Topic: Energy and Environment

Burning Books, Burning Witches, Burning Corn

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.”


History is littered with ideology gone awry.

The most recent example? Burning corn as a substitute for fossil fuels in an effort to mitigate anthropogenic climate change (which supposedly has a negative impact on the production of crops such as corn).

This is about as logical as publicity-stunt burnings of Harry Potter books because of objections to the contents within, which only results in more people buying and reading the books to find out what got the book-burners so inflamed in the first place.

With Harry Potter it was the fantasy world of witchcraft and wizardry. With corn ethanol it is the fantasy world of agriculturally damaging climate change.

A few years ago, a paper was published in the prominent scientific journal Science by Stanford’s David Lobell and colleagues that reported that human-caused global warming over the past 30 years resulted in a slowdown in global crop production. Modeling the climate response of the world’s four largest commodity crops—corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans—Lobell’s team calculated that as a result of rising temperatures and precipitation changes, global crop production was about 3 percent less than it otherwise would have been.

But consider this: The United States produces about 36 percent of the world’s corn. And about 40 percent of U.S. corn is used to produce ethanol for use as a gasoline substitute in an attempt to lower net carbon dioxide emissions from driving and reduce climate change. Globally, corn makes up 30 percent of total worldwide production of the four crops studied by Lobell’s group.

Multiply all these percentages out, and you get that the United States is burning a bit more than 4 percent of global crop production in an attempt to mitigate a climate-driven loss of 3 percent of the global crop production.

Rare “It’s Not as Bad as We Thought” Finding Published

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.

From the authors of a new paper just-published in the journal Nature Geoscience comes this surprising finding:

Tropical forests are less likely to lose biomass – plants and plant material – in response to greenhouse gas emissions over the twenty-first century than may previously have been thought.

A rare “not as bad as we thought” admission about the impacts of manmade global warming!

Not only that, but based on recent findings that the true climate sensitivity is much lower than climate models emulate—findings not incorporated in new study—the results are probably still even more “not as bad as they thought” than they thought!

Chris Huntingford from the U.K’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and colleagues coupled climate model projections to a land surface/vegetation model to see how the tropical forests in the Americas, Africa, and Asia respond to changes in atmospheric conditions. Their vegetation model includes interactions between terrestrial plants and influences such as temperature, precipitation, and the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere (a plant fertilizer).

Unlike other studies which used a very limited selection of climate models and less sophisticated vegetation models, the Huntingford team found that in virtually all future simulations that the biomass of tropical forests increases over the course of the 21st century. This is a significantly different result than many previous which suggested that anthropogenic climate change would lead to, as Huntingford et al. put it, “catastrophic losses of forest cover and biomass.”

Perhaps most interestingly, the major driver for the biomass increase is the projected growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (thanks to our use of fossil fuels). The model projected changes in precipitation had little impact on the biomass predictions and the projected increase in temperature acted to decrease the biomass (although not as much as additional carbon dioxide acted to increase it).

Which is why the results probably get even better if there is less warming associated with carbon dioxide emissions than current generation climate models predict (new research suggest that climate models together produce about 50% more warming than they should).

The authors are quick to mention that uncertainty abounds, as our level of understanding of forest response to changing environmental conditions is not all that high. But even given these uncertainties, the authors are confident that their results of increasing biomass are robust. Here is how Huntingford described the situation in a press release:

The big surprise in our analysis is that uncertainties in ecological models of the rainforest are significantly larger than uncertainties from differences in climate projections. Despite this we conclude that based on current knowledge of expected climate change and ecological response, there is evidence of forest resilience for the Americas (Amazonia and Central America), Africa and Asia.

Resilience. A refreshingly honest assessment of an ecosystem response to climate change. And one that is probably a much more apt descriptor of natural systems than “delicate,” “sensitive,” or “fragile.”

Now if only the folks in charge of assembling national and international climate impact assessments would realize (or probably more accurately, admit to) this.

We are hard at work trying to focus their attention as we are vigorously reviewing the latest draft “National Assessment” of climate change.  We will leak out particularly juicy snippets in these pages when the time seems right.


Huntingford, C. et al., 2013. Simulated resilience of tropical rainforests to CO2-induced climate change, Nature Geoscience, 10.1038/NGEO1741.

Government Science

We started up Cato’s Center for the Study of Science to investigate how the government’s virtual monopoly funding of many branches of science results in unseemly mixtures of science, scientists, and the political process.

