Topic: Energy and Environment

Governments Subsidize Disaster—and the Wealthy

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at hurricane threats to cities along the seacoasts. It’s an odd article because the author, Greg Ip, does not discuss the central role that governments play in encouraging people to live in hurricane-prone areas.

Ip does mention the “levee effect” of misguided development taking place in low-lying areas because people feel safer behind large sea walls. In the United States, federal spending by the Army Corps of Engineers has encouraged people to live in unsafe coastal areas, as I discuss in this essay. After Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965, for example, the Corps extended levees to additional low-lying areas around the city, thus encouraging further development and exacerbating damage in subsequent storms.

Ip does not discuss federal and state flood and wind insurance subsidies, which also encourage people to live in harm’s way. I discuss federal flood insurance subsidies in this essay, and a new essay in Cato’s Regulation examines state wind insurance subsidies.

I note,

rather than reducing the nation’s flooding problems, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has likely made flood damage worse by encouraging more development in hazardous areas. Since 1970, the estimated number of Americans living in coastal areas designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas by FEMA has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Subsidized flood insurance has backfired by helping to draw more people and development into flood zones.

And the Regulation article notes, “Insurance, if priced accurately, provides an important service of signaling to people the risk cost of living near water. [But] subsidized insurance rates destroy the information value of full-risk premiums, thus suppressing the true cost of living in severe weather zones and creating an excessive incentive to populate attractive but dangerous locations.” The federal government subsidizes flood insurance, and the article notes that Florida subsidizes wind insurance. Partly as a result of these subsidies, the coastal population of Florida has soared in recent decades.

An interesting fact about flood and wind insurance subsidies is that they are welfare for the well-to-do. Politicians often talk about helping the poor, but many of their policies disproportionally benefit the well-off.

A 2010 study, for example, looked at flood insurance claims data over a 10-year period and concluded, “the benefits of the NFIP appear to accrue largely to wealthy households concentrated in a few highly-exposed states.”

Similarly, the Regulation article examines Florida wind insurance data and finds that the benefits “accrue disproportionately to affluent households and the magnitude of this regressive redistribution is substantial.”

Urbanization Is Good for the Environment

Urbanization is on the rise around the world. By 2050, some 70 percent of humanity will live in the cities and that is good news for the environment.

Many of the environmental advantages are derived from living spaces being condensed. For example, electricity use per person in cities is lower than electricity use per person in the suburbs and rural areas. Condensed living space that creates reduction in energy use also allows for more of the natural environment to be preserved. In a suburban or rural environment, private properties are spread out, because land values are relatively low. So, more of the natural environment is destroyed. In cities, property values are higher and space is used more efficiently. That means that more people live in the same square mile of land than in the rural areas.

Another environmental advantage of cities compared to rural areas is a decrease in carbon emissions per person. In a rural or suburban area people normally use their own vehicles to drive to work or anywhere else. Due to congestion, the use of personal cars in the city is much less attractive. More people use public transportation instead and that means that less carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere.

Find out more by visiting HumanProgress.org.

USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

Want Better Tomatoes? Add Carbon Dioxide and a Pinch of Salt!

Who isn’t nuts about fresh tomatoes plucked from a garden at the peak of ripeness? And who doesn’t bask in the adulation of those to whom we give them?

According to work recently published by Maria Sanchez-González et al. (2015), the more years you garden, the more tasty your tomatoes are likely to get, as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. And, if you add a pinch of salt to the soil, they’ll taste even better.

Here’s the story:

The authors note “the South-Eastern region of Spain is an important area for both production and exportation of very high quality tomatoes for fresh consumption.” This is primarily due to favorable growing conditions such as a mild climate, good soils and saline waters that promote “exceptional fruit quality of some varieties,” including the Raf tomato hybrid. However, Sánchez-González et al. additionally note that, “despite the high value of Raf tomatoes in the Spanish national market, their productivity is relatively low and the consumer does not always get an acceptable quality, often because the fruit growth conditions, mainly thermal and osmotic, were not adequate.” Against this backdrop, the team of six researchers set out to determine if they could improve the production value of this high value commercial crop by manipulating the environmental conditions in which the tomatoes are grown. To accomplish this objective, they grew hybrid Raf tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv. Delizia) in controlled environment greenhouses at two salinity levels (low and high) under ambient (350 ppm) and elevated (800 ppm) CO2 concentrations. Then over the course of the growing season, and at harvest, they measured several parameters related to the growth and quality of the hybrid tomatoes. And what did their analysis of those measurements reveal?

Platitudes Won’t Solve Metro’s Problems

The Washington City Paper asked “thirteen riders, advocates, and experts” how to fix the Washington Metro Rail system. Former Metro general manager Dan Tangherlini and former DC DOT director Gabe Klein offered banalities about “putting the customer first.”

Smart-growth advocate Harriet Trepaning thinks Metro “needs a different kind of leader,” as if changing the person at the top is going to keep smoke out of the tunnels and rails from cracking. She admits that “I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to [keep the rails in a] state of good repair.” But her only solution is to have “a dedicated source of revenue,” i.e., increase local taxes for a system that already costs state and local taxpayers close to a billion dollars per year.

Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz and former APTA chair Rod Diridon also want to throw money at it. Others dodge the money question and suggest that Metro do all sorts of things that it can’t afford and doesn’t have any incentive to do anyway.

Only one writer–yours truly–dared to suggest that “rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C.” for the very reason Tregoning suggests: Metro planners and managers have deceived themselves and the public about how much it truly costs to keep it in a state of good repair. Moreover, in the long run–10 years–“shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit.”

In the short run, tnstead of building the Purple Line, completing the Silver Line, and rebuilding the other rail lines, Metro should “seriously consider replacing” some of its worn-out rail lines “with bus-rapid transit.” This way, it won’t be stuck paying for a bunch of white elephants when people discover that shared, self-driving cars are less expensive, more convenient, and more reliable than trains. Unfortunately, these suggestions are likely to fall on deaf ears even though they are the most affordable ones offered.

Sorry, George Carlin, Plastic Is Biodegradable

Remember George Carlin’s hilarious skit about plastics? Here is the transcript:

“The planet … is a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, ‘Why are we here?’”

Not so fast! According to a new study published in Environmental Science and Technology by co-authors Professor Jun Yang and Yu Yang of Beihang University, and Stanford University engineer Wei-Min Wu, plastic is biodegradable.

“Plastic, long considered nonbiodegradable and one of the biggest contributors to global pollution, might have met its match: the small, brownish, squirmy mealworm. Researchers have learned that the mealworm can live on a diet of Styrofoam and other types of plastic. Inside the mealworm’s gut are microorganisms that are able to biodegrade polyethylene, a common form of plastic.”

Good news for the planet and for humanity.

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.