Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: Human Progress Linked to Better Environment

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.


A scattering of stories this week addressed the well-known, but perhaps not widely-recognized, fact that with human progress comes a more protected environment.

First up is a piece called “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment” posted at the Breakthrough Journal by Jesse Ausubel. This article makes a strong companion to the Ecomodernist Manifesto, that we commented on a few weeks ago.

The main premise is that human technology, as it develops and matures, actually decreases our negative impact on the environment.  This is something that we have been fond of saying—the richer and more developed a country becomes, the more it protects its environment. Instead of measures to restrict human progress (such as artificially limiting energy choice) we should be supporting efforts to further it.

Ausubel’s essay is packed with interesting nuggets of information—a comparison of amount of corn fed to people vs. that fed to cars, mpg of farm animals, peak demand of materials, etc.—some of which may be new to even ardent followers of human progress. Here is the article’s teaser:

Despite predictions of runaway ecological destruction, beginning in the 1970s, Americans began to consume less and tread more lightly on the planet. Over the past several decades, through technological innovation, Americans now grow more food on less acres, eat more sources of meat that are less land-intrusive, and used water more efficiently so that water use is lower than in 1970. The result: lands that were once used for farms and logging operations are now returning as forests and grasslands, along with wildlife, such as the return of humpback whales off the shores of New York City. As Jesse Ausubel elucidates in a new essay for Breakthrough Journal, as humans depend less on nature for the well-being, the more nature they have returned.

Ausubel’s full article is really well-worth a detailed look.

The Lax Kw’alaams and Why Property Rights Matter

The New York Times recently reported that the Lax Kw’alaams Band, an indigenous tribe in a remote part of British Columbia, has rejected a $1 billion offer for their consent to the construction of a natural gas processing facility that would service a nearby liquefied natural gas terminal. The group, which has about 3,600 members, would have received the equivalent of about $277,000 per person to allow the plant. The leader of the group explained their decision by saying, “Hopefully, the public will recognize that unanimous consensus in communities (and where unanimity is the exception) against a project where those communities are offered in excess of a billion dollars, sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue: this is environmental and cultural.”

In normal market transactions, resources flow to those who value them the most regardless of who owns them initially. In this case, that would imply the decision to build the facility (whether now or in the future) does not depend on whether the Lax Kw’alaams Band or the gas company owns the land. Ownership simply determines who has to pay whom in order to develop the land or leave it undeveloped. If the gas company owned the land, they would not have to pay the tribe in order to develop the plant, but the tribe could purchase the land (or, at least, an anti-development easement) from the gas company in order to keep it undeveloped. If the tribe owns the land, the gas company would have to pay or the land would stay undeveloped. In both cases, development would occur if the gas company values the land more than the tribe.

That’s the general theory, but in this particular case the facts suggest that initial property rights do matter. In the case of the Lax Kw’alaams, the group places great value on keeping the land from being despoiled by a natural gas plant. A decade or so ago, the Canadian Supreme Court determined that tribes like the Lax Kw’alaams must be consulted and accommodated if projects cross their land. The tribe clearly has strong preferences for a pristine environment, and has made the choice to forgo a windfall to maintain it.

But what would have happened if the property rights belonged to someone else? If the party given the right had weaker environmental preferences, the terminal would likely be built; it’s doubtful the Lax Kw’alaams would win (or perhaps even enter) a bidding war with the gas company over control of the land. Because participants in environmental policy disputes “know” that property rights matter in this way, they fight politically over who has the current property rights rather than allow rights to exist and be traded.

This Is Why Amtrak Should Get More of Your Money?

An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling me that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add to those calls for more funding.

But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on that train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 or more seats. The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or about two-and-one-half buses worth.

Amtrak fares for its seven daily trains each way between Chicago and Milwaukee start at $24. According to Busbud, Greyhound and Megabus together offer 13 trips per day each way between Chicago and Milwaukee, and their fares are often as low as $7 and never higher than $10.

While intercity bus operators pay a discounted fuel tax, the buses otherwise operate without subsidy. Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains produced $16.8 million in ticket revenues in 2014 against $24.5 million in operating costs, for a net loss of $5.7 million (not counting amortized capital costs). The trains carried slightly less than 800,000 riders, for an average subsidy of slightly more than $7 per trip.

In other words, the subsidy alone would have been enough to give every single Hiawatha rider a free trip on Greyhound or Megabus (at the low cost of $7 per trip).

Too Much Money Going to the Wrong Places

It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.

In 2008, President George Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to think that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?

