Topic: Energy and Environment

An Example of the Abuse of the Social Cost of Carbon

In my recent op-ed for The Hill examining the Obama administration’s estimation of the social cost of carbon (SCC)—a measure of how much future damage is purportedly going to be caused by each ton of carbon dioxide that is emitted through human activities—I identified two major problems with their measure.

First, the administration’s SCC was based on an estimate of global rather than domestic damages from anthropogenic climate change—an odd scope for a measure designed to be incorporated in the cost/benefit analysis of U.S. rules and regulations governing domestic activities (such as the energy efficiency of microwave ovens sold in the United States). In fact, Office and Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines state that

Your analysis should focus on benefits and costs that accrue to citizens and residents of the United States. Where you choose to evaluate a regulation that is likely to have effects beyond the borders of the United States, these effects should be reported separately.

Instead of “reporting separately,” the administration’s SCC embodies “effects beyond the borders of the United States.”

Second, the administration recently revised (upwards) its initial calculation of the SCC. In doing so, it included updates to its underlying economic/climate-change/damage models, but it did not include any updates to the characteristics of the equilibrium climate sensitivity used by the models. Since the equilibrium climate sensitivity is the key factor in how much climate change will result from a given amount of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, and since there is mounting scientific evidence that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is better constrained and lower than that used in the initial analysis, there is no defensible reason why the new science was not included in the administration’s revised SCC calculation.

So that’s two strikes against it.

IPCC Chooses Option No. 3

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.”

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is nearing the final stages of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)—the latest, greatest version of its assessment of the science of climate change. Information is leaking out, with some regularity, as to what the final report will contain (why it is secretive in the first place is beyond us).

A few weeks ago, The Economist reported on some of the information from the new IPCC report that was leaked. The key piece of information concerned the IPCC’s assessment of the equilibrium climate sensitivity—how much the earth’s average surface temperature increases as a result of a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. As we have been reporting, the research now dominating the scientific literature indicates that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is around 2.0°C.  This value is about 40% lower than the average climate sensitivity value of the climate models used by the IPCC to make their future projections of climate change, including among other projections, those for temperature and sea level rise.  The Economist suggested that the IPCC was going to lower their assessed value for the equilibrium climate change based on the mountain of evidence from the literature, but gave no indication whether the IPCC was also going to, accordingly, lower all the projections made throughout their report.

In a Cato@Liberty article last month, we pointed out that the IPCC had three options as to how to proceed.  Quoting ourselves:

The IPCC has three options:

1. Round-file the entire AR5 as it now stands and start again.

2. Release the current AR5 with a statement that indicates that all the climate change and impacts described within are likely overestimated by around 50%, or

3. Do nothing and mislead policymakers and the rest of the world.

We’re betting on door number 3.

In its article earlier this week reporting on its own acquired leaked information from the IPCC AR5 report, the New York Times basically proved us right.

Current Wisdom: Greenland’s Disastrous SLR Is SOL

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Could President Obama have picked a worse time to announce his Climate Action Plan?

Global warming has been stuck in neutral for more than a decade and a half, scientists are increasingly suggesting that future climate change projections are overblown, and now, arguably the greatest threat from global warming—a large and rapid sea level rise (SLR)—has been shown overly lurid (SOL; what did you think I meant?).

You hardly need an “action plan” when there is so little “action” worth responding to.

As I frequently discuss the lack of warming and the decreases in the estimates of future climate change, I’ll focus here on new scientific findings concerning the potential for future sea level rise, interspersing a little travelogue.

Projections of a large sea-level rise this century depend on rapid ice loss from Greenland and/or Antarctica. Yes, as ocean waters warm, they expand, but this expansion-induced rise is pretty well constrained and limited to being about 6 inches plus or minus a couple of inches by century’s end. And the contribution from melting glaciers/ice in other parts of the world (not counting Greenland and Antarctica) is even smaller, maybe 2-4 inches. So that adds up to about 8-12 inches of sea level rise by the year 2100—not much different than that which has already occurred over the past century. This is hardly catastrophic.

Current Wisdom: Even More Low Climate Sensitivity Estimates

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Our periodic compilations of low equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) estimates have become a big hit.

In our on-going effort to keep up with the science, today we update our previous summary with two additional recently published lower-than-IPCC climate sensitivity estimates—one made by Troy Masters and another by Alexander Otto and colleagues (including several co-authors not typically associated with global warming in moderation, or “lukewarming”).  There is also a third paper currently in the peer-review process.

