Tag: environment

Why Are Environmental Policy Conflicts So Intractable?

On Earth Day the op-ed pages remind me of “Groundhog Day.”  Environmentalists argue we need stricter environmental regulation.  Business interests argue such regulations reduce economic growth and cost the economy jobs.  Each also invokes “sound science” as an adjudicator of the conflict.  Environmentalists invoke “science” in the case of CO2 emissions and effects while business interests invoke “science” in the case of traditional pollution emissions.  Each year we wake up and the same movie plays out.

The scientific validity of people’s preferences plays no role in the market’s delivery of private goods.  Markets can and do supply organic lettuce regardless of whether it is really “better” for your health.  The scientific validity of people’s preferences is irrelevant.

Air- and water-quality environmental disputes are more challenging to analyze than the supply of organic lettuce for two reasons.  First, while property rights exist for lettuce, they often do not exist for air and water.   Thus, environmental politics involves continuous struggle over implicit property rights and the wealth effects that flow from such rights.  Second, both conventional air and water quality are “local” public goods (club goods) rather than private goods, thus individual differences in consumption, the primary method of reducing conflict associated with private goods, are not possible.  Instead, everyone’s varied preferences for environmental goods can only result in one jointly consumed outcome.

One possible impediment to the implementation of market-like solutions to air and water quality is that the initial ownership of property rights to air or water emissions not only has wealth but also efficiency effects.  That is those particular property rights (the right to a pristine environment) are so valuable relative to other assets that their initial allocation alters the willingness of people to pay for them and thus affects how much pollution exists.  In such cases the initial distribution is the whole ballgame because it determines the resulting air- and water- quality levels.

Happy New Year: A Time to Celebrate Human Progress

The media are full of headlines about war, sexual assault, inequality, obesity, cancer risk, environmental destruction, economic crisis, and other disasters. It’s enough to make people think that the world of their children and grandchildren will be worse than today’s world.

But the real story, which rarely makes headlines, is that, to paraphrase Indur Goklany’s book title, we are living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner and more peaceful planet. (Allister Heath summed up his argument in a cover story for the Spectator of London, without all the charts and tables.) Fortunately, beyond the headlines, more people do seem to be recognizing this.

The Cato Institute, for instance, has created an ever-expanding website on human progress, known simply as HumanProgress.org.

Here’s Steven Pinker expanding on the information in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in Slate:

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. 

He has charts of the data in each of those areas. And here’s Pinker at the Cato Institute discussing why people are so pessimistic when the real trends are so good:

Just in Time for Thanksgiving, Another Turkey from the Obama Administration

The shameful Obama Administration practice of proposing dreadful environmental regulations on or near national holidays continues. Last year they were on global warming, and this year it’s low-level ozone. Neither regulation will have a detectable “benefit,” but both impose enormous costs. Perhaps President Obama’s placing this announcement in the news cycle just before Thanksgiving and Black Friday is indicative of how popular he thinks these regulations will be.

So it goes. The lessons of November 4 remain unlearned, with the administration doubling down in the service of all of its green friends that didn’t vote. The fact is that the ground zero of the thermonuclear electoral explosion three weeks ago was in the coal mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell was supposedly in a close race with Alison Grimes and instead won by a whopping 18 points. Nick Rahall, a 19-term (!) Democratic congressman from West Virginia saw a similar swing: he won his seat by eight points in 2012 and lost by 10 in 2014, with the net change in two years totaling 18. 

The proposed ozone rules are yet another example of what happens when good ideas go bad. Pretty much everyone agrees that EPA, along with the states, have done a remarkable job in cleaning up our air. The eye-stinging smogs of Los Angeles are history. Pittsburgh was once so dirty that masonry turned black, causing people to wonder what was happening in their lungs. We have done great things and enjoy air that is cleaner than that of any economic superpower in the history of this planet.

Environmental protection is what systems engineers call a “heuristic device,” defined as “a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal, but is good enough for a given set of goals.” The problem, of course, is that heuristic devices don’t tell you when to stop. Instead they keep being applied, in this case by the bureaucracy-for-life known as the Environmental Protection Agency, producing massively diminishing returns for massively increased costs. And, at President Obama’s urging, it will never hear the word “stop.”

Millions of people are increasingly disenchanted with the administration’s high-handed approach to command-and-control regulations imposed when we aren’t supposed to be looking.  If enough people remain grumpy about this, Barack Obama may yet again stand in the way of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Climate, Agriculture, and the Dead Zone

Okay, here’s how much of what calls itself science works today:

1) Find a change in something

2) Say it could be caused by global warming

3) Get more funding

4) Let people ask critical questions

5) Get tenure to protect you from that criticism

Today’s textbook example comes from the Washington Post, in an article, “Large ‘dead zones’, oxygen depeleted water, likely because of climate change”.

