Topic: Energy and Environment

Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

Close the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program

The Government Accountability Office’s annual duplication report is out. This year, the report highlights 30 ways that the federal government can save money. One way is to terminate the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, which provides government-subsidized loans to companies that make fuel-efficient cars. The program has been a failure, and it has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Established by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, ATVM was authorized to provide a total of $25 billion in loans for projects that “support the production of fuel-efficient, advanced technology vehicles and components in the United States.” Companies that participated in the program could borrow funds directly from the government with very little out-of-pocket expenses—participants only had to pay some upfront borrowing costs. But Congress made the program even more lucrative in 2009 by provided $7.5 billion to help offset those borrowing costs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has issued five ATVM loans totaling $8.4 billion so far—with an additional $3.3 billion in borrowing costs. In its promotional material for the program, DOE highlights three of the recipients: Ford Motor Company, Nissan North America, and Tesla Motors.

However, these DOE materials don’t mention loans to two other companies, Fisker Automotive and Vehicle Production Group (VPG). I think I know why: taxpayers lost almost $200 million on those two loans.

Fisker Automotive borrowed $529 million from the federal government to produce its luxury car, Karma. The loan was touted by the administration, including by Vice President Biden. Biden said “the story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry.”

The car was a flop from the beginning. It was recalled, and it received poor performance ratings. Fisker lost an estimated $35,000 on each vehicle sold. A year after issuing the loan, DOE halted Fisker’s borrowing authority after the company had already borrowed $192 million. Fisker filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Only $50 million of the $192 million has been recovered for taxpayers.

Vehicle Production Group had financial and production problems as well. In addition, its loan was questioned due to the political connection between its adviser and the White House. The adviser was a fundraiser for the White House and “headed Obama’s vice presidential selection committee in 2008.” The company quietly folded costing taxpayers the full $50 million loan.

The taxpayer losses from Fisker and VPG were in addition to the losses from other federal energy loans to companies such as Solyndra and Abound Solar. After all the bad press from these failed energy subsidies, demand for the loans dried up. According to a March 2013 report from GAO, DOE was no longer considering applications for the remaining $16.6 billion in loan authority and $4.2 billion in borrowing cost subsidies. Auto companies told GAO that the “costs of participating outweigh the benefits.”

However, Congress still has not rescinded ATVM’s loan authority. DOE could start reissuing loans under the failed program at any point, and it is re-launching its promotional efforts. Closing the program would not only save taxpayers money, it would reduce government interventions in the energy and automobile markets. For reformers in Congress, this change should be a no-brainer.

Social Cost of Carbon Inflated by Extreme Sea Level Rise Projections

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.”


As we mentioned in our last post, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is in the process of reviewing how the Obama administration calculates and uses the social cost of carbon (SCC). The SCC is a loosey-goosey computer model result that attempts to determine the present value of future damages that result from climate change caused by pernicious economic activity. Basically, it can be gamed to give any result you want.

We have filed a series of comments with the OMB outlining what is wrong with the current federal determination of the SCC used as the excuse for more carbon dioxide restrictions. There is so much wrong with the feds’ SCC, that we concluded that rather than just update it, the OMB ought to just chuck the whole concept of the social cost of carbon out the window and quickly close and lock it.

We have discussed many of the problems with the SCC before, and in our last post we described how the feds have turned the idea of a “social cost” on its head. In this installment, we describe a particularly egregious fault that exists in at least one of the prominent models used by the federal government to determine the SCC: The projections of future sea-level rise (a leading driver of future climate change-related damages) from the model are much higher than even the worst-case mainstream scientific thinking on the matter. This necessarily results in an SCC determination that is higher than the best science could possibly allow.

The text below, describing our finding, is adapted from our most recent set of comments to the OMB.

The Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model, developed by Yale economist William Nordhaus (2010a), is what is termed an “integrated assessment model” or, IAM. An IAM is computer model which combines economics, climate change and feedbacks between the two to project how future societies are impacted by projected climate change and ultimately to determine the social cost of carbon (i.e., how much future damage, in today’s monetary terms, occurs for each unit emission of carbon (dioxide)).

The Current Wisdom: The Administration’s Social Cost of Carbon Turns “Social Cost” on Its Head

This Current Wisdom takes an in-depth look at how politics can masquerade as science.

                      “A pack of foma,” Bokonon said

                                                Paraphrased from Cat’s Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut

In his 1963 classic, Cat’s Cradle, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut described the sleepy little Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the populace was mesmerized by the prophet Bokonon, who created his own religion and his own vocabulary. Bokonon communicated his religion through simple verses he called “calypsos.” “Foma” are half-truths that conveniently serve the religion, and the paraphrase above is an apt description of the Administration’s novel approach to determining the “social cost of carbon” (dioxide). 

