Archives: September, 2008

How the IPCC Portrayed a Net Positive Impact of Climate Change as a Negative

And it was done without uttering an untruth!

Arguably the most influential graphic from the latest IPCC report is Figure SPM.2 from the IPCC WG 2’s Summary for Policy Makers (on the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change). This figure, titled “Key impacts as a function of increasing global average temperature change”, also appears as Figure SPM.7 and Figure 3.6 of the IPCC Synthesis Report (available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr.pdf). Versions also appear as Table 20.8 of the WG 2 report, and Table TS.3 in the WG 2 Technical Summary. Yet other versions are also available from the IPCC WG2’s Graphics Presentations & Speeches, as well as in the WG 2’s “official” Power Point presentations, e.g., the presentation at the UNFCCC in Bonn, May 2007 (available at http://www.ipcc.ch/graphics/pr-ar4-2007-05-briefing-bonn.htm).

Notably the SPMs, Technical Summary, Synthesis Report, and the versions made available as presentations are primarily for consumption by policy makers and other intelligent lay persons. As such, they are meant to be jargon-free, easy to understand, and should be designed to shed light rather than to mislead even as they stay faithful to the science.

Let’s focus on what Figure SPM.2 tells us about the impacts of climate change on water.

The third statement in the panel devoted to water impacts states, “Hundreds of millions of people exposed to increased water stress.” If one traces from whence this statement came, one is led to Arnell (2004). [Figure SPM.2 misidentifies one of the sources as Table 3.3 of the IPCC WG 2 report. It ought to be Table 3.2. ]

What is evident is that while this third statement is correct, Figure SPM.2 neglects to inform us that water stress could be reduced for many hundreds of millions more — see Table 10 from the original reference, Arnell (2004). As a result, the net global population at risk of water stress might actually be reduced. And, that is precisely what Table 9 from Arnell (2004) shows. In fact, by the 2080s the net global population at risk declines by up to 2.1 billion people (depending on which scenario one wants to emphasize)!

And that is how a net positive impact of climate change is portrayed in Figure SPM.2 as a large negative impact. The recipe: provide numbers for the negative impact, but stay silent on the positive impact. That way no untruths are uttered, and only someone who has studied the original studies in depth will know what the true story is. It also reminds us as to why prior to testifying in court one swears to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Figure SPM.2 fails to tell us the whole truth.

Hints of the whole truth, however, are buried in the body of the IPCC WG 2 Report as evidenced by the following quote from Section 3.5.1, p. 194, of that report. Note that Arnell (2004b) and Arnell (2004) are identical.

In the 2050s, differences in the population projections of the four SRES scenarios would have a greater impact on the number of people living in water-stressed river basins (defined as basins with per capita water resources of less than 1,000 m3/year) than the differences in the emissions scenarios (Arnell, 2004b). The number of people living in severely stressed river basins would increase significantly (Table 3.2). The population at risk of increasing water stress for the full range of SRES scenarios is projected to be: 0.4 to 1.7 billion, 1.0 to 2.0 billion, and 1.1 to 3.2 billion, in the 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s, respectively (Arnell, 2004b). In the 2050s (SRES A2 scenario), 262-983 million people would move into the water stressed category (Arnell, 2004b). However, using the per capita water availability indicator, climate change would appear to reduce global water stress. This is because increases in runoff are heavily concentrated in the most populous parts of the world, mainly in East and South-East Asia, and mainly occur during high flow seasons (Arnell, 2004b). Therefore, they may not alleviate dry season problems if the extra water is not stored and would not ease water stress in other regions of the world. [Emphasis added]

But even this acknowledgment seems grudging, and leaves a misleading impression, as can be seen by the following annotated version of the above quote. [My annotations are indicated within the quote in square brackets and are in bold.]

