March 31, 2015

Make Your Children Vote

I've a confession to make: I'm not the helicopter kind of parent. I believe that if you don't fall, you don't learn to walk properly, never mind running, dancing and skiing. I'm the kind of mom who, when one of my children bangs their head against the table, would rush over and go, "Poor table! I hope it didn't get a dent." Everybody laughs, and the child with the banged head forgets to cry.

Similarly, I don't hound them about their homework, other than checking that it's done before, say, letting them hang out with a friend after school. But I stick by the bedtime routine, forgotten homework or not. They only miss handing in homework a few times before they learn.

However, I will hound them about this one thing: I will do what I can to get them to that voting booth come election day. Because voting is not a privilege: it is a civic duty. Besides, it's the smart thing to do.

In all US states, under the "Motor Voter" Act, you can register to vote as you get your driver's license (or get it renewed). So when your teen passes the driver's test and acquires that wallet card, they actually have to do something extra in order to NOT register to vote.

March 22, 2015

Why is Diesel More Expensive Than Gasoline?

If you drive a diesel car in the US like I do, you often find that diesel commands a higher per-gallon price than regular gasoline. You may also notice that in winter the price difference is higher than in summer, with the largest difference occurring in March.

This is because diesel is similar to home heating oil. Demand for heating fuel peaks around February; it is this competition that drives up the price for automotive diesel as well. This chart from FactCheck.org illustrates very nicely how in the summer of 2000 diesel was quite a bit less expensive than gas, while in March of 2008 it was more expensive.

That's for the general picture. But there are usually regional differences.

March 13, 2015

How to Spread the Word about Climate Change - Even if You're Not a Climate Scientist

When a large asteroid hit the earth, sixty-five million years ago, it kicked up a huge amount of dust. The dust dimmed the sun for so long that the surface of the earth cooled sufficiently to wipe out the dinosaurs (incidentally giving mammals a chance to develop into the rich variety we see today).

If such a threat were in our near future, CNN and all the other news channels would be screaming about it. There would be non-stop coverage, on what we could do to avert the disaster, and how to cope should it strike anyway, and how each of us would be affected. You couldn't get away from this news.

A similar threat is actually upon us, but going the other way: the earth is steadily warming. If we keep burning fossil fuels at today's rate, the average global temperature may rise by 4 degrees C by 2100. That doesn't sound like much, but the last time the world was 4C cooler on average, we were in an ice age, and life looked very different from the way it is today.

Global Warming from 1880 to 2013.

And it will keep warming past the year 2100. We don't know what life will look like when it's more than 4C warmer: it hasn't been that warm for millions of years.

This is an astonishing thought: the planet, our home, would be altogether a different place from what it is today. And while the changes appear slow on a human time scale, the warming is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Already species are feeling the pressure, and it is not clear how many will survive the changes that are very rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It's clear: we must do what we can to keep the warming below 2C.

You would think that would make the news.

March 9, 2015

Climate Change Achieves Voldemort Status

I've written before on the importance of names. Names are so powerful, that when they are attached to powerful beings, you must use the names with great care. In fact, you're better off not using their name at all, lest you incur their terrible wrath.

So what to do, if a powerful Thing is about to wreak havoc on your constituents?

As any Harry Potter fan can tell you, the easiest way for a government to insist that an existential threat doesn't exist is to ban all mention of its existence. Thus in the magic world Voldemort is referred to as the "Dark Lord", or "He Who Must Not Be Named", or simply "You Know Who". Because of course everyone knows who is it you're talking about.

It seems that the state of Florida has adopted the same tack when faced with the existential threat of climate change, which is slated to wipe out most of its celebrated coastline: Officials in Florida's Department of Environmental Protection have been ordered not to use the terms "climate change" or "global warming" in official documents.