Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: 2016 Temperatures, Business-as-Usual at the UN, and the Cost of Regulations

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.

We sign in this week with a look at how this year’s global temperature is evolving as the big Pacific El Niño begins to wane. The temporary rise in global temperature that accompanies El Niño events is timed differently at the surface than it is in the lower atmosphere. Thus, while El Niño-boosted warmth led to a record high value in the 2015 global average surface temperature record, it did not fully manifest itself in the lower atmosphere (where the 2015 temperatures remained well below record levels).

America’s Socialized Transit

On the heels of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that found that Washington Metro “has failed to learn safety lessons” from previous accidents, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld will announce a plan today that promises to disrupt service for months in an effort to get the lines safely running again. While ordinary maintenance can take place during the few hours the system isn’t running every night, Wiedefeld says past officials have let the system decline so much that individual rail lines will have to be taken off line for days or weeks at a time to get them back into shape.

The Washington Post blames the problems on “generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending.” That’s partially true, but there are really two problems with Metro, and different parties are to blame for each.

First is the problem with deferred maintenance. The Metro board recognized that maintenance costs would have to increase as long ago as 2002, when they developed a plan to spend $10 billion to $12 billion rehabilitating the system. This plan was ignored by the “Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending” and who decided to fund the Silver and Purple lines instead of repairing what they already had.

Second is the problem with the agency’s safety culture, or lack of one. According to the NTSB report, in violation of its own procedures, Metro used loaded passenger trains to search for the sources of smoke in the tunnels. Metro at first denied doing so, then said it wouldn’t do it any more. But Metro’s past actions sent a signal to employees that passenger safety isn’t important.

The Shallow Back Reef Environment of Ofu, American Samoa

Writing as background for their work, the six-member research team of Koweek et al. (2015) cite several concerns about the future of Earth’s corals that have been projected to result from the so-called twin evils of global warming and ocean acidification, including “coral bleaching (Glynn, 1993; Hughes et al., 2003; van Hooidonk et al., 2013), increased dissolution and bioerosion (Andersson and Gledhill, 2013; Dove et al., 2013; Reyes-Nivia et al., 2013), decreased biodiversity (Fabricius et al., 2011), and shifts toward algal-dominated reefs (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007; Kroeker et al., 2010; 2013).” However, despite these concerns, which have captured the attention of scientists and policy makers for more than two decades now, such worries may well be overestimated and overplayed.

The reason for such growing optimism has to do with the corals themselves, which along with other marine organisms appear to have an inherent ability “of controlling their own biogeochemical environments.” Such biologically-mediated controls, if they are of sufficient magnitude, could potentially offset future changes in the marine environment brought about by rising atmospheric CO2 (projected ocean warming and pH decline). It is therefore of considerable importance for scientists to continue investigating these biological feedbacks in order to better ascertain the future of these precious marine species, for as noted by Koweek et al., “the paradigm of coral reefs as passive responders to their biogeochemical environments is rapidly changing.”

In further expanding the scientific knowledge on this important topic, the six American researchers set out to conduct a “short, high-resolution physical and biogeochemical pilot field study” on the back reefs of Ofu, American Samoa, where they measured a number of hydrodynamic and biogeochemical parameters there over a seven-day period in November, 2011. The specific study location was Pool 100 (14.185°S, 169.666°W), a shallow lagoon containing 85 coral species and various kinds of crustose coralline algae and non-calcifying algae. Koweek et al. selected Pool 100 because, as they state, shallow back reefs “commonly experience greater thermal and biogeochemical variability owing to a combination of coral community metabolism, environmental forcing, flow regime, and water depth.”

Results of their data collection and analysis revealed that temperatures within the shallow back reef environment were consistently 2-3°C warmer during the day than that observed in the offshore environment. In addition, and as expected, the ranges of the physical and biogeochemical parameters studied in Pool 100 greatly exceeded the variability observed in the open ocean. Inside Pool 100, the pH values fluctuated between a low of 7.80 and a high of 8.39 across the seven days of study, with daily ranges spanning between 0.5 and 0.6 of a unit (Figure 1). What is more, Koweek et al. report that the reef community in Pool 100 spent far more time outside of the offshore pH range than within it (pH values were between 8.0 and 8.2 during only 30 percent of the observational period, less than 8.0 for 34 percent of the time and greater than 8.2 for the remaining 36 percent of the observations). Additional measurements and calculations indicated that these fluctuations in pH were largely the product of community primary production and respiration, as well as tidal modulation and wave-driven flow.

