Topic: Energy and Environment

Stranger in a Strange Land

A few days ago, I was quoted in an AP story as saying that scientists as scientists are in no position to dictate federal policy to address global warming. A rather predictable outcry followed, prompting my defense here.

Amazingly enough, that somewhat provocatively titled post did not soothe the savage environmental beasts. Michael Tobis, a climate scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, posted a rather angry shot over at Grist (the preeminent gathering place for environmentalists on the web) arguing that economists and economic analysis have absolutely nothing to add to the policy conversation about global warming. An editor over at Grist kindly invited me to respond, so I Fisked the man and responded to the commentary about two-thirds of the way down the page in a post titled “Taylor Defends Taylor.”

What exactly informs this “economists are a plague upon mankind” view of the environmental Left? My guess is that it is a combination of things. First, environmentalists deeply resent the fact that anyone would presume to put a price tag on things they value. Second, many environmentalists do not understand economics very well and thus fall for all sorts of cartoonish depictions about what economists do and what they think. Third, economic analysis does not support many environmental fantasies about the future of humankind under either the “business as usual” scenario or under the environmentalists’ vision of the Book of (Environmental) Revelation.

Of course, speaking of “economists” generically — as if all economists are alike — is as dubious as speaking of “environmentalists” generically. If the environmental Left really wants an informed criticism of economics, they would do well to pick up Robert Nelson’s Economics As Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond.

Scientists to World: Cut Greenhouse Gases Now! World to Scientists: Zip It!

Yesterday, 215 scientists released a petition in Bali - site of a global confab to talk about whether and how we should talk about a future treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - that “begs” the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. I was quoted in an AP story on the matter to the effect that scientists are in no position to intelligently dictate such a policy. And as expected, some in the blogosphere howled.

I do not believe in leaving public policy to “guys in white coats” - in any discipline. And that’s not necessarily a proposition that vitiates against environmentally-friendly public policy. Climate scientists do not have the training to tell us whether the costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions are less than, equal to, or greater than the costs of business as usual. And that’s something you would want to know before signing off on greenhouse gas emission reductions. When climate economists have explored that matter, they find little to support such emission reductions even if we accept the prognostications about the future coming out of the IPCC.

Likewise, economic calculations about the same are heavily predicated on how you feel about future costs and benefits. If you believe in valuing dollars and lives in, say, 2150 as much as you value dollars and lives today, then it’s hard to accept IPCC reports and not conclude that GHG emission cuts pass a cost-benefit test. If you apply a discount rate of, say, 3, 5, or 7 percent, then it’s hard to accept IPCC reports and not conclude that GHG emission cuts don’t pass a cost-benefit test. But how you value the future is subjective, and economists have no objectively “better” preference regarding that matter than you or I.

Many have argued that we should value our great grandchildren’s lives and money as much as we value our own. Fine - there is nothing objectively wrong with that belief. But if you do, hand in your Rawlsian membership card. That’s because you’re endorsing a policy that will transfer wealth and well-being from the relatively poor (us) to the very rich (them). That is, even if the Stern Review is correct about the economic costs of climate change, real per capita income in developing countries will be higher than that of the developed world today by 2100. Moreover, if you value the future every bit as much as you value the present - and thus embrace, say, a 0.1% discount rate - then simple math suggests you ought to be saving just about everything you earn.

I do not believe that “the experts” in any field should be dictating climate policy because there are plenty of important value judgments built in to those policies and experts however defined have no objectively better values than you or I. I do believe, however, that any serious reflection on the ethics of reducing greenhouse gas emission will find that the case for such a policy is harder to make than you might think, even if you accept what the IPCC is telling us.

England’s Free-Market Future?

No, the title does not refer to possible policy changes if Tories win the next election (after all, that would require a smaller-government agenda). Instead, it is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reaction to a story in England’s Daily Mail about couples who choose sterilization because they think children cause an unacceptable carbon footprint.

It is probably reasonable to assume that these people have a statist orientation. Since voting patterns and ideological orientation tend to be passed from one generation to the next, the electorate presumably will shift over time in a more market-friendly direction (or at least won’t shift as quickly in the wrong direction).

From the article:

Had Toni Vernelli gone ahead with her pregnancy ten years ago, she would know at first hand what it is like to cradle her own baby, to have a pair of innocent eyes gazing up at her with unconditional love, to feel a little hand slipping into hers — and a voice calling her Mummy. But the very thought makes her shudder with horror. Because when Toni terminated her pregnancy, she did so in the firm belief she was helping to save the planet.

…At the age of 27 this young woman at the height of her reproductive years was sterilised to “protect the planet”. Incredibly, instead of mourning the loss of a family that never was, her boyfriend (now husband) presented her with a congratulations card. …”Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.” While most parents view their children as the ultimate miracle of nature, Toni seems to see them as a sinister threat to the future.

…Toni is far from alone. When Sarah Irving, 31, was a teenager she sat down and wrote a wish-list for the future. …Sarah dreamed of helping the environment — and as she agonised over the perils of climate change, the loss of animal species and destruction of wilderness, she came to the extraordinary decision never to have a child. “I realised then that a baby would pollute the planet — and that never having a child was the most environmentally friendly thing I could do.” …[Her husband] Mark adds: “Sarah and I live as green a life a possible. We don’t have a car, cycle everywhere instead, and we never fly. We recycle, use low-energy light bulbs and eat only organic, locally produced food. In short, we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. But all this would be undone if we had a child. That’s why I had a vasectomy. It would be morally wrong for me to add to climate change and the destruction of Earth.”

European Politicians, Global Warming, and Moral Preening

European leaders (and their doubtlessly bloated staffs) plan to fly to Lisbon to sign a treaty and then fly to Brussels for a summit the following day.

