Topic: Energy and Environment

The Big Lie About Global Warming

The most intellectually dishonest argument that makes the rounds these days about climate change is the claim that “the debate is over” regarding the relationship between industrial greenhouse gas emissions and our recent spate of warming.  It’s infuriating because it has power.  The enviro playbook is to avoid any detailed discussion of the science in the media - just repeat that phrase over and over, make some snide remark about how “skeptics” are either in deep denial or are simple lying hacks, and gut it out.  And if you repeat something often enough, people begin to believe it.

The master of this sort of thing is Al Gore.  A few days before the election, our uncredentialed scientist-in-chief was out on the campaign trail blasting away at every Republican he could find who had expressed doubts about the need for an anti-warming jihad.  When in Seattle to beat-up on GOP Rep. Dave Reichert, who was running for the U.S. Senate (unsuccessfully, it turns out), he expressed incredulousness that Reichert was still unsure whether industrial emissions of greenhouse gas caused planetary warming.

“C’mon!  And this man is a United States congressman?  You know, 15 percent of people believe the moon landing was staged on some movie lot and a somewhat smaller number still believe the Earth is flat. They get together on Saturday night and party with the global-warming deniers.”

That this sort of argument has power even with journalists on the warming beat is increasingly clear.  NBC’s chief science correspondant Robert Bazell, for instance, was asked on the air a few months ago by Brian Williams whether it was fair to say that the debate was over about whether industrial greenhouse gas emissions were warming the planet.  Brazell answered that you could find someone who believes the earth is flat and put them together with another person and have a debate on it, but it would not be any more of a serious debate than the debate about industrial emissions and global warming. 

Anyway, all of that is preface for an article that ran on election day in the “Science Times” section of the New York Times.  Therein, you’ll find an excellent story by reporter William Broad about a fascinating debate among geologists and paleoclimatologists about prehistoric (Phanerozoic to be specific) climate.  Turns out that the planet once enjoyed super-elevated levels of CO2 (up to 18 times that of the present), but that it’s very hard to detect elevated planetary temperatures from those high concentrations of greenhouse gases.  It’s unclear what this might mean, but the kicker is this:

“Carbon dioxide skeptics and others see the reconstructions [of prehistoric climate] of the last 15 years as increasingly reliable, posing fundamental quesitons about the claimed powers of carbon dioxide.  Climatologists and policy makers, they say, need to ponder such complexities rather than trying to ignore or dismiss the unexpected findings.  ‘Some of the work has been quite meticulous,’ Thure E. Cerling, an expert at the University of Utah on Phanerozoic climates, said.  ‘We are likely to learn something.’”

Honest scientists (of which there are suprisingly many - at least when they’re talking to themselves) and honest environmental politicians (of which there are few) concede that there’s a non-zero chance that the reigning consensus is wrong and that high concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide have far less impact on global temperatures than we think.  In fact, that concession is made in multiple places in the four previous IPCC reports that have been published - the oft-cited “Bible” of consensus science on the matter.  Broad’s article suggests that there is in fact a greater possiblity that the present consensus is wrong than you would ever think if you read the other sections of the New York Times - or pretty much any other newspaper in the country, for that matter. 

Voters Yawn over Global Warming

I’ve long argued that enviros don’t have anywhere near the electoral clout most people think and that no one is going to gain much political capital donning the garb of “Mr. Green Jeans.”  Today, the trade publication Greenwire (subscription required) agrees.  And believe me, these are the last people who want to make this argument.

CAMPAIGN 2006: Voters cool to climate issue in torrid midterm races

Darren Samuelsohn, Greenwire senior reporter

Five Northeastern Republicans facing fierce re-election battles turned just before the latest congressional recess to global warming in hopes the issue would boost their chances in their suburban House districts.

But the lawmakers apparently got little traction from climate change in a campaign dominated by voter concerns about the Iraq war, President Bush’s unpopularity and overall dissatisfaction with Republican leadership.

“It’s been very difficult for any of these incumbents whose problems are bigger than themselves, or whose problems have been themselves,” said Bernadette Budde, a senior vice president for the Business and Industry Political Action Committee. “They have had a hard time changing the subject.”

The five – Reps. Curt Weldon (Pa.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.) – cosponsored in September what some consider the most aggressive bill to date aimed at limiting heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. The bill’s lead sponsor is Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the presumed new chairman of the House Government Reform Committee if his party wins a majority of House seats.

