Tag: global warming

The Current Wisdom: Overplaying the Human Contribution to Recent Weather Extremes

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

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 The recent publication of two articles in Nature magazine proclaiming a link to rainfall extremes (and flooding) to global warming, added to the heat in Russia and the floods in Pakistan in the summer of 2010, and the back-to-back cold and snowy winters in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, have gotten a lot of public attention.  This includes a recent hearing in the House of Representatives, despite its Republican majority.  Tying weather extremes to global warming, or using them as “proof” that warming doesn’t exist (see: snowstorms), is a popular rhetorical flourish by politicos of all stripes.  

The hearing struck many as quite odd, inasmuch as it is much clearer than apocalyptic global warming that the House is going to pass meaningless legislation commanding the EPA to cease and desist from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  “Meaningless” means that it surely will not become law.  Even on the long-shot probability that it passes the Senate, the President will surely veto, and there are nowhere near enough votes to override such an action.

Perhaps “wolf!” has been cried yet again.  A string of soon-to-be-published papers in the scientific literature finds that despite all hue and cry about global warming and recent extreme weather events, natural climate variability is to blame.

Where to start?  How about last summer’s Russian heat wave?

The Russian heat wave (and to some degree the floods in Pakistan) have been linked to the same large-scale, stationary weather system, called an atmospheric “blocking” pattern. When the atmosphere is “blocked” it means that it stays in the same configuration for period of several weeks (or more) and keeps delivering the same weather to the same area for what can seem like an eternity to people in the way.  Capitalizing on the misery in Russia and Pakistan, atmospheric blocking was added to the list of things that were supposed to be “consistent with” anthropogenically stimulated global warming which already, of course included heat waves and floods. And thus the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 became part of global warming lore.

But then a funny thing happened – scientists with a working knowledge of atmospheric dynamics started to review the situation and found scant evidence for global warming.

The first chink in the armor came back in the fall of 2010, when scientists from the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented the results of their preliminary investigation on the web , and concluded that “[d]espite this strong evidence for a warming planet, greenhouse gas forcing fails to explain the 2010 heat wave over western Russia. The natural process of atmospheric blocking, and the climate impacts induced by such blocking, are the principal cause for this heat wave.”

The PSD folks have now followed this up with a new peer-reviewed article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that rejects the global warming explanation. The paper is titled “Was There a Basis for Anticipating the 2010 Russian Heat Wave?” Turns out that there wasn’t.

To prove this, the research team, led by PSD’s Randall Dole, first reviewed the observed temperature history of the region affected by the heat wave (western Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and the Baltic nations). To start, they looked at the recent antecedent conditions: “Despite record warm globally-averaged surface temperatures over the first six months of 2010, Moscow experienced an unusually cold winter and a relatively mild but variable spring, providing no hint of the record heat yet to come.” Nothing there.

Then they looked at the long-term temperature record: “The July surface temperatures for the region impacted by the 2010 Russian heat wave shows no significant warming trend over the prior 130-year period from 1880 to 2009…. A linear trend calculation yields a total temperature change over the 130 years of -0.1°C (with a range of 0 to -0.4°C over the four data sets [they examined]).” There’s not a hint of a build-up to a big heat wave.

And as to the behavior of temperature extremes: “There is also no clear indication of a trend toward increasing warm extremes. The prior 10 warmest Julys are distributed across the entire period and exhibit only modest clustering earlier in this decade, in the 1980s and in the 1930s…. This behavior differs substantially from globally averaged annual temperatures, for which eleven of the last twelve years ending in 2006 rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record since 1850….”

With regard any indication that “global” warming was pushing temperatures higher in Russia and thus helped to fuel the extreme heat last summer, Dole et al. say this: “With no significant long-term trend in western Russia July surface temperatures detected over the period 1880-2009, mean regional temperature changes are thus very unlikely to have contributed substantially to the magnitude of the 2010 Russian heat wave.”

Next the PSD folks looked to see if the existing larger-scale antecedent conditions, fed into climate models would produce the atmospheric circulation patterns (i.e. blocking) that gave rise to the heat wave.  The tested “predictors” included patterns of sea surface temperature and arctic ice coverage, which most people feel have been subject to some human influence.  No relationship: “These findings suggest that the blocking and heat wave were not primarily a forced response to specific boundary conditions during 2010.”

In fact, the climate models exhibited no predilection for projecting increases in the frequency of atmospheric blocking patterns over the region as greenhouse gas concentrations increased. Just the opposite: “Results using very high-resolution climate models suggest that the number of Euro-Atlantic blocking events will decrease by the latter half of the 21st century.”

