Topic: Energy and Environment

How Hot Does It Have to Be to Break a Record?

So who hasn’t seen one of the bajillion recent stories saying 2014 is going to set the instrumental record for the highest average global surface temperature? May we throw a teense of cold water on that hot news?

Annual temperatures are calculated by averaging up monthly readings, so the last data point that we have is October. The National Climatic Data Center, a part of the Department of Commerce, estimates that global average temperature was a record high of 58.46°F. The previous record was 58.45°.

The key word is “estimates.” When a scientist measures something—with a ruler, a scale, or a thermometer, for example—there’s always a measurement error owing to properties of the measuring device or even the skill of the scientist. When it comes to global temperature, scientists are averaging data from over a thousand thermometers scattered about the planet. Some are well-taken care of, and some are not. Some may have traces of urban warming in them. Nor is the number of readings exactly the same from year to year, or even from month to month.

The result is that there is a central estimate (58.46°) and a 95% confidence range as to where the “true” value lies. 

The most recent and most transparent error analysis of global temperatures has been done by a group called Berkeley Earth. For October, they find that the 95% confidence range is 0.10°F, or +/- 0.05°.

So, using the normal rules of science, is 58.46° then distinguishable from 58.45°? In a word, “NO.”

Iran’s Economy, With and Without a P5+1 Agreement

The haggling between Iran and the so-called P5+1—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany—is scheduled to come to a close on Monday, November 24th. The two parties each want different things. One thing that Iran would like is the removal of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States and its allies.

After decades of wrongheaded economic policies, Iran’s economy is in terrible shape. The authoritative Economic Freedom of the World: 2014 Annual Report puts Iran near the bottom of the barrel: 147th out of the 152 countries ranked. And the “World Misery Index Scores” rank Iran as the fourth most miserable economy in the world. In addition to economic mismanagement, economic sanctions and now-plunging oil prices are dragging Iran’s structurally distorted economy down. So, it’s no surprise that Iran would like one of the weights (read: sanctions) on its economy lifted.

Just how important would the removal of sanctions be? To answer that question, we use the Institute of International Finance’s detailed macroeconomic framework. The results of our analysis are shown in the table and charts below the jump.

Government Must Honor Its Contracts

Virtually every aspect of government’s work depends on contracts, whether they be with manufacturers of naval ships, civilian contractors, the companies that sell office supplies, or the landlords who lease the office space that houses the vast bureaucracy. These contracts, like any contract, only work when both parties have legal certainty; each must be able to depend on the promises made by the other.

That said, federal contractors do have to assume less certainty when dealing with the government because the Supreme Court has held that contracts can’t bind Congress from passing new legislation, or agencies from adopting new regulations. For example, while the government could enter into a contract promising to buy 100 widgets, Congress could pass a law making it illegal to manufacture or sell widgets—effectively voiding the agreement.

In the case of Century Exploration v. United States, an energy company leased the rights to an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the government for $23 million dollars up front, and $50,000 per year of the lease. Because oil drilling is a heavily regulated industry, Century only felt safe spending that kind of money because the lease contained a promise that Century wouldn’t be subject to any changes to the law that the government might make in the future, except for a specific class of regulations created under the authority of a single statute, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OSCLA). Without this promise, there would have been nothing to stop the government from taking Century Exploration’s money and then outlawing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or passing new regulations that would make it prohibitively expensive for Century to make use of the leased plot.

Unfortunately, the government did the very thing it promised not to. Under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), drilling companies have to calculate the volume of oil that would be released in a “worst case scenario” and prove that they have the financial resources to fund cleanup efforts. The method for calculating the amount of oil, and the cost of cleanup, are governed by regulations issued under the OPA. Two years into Century’s lease, however, a civil servant in the Interior Department sent the company an email demanding a recalculation of the “worst case scenario” using a more extreme methodology contained in an attached FAQ. Using that new method, the cost of cleaning up a hypothetical spill increased from $4.5 million to $1.8 billion. Because Century couldn’t prove that it would have $1.8 billion on-hand in the event of a disaster, it could no longer operate on the leased plot.

Century appealed to the courts, relying on a 2000 case called Mobil Oil in which the Supreme Court interpreted a nearly identical lease to mean that the government would breach its contract if it tried to apply new laws or regulations to the leaseholders (except, again, for regulations under OSCLA). Under Mobil Oil, unilaterally changing the method of calculating the volume and cost of a spill would be just such a breach; the regulatory changes were made under the OPA, not OSCLA, and the changes were made by email, not by formal regulation. The government insisted it had done no wrong and, remarkably, the U.S. Court for the Federal Circuit agreed.

