Topic: Energy and Environment

The Current Wisdom: The Administration’s Social Cost of Carbon Turns “Social Cost” on Its Head

This Current Wisdom takes an in-depth look at how politics can masquerade as science.

                      “A pack of foma,” Bokonon said

                                                Paraphrased from Cat’s Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut

In his 1963 classic, Cat’s Cradle, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut described the sleepy little Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the populace was mesmerized by the prophet Bokonon, who created his own religion and his own vocabulary. Bokonon communicated his religion through simple verses he called “calypsos.” “Foma” are half-truths that conveniently serve the religion, and the paraphrase above is an apt description of the Administration’s novel approach to determining the “social cost of carbon” (dioxide). 

Because of a pack of withering criticism, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is now in the process of reviewing how the Obama Administration calculates and uses the social cost of carbon (SCC).  We have filed a series of Comments with the OMB outlining what is wrong with the current SCC determination. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with some of the problems that we have identified, but our continuing analysis of the Administration’s SCC has yielded a few more nuggets.

We describe a particularly rich one here—that the government wants us to pay more today to offset a modest climate change experienced by a wealthy future society than to help alleviate a lot of climate change impacting a less well-off future world.

Climate Change: We TOLd You So.

Global Science Report is a 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 complain so constantly about the pessimistic view that the government takes on climate change that perhaps some of you are thinking alright already, we get it.  Of course, the concept that governments exaggerate threats in order for the populace to clamor to be led to safety is Mencken at his pithiest, and such sentiment  is not in particularly short supply here at Cato!

If  you think that we are out on a pessimistic limb, check out this story making headlines out of Japan, from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting to hash out the second part of their latest climate change assessment report.  The first part, on the science of climate change, was released last fall (it was horrible). The second part deals with the impacts of climate change (isn’t going to be much better). The news is that one of the lead authors on the economics chapter, Richard Tol, Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex, has quit the IPCC over their irrational negativity.

Here is how a Reuters article headlined “UN author says draft climate report alarmist, pulls out of team” captured Tol’s thoughts:

Tol said the IPCC emphasised the risks of climate change far more than the opportunities to adapt. A Reuters count shows the final draft has 139 mentions of “risk” and 8 of “opportunity”.

Tol said farmers, for example, could grow new crops if the climate in their region became hotter, wetter or drier. “They will adapt. Farmers are not stupid,” he said.

He said the report played down possible economic benefits of low levels of warming. Less cold winters may mean fewer deaths among the elderly, and crops may grow better in some regions.

“It is pretty damn obvious that there are positive impacts of climate change, even though we are not always allowed to talk about them,” he said. But he said temperatures were set to rise to levels this century that would be damaging overall.

Tol has developed an economic model that finds that modest climate change will prove economically positive. However, towards that latter part of this century, temperatures in his model are projected to rise to such a degree that that resulting negative consequences eventually overwhelm the positive one.  Thus the final sentence in the passage above.

However, the climate projections that are incorporated in Tol’s economic model are likely wrong—they predict too much warming from future carbon dioxide emissions. When those climate model projections are brought more in line with the current best science, the positive economic benefits from Tol’s model likely extend far beyond the end of the 21st century.

The bottom line is that people adapt to climate change and so long as it is relatively modest—and there is growing evidence that it will be—the human condition will almost certainly be no worse off and probably even better.

Enough with the pessimistic outlook!  It is high time to celebrate the progress we are making, in the face of, or even in part because of, the earth’s changing climate.

If People Are Like Polar Bears, We’ll Be Fine

Global Science Report is a 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 United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Japan this week to finalize the second part of its latest compendium on climate change.

The first part, the Working Group I report, focused on the physical science of climate change.  The main findings of that report, released last fall, have been widely panned for not telling the truth about how the latest science is stacking up in support of modest rather than alarming climate change.

The second part, making the news this week, is from the IPCC’s Working Group II and focuses on the effects of climate change.

