Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: Earth Day Round-Up

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  ere we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Since the Earth Day coverage this year seemed rather meager—a sign, perhaps, that everyone is growing tired of the pessimistic drone that defines the current environmental movement—it is possible that you may have overlooked a few stories out there that shine a more positive light on the human condition and the way forward.

You ought to take a few minutes and take Alex Epstein’s short course from Prager University. It is presented in the form of a 5-minute video titled “Why You Should Love Fossil Fuel.” Here’s course description:

Every year on Earth Day we learn how bad humanity’s economic development is for the health of the planet. But maybe this is the wrong message. Maybe we should instead reflect on how human progress, even use of fossil fuels, has made our environment cleaner and healthier. Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress explains.

We hope you like this, because you’ll undoubtedly be hearing much more from Alex in the future as we are happy that he has joined us at the Center for Study of Science as one of Cato’s newest adjunct scholars.

Senator Whitehouse Declaims

On the floor of the Senate last night, on the eve of Earth Day, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse went after the Cato Institute—among others, including the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal—for our having accused the senator and his friends in the environmental movement of “having a widespread faith in the government’s ability to solve problems.” We plead guilty. Not only do we believe those folks are of that faith—the evidence is plain, even if the evidence supporting the faith is lacking—but we believe also that it is a self-serving faith, because it drives them to find ever more problems to solve, problems most of us never knew we had.

But it’s a letter that then-Cato President John Allison recently sent to Sen. Whitehouse and others in Congress that seems most to exercise the good senator. As the C-SPAN transcript puts it:

cato also sent us a letter in response to our inquiry, telling us we cannot use the awesome power of the federal government to cow cato and others. cow? according to the “wall street journal” editorial page, which, sadly, has become a front for the fossil fuel industry, we were – quote – “trying to silence the other side.” although i have to confess, mr. president, it is not clear how the other side would be silenced by simply having to reveal whose payroll they’re on, which is all we asked. let’s be clear our letter didn’t suggest that industry scientists should be silenced, just that the public should know if those scientists are being paid by the very industries with a big economic …

Ah. There we have it. We’re in the pockets of Big Oil. Never mind that the facts show otherwise, that Cato’s donor base is wide and composed almost entirely of individuals animated by the idea of a free society under limited government.

But that’s not the main point, not really. Rather, it’s the assumption of Sen. Whitehouse and his friends that they, whose outlook depends so much on government funding, fairly dripping with the taxpayers’ blood, have the cleanest of hands and the purest of motives. Yet why should we believe that the avaricious individuals these folks call on government to check, suddenly become virtuous when they have the monopoly power of government in their grasp, to say nothing of the public till at their disposal? If ever scrutiny were warranted, I should think it on that side of the ledger.

A Clear Case of Selective Data Usage from the U.S National Climate Assessment

Global Science Report is a weekly 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 the process of writing our upcoming book, The Lukewarmer’s Manifesto, we wandered into the funhouse of the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA).

Recall that the NCA is a product of the federal government’s U.S. Global Change Research Program, whose motto isThirteen Agencies, One Mission: Empower the Nation with Global Change Science.”

In their case, “empower” is synonymous with “indoctrinate.”

Here is a good example:

The section on hurricanes in Chapter 2 (“Our Changing Climate”) caught our eye. The NCA has a sidebar on the history of the hurricane “power dissipation index” (PDI), a well-known cubic function of the wind velocity. The NCAs graphs  begin in 1970 and end in 2009 (a full four years before the NCA was released). They include a trend line through the PDI data beginning in 1980 that’s going up for whatever reason and that is apparently convenient for drawing an association with human-caused global warming. But had the NCA authors consulted a longer record, say, from 1920 to 2013 (the last year data was available for the 2014 NCA) they could have readily ruled out any role of global warming.


Figure 1. From page 42 of the hardcopy of the 2014 National Assessment Report form the USGCRP (available here).

Earth Day’s Anti-Humanism in One Graph and Two Tables

Here, courtesy of Cato’s, is the quintessence of Earth Day’s anti-humanism. Botswana and Burundi started off as equally poor. In 1962, their GNI per capita was a paltry $70 per person.

By 2012, Botswana’s income per person rose by some 10,829 percent to $7,650. Burundi’s rose by mere 243 percent to $240. Botswana is an African success story, while Burundi is a failure–that is, if you judge the two countries by their income and, consequently, their standards of living.

If, however, you judge the two countries by their CO2 emissions per person, Burundi is the clear winner. Between 1972 and 2010 (the maximum number of years for which data on CO2 emissions per capita is available for both countries), CO2 emissions per person in Burundi increased only 62 percent. In Botswana it skyrocketed by 8,847 percent.

As my colleague Pat Michaels noted earlier, growing wealth necessitates higher carbon emissions in the short or medium term, but greater prosperity enables people to become both greener and more energy efficient in the long term. Denying cheap energy to the developing world will trap hundreds of millions of people in poverty and lead to more humanitarian disasters.


It Takes Green to Make the Planet Greener

On Earth Day, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that planetary stewardship and affluence go hand-in-hand around the world. At the national level, the world’s poorest nations are environmental disasters, while the most affluent—the United States and Australia come to mind—are among the cleanest and most efficient.

We weren’t always this way. In the 1950s, the air in Pittsburgh resembled that of modern Beijing, where the rush for economic development demanded by the populace trumps air quality—for the time being. When a certain level of affluence is reached, as is beginning to occur in Beijing, people will be willing to pay to clean things up. 

In the United States, the scrubbing of Pittsburgh was just the beginning, followed by tighter regulation of water quality, increasing affluence and (“The Population Bomb” notwithstanding) a major drop in resident fecundity. Free Europe, a bit behind us economically, followed about ten years later. When they have the green, people get green.

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.

Why Can’t We Have Great Trains? Because We Don’t Want Them

Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”

Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.