Topic: Energy and Environment

NASA, Global Warming, and Free Enterprise

Yesterday, NASA aborted a third attempt to launch a probe that would measure the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, where it comes from, and where it is stored. The agency may try again today, as the probe’s findings, we are told, will be “crucial to understanding how much human activity affects the planet’s climate.”

While we eagerly await NASA’s findings, it is well-known that carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise worldwide. We also know that developed countries emit less, or increase emissions at a slower pace, than in the past. Crucially, developed countries also show falling emissions per dollar of output and per person.

According to and the World Bank, developed countries’ growth in carbon dioxide emissions has slowed or reversed over time.

Outer Banks Sea Level Rise: Worth Getting Exercised Over?

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 Washington Post, yesterday, fanned the flames of a dispute over how much sea level rise the residents of the North Carolina Outer Banks should plan upon for this century.

The dispute arose when, a few years ago, politicians in Raleigh decided to get involved in the business of climate forecasting,  and decreed that the Outer Banks region should expect a 39-inch sea level rise by the year 2100 and that people need to plan for a  future based upon this number. Some of the rumored plans include abandonment of the region’s major roadways, stopping new construction, and re-zoning the land to declare all property at an elevation less than 39 inches to be uninhabitable. The state government under then-governor Beverly Perdue (D) was “helping” by preparing a website that showed all property that would be under water by the year 2100, deep-sixing the equity held in many beach houses.

It’s no surprise that there’s a pushback against the state’s 39-inch forecast, which was based on a selection of outdated science that foretold a much more alarming story than newer scientific studies.

For example, the latest (fifth) assessment report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the global average sea level rise over the course of the 21st century would be in the range of 10 to 32 inches, with a mean value of about 19 inches.  This is only about 50% of the 39-inch projection.

And, the IPCC projection is probably too high because it was driven by a collection of climate models which new science indicates produce too much warming given a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  If the models were forced to run with a lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide emissions, their sea level rise projections would decline proportionally,  down to about 13 inches.  This arguably better value is only 1/3rd of the 39-inch value forwarded by the NC state government.  No wonder the realtors and mortgage bankers were up in arms about Bev Purdue’s map.

Oops: Got the Sign Wrong Trying to Explain Away the Global Warming “Pause”

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.”

A couple of years ago, when it was starting to become obvious that the average global surface temperature was not rising at anywhere near the rate that climate models projected, and in fact seemed to be leveling off rather than speeding up, explanations for the slowdown sprouted like mushrooms in compost.

We humbly suggested a combination of natural variability and a lower “sensitivity” of surface temperature to rising carbon dioxide.

Now, several years later, the “pause” continues. Natural variability is now widely accepted as making a significant contribution and our argument for a lowered climate sensitivity—which would indicate that existing climate models are not reliable tools for projecting future climate trends—is buoyed by accumulating evidence and is gaining support in the broader climate research community. Yet is largely rejected by federal regulators and their scientific supporters.  These folks prefer rather more exotic explanations that seek to deflect the blame away from the climate models and thus preserve their over-heated projections of future global warming.

The problem with exotic explanations is that they tend to unravel like exotic dancers.

Such is the case for the explanation—popular with the press when it was first proposed—that an increase in aerosol emissions, particularly from China, was acting to help offset the warming influence of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

The suggestion was made back in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Boston University’s Robert Kaufmann and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Shortly after it appeared, we were critical of it in these pages, pointing out how the explanation was inconsistent with several lines of data.

Now, a new paper appearing in the peer-reviewed scientific literature takes a deeper view of aerosol emissions during the past 15 years and finds that, in net, changes in aerosol emissions over the period 1996-2010 contributed a net warming pressure to the earth’s climate.

Kühn et al. (2014) write:

Increases in Asian aerosol emissions have been suggested as one possible reason for the hiatus in global temperature increase during the past 15 years. We study the effect of sulphur and black carbon (BC) emission changes between 1996-2010 on the global energy balance. We find that the increased Asian emissions have had very little regional or global effects, while the emission reductions in Europe and the U.S. have caused a positive radiative forcing. In our simulations, the global-mean aerosol direct radiative effect changes 0.06 W/m2 during 1996–2010, while the effective radiative forcing (ERF) is 0.42 W/m2.

So in other words, rather than acting to slow global warming during the past decade and a half as proposed by Kaufmann et al. (2011), changes in anthropogenic aerosol emissions (including declining emissions trends in North America and Europe) have acted to enhance global warming (described as contributing to a positive increase in the radiative forcing in the above quote).

This means that the “pause,” or whatever you want to call it, in the rise of global surface temperatures is even more significant than it is generally taken to be, because whatever is the reason behind it, it is not only acting to slow the rise from greenhouse gas emissions but also the added rise from changes in aerosol emissions.

Until we understand what this sizeable mechanism is and how it works, our ability to reliably look into the future and foresee what climate lies ahead is a mirage. Yet, somehow, the Obama Administration is progressing full speed ahead with regulations about the kinds of cars and trucks we can drive, the appliances we use, and the types of energy available, etc., all in the name of mitigating future climate change.

As we repeatedly point out, not only will the Obama Administration’s actions have no meaningful impact on the amount of future climate change, but it is far from clear that the rate of future change will even be enough to mitigate—or even to worry about.