In an interesting piece in a blog hosted by the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico reports that if leaked drafts are to be trusted, the new report will mark a “formal moving on of the debate from the past, futile focus upon “mitigation” to a new debate about resilience and adaptation.”

We can only wonder what took them so long to realize this—something that we have been saying from virtually day one of this whole global warming thing.

That is not to say that the new IPCC report won’t proclaim that a whole lot of bad things are going to happen as a result of climate change. It most assuredly will say that. But, as we last reported, much of that concern is overblown hype.

Here is another example:

The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.

We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion on transit since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (=op costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

(By the way, APTA responded to my statement that virtually all of the growth in ridership in 2013 took place in New York City, saying, “That statement is not true… . Many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year.” But I never said that every single transit system outside of New York declined, only that the sum total, minus New York, declined, which is easily verified from APTA’s own data.)

APTA is correct that transit ridership bottomed out in 1995, at least according to its numbers. (Federal Transit Administration numbers are a little different and show ridership bottoming out in 1993.) But it is a stretch to say that subsidies are responsible for the growth in ridership since 1995 (or ‘93). Both operating and capital subsidies to transit have grown steadily since the mid 1960s, but ridership hasn’t always followed.

In particular, ridership declined through 1972 to about 6.6 million trips, then increased through 1980 to about 8.5 million trips, hovered around there for about a decade, then declined from 8.9 million trips in 1989 to 7.8 million trips in 1995, then increased to 10.5 million trips in 2008, and has hovered around there since then. If increased subsidies were responsible for the increase after 1995, why didn’t increased subsidies lead to increased ridership between 1965 and 1972 or between 1989 and 1995?

AAAS’s Guide to Climate Alarmism

Global Science Report is a 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.”

Back in the Bush II Administration, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) nakedly tried to nudge the political process surrounding the passage of the environmentally-horrific ethanol fuel mandate.  It hung a large banner from the side of its Washington headquarters, picturing a corn stalk morphing into a gas pump, all surrounded by a beautiful, pristine, blue ocean.  They got their way, and we got the bill, along with a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

So it’s not surprising that AAAS is on the Washington Insider side of global warming, releasing  a report today that is the perfect 1-2-3 step-by-step how-to guide to climate change alarm.

This is how it is laid out in the counterfactually-titled AAAS report  “What We Know”:

Step 1: State that virtually all scientists agree that humans are changing the climate,

Step 2: Highlight that climate change has the potential to bring low risk but high impact outcomes, and

Step 3: Proclaim that by acting now, we can do something to avert potential catastrophe.

To make this most effective, appeal to authority, or in this case, make the case that you are the authority. From the AAAS:

We’re the largest general scientific society in the world, and therefore we believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.

But despite promising to inform us as to “what the science is showing,” the AAAS report largely sidesteps the best and latest science that points to a much lowered risk of extreme climate change, choosing instead to inflate and then highlight what meager evidence exists for potential catastrophic outcomes—evidence that in many cases has been scientifically challenged (for example here and here).

New NWF Report “Mascot Madness: How Climate Change Is Hurting School Spirit”—They’re Kidding, Right?

The latest from the National Wildlife Federation has to rank among the most absurd global warming reports I have encountered.  And, after 30 years of encountering all sorts of wacky warming hype, this is saying a lot.

This NWF doozey is entitled “Mascot Madness: How Climate Change is Hurting School Spirit” and was timed so as to try to take advantage of the pre-coverage of the upcoming March Madness—the popular annual NCAA college basketball tournament. Apparently linking climate change to negative impacts on sports is a new green tactic.

The NWF’s premise is that human-caused global warming is threatening the natural version of school mascots, and, in some cases, causing them to be dissociated from the region that includes the university that they represent, presumably dampening “school spirit.”

The NWF offered up its solution to this vexing problem:

• Passing effective laws that reduce carbon pollution and other air pollutants that drive climate change and endanger the health of our communities and wildlife.

• Investing in clean, wildlife-friendly, renewable energy sources to replace our dangerous dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

• Practicing “climate-smart conservation” by taking climate change into account in our wildlife and natural resource management efforts.