“Doing it before Congress goes off to campaign is telling,” said Howard Reiter, chairman of the political science department at the University of Connecticut. He added that global warming is a nuanced subject that comes with an important caveat: It may require constituents to make sacrifices in their day-to-day lives.

“The problem with global warming is its incremental,” Reiter said. “It’s not as if there’s an immediate crisis people can see.”

Massie Ritsch, spokesman for The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending, said the recent media frenzy over climate change – from Hollywood-style documentaries to mainstream press coverage – did little to stir voters this year. “For all of the attention Al Gore’s movie got, it hasn’t stayed a major election issue,” he said.

The lack of voter interest in climate change is not due to a lack of effort from environmental groups ….

Reporter Michael Burnham contributed to this report.

Global Warming Costs & Benefits

A few days ago, the British government released the Stern report, a voluminous study arguing that the costs associated with stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations at 550 parts per million were far less than the costs associated with doing nothing. Although the study acknowledged rather large bounds of uncertainty, the median estimates therein suggested that business as usual (that is, we do nothing) would mean a loss of 5–10% of global GDP every year forever. Most of those harms, however, could be avoided if we spent 1% of global GDP to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are very good reasons to suspect that Stern’s estimates regarding the cost of cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions are too low and that the damages forecast by Stern are too high. The underlying assumptions of the analysis producing Stern’s estimates have been well dissected by statistician Bjorn Lomborg, climate scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., and economist Richard Tol. But for the moment, let’s put those complaints aside.

My colleague Peter Van Doren and I have done three present value calculations assuming that business as usual (BAU) will reduce global GDP by 2%, 5%, and 10% beginning in 2056 and then in each and every year through the end of time. Don’t worry about the silliness of such a proposition. Oddly enough, once you try calculating beyond 200 years, the numbers don’t really change much given the need to discount future costs and benefits by 5%.

First, we calculated the cost of using 1% of GDP every year through the end of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The net present value of that cost is $15,541 per person in the United States.

Then, we calculated the benefits for U.S. citizens (global GDP figures are pretty dodgy, so we stuck with U.S. GDP figures for the purposes of this exercise). They amount to $36,447 is you accept -10% GDP as your BAU scenario, $18,239 if you accept -5% GDP as your BAU scenario, and $7,295 if you accept -2% GDP as your BAU scenario.

In other words, Stern’s investment advice makes sense only if you think that warming will hammer GDP by 10% a year. You don’t gain much at all from emission cuts, however, if you think GDP will only drop by 5% a year if we do nothing. And if you think warming will only cost the global economy 2% of GDP every year (the “concensus” belief among economists, which comes from a widely cited analysis from Yale economist William Nordhaus), then Stern’s investment advice is shere lunacy.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the fact that reducing greenhouse gas emissions might produce no benefits at all. The latest IPCC report — as all other reports before it — acknowledge that the evidence that anthropogenic emissions are primarily driving the warming we’ve detected is strong but circumstantial. Scientists disagree about how large the chances are that we’re wasting our time cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but there’s no disagreement within the latest IPCC report that there’s a chance that anthropogenic emissions are not particularly important factors in climate at present.

Is global warming insurance a good buy? Probably not. And that’s particularly true given the fact that the relative poor (us) will pay the premium so that the relatively rich (our children and grandchildren) will get the benefits if there are any. For example, since 1950 real GDP per capita has increased by about 2% per year. Given that growth rate, U.S. GDP per capita in 100 years would be $321,684 in current dollars, or more than seven times higher than it is at present ($44,403). If global warming cuts GDP by even 10%, then GDP per capita will be $289,515 in 2106 rather than $321,684. Would anyone, let alone liberals, ever propose a 1% tax on those who make $44,000 to create benefits for those who make $289,000?

Global Warming Science — Utter Garbage

… at least, that’s what one might think about the state of the literature today after reexamining a paper by Isabelle Chuine et al. that was published a couple of years ago in the journal Nature (subscr. required). 

Chuine et al. claimed to have developed a method for estimating summer temperatures in the French wine region of Burgundy from 1370 to the present based on the dates that grapes were harvested. Using this method, the authors asserted that the summer of 2003 was the warmest summer in Burgundy since 1370. The study was offered up as yet one more piece of evidence that global warming is running amuck. 