Figure 1. Time series of pHT (top panel) and pCO2 (bottom panel) in Pool 100, Ofu, American Samoa from November 16-20, 2011. Vertical blue and orange lines show the occurrence of high and low tides, respectively. Gray vertical shading shows the period from sundown to sunrise. The different colored circles represent data that were collected from different locations in Pool 100 and the dashed horizontal black lines represent the mean value of each parameter in the offshore ocean. Adapted from Koweek et al. (2015).

Figure 1. Time series of pHT (top panel) and pCO2 (bottom panel) in Pool 100, Ofu, American Samoa from November 16-20, 2011. Vertical blue and orange lines show the occurrence of high and low tides, respectively. Gray vertical shading shows the period from sundown to sunrise. The different colored circles represent data that were collected from different locations in Pool 100 and the dashed horizontal black lines represent the mean value of each parameter in the offshore ocean. Adapted from Koweek et al. (2015).

Commenting on these and other of their findings, Koweek et al. write that “our measurements have provided insight into the physical–biogeochemical coupling on Ofu.” And that insight, they add, “suggests a significantly more nuanced view of the fate of coral reefs” than the demise of global reef systems that is traditionally forecast under the combined stresses of climate change and ocean acidification.

Indeed, if these ecosystems presently thrive under such variable (and more severe) environmental conditions than those predicted for the future—which conditions are largely derived and modulated by themselves—why wouldn’t they persist?

 

References

Andersson, A.J. and Gledhill, D. 2013. Ocean acidification and coral reefs: effects on breakdown, dissolution, and net ecosystem calcification. Annual Review of Marine Science 5: 321-348.

Dove, S.G., Kline, D.I., Pantos, O., Angly, F.E., Tyson, G.W. and Hoegh-Guldberg, O. 2013. Future reef decalcification under a business-as-usual CO2 emission scenario. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 110: 15342-15347.

Fabricius, K.E., Langdon, C., Uthicke, S., Humphrey, C., Noonan, S.H.C., De’ath, G., Okazaki, R., Muehllehner, N., Glas, M.S. and Lough, J.M. 2011. Losers and winners in coral reefs acclimatized to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Climate Change 1: 165-169.

Glynn, P.W. 1993. Coral reef bleaching: ecological perspectives. Coral Reefs 12: 1-17.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Mumby, P.J., Hooten, A.J., Steneck, R.S., Greenfield, P., Gomez, E., Harvell, C.D., Sale, P.F., Edwards, A.J., Caldeira, K., Knowlton, N., Eakin, C.M., Iglesias-Prieto, R., Muthiga, N., Bradbury, R.H., Dubi, A. and Hatziolos, M.E. 2007. Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318: 1737-1742.

Hughes, T.P., Baird, A.H., Bellwood, D.R., Card, M., Connolly, S.R., Folke, C., Grosberg, R., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Jackson, J.B.C., Kleypas, J.A., Lough, J.M., Marshall, P., Nystrom, M., Palumbi, S.R., Pandolfi, J.M., Rosen, B. and Roughgarden, J. 2003. Climate change, human impacts, and the resilience of coral reefs. Science 301: 929-933.

Koweek, D.A., Dunbar, R.B., Monismith, S.G., Mucciarone, D.A., Woodson, C.B. and Samuel, L. 2015. High-resolution physical and biogeochemical variability from a shallow back reef on Ofu, American Samoa: an end-member perspective. Coral Reefs 34: 979-991.

Kroeker, K.J., Kordas, R.L., Crim, R.N. and Singh, G.G. 2010. Meta-analysis reveals negative yet variable effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms. Ecology Letters 13: 1419-1434.

Kroeker, K.J., Kordas, R.L., Crim, R.N., Hendriks, I.E., Ramajo, L., Singh, G.S., Duarte, C.M. and Gattuso, J.-P. 2013. Impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms: quantifying sensitivities and interaction with warming. Global Change Biology 19: 1884-1896.

Reyes-Nivia, C., Diaz-Pulido, G., Kline, D.I., Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Dove, S.G. 2013. Ocean acidification and warming scenarios increase microbioerosion of coral skeletons. Global Change Biology 19: 1919-1929.

van Hooidonk, R., Maynard, J.A. and Planes, S. 2013. Temporary refugia for coral reefs in a warming world. Nature Climate Change 3: 508-511.

Transit in Turmoil

Last week’s resignation of Michael Melaniphy as CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a sign that more people are seeing that America’s transit-industrial complex has no clothes. Melaniphy’s departure comes on the heels of the withdrawal of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from APTA membership.

MTA’s complaint is that APTA has failed to help the seven “legacy” transit systems, that is, rail systems that are more than 40 years old, that are suffering from severe maintenance backlogs. These transit systems, which are in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, carry nearly two-third of the nation’s transit riders yet–thanks in part to APTA lobbying–a disproportionate share of federal transit dollars go to smaller cities that are building new rail systems that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.

In 2010, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the legacy rail systems (plus Washington and Atlanta) needed nearly $60 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Yet little was done, and the latest estimate is that the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $93 billion. Meanwhile, with APTA’s encouragement, Congress has spent something like $15 billion supporting the construction of new rail systems in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.

Even the transit systems that suffer from maintenance backlogs are spending precious resources building new rail lines because that is what Congress will fund, not maintenance. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $3 billion on a light-rail line to Medford even as it let its maintenance backlog grow to $7.3 billion. The Chicago Transit Authority is spending $2.3 billion extending its Red Line even as its maintenance backlog exceeds $22 billion. The San Francisco BART system is suffering frequent breakdowns and has a $9.7 billion maintenance backlog, yet is spending $6.3 billion on a line to San Jose that partly duplicates existing commuter rail service.

Meanwhile, other cities seem to be racing to see who can spend the most on their own rail transit expansions. Having just finished spending $1.5 billion on a seven-mile light-rail line, Portland wants to spend $2 billion on a new 12-mile line. Seattle just spend $1.9 billion on a three-mile light-rail line and is now spending $3.7 billion on a fourteen-mile line to Bellevue. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to spend $120 billion on new transit lines, including the construction of a nine-mile light-rail tunnel to the San Fernando Valley that will cost nearly $1 billion per mile. 

Despite their expense, none of these light-rail lines are anything like the Washington or other subway systems. The “light” in light rail refers to capacity, not weight: light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit, capable of carrying only about a quarter as many people per hour as a subway or elevated line. In 1981, San Diego opened the nation’s first modern light-rail line at a cost of $5.6 million per mile (about $12.5 million in today’s money); the cost of the average line being built today is $163 million per mile, yet those new lines won’t be able to carry any more people than the San Diego line.

These new rail lines do little good for transit riders, mainly because their high cost eventually forces most transit agencies that build them to cannibalize their bus systems. For example, construction of new light-rail lines forced San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority to reduce bus service by 22 percent since 2001, leading to a 32 percent decline in ridership

It’s no surprise that APTA sheepishly reported last month that the nation’s overall transit ridership declined in 2015. While APTA blamed the decline on low gas prices, the truth is (as noted here last year), if you don’t count the New York subway system (whose ridership has been growing in response to rising Manhattan employment), nationwide ridership has declined for the past several years. 

Why are we spending so much money building new rail lines when it doesn’t help, and often hurts, transit riders? Part of the answer is Congress likes shiny new projects more than maintenance. But part of the answer is that APTA’s membership is stacked with manufacturers and suppliersconsultantscontractors, and land developers who build subsidized projects next to rail stations. Although New York’s MTA carries nearly 37 percent of all transit riders in the country, its membership dues covered less than 2 percent of APTA’s budget because APTA gets most of its money from non-transit agencies. Thus, like Congress, APTA is biased towards new construction.

For example, APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so. After all, this message could undermine support for building new rail transit lines in cities that don’t need them.

People who support the needs of actual transit riders, rather than rail snobs (people who say they’ll ride a train but not a bus) or contractors, should use these facts to persuade Congress to stop funding obsolete rail transit systems when cities desperately need things that will truly relieve traffic congestion and cost-effectively improve everyone’s mobility.

You Ought to Have a Look: Our Energy Future, Science Regress, and a Greening Earth

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.

We’ll jump right into this week by highlighting an appearance by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills on The Federalist’s Radio Hour. During his time on the show, Mills explains how the foreseeable future is going to play out when it comes to global energy production and why he says that even if you were concerned about climate change, “there really isn’t anything you can do about it.” 

Mills is one of the leading thinkers and analysts on energy systems, energy markets, and energy policy, bringing often overlooked and deeply-buried information to the forefront.

During his nearly hour-long radio segment, Mills discusses topics ranging from climate change, the world’s future energy mix, the role of technological advances, and energy policy as well as giving his opinions on both Bills Gates’ and Pope Francis’ take on all of the above. It is an entertaining and informative interview.