This has caused a bit of griping, but not because taxpayer funds are being wasted, but rather because all those private jets will cause a large carbon footprint. So in a hollow gesture, the political heads of three countries are going to share a jet.

Gee, how thoughtful.

The EU Observer reports on the farce:

At the insistence of the Portuguese EU presidency, all 27 EU leaders and their delegations will fly to Lisbon on 13 December for a special signing ceremony of the bloc’s new treaty — and then jet on to Brussels for a regular EU summit meeting the next day. The cumbersome travel arrangements allow Portugal to call the new treaty the ‘Lisbon Treaty’ — but they have also led to criticism that EU leaders are setting a bad example by preaching about green values but then unnecessarily contributing to global warming through the short round trip. To reduce at least part of the summit’s carbon footprint, the Benelux leaders will board a Dutch government airplane when flying to and from Lisbon — something suggested by Mr Balkenende.

About Those Electric Cars ….

In a post yesterday, I scored U.S. News & World Report’s Marianne Lavelle for (among other things) passing on an estimate from an advocacy group called “CalCars” that “with today’s electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon.” In fact, it would cost you almost $3.50 to get the same amount of BTUs from electricity that you get from gasoline in this country (assuming, of course, you are paying the national average price for electricity). This morning, The Daily Kos takes me to task for not going further and taking into consideration the greater efficiency with which electric motors convert BTUs to energy vis a vis internal combustion engines powered by gasoline.

Fair enough. Concentrating simply on BTU costs doesn’t tell the whole story. I did not, however, read Ms. Lavelle’s claim as anything beyond a claim about the cost of electricity versus the cost of gasoline - that is, the cost of fuel.

A good walk-through of the conversion efficiencies in play can be found here. The environmental calculations therein, however, are more problematic in that the authors assume the fuel used to produce the electricity in question comes exclusively from natural gas. That’s not a very good assumption.

Despite claims to the contrary over at the Daily Kos, neither I nor libertarians in general have any axe to grind regarding electric motor vehicles. I am not “for” them or “against” them. When electric motor vehicles become economically attractive, I’m confident that auto manufacturers will produce them. If that were to happen over the next year or two, I would have zero complaint. And to the extent to which I have any opinion on the matter, I think it would be a very good thing if battery technology advanced to such a degree that electric power could compete with petroleum in transportation markets. I simply don’t think government subsidies or mandates are likely to hasten the day in which that wish will be translated into reality.

Renewable Energy BS at U.S. News & World Report

In an article posted the other day at U.S. News & World Report, Marianne Lavelle reports on the state of affairs in the renewable energy industry. While the story she tells is a good one, she makes two stunning errors that lead me to question every other figure reported in the article.

Error #1 -

Historically, ethanol has been more expensive than gasoline, but crude oil prices are now so high that ethanol would be cheaper even without its 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy. Indeed, one reason pump prices have not skyrocketed along with the price of crude oil is that so much fuel is blended with 10 percent ethanol.

Really? Ethanol (E100) prices on U.S. spot markets last week averaged $1.87 a gallon. That is indeed cheaper than the price of conventional gasoline in those same markets ($2.25 per gallon), but ethanol has only two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. If you want to buy enough ethanol to displace the energy you get from a gallon of gasoline, you would have to spend $2.80 per gallon. Hence, ethanol is not cheaper than gasoline, and federal mandates to use ethanol in transportation fuel does not reduce pump prices.

Error #2 -

The plug-in advocacy group CalCars estimates that with today’s electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon [were they to run their cars on electricity rather than gasoline].

Again, really? Electricity prices last week averaged 9.57 cents per kilowatt hour. Given that there are 3,400 BTUs in a kilowatt hour of electricity and about 124,000 BTUs in a gallon of gasoline, simple math dictates that it would cost almost $3.50 to buy enough electricity to get the same amount of energy we get from a gallon of gasoline.

Reporters have got to stop taking figures at face value from policy activists with political axes to grind. And editors have got to start asking reporters to independently back their numbers up. Until that happens, don’t bother with the print media. The “facts” bandied about therein are a crap shoot. Some are correct, some are not, but you never know which.

Heck of a Job, Smokey!

A couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of Agriculture proudly gave the Chief of the Forest Service an award for “exemplary leadership and accomplishment in reducing the risk of catastrophic fire to both the wildland and Wildland Urban Interface areas through the U.S. Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Program supporting the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.”

This award would be ironic even if fires in California had not burned hundreds of homes and hundreds of thousands of acres this week. Prior to the southern California inferno, wildland fires had already burned well over 1,800 structures and more than 8 million acres in 2007.

In fact, President Bush’s signing of the Healthy Forests Act in 2003 seemed to signal a huge increase in fires. In the decades prior to 2003, an average of about 4 million acres burned each year and only one year had topped 8 million. Since then, the number of acres burned has never been less than 8 million.

The real problem is too much money: Congress has given the Forest Service a virtual blank check for fire suppression. The agency – perhaps subconsciously realizing that it needs a sustained number of homes burned each year to keep Congress’ interest in giving it money – has not adopted policies aimed at cost-effectively protecting homes. Instead, it merely promises that it will save homes through fire suppression – a promise that it cannot keep.

The result is that homeowners – expecting that the Forest Service will apply massive resources to save their homes – do not make the efforts needed to protect their structures from fires. Those efforts are not very much: mainly applying a nonflammable roof and keeping flammable vegetation to a minimum within 100 to 150 feet of their homes. Those efforts are really all that is needed. In fact, some housing developments have been treated to be so safe from fire that residents are advised to stay in their homes during a fire rather than to evacuate.

For a thorough analysis of Forest Service fire policy, read my Cato policy paper, The Perfect Firestorm. For a review of the recent fires, see my Antiplanner blog.