Because of a pack of withering criticism, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is now in the process of reviewing how the Obama Administration calculates and uses the social cost of carbon (SCC).  We have filed a series of Comments with the OMB outlining what is wrong with the current SCC determination. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with some of the problems that we have identified, but our continuing analysis of the Administration’s SCC has yielded a few more nuggets.

We describe a particularly rich one here—that the government wants us to pay more today to offset a modest climate change experienced by a wealthy future society than to help alleviate a lot of climate change impacting a less well-off future world.

Climate Change: We TOLd You So.

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.”


We complain so constantly about the pessimistic view that the government takes on climate change that perhaps some of you are thinking alright already, we get it.  Of course, the concept that governments exaggerate threats in order for the populace to clamor to be led to safety is Mencken at his pithiest, and such sentiment  is not in particularly short supply here at Cato!

If  you think that we are out on a pessimistic limb, check out this story making headlines out of Japan, from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting to hash out the second part of their latest climate change assessment report.  The first part, on the science of climate change, was released last fall (it was horrible). The second part deals with the impacts of climate change (isn’t going to be much better). The news is that one of the lead authors on the economics chapter, Richard Tol, Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex, has quit the IPCC over their irrational negativity.

Here is how a Reuters article headlined “UN author says draft climate report alarmist, pulls out of team” captured Tol’s thoughts:

Tol said the IPCC emphasised the risks of climate change far more than the opportunities to adapt. A Reuters count shows the final draft has 139 mentions of “risk” and 8 of “opportunity”.

Tol said farmers, for example, could grow new crops if the climate in their region became hotter, wetter or drier. “They will adapt. Farmers are not stupid,” he said.

He said the report played down possible economic benefits of low levels of warming. Less cold winters may mean fewer deaths among the elderly, and crops may grow better in some regions.

“It is pretty damn obvious that there are positive impacts of climate change, even though we are not always allowed to talk about them,” he said. But he said temperatures were set to rise to levels this century that would be damaging overall.

Tol has developed an economic model that finds that modest climate change will prove economically positive. However, towards that latter part of this century, temperatures in his model are projected to rise to such a degree that that resulting negative consequences eventually overwhelm the positive one.  Thus the final sentence in the passage above.

However, the climate projections that are incorporated in Tol’s economic model are likely wrong—they predict too much warming from future carbon dioxide emissions. When those climate model projections are brought more in line with the current best science, the positive economic benefits from Tol’s model likely extend far beyond the end of the 21st century.

The bottom line is that people adapt to climate change and so long as it is relatively modest—and there is growing evidence that it will be—the human condition will almost certainly be no worse off and probably even better.

Enough with the pessimistic outlook!  It is high time to celebrate the progress we are making, in the face of, or even in part because of, the earth’s changing climate.

If People Are Like Polar Bears, We’ll Be Fine

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.”

 

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Japan this week to finalize the second part of its latest compendium on climate change.

The first part, the Working Group I report, focused on the physical science of climate change.  The main findings of that report, released last fall, have been widely panned for not telling the truth about how the latest science is stacking up in support of modest rather than alarming climate change.

The second part, making the news this week, is from the IPCC’s Working Group II and focuses on the effects of climate change.

In an interesting piece in a blog hosted by the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico reports that if leaked drafts are to be trusted, the new report will mark a “formal moving on of the debate from the past, futile focus upon “mitigation” to a new debate about resilience and adaptation.”

We can only wonder what took them so long to realize this—something that we have been saying from virtually day one of this whole global warming thing.

That is not to say that the new IPCC report won’t proclaim that a whole lot of bad things are going to happen as a result of climate change. It most assuredly will say that. But, as we last reported, much of that concern is overblown hype.

Here is another example:

The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.

We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion on transit since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (=op costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

(By the way, APTA responded to my statement that virtually all of the growth in ridership in 2013 took place in New York City, saying, “That statement is not true… . Many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year.” But I never said that every single transit system outside of New York declined, only that the sum total, minus New York, declined, which is easily verified from APTA’s own data.)

APTA is correct that transit ridership bottomed out in 1995, at least according to its numbers. (Federal Transit Administration numbers are a little different and show ridership bottoming out in 1993.) But it is a stretch to say that subsidies are responsible for the growth in ridership since 1995 (or ‘93). Both operating and capital subsidies to transit have grown steadily since the mid 1960s, but ridership hasn’t always followed.

In particular, ridership declined through 1972 to about 6.6 million trips, then increased through 1980 to about 8.5 million trips, hovered around there for about a decade, then declined from 8.9 million trips in 1989 to 7.8 million trips in 1995, then increased to 10.5 million trips in 2008, and has hovered around there since then. If increased subsidies were responsible for the increase after 1995, why didn’t increased subsidies lead to increased ridership between 1965 and 1972 or between 1989 and 1995?

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