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review this case and make clear that the government can’t violate contractual obligations with impunity. We make two key points:

Global Warming Not Influencing Annual Streamflow Trends in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic United States

Climate model simulations generally predict a future with more frequent and more severe floods in response to carbon dioxide–induced global warming. Confirming such predictions with real world observations, however, has remained an elusive task.

The latest study to illustrate this point comes from the four-member research team of Anna P. Barros, Yajuan Duan, Julien Brun, and Miguel A. Medina Jr. (2014). Writing in the Journal of Hydrologic Engineering, they analyzed streamflow records at various locations throughout the southeast and mid-Atlantic United States over the past century.

In prefacing their work, the researchers note several challenges that must be overcome in order to properly assess and attribute streamflow trends to anthropogenic climate change. One key challenge pertains to “the lack of long enough observational records [that are necessary] to capture the full range of time scales of variability in hydroclimatic regimes as well as extreme events.” This is particularly true in the present case in which only about 3,000 of the 10,012 U.S. Geological Survey streamflow gauges that exist within the authors’ study region have data stretching beyond 25 years of record. In addition, there is often the added challenge of “intermittency in the spatial and temporal configuration of the observing system of stream gauges,” as different stations both enter into, and exit out of, existence over the course of the study period and within the study region.  

Another factor that must be considered are changes in land-use and land cover (LULC) that can significantly influence streamflow. This is especially apparent in regions that have undergone significant urban development, which creates impermeable surfaces and highly interconnected discharge networks that have been shown to contribute to what the authors refer to as “large flood peaks.” Nevertheless, despite the aforementioned challenges, Barros et al. proceeded to conduct various statistical analyses on streamflow data from within their region of study at various time intervals over the past century.

Among their list of findings, the authors report “an overwhelming majority of stations shows no trend” in annual peak streamflow. Quantitatively, for the period 1950–2010, 81.7% of all stations examined in this 61-year period showed no trend at the 98% confidence level, 11.4% experienced a negative trend toward decreasing streamflow, and 6.8% showed a positive trend. (See Table 1, after the jump.)

Similar trends were noticed over the shorter 31-year period of 1980–2010, albeit there is one important change that occurred: there were lower percentages of stations experiencing negative or positive trends. Thus, rather than trending toward more extreme conditions, annual peak streamflow throughout the southeastern and mid-Atlantic United States over the past 30 years has become less extreme and more representative of average conditions. Moreover, those stations exhibiting positive trends tended to be found in urban areas (affected by LULC change), while those exhibiting negative trends tended to reside downstream of reservoirs (also a LULC factor). 

Keystone XL Pipeline: Enough Already!

Enough already!

Why is Congress, the President, or anyone else, still talking about the Keystone XL pipeline?

This project is so small in the grand scheme of anything it boggles the mind anyone outside of those directly involved in building and operating it gives it a second thought.

That a discussion of the pipeline is still consuming government resources some six years after it was originally proposed epitomizes the grand waste of time and money that characterizes the current Administration when it comes to anything it thinks causes dreaded global warming.

In this case, the fault lies squarely with President Obama.

He could have killed the pipeline years ago if he wanted. Or better yet, he could have approved the pipeline years ago and we would now be reaping the benefits of it in whatever form those benefits may have taken (choose your favorites from among the lists that likely includes jobs, tax revenues, lower gas prices, energy security, ally cooperation, etc.).

But he did neither.

You Ought to Have a Look: U.S./China Agreement, Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Natural Variability

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 of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

The big news of the week was the “historic” (in President Obama’s words) climate agreement between the U.S. and China—but about the only “historic” thing about it was the hype the White House and environmental groups heaped upon it.  In actuality, there was very little new news. The emissions reduction pathway that Obama announced for the U.S. was not much different (actually a teense lower) than the one announced after the (failed) U.N. Copenhagen meeting in 2009, and China agreed to…well, it’s unclear to what they agreed. NBC News reported “China intends to begin to halt the rise in CO2 emissions by around the year 2030.” Try that line (inserting your own specific vice) on your significant other and see how it goes over.