Lest anyone wonder why we do this, here is the “motto” of the U.S. government’s Global Change Research Program (with its annual $2.6 billion budget):

“Thirteen Agencies, One Vision: Empower the Nation with Global Change Science”


We are currently in the midst of reviewing the latest offering from the USGCRP—its assessment of the potential impacts in the U.S. from anthropogenic climate change. Guess what, “it’s worse than we thought!”

Nevermind that this new document has no problems using screeds from the Union of Concerned Scientists, various climate “alliances,” and literature greyer than a Russian Blue cat, in support of some of its more lurid claims. After all, the USGCRP has a “vision.”

Speaking of vision, if you want to look for yourself, download this turkey here. Public comments due by April 12, 2013.

Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008

The lies begin right in the headline of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual press release patting the industry on the back for carrying heavily subsidized riders last year. “Record 10.5 Billion Trips Taken On U.S. Public Transportation In 2012,” claims the press release headline.

The text reveals that it wasn’t actually a record at all, but merely the “second-highest ridership since 1957.” When was the first highest? In 2008, meaning the headline would have been more accurate if it had read, “Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008.”

Of course, as a lobby group, APTA is paid to promote the transit industry. Reporters are also paid to see through lobbyists’ lies, but unfortunately many of them simply modestly rewrite the press release while others add their own questionable analyses.

Source: Auto driving is from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics series, while the transit numbers are from APTA’s own Public Transportation Fact Book.

Anti-auto writers gleefully report that transit ridership is growing faster than driving. While it is true that urban driving has stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis, the chart above shows that transit has a long way to go to catch up with driving. (Note that DC Streets Blog reports on total driving, while I use urban driving, which is a better comparison with urban transit.)

In 2012, transit carried about 1.8 percent of motorized urban passenger miles, which is about what transit’s share of urban passenger miles has been, plus or minus 0.1 percent, since 1993. Before then, it was 2.1 percent in 1990, 3.1 percent in 1980, and 4.7 percent in 1970. The roughly half a trillion dollars spent subsidizing transit since 1970 hasn’t done much good.

Another point APTA carefully neglects to mention is that urban population growth is the main source of transit ridership growth. Transit carried about 44 trips per urban resident in 2012, which is about what it has been, plus or minus 1 trip, since 2005. Prior to that, they grew since 1995, when they were just 38, but steadily shrank before then. In 1990, there were 47 trips per capita and in 1980 there were 51.

The press release also reports that the fastest growing form of transit is light rail. But it neglects to mention that that is mainly because of new construction. In fact, the miles of rail are growing far faster than rail riders.

In 1994, light rail carried more than 500,000 trips per route mile. By 1999 this had fallen below 400,000 trips per mile; by 2012 it was down to 300,000 trips per mile. With rising construction costs and falling ridership per mile, light rail is suffering from some seriously diminishing returns.

It is certainly reasonable to ask whether the stagnation of urban driving is a trend or simply a reflection of the recession and high unemployment rates among young people. But it is not reasonable to think that transit is providing an adequate substitute for urban driving.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s traffic volume trends, urban driving declined by 11 billion vehicle miles between 2007 and 2012. Considering average occupancy rates, that’s roughly 16 billion passenger miles. In that time period, urban transit gained about 3 billion passenger miles, all of them between 2007 and 2008. To the extent that people really are driving less, it is more because they are traveling less than that they are riding transit more.

Did Global Warming Prevent a Record-Breaking D.C. Snowstorm?

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.”

We haven’t seen any media stories relating global warming to the Wednesday’s weather in D.C.

We are certain that this would not have been the case had more than 11.5 inches of snow accumulated at Reagan National Airport, as it would have set the District’s all-time daily March snowfall record. Exceeding 8.5 inches would have set the record daily March snowfall observed at DCA (an accumulation well within the forecast range) and would probably have generated some global warming comments (after all, they were already waiting in the wings).

Is it only us, or does it seem that postmortem analyses of weather events only include the “consistent with human-caused global warming” meme when the event caused harm and suffering?

If our pernicious industrial activity impacts “extreme” weather, doesn’t it impact the non-extreme as well?

Despite what the global warming alarmists would like you to believe, there are a lot more of the latter than the former!

So was Wednesday’s non-record-breaking non-extreme non-snowstorm in D.C. “consistent with global warming?”

The simple answer: sure!

The temperature was just a wee bit too high for the snow to stick. And human emissions of greenhouse gases have caused a wee bit of temperature rise. Voila! Consistency.