In the 2050s, differences in the population projections of the four SRES scenarios would have a greater impact on the number of people living in water-stressed river basins (defined as basins with per capita water resources of less than 1,000 m3/year) than the differences in the emissions scenarios (Arnell, 2004b). The number of people living in severely stressed river basins would increase significantly (Table 3.2). The population at risk of increasing water stress for the full range of SRES scenarios is projected to be: 0.4 to 1.7 billion, 1.0 to 2.0 billion, and 1.1 to 3.2 billion, in the 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s, respectively (Arnell, 2004b). [COMMENT: note that the IPCC text fails to mention that the reductions in populations at risk of water stress due to climate change are projected to be substantially higher — 0.6 to 2.4 billion, 1.8 to 4.3 billion, and 1.7 to 6.0 billion in the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s, respectively. See Table 10 from the original source.] In the 2050s (SRES A2 scenario), 262-983 million people would move into the water stressed category (Arnell, 2004b). [COMMENT: The corresponding figures for the population moving out of water stress category are 191 to 1,493 million. See Table 9 from the original source.] However, using the per capita water availability indicator, climate change would appear to reduce global water stress. This is because increases in runoff are heavily concentrated in the most populous parts of the world, mainly in East and South-East Asia, and mainly occur during high flow seasons (Arnell, 2004b). Therefore, they may not alleviate dry season problems if the extra water is not stored and would not ease water stress in other regions of the world. [COMMENT: One should expect that societies would take action to store water if that’s what is necessary to avoid water stress. Such actions are not rocket science; they are probably as old as humanity itself, and have a successful track record going back for millennia. Moreover, if the IPCC’s emission scenarios, and the economic growth rates they assume are to be believed, these societies would be much wealthier in the future and should, therefore, have access to more capital to help adapt to such problems. See here (pp. 1034-1036, Tables 1 and 10).]

[Note that the Arnell paper is discussed in some detail here (pp. 1034-1036; Table 4), among other places.]

To summarize, with respect to water resources, Figure SPM.2 — and its clones — don’t make any false statements, but by withholding information that might place climate change in a positive light, they have perpetrated a fraud on the readers.

Does Government Licensing Improve Health Care?

In a study released today by the Cato Institute, economist and Cato adjunct scholar Shirley Svorny says no:

In the United States, the authority to regulate medical professionals lies with the states. To practice within a state, clinicians must obtain a license from that state’s government. State statutes dictate standards for licensing and disciplining medical professionals. They also list tasks clinicians are allowed to perform. One view is that state licensing of medical professionals assures quality.

In contrast, I argue here that licensure not only fails to protect consumers from incompetent physicians, but, by raising barriers to entry, makes health care more expensive and less accessible. Institutional oversight and a sophisticated network of private accrediting and certification organizations, all motivated by the need to protect reputations and avoid legal liability, offer whatever consumer protections exist today.

Consumers would benefit were states to eliminate professional licensing in medicine and leave education, credentialing, and scope-of-practice decisions entirely to the private sector and the courts.

If eliminating licensing is politically infeasible, some preliminary steps might be generally acceptable. States could increase workforce mobility by recognizing licenses issued by other states. For mid-level clinicians, eliminating education requirements beyond an initial degree would allow employers and consumers to select the appropriate level of expertise. At the very least, state legislators should be alert to the self-interest of medical professional organizations that may lie behind the licensing proposals brought to the legislature for approval.

Svorny’s study is titled, “Medical Licensing: An Obstacle to Affordable, Quality Care.”

Results of IQ2 Debate on Universal Coverage

The results are in from last night’s Intelligence Squared debate on universal health coverage:

  • Before the debate, 49 percent of the audience was pro-universal coverage, 24 percent anti-, and 27 percent undecided.
  • After the debate, 58 percent of the audience was pro-, 34 percent anti-, and 8 percent undecided.

As many have noted, the anti- side won over more of the undecideds (10 percentage points) than did the pro- side (9 percentage points).  Considering this was a crowd of mostly Manhattan denizens, I’m pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

And I’m now prepared to induct John Stossel into the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.  Sally Pipes I’m still not sure about; you can judge for yourself when the IQ2 folks post the transcript of the debate here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: See clarification concerning Pipes here.

It Depends on Whom You Ask

Over at NCLB Act II, David Hoff wonders why the No Child Left Behind Act is treated likes it’s radioactive, while yesterday he heard “no talk of trying to slay NCLB—or even make major changes to it” at the inaugural meeting of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Technical Advisory Council.

David, I think I have an answer: The administration that championed NCLB put the commission together. There’s probably a pretty good chance they purposely brought in people who are comfortable with Washington hamfistedly imposing “accountability” on K-12 education. At the very least, that explains what happened to my invitation to join the council.

Oprah and the Tomnibus

For those not keeping close tabs on Congress, throughout this session Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has used procedural tactics to stop dozens of spending bills that would normally breeze through the Senate. Frustrated to no end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) bundled many of these bills together in an omnibus package, sometimes referred to as the “Tomnibus”.

Despite his attempt at political logrolling, Reid’s omnibus failed in July when senators voted to reject a motion to proceed to consideration of his legislation.

But now it’s back, thanks to Oprah Winfrey. On her television program, Oprah made an emotional lobbying pitch for the package. Her interest stems from the inclusion of one program that would spend a billion dollars to combat child exploitation.

