Topic: Energy and Environment

White Coats Über Alles

Last week, a group of scientists announced the formation of a new coalition – Scientists and Engineers for America (SEFA) – to campaign for politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.” While the group professes to be nonpartisan, “the group will discuss the impact the Bush Administration’s science and technology policies have had in their fields and the need for voters to consider the science and technology policies by candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.”

I imagine that most people would agree that, in the words of SEFA, “Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.” But there’s more than a whiff of the sentiment here that Americans should just shut up and let the guys in the white coats run the country.

What irks me about the increasing bossiness of the self-appointed guardians of “science” is the lack of humility about their own profession.

First, there is disagreement among scientists about many of the issues they are concerned about – like global warming – and it’s not clear even to scientists exactly what is going on in the atmosphere. Assertions to the contrary are simply dishonest.

Second, scientists of all people should know that scientific truth is not determined by a show of hands. Theories stand or fall on hard data and evidence, not majority votes within politicized professional bodies. Virtually every single thing that the scientific “consensus” believes today was once a fringe minority perspective. Would we ever have arrived at our present intellectual location had minority dissenters been run out of town on a rail or burned at their professional stake? Scientific theories demand criticism to fulfill their promise. Scientists should welcome a public “kicking of the tires” and not try to punish those who engage in it.

Third, scientists might be able to better inform society about the facts of various matters, but they should not be allowed to dictate to society how it deals with those facts. The judgment of scientists regarding the proper trade-offs between this or that set of policy options is no better than yours or mine. In short, they have a lot less to contribute to the policy world than many people apparently think.

Finally, asking scientists to settle our policy problems for us inevitably politicizes science and corrupts the entire endeavor.

So to SEFA, I say “zip it.”

Are Californians Stupid? We’ll Soon Find Out

A month or so from now, we’ll get a chance to measure the IQ of voters everywhere in the form of several ballot initiatives. The most telling will be California’s Proposition 87, which proposes to tax the hell out of California oil production as a means of reducing gasoline prices. This, of course, is utter madness, but California has more than its share of economic illiterates, so it’s got a fighting chance.

An op-ed I co-wrote on the matter was published today in the Orange County Register. For more on this sort of unhinged nonsense, check out a study we wrote earlier this year on oil profits, price gouging, and the relative competitiveness of transportation fuel markets.

Despite all the crackpot economic gibberish thrown around Washington over the summer, Congress somehow managed to avoid signing off on anything near as stupid as Prop. 87. Let’s hope Golden State voters are at least the equal of our otherwise brain-dead federal legislators.

Global Warming Gas Bags

In an op-ed I recently cowrote with Peter Van Doren for the San Diego Union Tribune, I argued that California’s much ballyhooed legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 should probably be taken no more seriously than a New Years’ Eve Resolution.  The legislation has no teeth, it has offers no program to translate wish into reality, and has all the earmarks of any number of empty environmental pledges that have turned to dust with the passage of time.

There are now strong indications that the story line we predicted for California is being played out in Europe as well.  A report just out finds that without additional measures, the EU will only be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 1.6 percent below 1990 levels. Compare that with the 8 percent reduction promise undertaken by those same countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

One reason why environmental laws often cost less than advertised by the business community is that the goals written into those laws are subsequently ignored.  But as long as politicans gain full credit for promises made and can escape blame for promises broken, this is the sort of thing that is the rule rather than the exception.

Shoot ‘Em Before They Poop Again

If I were to ask you what the number one cause of bacterial pollution in the Potomac, Anacostia, and more than two dozen other rivers on the federal “impaired waters” list, what would you guess?  Sewage discharges?  Stormwater run-off?  Agricultural waste?  How about increased mountains of dung from our supposedly threatened wildlife populations?  You guessed it - because we have done such a good job making the human environment safe for all of God’s creatures, we are destroying the planet.

