Topic: Energy and Environment

California Drought: The Rest of the Story

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.”

When the national media covers a weather story these days, it almost certainly will find some angle in which to insert/assert an element of human-caused climate change, and that element will always be characterized such as to have made the situation worse. It would take a lot of thinking on our part to try to recollect a major weather-related story in which the global warming was suggested to have ameliorated the impact—this despite a scientific literature that is complex and nebulous as to the direction of most impacts, and even less certain regarding the current detectability of such impacts.

Take for example the coverage of the current drought in California. As the drought drags on with spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas at record low levels—a finding which has prompted California Gov. Brown to enact statewide water restrictions—the press is eager to finger our greenhouse gas-spewing modern economy as the prime culprit. The problem is most scientific research suggests that the lack of precipitation in California has its roots in natural variability (for example, this recent paper by Thomas Delworth and colleagues which finds a common cause to drought in the western U.S. and the hiatus in global warming).

Thus, for the time being at least, bedeviled by actual science, most in the press have resisted placing much of the blame on the lack of precipitation at the feet of anthropogenic global warming.

But, there are actually two components which contribute to drought: 1) lack of precipitation, and 2) high temperatures.

Stymied on the first, many in the media have turned to the second. 

White House Announces Initiative to Focus on Health Concerns of Global Warming: We’ve Already Done It For Them!

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.”

It seems like the Obama Administration is a bit behind the times when it comes to today’s announcement that it will start a new initiative to focus on the health effects of climate change.

There is no need for the White House to outlay federal resources for the time and effort that will be involved—we have already done it for them (and, undoubtedly, for a minuscule fraction of the price)!

Two and a half years ago, we released a publication titled “ADDENDUM: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” that basically was a non-government-influenced look at how climate change would likely impact the United States in the future, based a lot on current trends in climate and society. We titled it an “ADDENDUM” because the U.S. Global Change Research Program, back in 2009, released a similarly titled report that was so incomplete that, well, it needed an addendum. We knew the government wasn’t going to supply one, so we produced one ourselves.

In our report (available here), we included a chapter on human health. Here are the key messages from that chapter:

  • The health effects of climate change on the United States are negligible today, and likely to remain so in the future, unless the United States goes into precipitous economic and technological decline.
  • Death certificate data indicate that 46 percent of all deaths from extreme weather events in the United States from 1993-2006 were from excessive cold, 28 percent were from excessive heat, 10 percent were from hurricanes, 7 percent were from floods, and 4 percent were from tornadoes.
  • Over the long term, deaths from extreme weather events have declined in the United States.
  • Deaths in the United States peak in the colder months and are at a minimum in the warmer months.
  • In U.S. cities, heat-related mortality declines as heat waves become stronger and/or more frequent.
  • Census data indicate that the migration of Americans from the cold northern areas to the warmer southwest saves about 4,600 lives per year and is responsible for three to seven per cent of the gains in life expectancy from 1970-2000.
  • While the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that “Some diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects are likely to increase,” incidence of these diseases have been reduced by orders of magnitude in the United States over the past century, and show no sign of resurgence.

We effectively show that if you want to focus on the health of Americans, there is no need to bring climate change into the equation—especially if you are hoping to find negative impacts (which appears to be the goal of the Administration).

Scads of new science–on everything from heat-related mortality, to asthma, to extreme weather–continues to support that general conclusion.

Of note is that accompanying today’s White House announcement is an announcement from the USGCRP that it has produced its own reportThe Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.”

Based on loads of past experience with the USGCRP, we can only imagine the worst.

Public comments on this draft of the USGCRP report are due on June 8, 2015. It’s on our calendar.

You Ought to Have a Look: Parisian Promises

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.

In Paris this December, the U.N. will hold its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 Rio Treaty (officially known as the UN framework Convention on Climate Change). Like the 20 previous COPs, the goal will be to entice (browbeat) as many countries as possible to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” [“Dangerous anthropogenic interference” has been defined to mean a global average temperature rise of more than 2.0°C above the preindustrial global average temperature. We are highly doubtful that a 2.0°C rise (of which we are more than a third of the way there) will actually prove “dangerous” especially when adaptations are factored in, but we digress.]

And like the 20 COPs that have come before, COP 21 will fail—largely because greenhouse gas emissions result primarily from burning fossil fuels to produce the energy which powers the modern economy.  Those with a modern economy want to keep it rolling along, and those without, desperately strive for one. Neither group is willing to budge much from these wishes. Consequently global emissions continue to rise.

Even the U.N. now is beginning to realize that meeting a 2.0°C warming target is virtually impossible—this despite rather absurd new calls for the target to be lowered to 1.5°C.

Nevertheless, the U.N. continues to go through the motions (after all, COPs are big business).

At last year’s COP 20, held in Lima, Peru, the best that everyone could agree on was assigning each country some homework along the lines of this: Describe what types of greenhouse gas emissions reductions (with targets and timetables) that you feel you may undertake; justify your answer. The assignment was due on March 31. Most countries are tardy.

Under U.N. terminology, the homework must include a declaration of each country’s “Intended Nationally-Derived Contributions (INDCs)” –that is, what each “intends” to do to reduce their carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions.

