Topic: Energy and Environment

Piling On: More New Research Shows No Link Between “Polar Vortex” and Global Warming

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.”


This is getting embarrassing.

Another scientific paper has just been published that again finds no association between Arctic sea ice loss and extreme cold and wintery conditions across the U.S.—White House Science Advisor John Holdren’s favorite mechanism for tying last winter’s persistent “polar vortex” over the eastern US to anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

We wonder just what it will take for the White House to publicly admit that it was grossly wrong. At the very least, it needs to disavow a widely-disseminated YouTube video featuring Holdren explaining the link between last winter’s polar vortex and human-caused climate change. There is no such link. Of course, this won’t happen, as Holdren was simply engaging in a publicity stunt relying on tenuous science to scare up support for President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The President is hell-bent on an endless string of executive actions aimed at manipulating the energy market and reducing our energy choices along the way.

Herding the Poor

TransForm, a smart-growth group in Oakland, has analyzed California’s household travel survey data and made what it thinks is an important discovery: poor people drive less than rich people. Moreover, poor people especially drive less than rich people if the poor live in a high-density development served by frequent transit (that is, a transit-oriented development or TOD).

According to TransForm’s report, poor households who live in TODs drive only half as much as poor households who live away from TODs, while rich households who live in TODs drive about two-thirds as much as rich households who don’t live near TODs (see figure 1 on page 7).

Based on this, TransForm proposes that California build lots of “affordable housing” in the TODs, then herd encourage poor people to live in the TODs. Apparently, TransForm’s thinking is that moving poor people into TODs will have the greatest effect on driving, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Putting “more affordable homes near transit … would be a powerful and durable GHG reduction strategy,” says TransForm (emphasis in the original).

Unfortunately, TransForm’s proposal is grounded on a seriously flawed analysis and morally questionable reasoning. First, TransForm has committed a simple arithmetic error when it concludes that the best greenhouse-gas reduction strategy would be to focus on low-income people. Though the data show rich people in TODs drive only a third less than rich people away from TODs, the rich drive so much more than the poor that the greatest impact would come from herding the rich into the TODs.

According to TransForm’s data, poor households in TODs drive about 21 fewer miles per day than poor households away from TODs. But rich people in TODs drive 29 miles less than rich people away from TODs. Thus, if you believe TransForm’s numbers, the best greenhouse-gas reduction strategy would be to coerce encourage rich people to live in TODs.

However, I don’t believe TransForm’s numbers because TransForm has made the classic error of ignoring self-selection. That is, people of all incomes who want to drive less are more likely to live in TOD-like places, while people who want to drive more are more likely to live away from TOD-like places (which are typically the most congested and least auto-friendly).

Note that all of TransForm’s numbers measure miles of driving and other factors per household, not per person. Households in TODs tend to have no children, while households with children are far more likely to live away from TODs. It’s a mistake to think that, because people who want to drive less tend to live in TODs, getting people who want to drive more to live in TODs will lead them to drive much less than they do. As economist David Brownstone concludes, after taking self-selection into account, the effect of urban form on driving is “too small to be useful” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Putting Out Fires by Throwing Money on Them

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

Treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money makes as much sense as attempting to suppress forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

As far as I know, no democracy has given any government agency a blank check to accomplish any goal–except the Forest Service for fighting fires. Even the Pentagon was given budgets for fighting World War II, the Cold War, and other wars. But in 1908, Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting, saying the agency could spend as much as it needed to suppress fires, and Congress would reimburse it later.

Climate Science: No Dissent Allowed

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.”

Award-winning climate modeler experiences “a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy”

An interesting juxtaposition of items appeared in our Inbox today.

First was an announcement that Dr. Lennart Bengtsson, former director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, had resigned from the Academic Advisory Council of the U.K.’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. What was surprising about this announcement was that it was just announced a week or so ago that Dr. Bengtsson—a prominent and leading climate modeler and research scientist—was joining the GWPF Council. At that time, there was some wondering aloud as to why Dr. Bengtsson would join an organization that was somewhat “skeptical” when it comes to the projections and impacts of climate change and the effectiveness and direction of climate change policy.

During one recent interview Dr. Bengtsson explained:

I think the climate community shall be more critical and spend more time to understand what they are doing instead of presenting endless and often superficial results and to do this with a critical mind. I do not believe that the IPCC machinery is what is best for science in the long term. We are still in a situation where our knowledge is insufficient and climate models are not good enough. What we need is more basic research freely organized and driven by leading scientists without time pressure to deliver and only deliver when they believe the result is good and solid enough. It is not for scientists to determine what society should do. In order for society to make sensible decisions in complex issues it is essential to have input from different areas and from different individuals. The whole concept behind IPCC is basically wrong.

A good summary of the buzz that surrounded Dr. Bengtsson and his association with GWPF is contained over at Judith Curry’s website, Climate Etc.

So why did Dr. Bengtsson suddenly resign? 

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

What the National Climate Assessment Doesn’t Tell You

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 Obama Administration this week is set to release the latest version of the National Climate Assessment—a report which is supposed to detail the potential impacts that climate change will have on the United States.  The report overly focuses on the supposed negative impacts from climate change while largely dismissing or ignoring the positives from climate change.

The bias in the National Climate Assessment (NCA) towards pessimism (which we have previously detailed here) has implications throughout the federal regulatory process because the NCA is cited (either directly or indirectly) as a primary source for the science of climate change for justifying federal regulation aimed towards mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Since the NCA gets it wrong, so does everyone else.

A good example of this can be found in how climate change is effecting  the human response during heat waves.  The NCA foresees an increasing frequency and magnitude of heat waves leading to growing numbers of heat-related deaths. The leading science suggests just the opposite.

Adaptation to Extreme Heat

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.”

Last fall, the press pounced on the results of a new study that found that global climate change was leading to an increasing frequency of heat waves and thus resulting in greater heat-related mortality. Finally a scientific study showing that global warming is killing us after all! See all you climate change optimists have been wrong all along, human-caused global warming is a threat to our health and welfare.

Not so fast.

Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the authors of that study—which examined heat-related mortality in Stockholm, Sweden—failed to include the impacts of adaptation in their analysis as well as the possibility that some of the temperature rise which has taken place in Stockholm is not from “global” climate change but rather local and regional processes not at all related to human greenhouse gas emissions.

What the researchers Daniel Oustin Åström and his colleagues left out of their original analysis, we (Chip Knappenberger, Pat Michaels, and Anthony Watts) factored in. And when we did so, we arrived at the distinct possibility that global warming actually led to a reduction in the rate of heat-related mortality in Stockholm.

Our findings have just been published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change as a Comment on the original Oustin Åström paper (which was published in the same journal).

We were immediately skeptical because the original Oustin Åström results run contrary to a solid body of scientific evidence (including our own) that shows that heat-related mortality and the population’s sensitivity to heat waves was been declining in major cities across America and Europe as people take adaptive measures to protect themselves from the rising heat.