Topic: Energy and Environment

Explosive Findings on Volcanoes’ Climate Influence

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.”


A new paper overturns old suppositions regarding volcanoes, tree-rings, and climate sensitivity.

According to a 2012 press release accompanying a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, a research team led by Penn State’s Dr. Michael Mann concluded that the cooling influence of historical volcanic eruptions was underrepresented by tree-ring reconstructions of the earth’s temperature.

This, the press release went on to tell us, had potential implications when trying to determine the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—i.e., how much the global average surface temperature will rise as a result of a doubling of the atmosphere’s pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide. While most recent studies place the ECS noticeably less than earlier studies (including those most heavily relied upon by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and thus the U.S. Obama Administration), the 2012 Mann study was an exception. It implied that many existing determinations of the ESC were underestimates.

From the press release:

“Scientists look at the past response of the climate to natural factors like volcanoes to better understand how sensitive Earth’s climate might be to the human impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Mann. “Our findings suggest that past studies using tree-ring data to infer this sensitivity have likely underestimated it.”

Fast forward to today.

Appearing on-line in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (and sans press release) is a paper led by Penn State’s Martin Tingley that examined how the temperature response from volcanic inferred from tree-rings compared with that of observations. Tingley’s team concluded that tree-ring based temperature proxies overestimated the temperature response caused by large volcanic eruptions. Instead of responding only to the cooler temperatures, the tree rings also included signals from reduced light availability (from the shading effect of volcanic aerosols) and the two effects together produced a signal greater than what would have been produced by cooler temperatures alone. This is basically the opposite of what Mann and colleagues concluded.

Ten Reasons Portland Transit Is Not a Model for Other Cities

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx came to Portland, Oregon last week to tell TriMet, the region’s transit agency, not to apologize for spending $204 million per mile on its latest light-rail line. Although that is eight times as much (after adjusting for inflation) as the region’s first light-rail line, Foxx noted that regions “need to have bold visions” and that, as a model for the rest of the country, Portland was “building for today and for the future.”

Residents of Austin, Durham, St. Petersburg, and many other cities are being told they need to emulate Portland by building their own expensive light-rail lines. Here are ten reasons why they should reject Portland as a model for their own transit and transportation systems.

New Research Erases Global Warming from Pacific Northwest

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.”

Poof, it was gone.

Just like that, the human fingerprints on a century-long warming trend in Northwestern United States were erased and replaced instead by the telltale signs of natural variability. 

That is the conclusion of new research published last week by a pair of scientists from the University of Washington. James Johnstone and Nathan Mantua published their paper titled “Atmospheric controls on northeast Pacific temperature variability and change 1900-2012” in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

So as not to be accused of putting words in their mouth, here, in full, are the contents of a box labeled “Significance” from their paper:

Northeast Pacific coastal warming since 1900 is often ascribed to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, whereas multidecadal temperature changes are widely interpreted in the framework of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which responds to regional atmospheric dynamics. This study uses several independent data sources to demonstrate that century-long warming around the northeast Pacific margins, like multidecadal variability, can be primarily attributed to changes in atmospheric circulation. It presents a significant reinterpretation of the region’s recent climate change origins, showing that atmospheric conditions have changed substantially over the last century, that these changes are not likely related to historical anthropogenic and natural radiative forcing, and that dynamical mechanisms of interannual and multidecadal temperature variability can also apply to observed century-long trends.

 

Translation: Natural variability in the atmosphere/ocean dynamics of the northern Pacific Ocean rather than human-caused global warming can largely explain the century-long rise in temperature in the Pacific Northwest.

And the authors have the figures to prove it.