As a taste, here’s a transcript of a small segment:

In the life we live, and the world we live in, we have to do two things, one is deal with reality [current understanding of physics] and the moral consequences of that, and we can have aspirations. If the aspiration, which Bill Gates’ is, is to use fewer hydrocarbons, we need to support basic research.

We don’t subsidize stuff. The reason we don’t subsidize stuff and make energy more expensive, is because, for me, it is morally bankrupt to increase the cost of energy for most people in most of the world. Energy should be cheaper, not more expensive. We use energy to make our lives better. We use energy to make our lives safer. We use energy to make our lives more enjoyable. Everything that we care about in the world, safety, convenience, freedom, costs energy. [emphasis added]

Mark Mills’ sentiment closely matches that which Alex Epstein explained to Congress a few weeks back and that we highlighted in our last edition. 

If you can find any time to listen to a little or a lot of Mills’ full interview, you’ll probably find that what he says to make a lot of sense. Funny, though, how much of it seems to have escaped some folks.

Next up is an article in the current issue of First Things authored by Walter Wilson titled “Scientific Regress.” If you think the title is provocative, you ought to have a look at the rest of the piece beginning with the first line “The problem with ­science is that so much of it simply isn’t.” Instead, it reflects the results of a gamed system driven by pre-conceived ideas often emanating from the science/political establishment.

Projecting the Impacts of Rising CO2 on Future Crop Yields in Germany

Noting that the influence of atmospheric CO2 on crop growth is “still a matter of debate,” and that “to date, no comprehensive approach exists that would represent all related aspects and interactions [of elevated CO2 and climate change on crop yields] within a single modeling environment,” Degener (2015) set out to accomplish just that by estimating the influence of elevated CO2 on the biomass yields of ten different crops in the area of Niedersachsen, Germany over the course of the 21st century.

To accomplish this lofty objective the German researcher combined soil and projected future climate data (temperature and precipitation) into the BIOSTAR crop model and examined the annual difference in yield outputs for each of the ten crops (winter wheat, barley, rye, triticale, three maize varieties, sunflower, sorghum and spring wheat) under a constant CO2 regime of 390 ppm and a second scenario in which atmospheric CO2 increased annually through the year 2100 according to the IPCC’s SRES A1B scenario. Degener then calculated the difference between the two model runs so as to estimate the quantitative influence of elevated CO2 on projected future crop yields. And what did that difference reveal?

As shown in the figure below, Degener reports that “rising [CO2] concentrations will play a central role in keeping future yields of all crops above or around today’s level.” Such a central, overall finding is significant considering Degener notes that future temperatures and precipitation within the model both changed in a way that was “detrimental to the growth of crops” (higher temperatures and less precipitation). Yet despite an increasingly hostile growing environment, according to the German researcher, not only was the “negative climatic effect balanced out, it [was] reversed by a rise in CO2” (emphasis added), leading to yield increases on the order of 25 to 60 percent.

Figure 1. Biomass yield difference (percent change) between model runs of constant and changing atmospheric CO2 concentration. A value of +20% indicates biomass yields are 20% higher when modeled using increasing CO2 values with time (according to the SRES A1B scenario of the IPCC) instead of a fixed 390 ppm for the entire run.

Figure 1. Biomass yield difference (percent change) between model runs of constant and changing atmospheric CO2 concentration. A value of +20% indicates biomass yields are 20% higher when modeled using increasing CO2 values with time (according to the SRES A1B scenario of the IPCC) instead of a fixed 390 ppm for the entire run.

The results of this model-based study fall in line with the previous work of Idso (2013), who calculated similar CO2-induced benefits on global crop production by mid-century based on real-world experimental data, both of which studies reveal that policy prescriptions designed to limit the upward trajectory of atmospheric CO2 concentrations can have very real, and potentially serious, repercussions for global food security.

 

References

Degener, J.F. 2015. Atmospheric CO2 fertilization effects on biomass yields of 10 crops in northern Germany. Frontiers in Environmental Science 3: 48, doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2015.00048.

Idso, C.D. 2013. The Positive Externalities of Carbon Dioxide: Estimating the Monetary Benefits of Rising Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Global Food Production. Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, Tempe, AZ.

A Greening (in a Good Way) Earth

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.”