With Oprah’s weight behind him, Reid will soon make another attempt to pass the Tomnibus, which would cost taxpayers roughly $10 billion and create at least 35 new programs.

Can Oprah have the same effect on legislation that she’s had on so many books?

Stay tuned.

Obama: Tax Cutter or Tax Hiker?

A colleague asked me whether Obama actually supports tax cuts or tax hikes, as he had heard contradictory information in the media. The answer is that it depends on what you compare his proposed policies to–tax rules in place for 2008 or the official “baseline” of projected future revenues.

The official baseline assumes that all recent tax cuts (income tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts, and estate tax cuts) expire at the end of 2010. It also assumes that alternative minimum tax relief is not extended, with the results that 20 million households are handed a whopping tax hike compared to how much they currently pay.

Obama is proposing a tax increase compared to tax policy in place this year, but a tax cut compared to the official baseline.  You can get the details in this analysis by the Urban/Brookings Tax Policy Center (see page 28).

My view is that the official baseline is a silly starting point for tax comparisons. For one reason, hardly any fiscal experts think that Congress won’t extent current AMT relief.

More importantly, the true tax “baseline” for the tens of millions of U.S. taxpaying families is how much they currently pay. If current tax cuts expire, they will have less to spend on their own priorities–such as food, housing, and gasoline–because they will have to send more cash to the government. If Obama wins the election and puts his policies into place, Americans would pay higher federal taxes than they do today.

But more important than the additional revenue that would be collected under a President Obama are the two main features of his tax approach:

1. Obama would increase marginal tax rates on wages, interest, dividends, capital gains, small business profits, and estates. Increasing marginal rates is the single most damaging way to raise taxes.

2. Obama would introduce a slew of new targeted tax credits that would distort the economy, treat Americans unequally, and increase Washington’s micromanagement of the economy. Further, many of his proposed special tax breaks would be refundable, meaning that they are actually spending increases and not tax cuts.

Abuse of Power, Big Time

This week, the Washington Post ran two excerpts from Barton Gellman’s new book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which describes the fight over warrantless wiretapping in greater detail than we’ve had before. We still don’t know the precise reach of the original (pre-2004) program, nor do we have the classified legal analysis prepared by John Yoo. But Gellman’s account makes you wonder just how far the program and the legal theory went, given that it horrified men like Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy A.G. James Comey, and Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith–all staunch conservatives who were perfectly comfortable with ambitious theories of executive power, all of whom (along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and sundry other top Justice officials) were ready to resign over the original warrantless wiretapping program. (Marty Lederman made a similar point last year, when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee).

Ashcroft’s record on civil liberties and executive power is fairly well known. And keep in mind who Goldsmith and Comey are. Goldsmith says plainly that he’s “not a civil libertarian,” and he got the OLC job on John Yoo’s recommendation. And as a US Attorney in New York, James Comey was quite comfortable with pushing the law to its limits and beyond. He prosecuted Martha Stewart for misleading federal investigators about behavior that wasn’t a crime, and he even seriously considered pursuing mail and wire fraud charges against disgraced reporter Jayson Blair for the hitherto unknown crime of making stuff up in the New York Times (Bill Kristol, beware). But the original program was a bridge too far even for them.

Gellman describes a “come to Jesus” meeting orchestrated by David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney, to get the Justice Department to reauthorize the surveillance program:

Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.

The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card’s rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney’s right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.

This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.

“How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?” Cheney asked.

“I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is,” Comey said. “That only makes this more painful. It doesn’t change the analysis. If I can’t find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn’t help me.”

“Others see it differently,” Cheney said.

There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.

“The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”

Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.

“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.

“No good lawyer,” Comey said.

Bonus Angler revelation: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey suggests that Cheney lied to him to keep Armey from going all wobbly on the Iraq War vote:

The threat Cheney described went far beyond public statements that have been criticized for relying on “cherry-picked” intelligence of unknown reliability. There was no intelligence to support the vice president’s private assertions, Gellman reports.

Armey had spoken out against the coming war, and his opposition gave cover to Democrats who feared the political costs of appearing weak. Armey reversed his position after Cheney told him, he said, that the threat from Iraq was “more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large.”

Cheney said, according to Armey, that Iraq’s “ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear,” had been “substantially refined since the first Gulf War.”

Cheney linked that threat to Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, Armey said, explaining “we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as Al Qaeda.”

“Did Dick Cheney … purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?” Armey said. “I seriously feel that may be the case… . Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end.”