A good article in Reuters by John Kemp nicely eschews the hype and looks more closely at the facts.  He opening paragraph reads:

Nov 12 (Reuters) - The joint statement by the United States and China on climate change, issued on Wednesday, is more important for its political and diplomatic symbolism than any practical effect it might have in reducing emissions.

Both Kemp’s article and our article on the announcement are worth having a look at to see what the agreement really entails, and its chances at success (spoiler alert: they aren’t good).

Another big news item this week—or at least it should have been—was the release of Alex Epstein’s remarkable book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. We can’t say enough good things about this book—and we try often! You may have seen our glowing review on these pages yesterday along with some provocative text provided by Alex that cuts to the basic premise of the book—that the societal pros of fossil fuel use far, far exceed the cons, and therefore, it is, well, immoral, to try to restrict their usage and further development. This week Alex also hosted a Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) to allow internet savvy folks to interact with him directly as ask questions about his new book and his general way of thinking.  Alex entertained many interesting questions, for example:

Question:  What should be the role of government with respect to pollution? Should it ban pollution? Limit it? Tax it?

Answer: Good question, the subject of chapter 7 “Minimizing Risks and Side-Effects.” The basic principle is that we should think of it in terms of individual rights. At a certain threshold of emission someone is polluting your person or property and should be forbidden to do so. But certain threshold is important and contextual based on the state of technology. So in the 1800s people should have been allowed to use the coal plants they did but we shouldn’t today. If something is fundamentally necessary to human life it’s not pollution. There’s a lot of complexity in application but that’s the framework I use.

If you want to see all that transpired in this lively round of questioning is archived here.

And finally, our friend, the ever-informative Dr. Roy Spencer has a good post up over at his blog looking at what really are the biggest influences on the climate during the timescale of our lifetime. What does he find? Why natural variability, of course! He takes us through a couple of the most influential natural sources of variability and the possible drivers behind them. Here is some insight from Roy:

But statistics aren’t enough. Since we understand that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and should cause some warming, but we don’t understand natural climate cycles, scientists only look where the streetlight of government funding illuminates the problem: CO2.

What complicates policymaking even further is that what motivates public perceptions and thus decision makers the most are weather events. Hurricane Sandy. A snowy winter. We end up blaming these on the only thing we thing we think we understand — increasing CO2 should cause some change, so it must be responsible for all of the change we see…

To the extent that human-caused warming is occurring, I am increasingly convinced it is a largely benign — and possibly beneficial — needle lost in the haystack of Mother Nature’s natural climate gyrations.

You ought to have a look at the rest of Roy’s article, which can be found here.

The One Statistic Climate Catastrophists Don’t Want You to Know

Alex Epstein’s long-anticipated book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, published by Penguin, comes out today! I reviewed it as, “simply the best popular-market book about climate, environmental policy, and energy that I have read.  Laymen and experts alike will be boggled by Epstein’s clarity.”

Alex recently sent us a brief essay based upon material in the book. Alex Epstein is President and Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress—an organization sowing the seeds of energy enthusiasm to counter the tide of climate alarmism. We asked Alex to share a few thoughts with our readers here at Cato; find them below.

If you are in Washington, you might want to meet Alex. He will be giving a Hill Briefing in B-369 Rayburn at 9am on Friday, November 21.

If you ever get asked the vague but morally-charged question “Do you believe in climate change?” someone is trying to put something over on you.

Climate change is a constant of nature and everyone agrees that fossil fuels have some impact on our naturally variable, volatile, and often vicious climate.

The question is whether it will have a catastrophic impact—one so bad it justifies restricting the only practical way to get energy in the foreseeable future to the 3 billion people who have next to none of it: fossil fuels. (No country relies on the sun and wind for energy, but rich countries can afford to pay tens or hundreds of billions to install and accommodate allegedly virtuous wind turbines and solar panels on their grids.)

The real issue is climate catastrophe. I’m not a climate-change skeptic. I’m a climate catastrophe skeptic—and here’s one graph that shows why you should be, too.

No, it’s not showing temperatures have gone up half a degree in the 80 years we’ve used a lot of fossil fuels, which is barely more than they went up the prior 80 years. Nor does it show temperatures have flattened in the past eighteen years—while  the world’s leading climate catastrophists predicted dramatic, accelerating, runaway warming. Dr. James Hansen predicted that temperatures would increase between two-and-a-half and five degrees in 20 years!

Okay, I’ll show that graph, too—here it is: