Topic: Energy and Environment

A Harsh Climate for Trade

Although it has very much taken a back-seat to health care, and a press report [$] today say it could be bumped down yet another notch on the administration’s hierarchy of goals, climate change is shaping up to be a major battle if the others don’t prove to be prohibitively exhausting. So today I am weighing in on the debate by releasing my new paper on the dangers of using trade measures as a tool of climate policy.

The Democrats were keen to pass a climate change bill in advance of the December meeting in Copenhagen designed to agree on a successor regime to the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.  However, opposition from a number of quarters and the fear of health-care-town-halls-mark-II has cooled their heels. Senate leaders have pushed back the deadline for passing bills out of committees a number of times.

The reason why climate change legislation has become so controversial is that businesses and consumers are, quite understandably, fearful about any policies that threaten to increase their costs. I’ll leave it to others to blog about the effect of emissions-reductions policies on jobs and profits, but even the fear of losses has led to calls for special deals for “vulnerable industries”, in the form of free emission permits and/or protection from imports that are sourced from countries that purportedly take insufficient steps to limit emissions.

H.R. 2454, the so called Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House in June, contains both free permits and provisions for carbon tariffs. I’ve blogged before about the efforts of trade-skeptic senators to introduce the same kinds of protections in the senate bill. To that end, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, OH) is reportedly meeting with Sen. Barbara Boxer, Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next week about trade protections for manufacturing industries.  As my paper makes clear, I think these efforts are misguidedly ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

I’m looking forward to discussing these issues in more detail tomorrow at a Hill briefing in Washington DC. Registration for the event was closed very early because of overwhelming demand, but you can watch the event when the video becomes available on the Cato website.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

fireIt’s summer again, which means it is the time of year for the obligatory photos of wildfires in Southern California. This particular fire, known as the Station Fire, nearly doubled in size in the last 24 hours from 98 to 164 square miles. So far, it has burned at least 18 buildings and cost the lives of at least two firefighters.

The fire began in the Angeles National Forest, and Congress will no doubt respond by giving the Forest Service even more money to suppress such fires in the future. In fact, as I show in my Cato Policy Analysis, The Perfect Firestorm, the Forest Service has, in effect, a blank check to put out fires.

It freely uses that blank check. It has so far spent about $14 million fighting the Station Fire, which supposedly threatens 12,000 homes. But it has also spent $2.5 million on Oregon’s Canal Creek Fire, which is less than half a square mile in size and does not threaten any homes or other structures. Better safe than sorry — as long as you have a blank check.

Southern California forests are extremely fire prone — their natural fire regime is to completely burn over every 50 to 100 years. Building homes in such an area might seem foolish, so naturally there have been calls for “fire plain zoning,” similar to flood plain zoning, that would restrict such construction.

FlintridgeIn fact, properly designed homes and landscaping can easily withstand such fires. Most homes destroyed by wildfires are ignited either by burning embers landing on flammable roofs or by the radiant heat from trees or   grasses burning nearby.  Building homes with nonflammable roofs and eves, and landscaping with well-tended lawns and a minimum of flammable trees essentially makes homes fireproof.

Most civilian deaths from wildfire take place during evacuations, not from the fire itself. Homes that are designed to withstand wildfires are known as “shelter-in-place” homes because the residents will be safer in the homes than trying to evacuate.

In 2007, CBS News reported that a fire swept through two San Diego suburbs built to shelter-in-place standards, and “not one home was even touched by flames.” Perversely, the reporter concluded that people should not be allowed to build to those standards because it would just encourage them to live in fire-prone areas.

In reality, the lesson is that it would be a lot less expensive to promote shelter-in-place construction standards and retrofitting and then simply let the fires burn at their normal frequencies. The homes would be safe, the forests would be “natural,” and fewer firefighters would be at risk.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Simple: money. The Forest Service gets a blank check for putting out fires, but almost no money for helping people fireproof their properties. So it continues to spend billions on fire suppression, mainly to protect people’s homes, when a lower-cost strategy is readily available.

