writing. I’ll give examples of minor factual inaccuracies later and focus on the main ones first.

2. Prather’s argument seems to be something like this: burning of biogenic hydrocarbons is the main worry regarding anthropogenic greenhouse warming; some petroleum and other stuff we burn might not be biogenic; burning ethanol (biogenic carbon) is worse than burning petroleum (potentially abiotically produced); this will contribute to climate change and therefore threaten national security. The main point Prather seems to be missing here is that corn and sugar cane take CO2 out of the atmosphere and then release it again when they are burned (net of zero with respect to CO2 in the atmosphere), whereas burning carbon sequestered in the ground increases CO2 in the atmosphere (intensifying the greenhouse effect).

2a. As far as I know, the number of neutrons in the carbon atom have nothing to do with the reaction of a CO2 molecule to infrared radiation.

2b. A couple of quotations from the sixties aren’t very impressive when you are trying to say that the common understanding of oil formation is incorrect. Prather cites Wikipedia regarding fossil fuels, so he should be able to find this regarding abiogenic formation: “This theory is a minority opinion, especially amongst geologists; no oil companies are currently known to explore for oil based on this theory.” Prather might also want to read this: Glasby, G.P., 2006. “Abiogenic origin of hydrocarbons: An historical overview.” Resource Geology 56, 83-96.

2c. I’m not trying to argue in favor of subsidizing farmers! One of the main arguments against growing corn for ethanol is that the actual farming requires more use of petroleum products; that is, it is a highly inefficient way to reduce the rate at which carbon is taken out of the ground.

2d. Burning of coal (which I suppose we can all agree is less controversially biogenic) is the main source of excess anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere; far less of the CO2 in the atmosphere is from anthropogenic burning of petroleum.

3. Prather seems to think it is controversial that humans have contributed a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere. Part of his misperception may be due to the inaccuracies of others. CO2 is not now at 1774 ppm in the atmosphere as he cites; CH4 (methane) was at 1774 ppb (that’s parts per billion) in 2005. I didn’t check his source, but he can check these numbers. Everybody who is anybody knows that we are close to 400 PPM in CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere; we are at just a bit over 380 PPM CO2 currently (that is, anthropogenic sources have increased CO2 by about 1/3).

3a. Humans emit much more than the amount of CO2 needed to account for this much excess carbon in the atmosphere. A large proportion of what is emitted is absorbed by the ocean (thus the increasing acidity of the ocean).

3b. Prather focuses on isotopes but not in the context of all of the data available. I went to the archive and found these two pages that he might find interesting: “How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?” and “How much of the recent CO2 increase is due to human activities?

Huh, I think I’ve pretty much finished my critique. I hope these comments are taken seriously as I believe advertising ignorance on such an important issue as climate change cannot help but reflect poorly on’s credibility on war/peace issues.

~ Steve Latham

Gordon Prather replies:

My response to this letter is the same as to the one by Dave Grossman.

The IPCC argument that it is “very likely” (90% certain) that the observed buildup is “anthropogenic” (man caused) goes like this;

  1. there is a “correlation” between increase in the measured CO2 levels in the atmosphere and measured increase in the C-13 deficit in atmospheric CO2
  2. there is a measurable C-13 deficit in “organic” hydrocarbons
  3. “fossil fuels” are presumed to be “organic” hydrocarbons
  4. mankind burns “fossil fuels”
  5. hence, mankind is responsible for the increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Faulty logic notwithstanding, at a minimum, what needs to be done before Congress requires a 20% reduction in gasoline use in the U.S. is to measure the C-13 deficit – spot check it at the refinery – in the gasoline we are burning.

To Russia, With Hate


You always have a point in your numerous articles in defense of Putin, but you always take it too far. You are not a Russian speaker, so your opinion on what’s going on in Russia relies on filtered, translated and explained opinions of pundits and counterpundits. While you are getting the stupid anti-Russian slant of many official and semiofficial American “opinion makers,” you are really missing the boat on the big and quite unpleasant changes happening in Russia today.

You continuously downplay the importance of media consolidation into the hands of not just “Putin-friendly” entities (using the American meaning of this phrase) but fully controlled entities (using the Russian meaning of that phrase). You continuously confound American business alignment of MSM with Russian government centralized political control of their MSM – they really are different animals. Finally, you seemingly are unable to understand the importance of all anti-Putin opposition uniting to field several hundred demonstrators – who do this not because they agree on much of anything, but because all political opposition has been targeted for political (if not physical) elimination. These pathetic small rallies are nevertheless crushed physically by OMON (Interior Ministry Security) who are brought in to the site of demonstrations in numbers exceeding the opposition four to one. Your continuous and quite incorrect positioning of these demonstrators as nazis and nihilists is what the state controlled media (which is all media) in Russia is saying, that is when they show anything about these demonstrations at all (most don’t show anything). My friends in Russia, with whom I video conference every week report a wide spectrum of opposition groups, including many liberal ones. They also report heavy violence by the government forces in attacking these people. And, by the way, most Russian Web sites that featured free political speech were closed several years ago. I was an avid participant for years – 1999 to 2002. They are either gone or completely dormant.