At this point, Dole and colleagues had about exhausted all lines of inquiry and summed things up:

 Our analysis points to a primarily natural cause for the Russian heat wave. This event appears to be mainly due to internal atmospheric dynamical processes that produced and maintained an intense and long-lived blocking event. Results from prior studies suggest that it is likely that the intensity of the heat wave was further increased by regional land surface feedbacks. The absence of long-term trends in regional mean temperatures and variability together with the model results indicate that it is very unlikely that warming attributable to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations contributed substantially to the magnitude of this heat wave.

Can’t be much clearer than that.

But that was last summer. What about the past two winters? Both were very cold in the eastern U.S. with record snows events and/or totals scattered about the country.

Cold, snow, and global warming? On Christmas Day 2010, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Judah Cohen, a long-range forecaster for the private forecasting firm Atmospheric and Environmental Research, outlining his theory as to how late summer Arctic ice declines lead to more fall snow cover across Siberia which in turn induces atmospheric circulation patterns to favor snowstorms along the East Coast of the U.S. Just last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a news conference where they handed out a press release  headlined “Climate Change Makes Major Snowstorms Likely.” In that release, Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, laid out his theory as to how the loss of Arctic sea ice is helping to provide more moisture to fuel winter snowstorms across the U.S. as well as altering atmospheric circulation patterns into a preferred state for big snowstorms. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters chimed in with “Heavy snowstorms are not inconsistent with a warming planet.”

As is the wont for this Wisdom, let’s go back to the scientific literature.

Another soon-to-be released paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters describes the results of using the seasonal weather prediction model from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) to help untangle the causes of the unusual atmospheric circulation patterns that gave rise to the harsh winter of 2009-2010 on both sides of the Atlantic. A team of ECMWF scientists led by Thomas Jung went back and did experiments changing initial conditions that were fed into the ECMWF model and then assessed how well the model simulated the known weather patterns of the winter of 2009-2010. The different set of initial conditions was selected so as to test all the pet theories behind the origins of the harsh winter.  Jung et al. describe their investigations this way: “Here, the origin and predictability of the unusual winter of 2009/10 are explored through numerical experimentation with the ECMWF Monthly forecasting system. More specifically, the role of anomalies in sea surface temperature (SST) and sea ice, the tropical atmospheric circulation, the stratospheric polar vortex, solar insolation and near surface temperature (proxy for snow cover) are examined.”

Here is what they found after running their series of experiments.

Arctic sea ice and sea surface temperature anomalies.  These are often associated with global warming caused by people. Finding:  “These results suggest that neither SST nor sea ice anomalies explain the negative phase of the NAO during the 2009/10 winter.”

(NAO are the commonly used initials for the North Atlantic Oscillation – and atmospheric circulation pattern that can act to influence winter weather in the eastern U.S. and western Europe. A negative phase of the NAO is associated with cold and stormy weather and during the winter of 2009-10, the NAO value was the lowest ever observed.)

A global warming-induced weakening stratospheric (upper-atmosphere) jetstream. “Like for the other experiments, these stratospheric relaxation experiments fail to reproduce the magnitude of the observed NAO anomaly.”

Siberian snow cover.  “The resulting [upper air patterns] show little resemblance with the observations…. The implied weak role of snow cover anomalies is consistent with other research….”

Solar variability.  “The experiments carried out in this study suggest that the impact of anomalously low incoming [ultraviolet] radiation on the tropospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region are very small… suggesting that the unusually low solar activity contributed little, if any, to the observed NAO anomaly during the 2009/10 winter.”

Ok then, well what did cause the unusual weather patterns during the 2009-10 winter?

The results of this study, therefore, increase the likelihood that both the development and persistence of negative NAO phase resulted from internal atmospheric dynamical processes.

Translation: Random variability.

To drive this finding home, here’s another soon-to-be-released paper (D’Arrigo et al., 2001) that uses tree ring-based reconstructions of atmospheric circulation patterns and finds a similar set of conditions (including a negative NAO value second only to the 2009-10 winter) was responsible for the historically harsh winter of 1783-84 in the eastern U.S. and western Europe, which  was widely noted by historians. It followed the stupendous eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki the previous summer. The frigid and snowy winter conditions have been blamed on the volcano. In fact, Benjamin Franklin even commented as much.

