Topic: Energy and Environment

Why Are Environmental Policy Conflicts So Intractable?

On Earth Day the op-ed pages remind me of “Groundhog Day.”  Environmentalists argue we need stricter environmental regulation.  Business interests argue such regulations reduce economic growth and cost the economy jobs.  Each also invokes “sound science” as an adjudicator of the conflict.  Environmentalists invoke “science” in the case of CO2 emissions and effects while business interests invoke “science” in the case of traditional pollution emissions.  Each year we wake up and the same movie plays out.

The scientific validity of people’s preferences plays no role in the market’s delivery of private goods.  Markets can and do supply organic lettuce regardless of whether it is really “better” for your health.  The scientific validity of people’s preferences is irrelevant.

Air- and water-quality environmental disputes are more challenging to analyze than the supply of organic lettuce for two reasons.  First, while property rights exist for lettuce, they often do not exist for air and water.   Thus, environmental politics involves continuous struggle over implicit property rights and the wealth effects that flow from such rights.  Second, both conventional air and water quality are “local” public goods (club goods) rather than private goods, thus individual differences in consumption, the primary method of reducing conflict associated with private goods, are not possible.  Instead, everyone’s varied preferences for environmental goods can only result in one jointly consumed outcome.

One possible impediment to the implementation of market-like solutions to air and water quality is that the initial ownership of property rights to air or water emissions not only has wealth but also efficiency effects.  That is those particular property rights (the right to a pristine environment) are so valuable relative to other assets that their initial allocation alters the willingness of people to pay for them and thus affects how much pollution exists.  In such cases the initial distribution is the whole ballgame because it determines the resulting air- and water- quality levels.

Why Can’t We Have Great Trains? Because We Don’t Want Them

Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”

Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.

Dealing with the California Drought

California has had several years of record low rainfall, resulting in a severe water shortage. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has responded by ordering a 25 percent reduction in urban water system use.

Are there any solutions to the state’s water shortage other than government mandates? Gary Libecap, professor of environmental management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues in a recent issue of Regulation that the restoration of clear water ownership rights and the cultural and political acceptance of water markets is an easier solution.

Conventional accounts of water problems in the West often blame farmers and their excessive use of water in places like the vegetable-farming Central Valley. But according to Libecap, “farmers are not the source of the problem. … Most would be pleased to sell or lease water that could earn more than is generated in agricultural production.”

But farmers haven’t traded away some of their water rights because of the “public trust doctrine,” as first described in a 1970 Michigan Law Review article by Joseph Sax. Libecap explains:

You Ought to Have a Look: “Sustainability” Not Sustainable

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.


This week, as Pope Francis announced the Vatican will host a climate change summit later this month focusing on “sustainable development,” the conventional wisdom of “sustainability” came under fire.

For example, New York Times’ report Eduardo Porter penned an article “A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development” with this provocative introduction:

The average citizen of Nepal consumes about 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year. Cambodians make do with 160. Bangladeshis are better off, consuming, on average, 260.

Then there is the fridge in your kitchen. A typical 20-cubic-foot refrigerator—Energy Star-certified, to fit our environmentally conscious times—runs through 300 to 600 kilowatt-hours a year.

American diplomats are upset that dozens of countries—including Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh—have flocked to join China’s new infrastructure investment bank, a potential rival to the World Bank and other financial institutions backed by the United States.

The reason for the defiance is not hard to find: The West’s environmental priorities are blocking their access to energy.

Porter’s article announced the release of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”—a work by a collection of “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” who “write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

Sounds interesting.

You Ought to Have a Look: Curry on Worry

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.

This week, we have two notable items of interest.

First and foremost, a must-read article from Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog where Judy quite adeptly introduces us to the concept of an “availability cascade”—a process that has come to dominate and define climate alarmism. Curry writes that an

availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation that triggers a self-perpetuating chain reaction: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and greater alarm.