If you’re rushing off to make a bag of popcorn to watch the upcoming brawl between the National Wildlife Foundation (a polluter-defense league if there ever was one) and Greenpeace, walk, don’t run.  Animal pollution good.  People pollution bad.  But regardless, shouldn’t we at least require Bambi to secure a poop permit - or regulate the time and place at which these river-killing vermin can dispose of their waste product in an environmentally friendly manner? 

All Wet

For wetlands and Commerce Clause groupies, I have a short piece published in the Environmental Law Institute’s National Wetlands Newsletter analyzing the impact of last term’s wetlands-meets-federalism decision, Rapanos v. United States, here. While every critic of the case singles out Justice Kennedy for criticism, I aim equal ire at the failings of Chief Justice Roberts’ short, and equally problematic, concurrence.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die

James Lovelock, the author of the “theory known as Gaia, which holds that Earth acts like a living organism, a self-regulating system balanced to allow life to flourish,” has a new message for us: Never mind, it’s too late, Gaia can’t handle industrialization. Earth will be at least 10 degrees hotter in a decade or two. It’s irreversible. “We are poached,” the Washington Post reports.

So we might as well enjoy ourselves. Burn those fossil fuels. Build those McMansions. Eat those cheeseburgers. We’re doomed anyway.

Or you could recall an earlier doomsayer, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, who wrote in 1968, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He was slightly off. But he kept his job at the prestigious university, he made a bundle on his bestseller, and he still writes for publications like Scientific American. He’s even quoted praising Lovelock in the Post article.

As for Lovelock, he’s the subject of a huge, lavish, sales-boosting two-page profile in the Washington Post. Not to mention respectful reviews in major papers on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s speaking Friday at the respected Carnegie Institution of Washington. Why are people like Lovelock and Ehrlich treated seriously?

Crossposted from Comment is free.

The Myth, and Insight, of Owens Valley

Yesterday’s Washington Post included an article on the political battle between Las Vegas and northern Nevada over access to northern Nevada’s groundwater.

Unhelpfully, the article repeated the myth of Owens Valley, the southeastern California valley that, a century ago, became part of the nation’s first major water rights agreement. Under the deal, valley residents sold their property and water rights to Los Angeles, and much of the valley’s water was carried away by aqueduct to fuel the city’s growth into a major metropolitan area.

The Post repeats the myth faithfully:

The specter of California’s Owens Valley looms over the area, as people recall the aqueducts that almost 100 years ago turned a lush agricultural community into an environmental disaster so that water could be delivered to Los Angeles.

[…]

William Mulholland, as head of the Los Angeles water department in 1904, conceived the idea of an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. “He had no interest in draining the valley, he had no interest in creating that wasteland,” [Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada] said. “He did not want that to happen, but that’s what did happen because once the siphon was started it was impossible to turn it off.”

University of Arizona professor Gary Libecap, in research he summarized in a Summer 2005 Regulation article, has effectively exploded this myth.

Far from being a “lush agricultural community,” historical data show Owens Valley contained small, relatively low-production farms with a total of only about 50,000 acres in cultivation. Much of the valley’s income came from livestock, not planting. The area featured a fairly short growing season, high elevation, alkaline soils, and poor access to markets. In short, Libecap concludes, “Those data suggest that Owens Valley farmers may have been quite anxious to sell their land to an interested buyer.”

The Los Angeles–Owens Valley deal provided that buyer. Libecap’s research shows valley landowners were offered considerably more money for their property and water rights than what their farms were worth. The payments became even more enticing after the California legislature and courts forced the city to sweeten the deals.

That may ultimately prove the solution to the Nevada problem. As Ronald Coase famously argues, original distribution of property rights will not prove an impediment to ultimate efficiency so long as transactions costs are minimal. Put more simply, Las Vegas likely needs to up its offers to northern Nevada counties in order to get the water it needs. And, given Vegas’s growth rate, that bid is likely forthcoming.