But in their new study, Roseanne D’Arrigo and colleagues conclude that the harshness of that winter primarily was the result of anomalous atmospheric circulation patterns that closely resembled those observed during the winter of 2009-10, and that the previous summer’s volcanic eruption played a far less prominent role:

Our results suggest that Franklin and others may have been mistaken in attributing winter conditions in 1783-4 mainly to Laki or another eruption, rather than unforced variability.

Similarly, conditions during the 2009-10 winter likely resulted from natural [atmospheric] variability, not tied to greenhouse gas forcing… Evidence thus suggests that these winters were linked to the rare but natural occurrence of negative NAO and El Niño events.

The point is that natural variability can and does produce extreme events on every time scale, from days (e.g., individual storms), weeks (e.g., the Russian heat wave), months (e.g., the winter of 2009-10), decades (e.g., the lack of global warming since 1998), centuries (e.g., the Little Ice Age), millennia (e.g., the cycle of major Ice Ages), and eons (e.g., snowball earth).

Folks would do well to keep this in mind next time global warming is being posited for the weather disaster du jour. Almost assuredly, it is all hype and little might.

Too bad these results weren’t given a “hearing” in the House!

References:

D’Arrigo, R., et al., 2011. The anomalous winter of 1783-1784: Was the Laki eruption or an analog of the 2009–2010 winter to blame? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Dole, R., et al., 2011. Was there a basis for anticipating the 2010 Russian heat wave? Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Jung et al., 2011. Origin and predictability of the extreme negative NAO winter of 2009/10. Geophysical Research Letters, in press.

Min, S-K., et al., 2011. Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes. Nature, 470, 378-381.

Pall, P., et al., 2011. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000. Nature, 470, 382-386.

Supreme Court Takes Up Butterfly Effect

As Congress debates cap-and-trade, new fuel standards, and subsidies for “green” companies, some still feel that political solutions to global warming are not moving fast enough. In the present case, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, eight states and New York City sued several public utilities (including the federal Tennessee Valley Authority), alleging that their carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming.

This is the third major lawsuit to push global warming into the courts (another being Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, in which Cato also filed a brief). All of these suits try to use the common law doctrine of nuisance—which, for example, lets you sue your neighbor if his contaminated water flows onto your land and kills your lawn—to attack carbon emitters. None of them had gotten very far until the Second Circuit vacated a lower-court ruling and allowed the claims here to proceed.

But the judiciary was not meant to be the sole method for resolving grievances with the government—even if everything looks like a nail to lawyers who only have a hammer. After all, there are two other co-equal branches, the legislative and executive, which are constitutionally committed to unique roles in our system of separation of powers. The doctrine of “standing” exists in part to ensure that the judiciary is not used to solve issues that properly belong to those other branches. Toward this end, the Constitution allows courts to hear only actual “cases or controversies” that can feasibly be resolved by a court.

Cato thus filed a brief supporting the defendant utilities’ successful request for Supreme Court review, and has now filed another brief supporting their position before the Court. Cato’s latest brief first argues that no judicial solution is possible here because the chain of causation between the defendants’ carbon emissions and the alleged harm caused by global warming is so attenuated that it resembles the famed “butterfly effect.” Just as butterflies should not be sued for causing tsunamis, a handful of utility companies in the Northeastern United States should not be sued for the complex (and disputed) harms of global warming.

Second, we contend that, even if the plaintiffs can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make nuanced policy decisions that should be left to the legislature—and this is true regardless of the science of global warming. Just as it’s improper for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s beyond courts’ constitutional authority—under the “political question doctrine”—to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed in anything but an adversarial litigation process.

If a court were to adjudicate the claims here and issue an order dictating emissions standards, two things will happen: 1) the elected branches will be encouraged to abdicate to the courts their responsibilities for addressing complex and controversial policy issues, and 2) an already difficult situation would become nearly intractable as regulatory agencies and legislative actors butt heads with court orders issued across the country in quickly multiplying global warming cases. These inevitable outcomes are precisely why the standing and political question doctrines exist.

Dissatisfaction with the decisions and pace of government does not give someone the right to sue over anything. Or, as Chief Justice Marshall once said, “If the judicial power extended to every question under the laws of the United States … [t]he division of power [among the branches of government] could exist no longer, and the other departments would be swallowed up by the judiciary.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut on April 19.

Special thanks to Trevor Burrus, who contributed to this post.