Keystone XL Passes Another Hurdle

On Friday, the State Department released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline. It could not have been much worse for pipeline opponents.

The majority of the opposition has united around the climate change meme—that the approval of the Keystone XL will assure the viability of the Alberta tar sands as a major global oil supplier, a situation which they claim would mean “game over” for the climate.

I have been arguing that such a characterization of the project is nonsense.

The State Department sees things the same as me.

Here is a particularly salient point from the just-released EIS:

If all such pipeline capacity were restricted in the medium-to-long-term, the incremental increase in cost of the non-pipeline transport options could result in a decrease in production from the oil sands, perhaps 90,000 to 210,000 barrels per day (bpd) (approximately 2 to 4 percent) by 2030. If the proposed Project were denied but other proposed new and expanded pipelines go forward, the incremental decrease in production could be approximately 20,000 to 30,000 bpd (from 0.4 to 0.6 percent of total [Alberta tar sands] production) by 2030. (As examined in section 4.15, such production decreases would be associated with a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 0.35 to 5.3 MMTCO2e annually if all pipeline projects were denied, and in the range of 0.07 to 0.83 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) annually if the proposed Project were not built.)

Translating the State Department’s calculated emissions reductions into global temperature savings, 0.35 to 5.3 MMTCO2e becomes 0.0000002°C to 0.000003°C of temperature savings annually for not building the Keystone XL and all other pipelines for transporting tar sands oil (in both Canada and the U.S.), and the 0.07 to 0.83 MMTCO2e becomes 0.00000004°C to 0.0000005°C of annual temperature savings if the Keystone XL were denied but other proposed new and expanded pipelines go forward.

Even for our climatically-concerned president, these amounts are insignificant and not worth pursuing.

Basically, the State Department’s EIS offers nothing for President Obama to hide behind if he were to deny the project on climate concerns.

Environmental activists Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Robert Kennedy Jr., and the likes have lost the battle in terms of the science.

All they can hope for now is a decision heavy on symbolism and emotion and light on facts and science.

The rest of us can hope that common sense prevails.

Being that we are dealing with Washington DC decision-making, the odds are probably pretty much stacked against us.

Brookings Glosses Over Amtrak’s Failings

Intercity passenger trains are experiencing a “renaissance” with Amtrak ridership growing “faster than other major travel modes,” says a new report from the Brookings Institution. Indeed, the report continues, Amtrak’s short-distance trains (generally, routes of around 200 to 600 miles) have, on average, a “positive operating balance,” so more such short-distance routes should be added.

As a long-time lover of passenger trains, I wish the report’s statements were true, but they are not. To reach these conclusions, Brookings scholars have selectively used data; ignored one of the major travel modes; and relied on Amtrak accounting tricks to disguise losses.

The rapid growth of rail passenger travel that they report is from 1997 to 2012, but 1997 was near the bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership. If they had gone back to 1991, which was Amtrak’s peak before 2010, the would have revealed a very different story.

From 1991 to 2012, Amtrak passenger miles grew by a paltry 8 percent (compared with 32 percent between 1997 and 2012), while airline passenger miles grew by 68 percent (vs. 26 percent from 1997 to 2012). Let’s see: air travel grew 68 percent; Amtrak 8 percent. Not much of a rail renaissance, is there?

Of course, using 1991 instead of 1997 makes me just as selective as Brookings. So the chart above just compares the trends from 1990 to 2012. The important thing to note about the chart: Amtrak is insigificant, carrying in recent years little more than 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines. Amtrak would appear even more insignificant if the vertical scale were raised to show intercity driving of personal vehicles (as opposed to trucks and buses), which moves about 200 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak.

Amtrak’s performance looks even more dismal on a per capita basis. Amtrak may have posted record ridership in 2012, but the nation’s population was also 25 percent greater than in 1991 when Amtrak per capita ridership peaked at a mere 25 miles per person. Today, it is 13 percent less.  

When Brookings compares Amtrak with “other major travel modes,” it implies that Amtrak itself is a major travel mode. In fact, Amtrak’s 22 miles per person in 2012 compares with more than 1,800 miles in air travel and 4,200 miles in intercity auto travel. As a result, Amtrak carries only about 0.36 percent of intercity passenger travel in the U.S. That’s up from 1997, when it was 0.32 percent, but down from 1991, when it was 0.45 percent. Fluctuating between a third and a half percent does not make Amtrak a “major travel mode.”