Photo credit: MB Trama and DisneyKrazie on Flickr.

Lighting for People, not Politics

Unfortunately, there are many good (and sad) examples of Uncle Sam’s insatiable desire to regulate the smallest aspects of our lives.  Legislators can’t even let us decide which light bulbs to buy.  Government believes that it knows best, and is banning the venerable incandescent bulb.

Lighting consultant Howard Brandston makes a plaintive plea for lighting that serves people rather than politics:

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will effectively phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2012-2014 in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs. Other countries around the world have passed similar legislation to ban most incandescents.

Will some energy be saved? Probably. The problem is this benefit will be more than offset by rampant dissatisfaction with lighting. We are not talking about giving up a small luxury for the greater good. We are talking about compromising light. Light is fundamental. And light is obviously for people, not buildings. The primary objective in the design of any space is to make it comfortable and habitable. This is most critical in homes, where this law will impact our lives the most. And yet while energy conservation, a worthy cause, has strong advocacy in public policy, good lighting has very little.

He hopes for a congressional reversal of the ill-considered prohibition.  If that doesn’t work, people do have one more option:  stock-piling bulbs for future use.  Of course, that probably would lead to the creation of a federal light bulb police, tasked with wiping out the black market in incandescent bulbs.  “Use a bulb, go to jail” may become the newest law enforcement slogan!

High-Speed Fail

In a four-part series on the New York Times Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser scrutinized high-speed rail and concluded that the benefits are overwhelmed by the costs. After making generous assumptions regarding the costs, user benefits, environmental benefits, and effects on urban development, Glaeser concludes that all the benefits of high-speed rail would still be less than half the costs.

As Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson observes, the Obama administration’s vision of high-speed rail is “a mirage. The costs of high-speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager.” Yet even Samuelson falls victim to the common assumption that high-speed rail “works in Europe and Asia” because population densities in those places are higher than in the United States.

The truth is that high-speed rail doesn’t work in Europe or Asia either. Japan and France have both spent about as much on high-speed rail as they have on their intercity freeway systems, yet the average residents of those countries travel by car 10 to 20 times as much as they travel by high-speed rail. They also fly domestically more than they take high-speed rail. While the highways and airlines pay for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, high-speed rail is heavily subsidized and serves only a tiny urban elite.

Obama uses the fact that France, Japan, and a few other countries are racing one another to have the fastest high-speed trains to argue that we need to join the race. That’s like saying we need to spend billions subsidizing buggy whip or horse collar manufacturers or some third-world country will beat us in those technologies. The fact is that high-speed trains will never be as fast as flying on long trips and never be as convenient as driving on short trips, and there is no medium-length trip in which high-speed rail can compete without heavy subsidies.

The rail advocates go ballistic whenever anyone questions their fantasies, mostly engaging in ad hominem attacks (“you must be paid by the oil companies!”) or accusing skeptics of lying about rail. The reality is that Glaeser (like me) “almost always prefer trains to driving.” If anything, he was too generous in many of his assumptions about high-speed rail.

For example, Glaeser built his case around a hypothetical high-speed line between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston, the nation’s fifth- and sixth-largest urban areas which together house close to 10 million people and are located about 240 miles apart, supposedly an ideal distance for high-speed trains. If the numbers don’t work for this market, how are they going to work for Eugene-Seattle, Tulsa-Oklahoma City, New Orleans-Mobile, St. Louis-Kansas City, or any of the other much smaller city pairs in the Obama high-speed rail plan?

The rail nuts don’t want to hear Glaeser’s (or Cato’s) numbers because they fantasize the Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” myth; that building rail will “create the demand for the rail lines.” That may have been true in nineteenth-century America, when no alternative forms of transportation could compete with rail. But it wasn’t true in twentieth-century France or Japan (where heavily subsidized high-speed rail carries only 4 to 6 percent of passenger travel), and it won’t be true in twenty-first-century America.