Kaufmann, R. K., et al., 2011. Reconciling anthropogenic climate change with observed temperature 1998–2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102467108

Kühn, T., et al., 2014. Climate impacts of changing aersol emission since 1996. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2014GL060349

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

EPA’s Loss Is the Separation of Powers’ Gain

At the bottom of the Supreme Court’s decision today tossing out, in large part, the Obama Administration’s greenhouse gas emissions scheme is a stiff dose of constitutional common sense: “When an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a significant portion of the American economy, we typically greet its announcement with a measure of skepticism.”

Here, skepticism was certainly warranted. At issue was one of the Obama Administration’s earliest efforts to skirt Congress and achieve its major policy goals unilaterally through aggressive executive action.

A bit of background is necessary. The Clean Air Act’s 1970’s-era “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” and “Title V” programs are aimed at the few hundred largest industrial sources of pollution in the country and impose what the Court correctly identified as “heavy substantive and procedural burdens,” far beyond the red tape that most businesses are able to shoulder. To that end, the statute limits regulation to sources that emit more than 100 or 250 tons per year of certain “air pollutants.”

EPA’s trick was to redefine “air pollutant,” as used in those programs, to include carbon-dioxide emissions. Because carbon-dioxide is emitted in large quantities even by smaller sources, that interpretation expanded the number of sources subject to regulation from a few hundred to millions altogether. Regulations that had previously been confined to major power plants, chemical factories, and the like would now apply to retail stores, offices, apartment buildings, shopping centers, schools, and churches. To avoid what even EPA recognized to be an “absurd result,” the agency went on to claim authority to decide exactly which sources have to comply—in other words, the power to choose winners and losers by exempting the vast majority of sources from compliance, for the time being at least. It called this approach “tailoring.” 

The Court, in a lead opinion by Justice Scalia, called it “patently unreasonable—not to say outrageous.” EPA, it held, must abide by the statute: “An agency has no power to ‘tailor’ legislation to bureaucratic policy goals by rewriting unambiguous statutory terms.” And if such tailoring is required to avoid a plainly “absurd result” at odds with congressional intentions, then obviously there is obviously something wrong with the agency’s interpretation of the statute. To hold otherwise, the Court recognized, “would deal a severe blow to the Constitution’s separation of powers” by allowing the executive to revise Congress’s handiwork.

The loss for the administration was not complete. The Court did allow that EPA can regulate greenhouse emissions by newly-built (or substantially modified) sources that would already be subject to PSD or Title V without taking into account their greenhouse gas emissions—known as “anyway sources.” But even this authority, the Court explained, is not “unbounded” and does not authorize to EPA to mandate any manner of efficiency gain.

The Court’s decision may be a prelude of more to come. Since the Obama Administration issued its first round of greenhouse gas regulations, it has become even more aggressive in wielding executive power so as to circumvent the need to work with Congress on legislation. That includes recent actions on such issues as immigration, welfare reform, and drug enforcement. It also includes new regulations for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants, proposed just this month, that go beyond traditional plant-level controls to include regulation of electricity usage and demand—that is, to convert EPA into a nationwide electricity regulator. Today’s decision—as well as one last month by the D.C. Circuit rejecting a nearly identical regulatory gambit by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—suggests that this won’t be the last court decision throwing out Obama Administration actions as incompatible with the law. 

Climate Change, Heat Waves, and Adaptation

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 main idea, as it is portrayed, driving the Obama administration’s pursuit of carbon dioxide regulations is that climate change is leading to all manner of bad things. Pointing to concrete example of bad things that have resulted from human greenhouse gas emissions, however, is much more challenging than just saying it is the case. In fact, for most climate/weather events and their resulting effect, the bulk of the science contradicts the administration’s contentions.

Roger Pielke Jr. makes it a habit to point out how White House proclamations concerning extreme weather events go awry. We have similar habits.

An especially egregious example concerns heat-related mortality. It is true that extreme heat can lead to excess mortality. It is also true that global warming should lead to more heat waves. However, it is NOT true that global warming will lead to more heat-related mortality—the logic forwarded by the administration. Frequent readers of this blog are well aware of this.

However, as not everyone (to his or her detriment) is a frequent reader of this blog, we presented our findings on climate change and heat-related mortality to the audience at a science policy conference held by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) this week. Our conclusions were:

Debunking the Induced-Demand Myth

“Building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse,” asserts Wired magazine. “The reason you’re stuck in traffic isn’t all these jerks around you who don’t know how to drive,” says writer Adam Mann; “it’s just the road that you’re all driving on.” If only we had fewer roads, he implies, we would have less congestion. This “roads-induce-demand” claim is as wrong as Wired’s previous claim that Tennessee fiscal conservatives were increasing Nashville congestion by banning bus-rapid transit, when actually they were preventing congestion by banning the conversion of general lanes to dedicated bus lanes.

In support of the induced-demand claim, Mann cites research by economists Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania. “We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Mann quotes Turner as saying. Mann describes this relationship as, “If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.” If this were true, then building more roads doesn’t make traffic worse, as the Wired headline claims; it just won’t make it any better.

However, this is simply not true. Nor is it what Duranton & Turner’s paper actually said. The paper compared daily kilometers of interstate highway driving with lane kilometers of interstates in the urbanized portions of 228 metropolitan areas. In the average metropolitan area, it found that between 1983 and 1993 lane miles grew by 32 percent while driving grew by 77 percent. Between 1993 and 2003, lane miles grew by 18 percent, and driving grew by 46 percent.

That’s hardly a “perfect one-to-one relationship.”