This accident is just one more example of a political fact of life: Politicians are more likely to put dollars into new construction, such as high-speed rail, than to spend them on safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure. As John Nolte says on Breitbart, “Amtrak is not underfunded; it is criminally mismanaged.”

Transportation journalist Don Phillips presents one example of Amtrak mismanagement in the June issue of Trains magazine: instead of promoting a culture of safety, Amtrak has a culture of don’t care. Phillips points to a February report from Amtrak’s Inspector General that found that Amtrak has the least-safe working environment of any major railroad. Amtrak employees are more than three times as likely to be injured or killed on the job as employees of BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Union Pacific.

This poor record, says the report, is a direct result of a lack of accountability “at all levels.” Employee injuries in 2013 were only one-twelfth as likely to result in disciplinary action as in 2009, resulting in employees who believe today that they “can ignore rules and safe practices with impunity.” Safety is of so little importance in the organization that three out of four of the employees interviewed by the inspector general believed that Amtrak’s safety record was better, not worse, than other railroads.

One reason why Amtrak has a poor safety culture may be that Congress has legally limited Amtrak’s liability for any single crash to $200 million. Imagine the outrage if Congress limited the liability of oil companies, pipeline companies, Monsanto, or other private corporations. Yet the progressives who wrote Amtrak legislation considered such a liability limit perfectly acceptable.

If Congress were to respond to this crash by increasing federal infrastructure spending, it is all too likely that much if not most of that money would go for useless new projects such as new high-speed rail lines, light rail, and bridges to nowhere. We don’t need intercity trains that cost several times as much but go less than half as fast as flying; we don’t need urban trains that cost 50 times as much but can’t carry as many people per hour as buses; we don’t need new bridges if bridge users themselves aren’t willing to pay for them.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, infrastructure that is funded out of user fees tends to be better maintained than infrastructure that is funded out of tax dollars. User fees also give transportation managers signals for where new infrastructure is really needed; if people won’t pay for it out of user fees, it probably isn’t necessary.

Before 1970, America’s transportation system was almost entirely funded out of user fees and it was the best in the world. Since then, funding decisions have increasingly been made by politicians who are more interested in getting their pictures taken cutting ribbons than in making sure our transportation systems run safely and smoothly.

This country doesn’t need more infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain. Instead, it needs a more reliable system of transport funding, and that means one based on user fees and not tax subsidies or federal deficit spending.

Climate Change Concerns Don’t Belong in Dietary Guidelines

On Friday, May 8, the public comment period closed for the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In a nutshell, the new dietary guidelines are to eat a diet richer in plant-based foods and leaner in animal-based products. One of the considerations used by the USDA/HHA in their Scientific Report used to rationalize these new dietary guidelines was that such diets are

“associated with more favorable environmental outcomes (lower greenhouse gas emissions and more favorable land, water, and energy use) than are current U.S. dietary patterns.” [emphasis added]

Throughout the Scientific Report whenever greenhouse gases are mentioned, a negative connotation is attached and food choices are praised if they lead to reduced emissions.

This is misleading on two fronts. First, the dominant greenhouse gas emitted by human activities is carbon dioxide which is a plant fertilizer whose increasing atmospheric concentrations have led to more productive plants, increasing total crop yields by some 10-15 percent to date. The USDA/HHS is at odds with itself in casting a positive light on actions that are geared towards lessening a beneficial outcome for plants, while at the same time espousing a more plant-based diet.

And second, the impact that food choices have on greenhouse gas emissions is vanishingly small—especially when cast in terms of climate change. And yet it is in this context that the discussion of GHGs is included in the Scientific Report. The USDA/HHS elevates the import of GHG emissions as a consideration in dietary choice far and above the level of its actual impact.

In our Comment to the USDA/HHS, we attempted to set them straight on these issues.

Our full Comment is available here, but for those looking for a synopsis, here is the abstract:

There are really only two reasons to discuss greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) in the context of dietary guidelines in the U.S., and yet the USDA and HHS did neither in their Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).

The first reason would be to discuss how the rising atmospheric concentration of CO2—a result primarily of the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy—is a growing benefit to plant life. This is an appropriate discussion in a dietary context as atmospheric CO2 is a fertilizer that promotes healthier, more productive plants, including crops used directly as food for humans or indirectly as animal feed. It has been estimated that from the atmospheric CO2 enrichment to date, total crop production as increased by 10-15 percent. This is a positive and beneficial outcome and one that most certainly should be included in any discussion of the role of greenhouse gases emissions in diet and nutrition—but is inexplicably lacking from such discussion in the DGAC report.