Building high-speed rail will be like standing in the chilly vestibule of an Amtrak train in mid-winter Chicago and burning million-dollar bills to keep warm. But that’s what happens when you base your transportation policies on a slogan from a Kevin Costner movie rather than on real data.

Why Future Net Negative Impacts of Global Warming Are Overestimated: Response to Conor Clarke, Part IV

This post responds to the last of Conor Clarke’s comments on my study, “What to Do About Global Warming,” published by Cato. This series started with the imaginatively titled, Response to Conor Clarke Part I, and continued with Cherry Picking Climate Catastrophes and  Do Industrialized Countries Have a Responsibility for the Well-Being of Developing Nations?

CONOR said:

I think Goklany is a bit picky and choosey with the evidence. … I also like the Goklany paper a lot. [THANK YOU!! I’ll take whatever I get.] But in this case it’s hard to resist. [Emphasis in original.]

To take one example (of several), Goklany’s hunger estimates rely heavily on those published by Global Environmental Change (GEC), which he uses to make the argument that “the world will be better off in 2085 with respect to hunger than it was in 1990 despite any increase in population.” But the GEC produced two estimates of hunger and climate change – one that assumes the benefits of CO2 fertilization and one that does not. Goklany picks the former estimate (I have no idea why), despite the fact the GEC says the effects of climate change “will fall somewhere between” the two. … [I}f you embrace anything other than the most Pollyanish CO2 fertilization estimate – the one that Goklany uses in his Cato paper – we will be living in a world in which climate change puts tens of millions of additional people at risk of starvation by 2085.

My RESPONSE:

First, let me elaborate on my selection of the set of studies that I used in my paper.  Essentially, the selected set of studies (published in Global Environmental Change) was the only one that had estimated global impacts using detailed process models in conjunction with the IPCC’s latest scenarios, and were peer reviewed.  Moreover, they come with a provenance that people who may be unhappy with my results cannot impugn. [This is important only because many people arguing about global warming seem to be more concerned about who did the study and whether the results bolster their predilections, than how the study was done.]  Specifically, virtually all the authors were intimately connected with the IPCC. The senior author of the hunger study was also the co-chairman of the IPCC’s Work Group II, which was responsible for compiling the portion of the IPCC’s latest assessment that dealt with impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. The authors of the water resource and coastal flooding studies were the lead authors of corresponding chapters in that IPCC report. An earlier version of the same set of impact studies was the basis for the claim by Sir David King, erstwhile science advisor to Her Majesty’s Government, that global warming was a more serious threat than terrorism (see here). The Stern Review also drew quite heavily from these studies (see below).

Let’s now turn to Conor’s comments on the hunger study and why I assumed that the benefits of carbon fertilization would be realized in the future. Indeed, the hunger study (Parry et al.) produced two separate estimates — one assuming that carbon fertilization is a reality, and the other assuming zero carbon fertilization.  But the two estimates are not equally likely. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of experimental studies that show carbon fertilization is a reality (see also here), that higher CO2 not only increases the rate of photosynthesis, but also increases the efficiency of water use by plants (i.e., it confers a degree of immunity to drought), among the many other benefits CO2 bestows on plants and other carbon based life, including all creatures – big and small – in the biosphere that depend directly or indirectly on photosynthesis.  The probability that direct CO2 effects on crop growth are zero or negative is virtually non-existent (IPCC, 2001b: 254–256). Second, the positive effect of carbon fertilization was based on the average of experimental studies; it’s not an upper bound estimate. On the other hand, the notion of “zero fertilization” is an assumption not supported by the vast majority of empirical data. So averaging results from the two estimates makes no sense and would understate the average benefits that would likely result from carbon fertilization.