It is a plain and sad fact that you make a very poor Russian analyst. Your stubborn defense of Putin in the face of more and more unpleasant, authoritarian and frankly criminal behavior is very much like the old Left’s clinging to Trotsky and even Stalin, long after any such sentiments would have to be discarded by honest men. The fact that Putin is unfairly maligned by the West is a very poor reason to defend his very bad behavior.

Here is a link of what Russian media “consolidation” looks like on the inside – from one of the very last independent Web papers in existence. Have it translated and read it. In Russia today, consolidation means a ban on mentioning the few opposition names left on the air, ban on news of opposition demonstrations and a rule on getting all news from the ruling party politicians only. It is objectively worse than even our hated Fox News….

Are you going to be one of the diehards that had to wait until “Kruschev’s speech” to “get it”?

~ Dimitry

Hitchens’ Kurdish Sojourn

Good article as usual by Raimondo.

But isn’t he missing one of the most obvious points?

Before the invasion, Iraqi Kurdistan was already separate from Saddam’s Iraq – protected, apart, virtually independent. Isn’t that just Iraq 101? So the invasion hasn’t changed much in that regard. Hitchens’ argument that Iraqi Kurdistan is an invasion success story is therefore bogus, as bogus as any of Cheney’s rationales. They were independent before, Saddam-free. …

Moreover, Raimondo neglected to mention the peshmerga’s role in the “Iraqi Army” in subduing mainly Sunnis – just another force for disunity and hatred. The invasion merely allowed the Peshmerga entry into the rest of Iraq to cause trouble, something they couldn’t do before.

And he didn’t mention areas on Kurdistan’s edge – Mosul and Kirkuk – that have become violent flashpoints in the struggle between Kurds and the rest. It’s not just impacting neighboring countries, it’s a huge component of the meltdown of Iraq itself. Mosul’s one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq.

Add it up. Hitchens is a big, teetering bull’s eye.

~ Bill Kaufmann

Democratic Illusions

For veteran political junkies, the 2008 presidential race in both parties is just a tired retread. The “electable” and “the lesser of two evils” clich├ęs are already endlessly repeated. While most voters are not single issue, everyone owes it to himself to prioritize issues. No more important issue exists in 2008 than ending our Middle East misadventures, for our very national survival depends on stopping a thermonuclear war before it begins. Besides, how sincere can Senators and Representatives be who support President Bush’s shredding of the U.S. Constitution, violation of liberties and perverse taste for torture? A recent Iowa poll showed the majority of Republican caucus members oppose the Iraq War, yet support candidates who not only support the war but would also spread it to Iran. Opposing the war because it is going badly is not enough. Any acceptable antiwar candidate must also reject the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, abolishment of due process and torture. Only one Republican candidate does so, Representative Ron Paul. Among the announced Democrats, only Dennis Kucinich meets the criteria I have described. Should Al Gore run, he may as well, but both announced front runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, do not. Just remember, the same people who say neither Rep. Paul or Rep. Kucinich cannot win told us the Iraq War would be a “cakewalk.” In fact, in my 40 plus years of following national politics, I’ve never seen these people correct about anything except their ability to con the public.

Don’t let them do this in 2008.

~ Robert Fallin

Creating a Market for Security

Dear Dr. Roberts,

Although it is true that we still do not have a good explanation of how so much security failed on 9/11, Prof. Morgan Reynolds pointed out back in August of 2004, at, that there are only two possibilities: either massive governmental incompetence, or governmental complicity. Since no one was fired or otherwise sent to the rear with eleven copies of the order, the incompetence thesis lacks support.

And we seem to get the same result if we simply follow the money.

[T]he most valuable antiwar step that anyone could take for America would be to blow the lid off the 9/11 crime, for then the American people would finally discover just who it is that they are actually at war with.

As your column documents, our troubles tend to originate close to home.

~ Jack Dennon

Paul Craig Roberts replies:

I agree with the reader. We will never find out the truth about 9/11. People who should be investigating are too intimidated. They fear being called “conspiracy theorists.”

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