She describes how the cascade of events began with the 1992 United Nations Rio Treaty aimed at “avoiding dangerous climate change through stabilization of [carbon dioxide] emissions,” transformed from “global warming” to “climate change” so as to pick up extreme weather events, and now has swept human health into the growing avalanche of woe.

Judy’s article is one of the best pieces we have read on the web is recent weeks (and we’re not just saying that because she incorporates some of our work!). Bravo to her! Here is a longer excerpt, but you (really, really) ought to have a look at the whole thing:

California Drought: The Rest of the Story

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.”

When the national media covers a weather story these days, it almost certainly will find some angle in which to insert/assert an element of human-caused climate change, and that element will always be characterized such as to have made the situation worse. It would take a lot of thinking on our part to try to recollect a major weather-related story in which the global warming was suggested to have ameliorated the impact—this despite a scientific literature that is complex and nebulous as to the direction of most impacts, and even less certain regarding the current detectability of such impacts.

Take for example the coverage of the current drought in California. As the drought drags on with spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas at record low levels—a finding which has prompted California Gov. Brown to enact statewide water restrictions—the press is eager to finger our greenhouse gas-spewing modern economy as the prime culprit. The problem is most scientific research suggests that the lack of precipitation in California has its roots in natural variability (for example, this recent paper by Thomas Delworth and colleagues which finds a common cause to drought in the western U.S. and the hiatus in global warming).

Thus, for the time being at least, bedeviled by actual science, most in the press have resisted placing much of the blame on the lack of precipitation at the feet of anthropogenic global warming.

But, there are actually two components which contribute to drought: 1) lack of precipitation, and 2) high temperatures.

Stymied on the first, many in the media have turned to the second. 

White House Announces Initiative to Focus on Health Concerns of Global Warming: We’ve Already Done It For Them!

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.”

It seems like the Obama Administration is a bit behind the times when it comes to today’s announcement that it will start a new initiative to focus on the health effects of climate change.

There is no need for the White House to outlay federal resources for the time and effort that will be involved—we have already done it for them (and, undoubtedly, for a minuscule fraction of the price)!

Two and a half years ago, we released a publication titled “ADDENDUM: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” that basically was a non-government-influenced look at how climate change would likely impact the United States in the future, based a lot on current trends in climate and society. We titled it an “ADDENDUM” because the U.S. Global Change Research Program, back in 2009, released a similarly titled report that was so incomplete that, well, it needed an addendum. We knew the government wasn’t going to supply one, so we produced one ourselves.

In our report (available here), we included a chapter on human health. Here are the key messages from that chapter:

  • The health effects of climate change on the United States are negligible today, and likely to remain so in the future, unless the United States goes into precipitous economic and technological decline.
  • Death certificate data indicate that 46 percent of all deaths from extreme weather events in the United States from 1993-2006 were from excessive cold, 28 percent were from excessive heat, 10 percent were from hurricanes, 7 percent were from floods, and 4 percent were from tornadoes.
  • Over the long term, deaths from extreme weather events have declined in the United States.
  • Deaths in the United States peak in the colder months and are at a minimum in the warmer months.
  • In U.S. cities, heat-related mortality declines as heat waves become stronger and/or more frequent.
  • Census data indicate that the migration of Americans from the cold northern areas to the warmer southwest saves about 4,600 lives per year and is responsible for three to seven per cent of the gains in life expectancy from 1970-2000.
  • While the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that “Some diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects are likely to increase,” incidence of these diseases have been reduced by orders of magnitude in the United States over the past century, and show no sign of resurgence.

We effectively show that if you want to focus on the health of Americans, there is no need to bring climate change into the equation—especially if you are hoping to find negative impacts (which appears to be the goal of the Administration).

Scads of new science–on everything from heat-related mortality, to asthma, to extreme weather–continues to support that general conclusion.

Of note is that accompanying today’s White House announcement is an announcement from the USGCRP that it has produced its own reportThe Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.”

Based on loads of past experience with the USGCRP, we can only imagine the worst.

Public comments on this draft of the USGCRP report are due on June 8, 2015. It’s on our calendar.