Supreme Court Non-Rulings More Important Than Cases It Actually Hears

While all the hot constitutional action of late, on issues ranging from Obamacare to gay marriage to immigration, has been in the lower courts — or even in Congress! — the Supreme Court still goes about its daily business.  After last year’s blockbuster term, however, this term is pretty low-profile aside from a spate of First Amendment cases (funeral protests, violent video games, school choice tax credits, public financing of election campaigns, etc.).  And so it was yesterday, when Supreme Court arguments over securities law and Western water rights were overshadowed by news of cases on which the Court decided not to rule:

  • Without comment, the Court denied an unusual request — a petition for a writ of mandamus — in the Gulf Coast global warming lawsuit, Comer v. Murphy Oil.  This is the case, you may recall, where the Fifth Circuit lost its quorum as it was about to hear the en banc (whole court) appeal of a panel ruling that allowed the suit to proceed, resulting in the odd situation of the appeal being dismissed altogether and the district court decision to dismiss the lawsuit being the law of the case.  Those complicated procedural twists would’ve made for an ungainly case, but the Supreme Court will hear a different global warming–related case, which I also previously discussed and in which Cato filed a brief
  • The Court declined to review the constitutionality of a federal ban on felons’ possession of body  armor (e.g., a bulletproof vest) — in a challenge arguing that these are issues properly left to the states, there being no interstate commerce connection.  In ruling for the government, the Ninth Circuit (always them!) had applied a precedent that antedated the seminal cases of Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000), where — as you know if you’ve been paying attention to the Obamacare lawsuits — the Court struck down the federal Gun-Free School Zones and Violence Against Women Acts, respectively, as beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.  Notably, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia in all but one footnote, filed a trenchant dissent from this cert denial (starts on page 33 here), saying that, ” Today the Court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence…. [The lower court’s] logic threatens the proper limits on Congress’ commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the States.”  Perhaps more notably, neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Alito joined Thomas’s dissent.  (H/T Josh Blackman)
  • The Court also declined to review the constitutionality of criminal convictions by non-unanimous juries — which are only allowed in Oregon (the place where this case originates) and Louisiana — denying a cert petition filed by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.  The interesting angle here is that it’s not at all clear whether (1) all the rights protected by the Bill of Rights — here the Sixth Amendment requirement that jury convictions be unanimous — are “incorporated” against the states and (2) whatever incorporation there is goes through the Due Process Clause or the Privileges or Immunities Clause (which is important for courts’ consideration of the scope of constitutional rights).  Recall that in McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states but could not agree on the jurisprudential methodology for doing so — yet still hinted that it would be open to revisiting these issues in a case relating to unanimous jury verdicts… but apparently not yet.
  • The Court took off its argument calendar a case regarding the sovereign immunity of Indian tribes, specifically whether that doctrine prevents the enforcement of property taxes against those legally peculiar entities.  This is a huge issue for federalism, state revenues, and a host of other policy matters — and is quite complex legally — but New York’s Oneida tribe, perhaps fearing what would have been an epic loss at the Supreme Court, here decided to waive its immunity claim and thus moot the case.

After all this “active non-action” — which may be how the government next tries to characterize the non-purchase of health insurance in its next attempt to somehow find constitutional authority for the individual mandate — the Court did release one opinion of note today.  The opinion itself, in a technical bankruptcy case regarding the compelling issue of whether a debtor can take a car-ownership deduction if she does not make loan or lease payments, is not particularly noteworthy, but the author — rookie Justice Elena Kagan — is.  And so, with 18 dry pages and over a lone dissent by Justice Scalia, the Kagan era has begun.

The Current Wisdom

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

History to Repeat:  Greenland’s Ice to Survive, United Nations to Continue Holiday Party

This year’s installment of the United Nations’ annual climate summit (technically known as the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change) has come and gone in Cancun. Nothing substantial came of it policy-wise; just the usual attempts by the developing world to shake down our already shaky economy in the name of climate change.   News-wise probably the biggest story was that during the conference, Cancun broke an all time daily low temperature record.  Last year’s confab in Copenhagen was pelted by snowstorms and subsumed in miserable cold.  President Obama attended, failed to forge any meaningful agreement, and fled back to beat a rare Washington blizzard. He lost.

But surely as every holiday season now includes one of these enormous jamborees, dire climate stories appeared daily.  Polar bear cubs are endangered!  Glaciers are melting!!

Or so beat the largely overhyped drums, based upon this or that press release from Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.