Notably, the Stern Review, invoked a study by Long et al. (subscription required) to estimate future levels of hunger based on “zero fertilization” using precisely the same study (Parry et al.) that I  – and Conor, in his comments – used. But Long et al.’s results have been disputed by other scientists (also see here), including some contributors to the IPCC’s assessment.  More importantly, Long et al. only suggested that under field conditions, carbon fertilization may be a third to less than half of what is indicated by experiments using growth chambers, not that it would be zero. It also noted that fertilization may be stronger under drought conditions or if sufficient nitrogen is employed. But drought is one of the bogeymen of global warming, and increased use of nitrogen is precisely the kind of adaptation that would become more affordable in the future as countries become wealthier, as they should if the IPCC’s scenarios are to be given any credence.  Indeed, that is one of the adaptations allowed in Parry et al. Also, the fact that crop yields are higher in richer countries is partly because they can more easily afford nitrogen fertilizers (see here, p. 78). In fact, China’s nitrogen use per hectare is already among the world’s highest. For all these reasons, even if one accepts the Long et al. study as gospel, it is reasonable to assume that the effect of carbon fertilization will be closer to the “higher” estimate from the Parry et al. study than to the “zero fertilization” case.

But, more importantly, the uncertainties related to the magnitude of the CO2 fertilization effect is most likely swamped by a major source of overestimation of hunger in Parry et al.’s estimates.

Although Parry et al. allows for some secular (time-dependent) increases in agricultural productivity, increases in crop yield with economic growth due to greater application of fertilizer and irrigation in richer countries, decreases in hunger due to economic growth, and for some adaptive responses at the farm level to deal with global warming, Parry et al. itself acknowledged that these adaptive responses are based on the “current range” of available technologies, not on technologies that would be available in the future or any technologies developed to specifically cope with the negative impacts of global warming (Parry et al., p. 57).  The potential for future technologies to cope with global warming is large, especially if one considers bioengineered crops (see here, chapter 9), which Parry et al. admittedly didn’t consider. Moreover, an examination of the sources cited in Parry et al. indicates that the “current range” of technology is actually based on 1990s or earlier technology. That is, it is not quite current.

The approach used in Parry et al. to estimate the impacts of global warming decades from now is, in essence, tantamount to estimating today’s level of hunger (and agricultural production) based on the technology of 50 years ago. In fact, the major reason why Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb turned out to be a dud was that it underestimated or ignored future developments in agricultural technology.

As noted in Part I of this series of responses, ignoring technological change can, over decades, lead to overestimating adverse impacts by orders of magnitude. Notably, due to a combination of technological change and increasing affluence, U.S. death rates due to various water related diseases – dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, other gastrointestinal disease, and malaria – declined by 99%–100% from 1900 to 1970.  For the same reasons, during the twentieth century, global death rates from extreme weather events declined by over 95%.

This basic methodological shortcoming, however, is not unique to Parry et al. It is common to ALL global warming impact studies that I have read – and I have read plenty of them.

For all these reasons, the adverse impacts of global warming for hunger (as well as other aspects of human well-being, e.g., due to malaria and coastal flooding) that I used in my paper are, more likely than not, substantially overestimated. And by the same token, ignoring technological change (and not fully accounting for increases in wealth) also assures that the positive impacts of global warming are likely to be underestimated, further overestimating the net negative impacts of global warming.

Therefore, far from being Pollyanish, the estimates used in my paper most likely substantially exaggerate the net negative impacts of global warming. Despite that, those estimates cannot justify emissions cuts that go beyond no-regret actions at this time or through the foreseeable future.

The Post and Times Push for Cap and Trade

Since the June House vote on the Waxman-Markey “cap-and-trade” bill, lawmakers from both chambers have backed significantly away from the legislation. The first raucous “town hall” meetings occurred during the July 4 recess, before health care. Voters in swing districts were mad as heck then, and they’re even more angry now. Had the energy bill not all but disappeared from the Democrats’ fall agenda, imagine the decibel level if members were called to defend it and Obamacare.