A look through some of the work that has been handed in on time reveals a strange mélange on “intentions.”

Housing and Wealth Inequality

American Nightmare is in some ways the most profound of the three books I have written for Cato. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue that of course has been made popular and controversial by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that, contrary to Piketty, the returns on most kinds of wealth and capital have not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore haven’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

You Ought to Have a Look: Climate Sensitivity and Environmental Worries Are Trending Downward

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.

More evidence this week that high-end forecasts of coming climate change are unsupportable and Americans’ worry about environmental threats, including global warming, is declining. Maybe the general public isn’t as out of touch with the science as has been advertised?

First up is a new paper by Bjorn Stevens from Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Meteorology that finds the magnitude of the cooling effect from anthropogenic aerosol emissions during the late 19th and 20th century was less than currently believed, which eliminates the support for the high-end negative estimates (such as those included in the latest assessment of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC). Or, as Stevens puts it “that aerosol radiative forcing is less negative and more certain than is commonly believed.”

This is important, because climate models rely on the cooling effects from aerosol emissions to offset a large part of the warming effect from greenhouse gas emissions. If you think climate models produce too much warming now, you ought to see how hot they become when they don’t include aerosol emissions. The IPCC sums up the role of aerosols this way:

Despite the large uncertainty range, there is a high confidence that aerosols have offset a substantial portion of [greenhouse gas] global mean forcing.

The new Stevens’ result—that the magnitude of the aerosol forcing is less—means the amount of greenhouse gas-induced warming must also be less; which means that going forward we should expect less warming from future greenhouse gas emissions than climate models are projecting.

Researcher Nic Lewis, who has done a lot of good recent work on climate sensitivity, was quick to realize the implications of the Stevens’ results. In a blog post over at Climate Audit, Lewis takes us through his calculations as to what the new aerosols cooling estimates mean for observational determinations of the earth’s climate sensitivity.

What he finds is simply astounding.

Spring Regulation Issue: Oil, Obamacare and Tech Innovation

This week, Cato released the Spring issue of Regulation.

The cover article, by economist Pierre Lemieux, argues that the recent oil price decline is at least partly the result of increased supply from the extraction of shale oil.  The increased supply allows the economy to produce more goods. This benefits some people, if not all of them.  Thus, contrary to some commentary in the press, cheaper oil prices cannot harm the economy as a whole.

A related article examines the dramatic increase in crude oil transported by trains and whether additional safety regulation of tank car design should be enacted.  Economist Feler Bose argues that companies have an incentive to reduce accidents to reduce insurance rates.  Thus less-obvious ways to prevent accidents, like better track maintenance, may be more cost-effective and undertaken voluntarily to reduce insurance costs.

The issue has three articles on health policy.  Cal State Northridge professor Shirley Svorny describes how state medical licensure boards do very little to discipline doctors who cause medical errors.  Instead, medical quality is created by the private decisions of individual hospitals to grant privileges to doctors to treat patients and the decisions of specialty boards, such as those that govern cardiology, to certify members as qualified.  A second article concludes that the regulation of electronic cigarettes is likely, even though the evidence for adverse health effects is thin, because a powerful coalition of existing cigarette companies and anti-smoking activists would benefit. A third article examines questionable legal maneuvering by states to implement aspects of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Finally, two articles describe the regulation of emerging technologies. The first, by Oxford’s Pythagoras Petratos, examines nanotechnology and argues that both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are ill-suited to regulate this complex technology. This bureaucratic burden could slow nanotech innovation in the United States. The second article, by Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution, describes the regulation of so-called “biosimilar” drugs.  Biosimilars are “generic” versions of patented biologic drugs, which are produced by living cells through genetic engineering rather than the chemical reactions used to produce traditional patented and generic prescription drugs.  He concludes that clinical trials will be necessary to prove biosimilarity and thus “biosimilar” drugs will not be cheap like traditional generic drugs.

Score a Victory for Cruz over Brown in Most Recent Climate Change Scuffle

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.”

On Sunday, in anticipation of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) announcement that he intends to run for president, California governor Jerry Brown (D), declared to NBC’s Meet the Press Cruz was “absolutely unfit to be running for office.” Why? Because of Cruz’s stance on climate change—some of which Cruz laid out on late night TV last week.

But comparing Cruz’s comments on Late Night with Seth Meyers and Brown’s remarks on Meet the Press, it is pretty clear that it is Gov. Brown who needs to spend more time familiarizing himself with the scientific literature on climate change and especially its associations with extreme weather events.

Apparently Gov. Brown is convinced that climate change, or rather the apparently scarier-sounding “climate disruption” Brown prefers, is behind the ongoing drought in California, not to mention the East Coast’s cold and snowy winter.

Cruz, on the other hand, told a more restrained story—that data doesn’t support many alarmist claims and that satellites show no warming during the past 17 years while climate models expected warming—one which comports better with the science that he portrayed.

While there is certainly more to the story than Cruz went into in his brief appearance with Seth Meyers, he is right, that according to satellite observations of the earth’s lower atmosphere as compiled by researchers at Remote Sensing Systems, there has been no overall temperature increase during the past 17 years.