Topic: Energy and Environment

The Sun: Attracting Global Warming Complaints?

Would you believe the sun’s magnetic field is a culprit? 

According to a new study from the Danish National Space Center, cosmic rays created by the explosions of distant stars play an important role in cloud formation in the earth’s lower atmosphere. Those clouds have a cooling effect on the planet. The sun’s magnetic field, however, interferes with this process to some degree, and that field has doubled for some reason in the 20th century. 

According to the Space Center’s website:

The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, may be a significant factor in the global warming Earth has undergone during the last century.

Grist for the mill. I’m sure it will only be a matter of time, however, before someone claims that the Danish National Space Center is secretly on the Exxon take.

Is Someone Trying to Buy Your Vote with Low Gasoline Prices?

For the few weeks now, I’ve received an increasing number of calls from reporters and TV & radio producers to discuss the latest of a never-ending spate of conspiracy theories regarding “Big Oil.” This one has it that somebody — oil companies, the Saudis, and/or Goldman Sachs — is manipulating the gasoline market downward in order to reduce public anger over pump prices. Lower prices = less angry voters, and the less angry voters are, the less likely they are to throw Republicans out of office. Or so the theory goes.

I’ve been content to dismiss this stuff as not worth my time, but lo and behold, the Washington Post thinks the story so significant that it warrants a spot on the front of today’s Business section. 

To be fair, Post reporter Steven Mufson does a nice job gently deflating this nonsense, but the fact that these claims need to be addressed is depressing. You know a market-conspiracy theory is really and truly whacked when even Tyson Slocum over at Public Citizen isn’t buying it.

While Mufson’s piece is fine, an even sharper rejoinder was made the other day by Professor James Hamilton, a noted economist who engages in energy economics (among other things) over at the University of California at San Diego. While Hamilton concentrates most of his fire on the Goldman Sachs variation of the conspiracy, he makes a nice point about these sorts of claims in general. To whit, no evidence is ever provided. To believe things without evidence is to be the world’s all-purpose dupe. 

Unfortunately, this particular conspiracy theory will probably continue to gain traction because I suspect gasoline prices will continue to drop at least until the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s because (i) gasoline prices have historically behaved in exactly this fashion for reasons that are utterly unmysterious to energy watchers, and (ii) the drop in crude oil prices has not yet been fully reflected in the drop in gasoline prices (and if you want to know why that probably is, check this out). Accordingly, pump prices may well continue to decline even if oil prices stabilize at current levels.

That ought to really drive the Dems around the bend. Expect a spate of “Big Oil Robbed Us!” stories if the Democrats fail to seize the Congress in November. 

Are Environmentalists Stark Raving Mad?

You might think so by reading the daily environmental trade press. Case in point – in today’s Greenwire (subscription required), we’re informed of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (apparently, not yet posted online) about fish farms. The authors of the paper believe that sea lice from farmed salmon caused a 9 percent to 95 percent mortality rate in wild juvenile salmon populations in British Columbia. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, however, is not persuaded, and notes that the study does not prove the point and that plenty of other studies have found to the contrary.

Now, set aside any doubts. Let’s just assume that sea lice from farmed salmon migrate to wild salmon and that it may – but may not – kill them. How do you feel about that? Now, my reaction is “Hmm. OK. I’ll keep an eye on that. Now, what’s for lunch?” But I’m an enviro policy wonk and I’m paid to care. Most people would probably not give a damn one way or the other. After all, there’s a lot of things in this world to worry about, and sea lice on salmon just isn’t something worth spending more than, say, a minute on at most.

But for environmentalists, the new report is an excuse for political road-rage. “This is an atrocity, this should just piss people off,” claims Prof. John Volpe, co-author of the study.

An atrocity? You mean, like what happened in Lancaster the other day, or what is going on today in Darfur? That’s a little extreme, isn’t it? And how reasonable is it to go to the water cooler with teeth grinding and nostrils flaring after hearing of salmon and sea lice?

“What’s the matter, Jerry? You look pretty mad.”

“I’ll tell you what’s the matter! Sea lice from commercial aquaculture is finding its way to wild salmon populations, and, by God, it REALLY TICKS ME OFF!!”

To quote Jerry Seinfeld, who are these people? Well, Greenwire has an answer to that too (but you will need a subscription to read it). According to “The American Environmental Values Survey,” a new report released by ecoAmerica (an environmental research firm), environmental groups reach out to roughly the same 3 million people, which represent about 1 percent of the population, and surveys repeatedly show the environment is a top priority for roughly the same small percentage of the public. Only 44 percent of people are willing to label themselves “environmentalists,” only 48 percent think that environmentalists are “practical,” and 44 percent described environmentalists as “self-righteous” (ONLY 44 percent??).

Keep this in mind as we enter the political season. The Greens are a pretty weird – and a pretty overrated – voting block.

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?