Of course.

Even if it were true that anthropogenic climate change could be scientifically linked to changes in the location and/or health of the various school mascot species—which it almost certainly can’t—how this impacts “school spirit” is completely beyond me.

If the real-world situation that the mascots find themselves in is reflected in school spirit, can you imagine the level of dejection in the fan base of say the San Diego State Aztecs, the University of Southern California Trojans, the University of Calgary Dinos, or the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons? It is a wonder that a single seat is filled for home games.

And as to the relationship between the natural territory of the mascot and the degree of rah-rahness, consider what must be the struggle facing the booster clubs behind the UC Irvine Anteaters, the Pittsburg (Kansas) State Gorillas, the Youngstown State Penguins, or the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos. Global warming’s impact is small beans compared to this kind of territorial displacement!

The NWF draws special attention to the worrisome case of the rivalry between the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes, fretting that climate change is driving the wolverine out of the state of Michigan while simultaneously driving the buckeye tree into Michigan (and out of Ohio).

But, according to this webpage from the University of Michigan athletic association, how the University’s mascot became the Wolverines is a matter of some debate. Interestingly, the page goes on to note that an actual wolverine has never been captured in the state of Michigan, and the first verified sighting of one didn’t occur until 2004!

And a quick peak at the USDA Plant Guide indicates that distribution of the Ohio buckeye tree shows that while the tree may extend is natural boundary northward in a warming climate, there is still plenty of territory south of Ohio to keep the tree in the state for a long time to come.  So, everyone (including the NWF) can rest assured that climate change will not serve to lessen the Michigan/Ohio state rivalry.

In keeping with the ringing the global warming alarm bells, I am a bit surprised that the NWF didn’t compile a companion report titled “Mascot Madness: How Climate Change is Boosting School Spirit to Unhealthy Levels.” In that report, they could have featured the Miami Hurricanes, the University of British Columbia-Okanagan Heat, the Geneva College Golden Tornadoes, the Southeastern Oklahoma Savage Storm, and, of course, the most obvious of all, the Dartmouth College Big Greens.

Lessons from the New Transit Data

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Times observes, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements. 

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places. 

APTA wants people to believe that transit is an increasingly important form of transportation. In fact, it is increasingly irrelevant. Although urban driving experienced a downward blip after the 2008 crash, it is now rising again, while transit outside of New York City is declining. Source: Urban driving data from Federal Highway Administration, urban population from the Census Bureau, and transit numbers from APTA. Transit PM = transit passenger miles.

Rail and bus ridership have grown in Seattle and a few other cities, but the point is that construction of expensive transit projects with federal funds is not guaranteed to boost transit ridership. In many cases, overall transit ridership declines because the high costs of running the rail systems forces transit agencies to cut bus service.

APTA wants more federal funding because many of its associate members are rail contractors who depend on federal grants to build obsolete transit systems. Light-rail lines being planned or built today cost an average of more than $100 million per mile, while some cities have built new four-lane freeways for $10 million to $20 million per mile, and each of those freeway lanes will move far more people per day than a light-rail line. 

Congress will be reconsidering federal funding for highways and transit this year, and APTA wants as much money as possible diverted to transit. President Obama has proposed a 250 percent increase in deficit spending on transportation, most of which would go to transit.

Transit only carries about 1 percent of urban travel, yet it already receives more than 20 percent of federal surface transportation dollars. Since most of those federal dollars come out of gas taxes, auto drivers are being forced to subsidize rail contractors, often to the detriment of low-income transit riders whose bus services are cut in order to pay for rail lines into high-income neighborhoods.

The real problem with our transportation system is not a shortage of funds, but too much money being spent in the wrong places. New York City transit was the only major transit system in the country that covered more than half its operating costs out of fares in 2012; the average elsewhere was less than 30 percent. Funding transportation out of user fees, such as mileage-based user fees and transit fares, would give transportation agencies incentives to spend the money where it is needed by transport users, not where it will create the most pork for politicians.