The new additions yield a total of at least 16 experiments published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature beginning in 2011 that have found that the most likely value of the ECS to be well below the (previously?) “mainstream” estimate from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since the negative impacts from global warming/climate change scale with the magnitude of the temperature rise, lower projections of future warming should lead to lower projections of future damages. We say “should” because one way around this, as the federal government has figured out, is to ignore all the new science indicating less expected future warming when calculating future damages, and inexplicably doubling the damages estimated to be caused by a given increment of carbon dioxide (a.k.a., social cost of carbon).

Here is a quick summary of the two new papers:

Examining the output of climate models run under increases in human emissions of greenhouse gas and aerosols, Troy Masters noted a robust relationship between the modeled rate of heat uptake in the global oceans and the modeled climate sensitivity. With this relationship in hand, he then turned to the observations to determine what the observed rate of oceanic heat uptake has been during the past 50 years or so. From the observed behavior, he was able to determine the climate sensitivity, and found it to be substantially less than that in the vast majority of the climate models. He found that the most likely value of the ECS from the observations was 1.98°C with a 90 percent range extending from 1.2°C to 5.15°C. He notes that the high end is driven by uncertainties in the oceanic heat uptake data earlier in the record.

Otto and colleagues used a simple energy budget model to relate observed global temperature changes to changes in the radiation climatology and the heat uptake in the earth system as humans have heaped various substances into the atmosphere. They conclude that the at best estimate for ECS is 2.0°C with a 90 percent range from 1.2°C to 3.9°C.

Both studies come with a long list of caveats relating to data quality, etc., that are common to all studies trying to estimate the ECS.

Hyperloop’s Real Problem

Most reviews of Elon Musk’s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?

None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.

Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.

Airlines deal with these large areas through multiple airports. The Los Angeles area has five commercial airports and San Francisco has three. The hyperloop would only have one station in each region, making it inconvenient for the vast majority of people.

Moreover, airplanes from these airports can reach hundreds of other airports across the country and around the world. Even if Musk’s optimistic cost estimates are valid (and remember, the first cost estimate for California high-speed rail was about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the current estimate), the hyperloop would require billions of dollars spent on more infrastructure to add any new city.

Keystone XL Pipeline: “No Material Impact” on U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions

President Obama has a ticklish situation on his hands with the Keystone XL pipeline—one long on symbolism but short on practical impacts.

He took a few minutes out of his June 25th speech unveiling his Climate Action Plan to specifically address the pipeline issue:

Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear:  Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

The president is balancing “our national interest” in the pipeline—which surely includes factors (or, at least, the perception of factors) like growing the economy, adding jobs, and increasing our energy security—with the pipeline’s (perceived) impacts on the climate via the carbon dioxide emissions (which he oddly terms “carbon pollution”) associated with the oil it will carry.

When it comes to growing the economy, adding jobs, and/or increasing our energy security, the estimates of the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline are all over the place—but all positive. The more level-headed analyses generally indicate the gains will probably be rather small in the overall sense.

When it comes to affecting the climate, again, the estimates are all over the place, and largely depend on assumptions as to how much leverage the Keystone XL pipeline will have on opening up the Canadian tar sands to further development. Folks who claim that the pipeline’s approval would mean “game over” for the climate assume that the pipeline is the key to opening up the 1.7+ trillion barrels of oil that are estimated to be contained in the Canadian tar sands formation. More sober analyses argue that market demands are such that the oil will be brought to market with or without the Keystone XL pipeline and, as such, the pipeline itself will have virtually no impact on carbon dioxide emissions and, by extension, climate change.

Climate Rehash

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.”

Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a press release announcing the publication of its “State of the Climate 2012” report. The global media, predictably, are all over it, loving the gloomsaying.

None of it is new. The NOAA report is simply a collection of rehashed stories that have already had their 15 minutes of fame, stories that we (and others) have already commented on, put into perspective, or debunked.

Usually, “Year in Review” type of stories are saved up until the end of the year, but when it comes to climate change—an issue for which the president has declared “we need to act”—once a year is apparently not enough.  So, NOAA’s “Year in Review” comes out at the end of December and then is rerun like old Seinfeld episodes the next summer.

The NOAA press release contains this manner of introduction from its acting head, Kathryn Sullivan:

“Many of the events that made 2012 such an interesting year are part of the long-term trends we see in a changing and varying climate—carbon levels are climbing, sea levels are rising, Arctic sea ice is melting, and our planet as a whole is becoming a warmer place,” said acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D. “This annual report is well-researched, well-respected, and well-used; it is a superb example of the timely, actionable climate information that people need from NOAA to help prepare for extremes in our ever-changing environment.”

It is interesting that she terms the information contained in the report as “timely.”

Below is a list of our comments, each made at least several months ago, on the topics highlighted in her statement.