This is bad. According to The Post, the authors of newly minted article in Global Change Biology, say,

As global temperatures warm, they will create conditions such as rain [!], wind and sea-level rise that will cause dead zones throughout the world to intensify and grow…

Dead zones are (sometimes) large regions of hypoxic seawater that appear every summer. Because of their seasonality, obviously global warming is making them worse, right? (see 2) above) Or is it due to the fact that, on the average, humans are flushing more agricultural nitrates into the ocean as we produce ever more food? So the nitrates fertilize the ocean, algae bloom and die, bacteria decompose them and in the process, water becomes hypoxic, and fish die.

Geo-Engineering the Climate? A Geo-Bad Idea.

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times included the beginning of a long article about geoengineering—in this case, as it applies to purposeful activities aimed at changing the earth’s climate at a large scale. Why on earth would anyone even think of doing something like that? Why to avoid catastrophic global warming, of course!

Thankfully, most signs point to only a modest global temperature increase resulting from our fossil fuel usage—a rise that will be readily adapted to and which actually may work out to be more beneficial than detrimental. Thankfully, we say, because geoengineering schemes seem like really bad ideas full of nasty consequences (unintentional and otherwise) and we are glad that no one is seriously entertaining them.

Most folks who spend much time critically thinking about geoengineering the climate arrive at the same conclusion.

Great Moments in State Government: Bureaucrats Threaten Family with Possible Prison Sentence for Rescuing Bambi

As a public finance economist, I normally focus on big-picture arguments against excessive government.

If the public sector is too large, for instance, that undermines economic growth by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The damage is then compounded by a needlessly destructive and punitive tax system.

But I’ve also discovered that it helps to personalize the analysis by pointing out examples of ridiculous and wasteful behavior by government.

That’s one of the reasons I share horror stories as part of the U.S. vs U.K. government stupidity contest - such as the world’s most pointless sign linked nearby.

Some actions by government, however, belong in a different category. I’m not sure what word I would choose to describe them - perhaps venal, evil, despicable, reprehensible, or disgusting would be good options.

Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but is there any other reaction when the government persecutes a family with possible jail time for rescuing Bambi?

Here are some absurd and disturbing details from the Indianapolis Star.

When Connersville police officer Jeff Counceller first encountered the baby deer, she was curled up in the corner of a front porch.It was clear the fawn was injured. Counceller could see the wounds… If left to its own, the animal would surely die… So the Councellers took in the deer, which they named Dani, cleaned and dressed its wounds and nursed it back to health, all with the intention of turning it out into the wild once it was big enough and strong enough to have a chance on its own. …she was unable to stand, and her maggot-infested wound was ugly. The Councellers contacted DNR at the time but were told to return the deer to the wild and let nature take its course. “It would have been a death sentence,” Jeff said.

So the family did what any decent people would do. They nursed the deer back to health. But decency and government often are in conflict.

The Shocking Truth: The Scientific American Poll on Climate Change

November’s Scientific American features a profile of Georgia Tech atmospheric scientist Judith Curry,  who has committed the mortal sin of  reaching out to other scientists who hypothesize that global warming isn’t the disaster it’s been cracked up to be.  I have personal experience with this, as she invited me to give a research seminar in Tech’s prestigious School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 2008.  My lecture summarizing the reasons for doubting the apocalyptic synthesis of climate change was well-received by an overflow crowd.

Written by Michael Lemonick, who hails from the shrill blog Climate Central, the article isn’t devoid of the usual swipes, calling her a “heretic„ which is hardly at all true.  She’s simply another hardworking scientist who lets the data take her wherever it must, even if that leads her to question some of our more alarmist colleagues. 

But, as a make-up call for calling attention to Curry, Scientific American has run a poll of its readers on climate change.  Remember that SciAm has been shilling for the climate apocalypse for years, publishing a particularly vicious series of attacks on Denmark’s Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist.  The magazine also featured NASA’s James Hansen and his outlandish claims on sea-level rise. Hansen has stated, under oath in a deposition, that a twenty foot rise is quite possible within the next 89 years; oddly, he has failed to note that in 1988 he predicted that the West Side Highway in Manhattan would go permanently under water in twenty years.

SciAm probably expected a lot of people would agree with the key statement in their poll that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is “an effective group of government representatives and other experts.”

Hardly. As of this morning, only 16% of the 6655 respondents agreed.  84%—that is not a typo—described the IPCC as “a corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda.” 

The poll also asks “What should we do about climate change?” 69% say “nothing, we are powerless to stop it.” When asked about policy options, an astonishingly low 7% support cap-and-trade, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, and cost approximately two dozen congressmen their seats.

The real killer is question “What is causing climate change?” For this one, multiple answers are allowed.  26% said greenhouse gases from human activity, 32% solar variation, and 78% “natural processes.” (In reality all three are causes of climate change.)

And finally, “How much would you be willing to pay to forestall the risk of catastrophic climate change?”  80% of the respondents said “nothing.”

Remember that this comes from what is hardly a random sample.  Scientific American is a reliably statist publication and therefore appeals to a readership that is skewed to the left of the political center.  This poll demonstrates that virtually everyone now acknowledges that the UN has corrupted climate science, that climate change is impossible to stop, and that futile attempts like cap-and-trade do nothing but waste money and burn political capital, things that Cato’s scholars have been saying for years.

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