The second reason to discuss greenhouse gas emissions in a diet and nutrition report would be to dispel the notion that through your choice of food you can “do something” about climate change.  In this context, it would be appropriate to provide a quantitative example of how the dietary changes recommended by the DGAC would potentially impact projections of the future course of the climate. Again, the DGAC failed to do this.  We help fill this oversight with straightforward calculation of averted global warming that assumes all Americans cut meat out of their diet and become vegetarians—an action that, according to the studies cited by the DGAC, would have the maximum possible impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thus mitigating future climate change.  Even assuming such an unlikely occurrence, the amount of global warming that would be averted works out to 0.01°C (one hundredth of a degree) by the end of the 21st century.  Such an inconsequential outcome has no tangible implications.  This should be expressed by the DGAC and mention of making dietary changes in the name of climate change must be summarily deleted.

We recommend that if the DGAC insists on including a discussion of greenhouse gas emissions (and thus climate change) in it 2015 Dietary Guidelines, that the current discussion be supplemented, or preferably replaced, with a more accurate and applicable one—one that indicates that carbon dioxide has widespread and near-universal positive benefits on the supply of food we eat, and that attempting to limit future climate change through dietary choice is misguided and unproductive.  These changes must be made prior to the issuance of the final guidelines. 

We can only guess on what sort of impact our Comment will have, but we can at least say we tried.

You Ought to Have a Look: Competing Theories for Source of Bias in Scientific Research

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.


Two papers were announced this week that sought to examine the sources of bias in the scientific literature. They could not be more starkly opposed.

First off is a doozy of a new paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes and colleagues that complains that skeptical viewpoints are disproportionately influencing the science of climate change. Recall that Lewandowsky and Oreskes are quixotic climate change denialslayers—conspiracy theorists of somewhat ill-repute.

According to a story in Science Daily (the Lewandowsky et al. paper was not available at the time of this writing) Lewandowsky and Oreskes argue that:

Climate change denial in public discourse may encourage climate scientists to over-emphasize scientific uncertainty and is also affecting how they themselves speak – and perhaps even think – about their own research.

Lewandowsky and Oreskes fret:

The idea that ‘global warming has stopped’ has been promoted in contrarian blogs and media articles for many years, and ultimately the idea of a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’ has become ensconced in the scientific literature, including in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Science Daily article continues:

Recent warming has been slower than the long term trend, but this fluctuation differs little from past fluctuations in warming rate, including past periods of more rapid than average warming. Crucially, on previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid, the scientific community did not give short-term climate variability the attention it has now received, when decadal warming was slower. During earlier rapid warming there was no additional research effort directed at explaining ‘catastrophic’ warming. By contrast, the recent modest decrease in the rate of warming has elicited numerous articles and special issues of leading journals.

This asymmetry in response to fluctuations in the decadal warming trend likely reflects what the study’s authors call the ‘seepage’ of contrarian claims into scientific work.

Understanding the World’s Energy Needs

A new documentary by Cato Senior Fellow Johan Norberg, shown recently on PBS stations nationwide, is a non-political look at the reality of the world’s energy problems. “Energy questions are complicated, and there are always trade-offs,” Norberg notes.    While bringing electricity to many remote villages in India and the Sahara causes an increase in carbon emissions, it also allows families to have refrigeration for their food, electricity to light their homes and the time to develop their lives beyond working just to sustain themselves every day.   “Don’t they deserve the same kinds of life changing benefits that power has brought the west?” Norberg asks.

This program explains how ALL sources of energy have their attributes and drawbacks.   It will take large amounts of low-cost power to fuel economic development in the third world, while also keeping up with growth in the developed world.  There is no “perfect” source to meet these needs:  Coal and oil make up a third of the current world energy supply, so while the infrastructure is in place and works fairly inexpensively, these fossil fuels are consistently tagged as “dirty.”  Natural gas is abundant and clean, and cheap and easy to use, but the means of getting to it (fracking) is controversial.  Nuclear energy power is one of the only large-scale alternatives to fossil fuels, but nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have made the public wary.  Hydro power is clean and fairly cheap, but dams have been targeted by environmentalist for harming fish populations. And, Norberg notes, most good sources of hydropower are already being utilized to their full capacity, leaving little chance to expand this resource.  Solar power is clean and abundant, but it doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine, and the infrastructure to capture it is expensive.  Wind supplies only one percent of energy globally because while it’s clean, it’s intermittent and doesn’t always come at the right velocity.

Norberg doesn’t make judgements, for the most part…except to say that top-down, government imposed “solutions” to the world’s energy problems have not worked yet, and are highly unlikely to suddenly start working. 

This is an excellent program for people who really want to understand the basics of world energy needs.  Watch it at Cato’s site here, and read more about the Free to Choose network here.