And, of course, no one bothered to mention a blockbuster paper appearing in Nature the day before the end of the Cancun confab, which reassures us that Greenland’s ice cap and glaciers are a lot more stable than alarmists would have us believe.  That would include Al Gore, fond of his lurid maps showing the melting all of Greenland’s ice submerging Florida.

Ain’t gonna happen.

The disaster scenario goes like this:  Summer temperatures in Greenland are warming, leading to increased melting and the formation of ephemeral lakes on the ice surface.  This water eventually finds a crevasse and then a way down thousands of feet to the bottom of a glacier, where it lubricates the underlying surface, accelerating the seaward march of the ice.  Increase the temperature even more and massive amounts deposit into the ocean by the year 2100, catastrophically raising sea levels.

According to Christian Schoof of the University of British Columbia (UBC), “The conventional view has been that meltwater permeates the ice from the surface and pools under the base of the ice sheet….This water then serves as a lubricant between the glacier and the earth underneath it….”

And, according to Schoof, that’s just not the way things work. A UBC press release about his Nature article noted that he found that “a steady meltwater supply from gradual warming may in fact slow down the glacier flow, while sudden water input could cause glaciers to speed up and spread.”

Indeed, Schoof finds that sudden water inputs, such as would occur with heavy rain, are responsible for glacial accelerations, but these last only one or a few days.

The bottom line?  A warming climate has very little to do with accelerating ice flow, but weather events do.

How important is this?  According to University of Leeds Professor Andrew Shepherd, who studies glaciers via satellite, “This study provides an elegant solution to one of the two key ice sheet instability problems” noted by the United Nations in their last (2007) climate compendium.  “It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, Greenland ice sheet flow might not be accelerated by increased melting after all,” he added.

I’m not so sure that those who hold the “popular belief” can explain why Greenland’s ice didn’t melt away thousands of years ago.  For millennia, after the end of the last ice age (approximately 11,000 years ago) strong evidence indicates that the Eurasian arctic averaged nearly 13°F warmer in July than it is now.

That’s because there are trees buried and preserved in the acidic Siberian tundra, and they can be carbon dated.  Where there is no forest today—because it’s too cold in summer—there were trees, all the way to the Arctic Ocean and even on some of the remote Arctic islands that are bare today. And, back then, thanks to the remnants of continental ice, the Arctic Ocean was smaller and the North American and Eurasian landmasses extended further north.

That work was by Glen MacDonald, from UCLA’s Geography Department. In his landmark 2000 paper in Quaternary Research, he noted that the only way that the Arctic could become so warm is for there to be a massive incursion of warm water from the Atlantic Ocean.  The only “gate” through which that can flow is the Greenland Strait, between Greenland and Scandinavia.

So, Greenland had to have been warmer for several millennia, too.

Now let’s do a little math to see if the “popular belief” about Greenland ever had any basis in reality.

In 2009 University of Copenhagen’s B. M. Vinther and 13 coauthors published the definitive history of Greenland climate back to the ice age, studying ice cores taken over the entire landmass. An  exceedingly conservative interpretation of  their results is that Greenland was 1.5°C (2.7°F) warmer for the period from 5,000-9000 years ago, which is also the warm period in Eurasia that MacDonald detected.  The integrated warming is given by multiplying the time (4,000 years) by the warming (1.5°), and works out (in Celsius) to 6,000 “degree-years.” 

Now let’s assume that our dreaded emissions of carbon dioxide spike the temperature there some 4°C.  Since we cannot burn fossil fuel forever, let’s put this in over 200 years.  That’s a pretty liberal estimate given that the temperature there still hasn’t exceeded values seen before in the 20th century.  Anyway, we get 800 (4 x 200) degree-years.

If the ice didn’t come tumbling off Greenland after 6,000 degree-years, how is it going to do so after only 800?  The integrated warming of Greenland in the post-ice-age warming (referred to as the “climatic optimum” in textbooks published prior to global warming hysteria) is over seven times what humans can accomplish in 200 years.  Why do we even worry about this?

So we can all sleep a bit better.  Florida will survive.  And, we can also rest assured that the UN will continue its outrageous holiday parties, accomplishing nothing, but living large.  Next year’s is in Durban, South Africa, yet another remote warm spot hours of Jet-A away.

References:

MacDonald, G. M., et al., 2000.  Holocene treeline history and climatic change across Northern Eurasia.  Quaternary Research 53, 302-311.

Schoof, C., 2010. Ice-sheet acceleration driven by melt supply variability. Nature 468, 803-805.

Vinther, B.M., et al., 2009.  Holocene thinning of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature 461, 385-388.

