Topic: Energy and Environment

A Clear Example of IPCC Ideology Trumping Fact

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger, from Cato’s Center for the Study of Science, review 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.

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When it comes to global warming, facts often take a back seat to fiction. This is especially true with proclamations coming from the White House. But who can blame them, as they are just following the lead from Big Green groups (aka, “The Green Blob”), the U.S. Climate Change Research Program (responsible for the U.S. National Climate Assessment Report), and of course, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

We have documented this low regard for the facts (some might say, deception) on many occasions, but recently we have uncovered  a particularly clear example where the IPCC’s ideology trumps the plain facts, giving the impression that climate models perform a lot better than they actually do. This is an important façade for the IPCC to keep up, for without the overheated climate model  projections of future climate change, the issue would be a lot less politically interesting (and government money could be used for other things … or simply not taken from taxpayers in the first place).

The IPCC is given deference when it comes to climate change opinion at all Northwest Washingon D.C. cocktail parties (which means also by the U.S. federal government) and other governments around the world. We tirelessly point out why this is not a good idea. By the time you get to the end of this post, you will see that the IPCC does not seek to tell the truth—the inconvenient one being that it dramatically overstated the case for climate worry in its previous reports. Instead, it continues to obfuscate.

This extracts a cost. The IPCC is harming the public health and welfare of all humankind as it pressures governments to seek to limit energy choices instead of seeking ways to help expand energy availability (or, one would hope, just stay out of the market).

Everyone knows that global warming (as represented by the rise in the earth’s average surface temperature) has stopped for nearly two decades now. As historians of science have noted, scientists can be very creative when defending the paradigm that pays. In fact, there are  already several dozen explanations

Climate modelers are scrambling to try to save their creations’  reputations because the one thing that they do not want to have to admit is that they exaggerate the amount that the earth’s average temperature will increase as a result of human greenhouse gas emissions. If the models are overheated, then so too are all the projected impacts that derive from the model projections—and that would be a disaster for all those pushing for regulations limiting the use of fossil fuels for energy. It’s safe to say the number of people employed by creating, legislating, lobbying, and enforcing these regulations is huge, as in “The Green Blob.”

Should the U.S. Take the Lead on Climate Change Policies?

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

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With its 2007 ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. But to meet the Supremes’ criteria for regulation, EPA first had to find that the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were an “endangerment” to public health and welfare. While the sitting Bush administration was reluctant to do this, President Obama’s EPA made the “preliminary” finding of endangerment a mere 94 days after his inauguration.

The “final” Endangerment Finding came on December 7, 2009, just in time to provide the United States credibility at the then-starting Copenhagen Conference, a United Nations affair at which a replacement to the failed Kyoto Protocol was to be enshrined. The meeting was the most disastrous yet for global warming hawks, but President Obama quickly declared victory and rushed off on Air Force-1, in order to beat what was to be the first of three bona fide blizzards in Washington that winter. He lost that race, too.

A torrent of regulations followed, “culminating” in EPA’s recent proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power plants. That controversial proposal, announced in early June, followed on the heels of EPA’s January proposal of regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

If adopted (and they will be), these proposed regulations will be the biggest diktats yet originating from Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Administration officials are already celebrating the salvation of mankind, even before the regulations are finalized.

The administration is holding “hearings” around the country so it can take your input to improve these already near-perfect rules. To help guide us, the White House just released a new report describing how the costs of climate change will skyrocket the longer we delay taking action to stop it.

According to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the collection of administration actions on climate change is “changing the tone” in talks with foreign nations. No doubt encouraged by this “changing tone,” President Obama is scheduled to attend a UN climate “summit” in New York this September.

To what end? What benefit will “taking the lead” on climate change actually provide the United States?

Who Is Transit for?

Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

Who, other than rail contractors, union members, and other transit agency employees, is enjoying the benefits of all of these subsidies? To answer this question, I went to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey page and downloaded table B08519, which shows how people get to work by income class, for states and metropolitan areas.

Inventions to Eagerly Await

Humans are progress seekers. Those with an entrepreneurial drive use their intellect to invent novel solutions to our problems. Sometimes, their solutions alleviate widespread suffering and let us live better than kings of centuries past. Thomson Reuters released just such a list of welfare-enhancing inventions to expect by 2025:

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer drug-induced deaths, and Type I diabetes should afflict far fewer individuals by 2025. See below that cancer–one of the most common causes of death in several countries–is already on the decline (with a graph made on HumanProgress.org):

Molehill of Antarctic Ice Becomes a Mountain

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.


In science,…novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later to be observed.

–Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

One of global warming’s “novelties” is that satellite measurements show the extent of ice surrounding Antarctica is growing significantly, something not anticipated by our vaunted climate models.

Thomas Kuhn would predict “resistance”, and today we see yet another verification of how stubborn science can be in the face of results don’t comport with the reigning  paradigm.  The paradigm, in this case, is that our climate models are always right and any counterfactuals are because something is wrong with the data, rather than with the predictions.

“Resistance” means that peer-reviewers aren’t likely to find much wrong with papers that support the paradigm (and that they will find a lot wrong with ones that don’t).  Further, the editors of scientific journals will behave the same, curiously avoiding obvious questions.

Perhaps as fine an example as there is of this process appeared June 21 in the journal The Cryosphere, which is published by the European Geosciences Union.  It is a paper called  “A spurious jump in the satellite record:  has Antarctic sea ice expansion been overestimated?”, by Ian Eisenman (Scripps Institution) and two coauthors.

As shown in our figure, the increase in Antarctic ice extent has been quite impressive, especially since approximately 2000.

Not so fast.  Eisenman et al. write that “much of the expansion [of Antarctic ice] may be a spurious artifact of an error in the processing of satellite observations” [emphasis added].

Wow, that would be really something, knocking down one of the glaring anomalies in global climate, and adding credence to the models.  Eisenman et al. note

In recent years there has been substantial interest in the trend in Antarctic sea ice extent…primarly due to the observed asymmetry between increasing ice extent in the Antarctic and rapidly diminishing ice extent in the Arctic (e.g. Cavalieri et al., 1997) and the inability of current models to capture this (e.g. Eisenman et al, 2011).

No doubt working from the premise that the observed increase in Antarctic ice just can’t be right, Eisenman et al. would appear to have finally verified that hypothesis.

Until you look at the numbers.

Then you are left questioning the review process—at all levels—relating to this work.

The key finding is that there was a processing error in the data.  Microwave sensors that are used to estimate ice extent (and also lower atmospheric temperature) wear out in the harsh environment of space, and new satellites are launched with fresh equipment.  But each one doesn’t send data with the exact same statistical properties, so a succeeding sensor is “calibrated” by comparison with an existing one.

Eisenman et al. found that there was a change in the intercalibration between instruments in December, 1991 when the data were reprocessed in 2007.  Apparently this wasn’t immediately obvious because there is so much “noise” in the data.

Indeed, Eisenman et al have located the needle in this haystack, showing the step-change between the two data sets:

Please take a look at the y-axis.  You will see that the value of the “step” change is about 0.2 times 106 square kilometers, or 200,000 square kilometers.

Wow, that’s a lot!  After all, Eisenman et al. tell us that this shift explains “much” of the increase in Antarctic sea ice.

Hopefully readers caught on before going this far.  If the reason that the shift was undetected is because the data is so noisy, how important can it be?  Now, have a look at the overall ice extent, shown in our first figure.

The y-axis is in millions of square kilometers.  The change since the turn of the century is about 1.3 million square kilometers, a mountain of ice  The step change is about 200,000, a molehill.   That doesn’t sound like “much” to us.

But, hey, if you don’t look too close—and we are sure are greener friends (or the reviewers) won’t (or didn’t)—you might believe that everything is ok with the reigning, model-based paradigm.  In fact there’s “much” that is wrong with it.

As Kuhn wrote, “Only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later to be observed.”

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Smart Growth Facts vs. Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or …

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

Fisher adds, “we [meaning government] should promote density where it makes sense and prohibit it where it doesn’t”; in other words, restrict personal freedom whenever planners’ ideas of what “makes sense” differ from yours. Why? As long as people pay the costs of their choices, they should be allowed to choose high or low densities without interference from planners like Fisher.

… New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

Another writer who makes this ideological is Daily Caller contributor Matt Lewis, who believes that conservatives should endorse new urbanism. His weird logic is conservatives want people to love their country, high-density neighborhoods are prettier than low-density suburbs, and people who don’t have pretty places to live will stop loving their country. Nevermind that more than a century of suburbanization hasn’t caused people to stop loving their country; the truth is there are many beautiful suburbs and many ugly new urban developments.

Lewis adds, “Nobody I know is suggesting that big government–or the U.N.!–ought to mandate or impose these sorts of development policies.” He apparently doesn’t know many urban planners, and certainly none in Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, the Twin Cities, or other metropolitan areas where big government in the form of regional planning agencies (though not the U.N.) are doing just that. If new urbanism were simply a matter of personal choice, no one would criticize it.

The real issues are factual, not ideological.

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