But none of this has dissuaded the editorial boards of the The New York Times and Washington Post. Both newspapers featured uncharacteristically shrill editorials today demanding climate change legislation at any cost.

The Post, at least, notes the political realities facing cap-and-trade and resignedly confesses its favored approach to the warming menace: “Yes, we’re talking about a carbon tax.” The paper—motto: “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it”—argues that in contrast to the Boolean ball of twine that is cap-and-trade, a straight carbon tax will be less complicated to enforce, and that the cost to individuals and businesses “could be rebated…in a number of ways.”

Get it? While ostensibly tackling the all-encompassing peril of global warming, bureaucrats could rig the tax code in other ways to achieve a zero net loss in economic productivity or jobs. Right. Anyone who makes more than 50K, or any family at 100K who thinks they will get all their money back, please raise you hands.

The prescription offered by the Times, meanwhile, is chilling in its cynicism and extremity. It embraces the fringe—and heavily discredited—idea of “warning that global warming poses a serious threat to national security.” It bullies lawmakers with the threat that warming could induce resource shortages that would “unleash regional conflicts and draw in America’s armed forces.”

(Note to the Gray Lady: This is why we have markets. Not everyone produces everything, especially agriculturally. For example, it’s too cold in Canada to produce corn, so they buy it from us. They export their wheat to other places with different climates. Prices, supply, and demand change with weather, and will change with climate, too. Markets are always more efficient than Marines, and will doubtless work with or without climate change.)

Appallingly, the piece admits that “[t]his line of argument could also be pretty good politics — especially on Capitol Hill, where many politicians will do anything for the Pentagon. … One can only hope that these arguments turn the tide in the Senate.” In other words: the set of circumstances posited by the national-security strategy are not an object reality, but merely a winning political gambit.

There’s no way that people who see through cap-and-trade are going to buy the military card, but one must admire the Times’ stratagem for durability. Militarization of domestic issues is often the last refuge of the desperate. How many lives has this cost throughout history?

Nevertheless, one must wonder at the sudden and inexplicable urgency that underpins the positions of both these esteemed newspapers. Global surface temperatures haven’t budged significantly for 12 years, and it’s becoming obvious that the vaunted gloom-and-doom climate models are simply predicting too much warming.

Still, one must admire the Post and Times for their altruism. The economic distress caused by a carbon tax, militarization, or any other radical climatic policy certainly won’t be good for their already shaky finances, unless, of course, the price of their support is a bailout by the Obama Administration.

Now that’s cynical.

‘Cash for Clunkers’ Is a Lemon

Jerry Taylor and I published an op-ed criticizing the Cash for Clunkers program on Friday. We weren’t alone in our evaluation of the program.

Two interesting critical analyses of the Cash for Clunkers program were published over the weekend. The first by New York Times reporter Matt Wald examines the energy savings that would result from the program.  If a clunker traveling 12,000 miles at 16 miles per gallon (consuming 750 gallons per year) were traded in for a new car getting 25 mpg while traveling the same distance (480 gallons a year), the the trade-in would save the driver 270 gallons per year. Multiply that by the roughly 245,000 vehicles that had been traded in under the program as of last Friday, before Congress extended the program, and you get 1.6 million barrels  saved each year. That sounds great until you realize it’s only about two hours’ worth of our daily consumption, which is about 18.6 million barrels per day so far in 2009.  But the savings is probably much less than that because old cars are not driven 12,000 miles per year.

The second critical analysis, examining the program’s effect on carbon emissions, appeared as a figure in the Outlook section of this weekend’s Washington Post.  Over 10 years, the new cars will reduce emissions by 7 million metric tons, which is about 0.04% of the 16 billion metric tons that U.S. cars will produce over that time. That is, taxpayers will pay $147 per ton of CO2 reduction ($1.03 billion dollars divided by 7 million tons). In comparison, the economic literature estimates that the cost of the marginal damages of carbon emissions is between $15 and$50 per ton (see, e.g., this and this).