Supreme Court Should Tell Courts to Stay Out of Global Warming Cases

The Supreme Court is finally starting to put some interesting non-First Amendment cases on this term’s docket.

Today, the Court agreed to review American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, in which eight states, some non-profits, and New York City are suing a number of energy companies and utilities for harms they allegedly caused by contributing to global warming.  This is the third major lawsuit to push global warming into the courts (another being Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, in which Cato also filed a brief).  It’s America, after all, where we sue to solve our problems – even apparently, taking to court the proverbial butterfly that caused a tsunami.

Mind you, you can sue your neighbor for leaking toxic water onto your land. Courts are well positioned to adjudicate such disputes because they involve only two parties and have limited (if any) effects on others. But it is a different case when, using the same legal theory by which Jones sues Smith for his toxic dumping (called “nuisance”), plaintiffs selectively sue a few targeted defendants for a (quite literally) global problem.  As I discussed with reference to a previous such case, global warming is the type of issue that should be decided by the political branches. The Second Circuit ruled, however, that this suit could go forward. (Justice Sotomayor was involved in the case at that stage and so will be recused going forward.)  

The Supreme Court has always recognized that not all problems can or should be solved in the courtroom. Thus, the issue in AEP v. Connecticut – which the Court will now decide – is whether the states meet the legal requirements necessary to have their suit heard in court, what lawyers call “standing.” Historically, issues of policy have been decided by the legislative and executive branches while “cases and controversies” have been decided by courts. Therefore, when litigants have asked courts determine matters of broad-ranging policy, the Court has often termed the cases “political questions” and dismissed them. The reasoning is that, not only do unelected courts lack the political authority to determine such questions, they also lack any meaningful standards by which the case could be decided (called “justiciability”).

Indeed, even if the plaintiffs can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make complex policy decisions — and this is true regardless of the science regarding global warming. Just as it’s unconstitutional for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s unconstitutional — under the “political question doctrine” — for courts to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed against each other in anything but a bilateral way.  

We pointed out in our brief supporting the defendants’ request for Supreme Court review – and will again in the brief we plan to file at this next stage – that resolving this case while avoiding those comprehensive and far-reaching implications is impossible and that the Constitution prohibits the judicial usurpation of roles assigned to the other, co-equal branches of government.   After all, global warming is a global problem purportedly caused by innumerable actors, ranging from cows to Camrys. This fact not only underscores the political nature of the question, but it has constitutional significance: In order to sue someone, your injury must be “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions. Suits based on “butterfly effect” reasoning should not be allowed to move forward.

Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government –which is involved because one of the defendants is the Tennessee Valley Authority – agrees with Cato . The administration aptly played its role in our constitutional system by asserting that global warming policy was a matter for the executive and legislative branches to resolve, not the judiciary. 

Hmmm, Cato and Obama on the same side in a global warming dispute… but I still won’t be holding my breath awaiting an invite to the White House Christmas party.

On Happiness

The financial crisis and global warming have reinforced an age-old criticism of our traditional ways of measuring wealth, and a number of alternative indexes have been proposed that would instead measure people’s well-being and environmental sustainability.

There are problems with using GDP. It involves an incredible amount of guesswork; and even if it were perfect, it would be bizarre to use production of goods and services as the only yardstick to evaluate our societies. But finding problems is one thing; it is something completely different to find an alternative that is better. Any sort of well-being index would require agreement on what well-being is, and there is a risk that governments would be tempted to find a one-size-fits-all standard and try to make us all wear it.

In a new paper I examine some of the proposed alternatives and they all beg the question about well-being by defining it as the result of the particular kinds of policies that they happen to prefer. Bhutan’s famous National Happiness Index, for example, defines it partly as a strong, traditional culture, and has used it to oppress minorities. And the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, created by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and led by economist Joseph Stiglitz, selectively chooses measures to show that France is richer in relation to the United States than it would otherwise be.

The advantage of GDP is precisely what it has often been criticized for – that it is a narrow and value-free measure. It does not even try to define well-being, and so fits liberal, pluralistic societies in which people have different interests, preferences and attitudes toward well-being. It tells us what we can do, but not what we should do; and since it measures what we can do, it also correlates with most of the things most people want from life: better health, longer lives, less poverty and even happiness. The latest research shows not only that people in rich countries are happier but also that countries grow happier as they become richer.

Read the paper here. Read Will Wilkinson’s Policy Analysis on happiness research here.

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.