But not so fast — it turns out that the estimates offered by Chuine et al. have absolutely no relation with observed temperatures and that no one ever bothered to check whether their estimates matched hard data when the two coincided. In a forthcoming paper for Theoretical and Applied Climatology, Douglas Keenan tears the Chuine paper limb from limb

More importantly, Keenan calls attention to the overall shoddiness of the scientific press today and the researchers publishing therein:

What is important here is not the truth or falsity of the assertion of Chuine et al. about Burgundy temperatures. Rather, what is important is that a paper on what is arguably the world’s most important scientific topic (global warming) was published in the world’s most prestigious scientific journal with essentially no checking of the work prior to publication.

Moreover — and crucially — this lack of checking is not the result of some fluke failures in the publication process. Rather, it is common for researchers to submit papers without supporting data, and it is frequent that peer reviewers do not have the requisite mathematical or statistical skills needed to check the work (medical sciences excepted). In other words, the publication of the work of Chuine et al. was due to systemic problems in the scientific publication process.

The systemic nature of the problems indicates that there might be many other scientific papers that, like the paper of Chuine et al., were inappropriately published. Indeed, that is true and I could list numerous examples. The only thing really unusual about the paper of Chuine et al. is that the main problem with it is understandable for people without specialist scientific training. Actually, that is why I decided to publish about it. In many cases of incorrect research the authors will try to hide behind an obfuscating smokescreen of complexity and sophistry. That is not very feasible for Chuine et al. (though the authors did try).

Finally, it is worth noting that Chuine et al. had the data; so they must have known that their conclusions were unfounded. In other words, there is prima facie evidence of scientific fraud. What will happen to the researchers as a result of this? Probably nothing. That is another systemic problem with the scientific publication process.

Unfortunately, few enviro-beat reporters take the time to critically examine the avalanche of papers crossing their desk claiming this, that, or the other. Fact-checking rarely if ever occurs. The Globe and Mail, for instance, was absolutely breathless about Chuine’s findings. After all, what a topical hook: global warming will screw up your pinot noir!

The lesson here is that you can’t assume that anything in the scientific literature has ever been given even a cursory critical review prior to publication. Peer-review means nothing. Swallow this stuff at your own risk. 

Why Not Mandate This?

There are two beliefs that animate government R&D policy in the energy arena.

Belief #1: If you subsidize it, it will come. Wanting technology x to succeed in the market is a simple matter of throwing government money at technology x.

Belief #2: Politicians have every right to tell market actors what to invest in and what to buy. George Bush’s preferences for what Detroit ought to build (engines powered by hydrogen-powered fuel cells) and his preferences for what we ought to put in our fuel tanks in the meantime (200 proof grain alcohol, which goes by the moniker “ethanol”) should rule the day.

OK then, why not both subsidize the creation of – and mandate the production of – cars run by air? It’s doable. It’s carbon-free. And what possible environmental complaint might anyone have? Sure, it might be costly, and the car might not perform all that well, but government dough is like magic – all will be made right.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

A couple of people over recent days have asked my opinion on the prospects for reform of agriculture policy should Democrats take over the House and/or the Senate. My usual reply is to lament the depressingly bipartisan nature of support for farm subsidies and trade barriers, and to also point out that the recent farm bill (implemented by a Republican congress) has been one of the most expensive in history: $23 billion last year. In a nutshell, I had thought that the prospects for reform could not be any worse under the Democrats than under Republicans.

It turns out that I may be wrong (yes, it happens occasionally). In a recent press release from Texas A&M University, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee (and probable chairman of that committee should the Democrats regain the majority in the House), Colin Peterson (D-MN) seems to support extension of the current farm bill, egregious though it is, but with yet more pork added.

Rep. Peterson would implement permanent crop disaster relief (I have blogged on this idea previously), and was indirectly quoted as calling renewable energy derived from crops ”the most exciting development in agriculture in his lifetime.”

Rep. Peterson does seem to have a point about the scope for the addition of expensive and agriculture-irrelevant rider amendments to ad-hoc disaster relief bills, but describing a permanent disaster relief program as a way to “save taxpayer dollars” is disingenuous, to say the least.

Rep. Peterson seems to have no truck with the idea that agriculture should contribute to deficit reduction, either: “I reject the idea that because we have a $9 trillion deficit, we have to get rid of farm programs. We didn’t cause that problem. In fact, agriculture was the only government initiative that actually spent less than was projected, $13 billion less so far. Besides, if you got rid of all agriculture programs, it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. So we need to do what’s right for agriculture, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

On ethanol, which my colleague Jerry Taylor has blogged about here, Rep. Peterson wheeled out the old “foreign oil dependency” issue and put his full support behind investing significant resources (that’s your resources) into more research into bio-fuels, describing the profits that investors are making currently from ethanol as “obscene.”

You said it, sir.