Long before “green” came to be associated with moral superiority with regard to climate change, it was a color. The color of vegetation. Healthy, vibrant, prosperous vegetation was green, while unhealthy, senescent, or dormant vegetation was brown. In this context, to say the world is “greening” is to mean that its vegetation—upon which virtually all life depends—is flourishing and expanding. This is a much preferable situation to say its “greening” in the former sense—an amalgam of smoke and mirrors with no demonstrable real-world implication, impact, or most importantly, benefit.

We’re happy to report here that a new scientific paper reports that the world is greening—in the best sense of the word.

Published this week in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change is a paper titled “Greening of the Earth and its drivers” by a collection of 32 authors representing a combination of research programs from around the world. The authors compiled a large collection satellite observations of parameters associated with vegetative health collected since 1982, sorted through it, analyzed it, and then reported:

We show a persistent and widespread increase of growing season integrated LAI (greening) over 25% to 50% of the global vegetated area, whereas less than 4% of the globe shows decreasing LAI (browning).

Figure 1 shows the spatial distribution and magnitude of the greening trends. This is about as good of a large-scale environmental result as one could ever hope for.

Figure 1. Observed trends in leaf area index (LAI)—a measure of the quantity, density and health of vegetation during the growing season from 1982-2009. Positive trends indicate “greening,” negative trends indicate “browning.” The world is bathed in shades of green and blue. Source: Zhu et al., 2016.

Figure 1. Observed trends in leaf area index (LAI)—a measure of the quantity, density and health of vegetation during the growing season from 1982-2009. Positive trends indicate “greening,” negative trends indicate “browning.” The world is bathed in shades of green and blue. Source: Zhu et al., 2016.

What is the driver of this overwhelmingly positive outcome? Again from the authors:

Factorial simulations with multiple global ecosystem models suggest that CO2 fertilization effects explain 70% of the observed greening trend, followed by nitrogen deposition (9%), climate change (8%) and land cover change (LCC) (4%).

“CO2 fertilization” is a result of increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide—an important plant fertilizer—primarily caused by carbon dioxide released from the chemical processes associated with the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. And to think that some folks want to try to dial back this benefit!

While it may be hard to monetize a healthier and productive earth, there have been some attempts to place a value on some aspects of a greener world—primarily those which result from our increasingly productive agricultural systems. After all, the crops we eat are largely the seeds and fruits of plants, and they do better when carbon dioxide levels are higher.

Our Dr. Craig Idso calculated that rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have added about $3.2trillion to the global economy since 1961 as a result of crop production increases and goes on to project nearly $10 trillion more by 2050. That’s a huge positive externality from carbon dioxide emissions.

It is interesting to note that most of the “integrated assessment models” (IAMs) that have been developed and designed to try to determine the “social cost of carbon”—that is, the monetary impact of the emission of each additional ton of carbon dioxide summed over the next 300 years—do not incorporate the positive effects of carbon dioxide fertilization. The primary exception to this situation is the FUND model developed by Dr. Richard Tol. Unsurprisingly, Tol’s model produces a much lower social cost of carbon than the other IAMs. Given that carbon dioxide fertilization and the positive impacts it has of the planet’s plant life is a firmly established scientific reality (as further evidenced by the new findings reported here) you’d think that any IAM that didn’t include it would be summarily rejected. Instead, such models are embraced by the Obama Administration and used to justify all manner of federal regulations.

And before we leave this new greening paper, we want to point out the comparison made by the authors of the patterns of observed trends with those projected to have occurred from a leading climate/vegetation model (Figure 2). We draw your attention to the western half of the United States. Here, the climate/vegetation model produced large (in area and magnitude) browning trends, driven by a general drying trend over the period of record. The observations on the other hand, show little, if any, trends towards browning, and instead show a general, mild, greening over the region.

Figure 2. Modeled (left) and observed (right) changes in leaf area index (LAI) for North America, 1982-2009. Source: Zhu et al., 2016.

Figure 2. Modeled (left) and observed (right) changes in leaf area index (LAI) for North America, 1982-2009. Source: Zhu et al., 2016.

The authors explain:

Such pronounced negative trends were not captured by any of the three satellite products. Our analysis indicated that models may be over-sensitive to trends in precipitation as soil water holding capacities maybe under-estimated in models, and deep rooting, ecosystem composition changes (e.g. shrubification) are not modeled, which is consistent with previous studies.

In other words, the models don’t have their, er, stuff, together. And as a consequence, they project negative outcomes that don’t materialize. 

Reference:

Zhu, Z., t al., 2016. Greening of the Earth and its drivers. Nature Climate Change, published on-line April 25, 2016, doi:10.1038/nclimate3004