Land Use and Local Government: The Facts On the Ground Are Libertarian

Prof. Kenneth Stahl, who directs the Environmental Land Use and Real Estate Law Program at Chapman University School of Law, has a post at Concurring Opinions asking why libertarians aren’t more numerous among academic specialists in local government and land use law. Stahl describes his own views as siding with “leftists rather than libertarians,” that is to say, those who “have some confidence in the ability of government to solve social problems”: 

Nevertheless, were you to pick up a randomly selected piece of left-leaning land use or local government scholarship (including my own) you would likely witness a searing indictment of the way local governments operate. You would read that the land use decisionmaking process is usually a conflict between deep-pocketed developers who use campaign contributions to elect pro-growth politicians and affluent homeowners who use their ample resources to resist change that might negatively affect their property values. Land use “planning”—never a great success to begin with—has largely been displaced by the “fiscalization” of land use, in which land use decisions are based primarily on a proposed land use’s anticipated contribution to (or drain upon) a municipality’s revenues. Public schools in suburban areas have essentially been privatized due to exclusionary zoning practices, and thus placed off limits to the urban poor, whereas public schools in cities have been plundered by ravenous teachers’ unions.

… It hardly paints a pretty picture of local government. Yet, most leftists’ prescription is more government. 

To put it differently, libertarian analysis better explains what actually goes on in local government than does the standard progressive faith in the competence of government to correct supposed market failure. The post (read it in full!) goes on to discuss specifics such as annexation, incorporation, and economic stratification-by-jurisdiction; the relative success of lightly governed Houston in achieving low housing costs and attracting newcomers and economic growth; and the transference of progressives’ unmet hopes to regionalization, so memorably summed up by Jane Jacobs years ago: “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problem we found no solution.”

Stahl: 

So why would left-leaning scholars, who have seen so clearly the failures of local government, place so much faith in a largely untested restructuring of governmental institutions, rather than looking to less government as the solution?

Great question.

The World Needs More Energy, Not Less

This week, a few major media outlets covered my take on the effectiveness and judiciousness of President Obama’s call, at the U.N. Climate Summit, for all countries of the world to make pledges of how and how much they are going to reduce their national carbon dioxide emissions. It should be no surprise that I think such actions would be ineffective and imprudent.

My biggest criticism is that not all countries of the world are at the same stage of energy development. While the developed nations may have all the energy supplies they want and need, most developing countries do not. So, while developing countries pursue  “luxuries” like indoor lighting and clean cooking facilities (not to mention improved sanitation), developed countries are awash in the luxury of debating whether to alter the relative components of their fuel mix in hopes that it may (or may not) alter the future course of the climate.

Since historically (and today) there is an extremely tight coupling between energy production and carbon dioxide emissions (since fossil fuels are used to produce the overwhelming bulk of our energy), calls like those from President Obama to restrict carbon dioxide emissions are akin to calls to restrict energy usage and expansion.

Imposing carbon restrictions on developing nations would have large-scale negative implications, not only to those directly affected, but to the world as a whole, as a large expanse of human ingenuity–arguably humanity’s greatest resource–would remain constrained by basic survival efforts and 50-year life expectancies.

Basically, no one is going to go along with this. So despite promises, when adhering to plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (whether informal or formalized in a treaty) comes up against economic expansion and human welfare improvements, the latter are going to win out every time (or so we would hope).

The Collection of Evidence for a Low Climate Sensitivity Continues to Grow

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.”

Nic Lewis and Judith Curry just published a blockbuster paper that pegs the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity—how much the earth’s average surface temperature is expected to rise in association with a doubling of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration—at 1.64°C (1.05°C to 4.05°C, 90% range), a value that is nearly half of the number underpinning all of President Obama’s executive actions under his Climate Action Plan.

This finding will not stop the President and the EPA from imposing more limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels. A wealth of similar findings have appeared in the scientific literature beginning in 2011 (see below) and they, too, have failed to dissuade him from his legacy mission.

The publication of the Lewis and Curry paper, along with another by Ragnhild Skeie and colleagues, brings the number of recent low-sensitivity climate publications to 14, by 42 authors from around the world (this doesn’t count our 2002 paper on the topic, “Revised 21st Century Temperature Projections”).  Most of these sensitivities are a good 40% below the average climate sensitivity of the models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Lewis and Curry arrive at their lower equilibrium climate sensitivity estimate by using updated compilations of the earth’s observed temperature change, oceanic heat uptake, and the magnitude of human emissions, some of which should cause warming (e.g., greenhouse gases), while the others should cool (e.g., sulfate aerosols). They try to factor out “natural variability.” By comparing values of these parameters from the mid-19 century to now, they can estimate how much the earth warmed in association with human greenhouse gas emissions.

The estimate is not perfect, as there are plenty of uncertainties, some of which may never be completely resolved. But, nevertheless, Lewis and Curry have generated  a very robust observation-based estimate of the equilibrium climate sensitivity.

For those interested in the technical details, and a much more thorough description of the research, author Nic Lewis takes you through the paper (here) has made a pre-print copy of the paper freely available (here).

In the chart below, we’ve added the primary findings of Lewis and Curry as well as those of Skeie et al. to the collection of 12 other low-sensitivity papers published since 2010 that conclude that the best estimate for the earth’s climate sensitivity lies below the IPCC estimates. We’ve also included in our Figure both the IPCC’s  subjective and model-based characteristics of the equilibrium climate sensitivity. For those wondering, there are very few recent papers arguing that the IPCC estimates are too low, and they all have to contend with the fact that, according to new Cato scholar Ross McKitrick, “the pause” in warming is actually 19 years in length. 

Obama Lonely at U.N. Climate Fest

People should learn from their mistakes. The last time President Obama took it upon himself to “lead” a U.N. climate fest was at Copenhagen in December, 2009, which, from the point of view of my greener friends, was a notorious failure. 

Today, he’s back, this time at Ban Ki-moon’s U.N. “climate summit,” but not a lot of his global peers are going to be there. Prime Ministers from China, India, Canada, Australia and Germany have all decided to stay home. 

Together, they emit almost three times what the U.S. does, which means we are going it alone in New York.  Any policy we agree to is  meaningless.  According to the EPAs “Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-gas Induced Climate Change” (yes, it is MAGICC), if we emitted not another molecule of carbon dioxide between tomorrow and January 1, 2100, the amount of warming that would be prevented is a mere 0.14°C, an amount too small to reliably measure. That’s probably an overestimate, too, as the EPA appears to have overestimated 21st century warming.

EPA assumes  that the “sensitivity” of surface temperature to a carbon dioxide doubling is 3°C, an amount very likely far too great, compared to what is being observed.  Or, perhaps, compared to what is not being observed, as global surface temperatures have held constant for 17+ years now (actually 19, according to Cato scholar and eco-statistician Ross McKitrick), according to the surface annual temperature history that climate scientists cite the most. So the “saved” warming from any policy is likely to be even less than what MAGICC says.

You’re not going to hear that from the President. As happened at the 2009 Copenhagen disaster, the President and the Secretary-General will declare a roaring success.

In Copenhagen, that meant that all participants had to submit specific action plans to reduce emissions within two months.  But, a bit more than a month before the deadline, the U.N.’s climate commissioner, Yvo deBoer, announced that they really didn’t have to. Then he resigned.

There’s still no new international agreement to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol. But, last month, the President got people pretty worked up when he proposed a new, U.N.-sponsored agreement (a treaty—or a modification of an existing one—by any other name) on climate change that he didn’t think would require ratification by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, counter to what is explicitly stated in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of our constitution:

[The President] shall have Power, by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur… 

Not only is the president going to be quite lonely at the U.N., he could be setting the country up for a huge constitutional conflagration.

It’s not going to happen on his watch, though. Any agreement that he signs on to won’t likely take effect until at least 2016.  Even under the most rosy Democrat-wave election that year (one is likely to happen, given the demographics of the Senate crowd that is up for re-election), there’s no way 67 are going to vote to ratify a treaty that differentially harms the U.S. while China and India keep increasing their emissions dramatically.

Of course we’re going to hear the rhetoric, repeated again today, that the U.S. has to “lead by example.”  Well, Mr. President, with those big emitters and the developing world saying “no way,” no one is going to follow.  In 2012, the last year for which we have reliable data, the U.S. contributed 14% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Together, the five big no-shows emitted almost three times as much as us, and their fraction can only grow as both China and India are determined to develop their economies.

If we were really going to lead by example we would show the world how our free economy has resulted in investments in clean, big power sources like shale gas. The developing world is currently lacking in large sources of dense energy. If we’re going “lead by example,” maybe that example should be that governments should get out of the way of economic development and cleaner energy will follow.