Do Scientists Suppress Uncertainty in the Climate Change Debate?

Ever wonder about the neutrality (or lack thereof) of scientists investigating the subject of global warming? Does it seem that far too many of them eagerly sound alarm bells when it comes to documenting and communicating the potential consequences of human-induced climate change to the public? Well, that little voice inside your head telling you something is awry appears to be vindicated based on new research published in the journal Public Understanding of Science.

In an article that is both enlightening and damning at the same time, Senja Post (2016) set out to investigate the “ideals and practices” of German scientists in communicating climate change research findings to the public. Post accomplished her objective by conducting and analyzing a representative survey of German scientists holding the academic rank of full professor and who were actively engaged in climate change research. Altogether, 300 such scientists were identified and invited to participate in her survey, and 42 percent of them responded with a completed questionnaire in which they were queried about “various aspects of climate change, their attitudes toward publicly communicating scientific uncertainty, and their media relations.”

According to Post, the results of her survey indicated that “the more climate scientists are engaged with the media the less they intend to point out uncertainties about climate change and the more unambiguously they confirm the publicly held convictions that it is man-made, historically unique, dangerous and calculable.” Similarly, the more scientists were convinced of the alarmist narrative that rising atmospheric CO2 is causing dangerous climate change, the more they worked with the media to disseminate that narrative. Post’s survey also revealed that “climate scientists object to publishing a result in the media significantly more when it indicates that climate change proceeds more slowly rather than faster than expected,” which finding, in her words, “gives reason to assume that the German climate scientists are more inclined to communicate their results in public when they confirm rather than contradict that climate change is dramatic.”

Such findings are saddening and shameful, highlighting a near-ubiquitous bias among climate scientists (at least in Germany) who willfully suppress the communication of research findings and uncertainties to the public when they do not support the alarmist narrative of CO2-induced global warming. Such deceit has no place in science.

 

Reference

Post, S. 2016. Communicating science in public controversies: Strategic considerations of the German climate scientists. Public Understanding of Science 25: 61-70.

Who Will Stand Up for the Constitution?

The Constitution has gotten short shrift in the ongoing presidential debates, save for an occasional mention by Rand Paul. Now that he’s out of the race, Politico reports this morning, in a piece entitled “Ted Cruz, born-again libertarian,” that Cruz is scrambling for Paul’s supporters, claiming that he’s the one remaining “constitutional conservative.” That’s rich, and here’s why.

If there is any test of libertarian constitutionalism, it concerns the proper role of the courts in limiting legislative and executive excesses, federal, state, and local. Even many conservatives today are rethinking their earlier views and arguing now that courts need to be more engaged in the business of limiting government and preserving liberty. And no Supreme Court decision in our history more symbolizes the divide between the earlier conservatives and the libertarians who’ve gradually brought this re-thinking about than Lochner v. New York, where the Court in 1905 struck down an economic regulation because it violated the right to liberty of contract protected by the 14th Amendment.

And where does Ted Cruz stand on that? Here’s Damon Root writing yesterday about the Paul exit in Reason’s “Hit & Run” blog:

Ted Cruz, meanwhile, stands in direct opposition to the libertarian legal movement on the central issue of economic liberties and the Constitution. For example, in July 2015 Cruz attacked the Supreme Court’s Lochner decision as a regrettable example of the Court’s “imperial tendencies” and “long descent into lawlessness.”

Unfortunately for Cruz, he undercut his own position in that speech by mangling the facts of Lochner, which he incorrectly described (while reading from a prepared text) as a case where “an activist Court struck down minimum wage laws” on behalf of an individual right “that has no basis in the language of the Constitution.” (Cruz’s opposition to Lochner also happens to be indistinguishable from Barack Obama’s negative view of the case.)

In reality, Lochner was not a minimum wage case at all; it was a maximum working hours case, plain and simple. What’s more, there is significant historical evidence showing that the individual right at issue in Lochner—liberty of contract—is deeply rooted in the text and history of the 14th Amendment.

Ted Cruz may be a “constitutional conservative” in the old and, increasingly, passing sense, but he’s hardly heir to those Rand Paul supporters who take the Constitution seriously. If his views on Lochner are any indication, he’d be more comfortable with the deferential Court that has left Obamacare largely intact. At the least, he needs to bone up on his constitutional theory and history.

Lyndon McLellan Finally Beats the IRS

Last year I referred readers to the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the IRS in its attempt to take more than $107,000 from North Carolina small business owner Lyndon McLellan without charging him with any crime.

The IRS cleaned out Mr. McLellan’s business account because it suspected him of “structuring,” an offense whereby a person avoids legally-mandated financial reporting requirements by keeping their deposits and withdrawals under $10,000.  Because there are many perfectly legitimate reasons a business owner may deposit less than $10,000 at a time (for instance, if their insurance policy only covers $10,000 cash on hand), and because civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize cash and property without proving any wrongdoing, IRS structuring seizures are prone to abuse.

Tacitly recognizing the abuse allowed by the law, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes to the use of civil forfeiture in structuring offenses last year.  The policy changes should have spared innocent business owners like Lyndon McLellan, but it seems some federal prosecutors never got the memo.  In fact, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case responded to criticism by sending veiled threats to Lyndon McLellan and his lawyers at the Institute for Justice, warning them against publicizing the case lest it “ratchet up feelings” in the IRS offices.

The publicity worked. After significant public and political pressure, the IRS relented and returned the amount they had taken from Mr. McLellan’s bank account. As I noted last year, however, the IRS refused to reimburse Mr. McLellan for the costs of fighting the seizure or to pay interest on the money it had wrongfully seized.

But this week a federal judge ruled that the IRS must do more to make Mr. McLellan whole, and awarded him legal costs totalling more than $20,000.

The court held:

Certainly, the damage inflicted upon an innocent person or business is immense when, although it has done nothing wrong, its money and property are seized. Congress, acknowledging the harsh realities of civil forfeiture practice, sought to lessen the blow to innocent citizens who have had their property stripped from them by the Government… . This court will not discard lightly the right of a citizen to seek the relief Congress has afforded.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of Mr. McLellan and the Institute for Justice, the good guys won this time. Ultimately, however, the only way to ensure that civil forfeiture abuses stop happening is to abolish civil forfeiture. If the government cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person engaged in criminal activity, it should not be able to punish them as if they’re guilty.  As long as Congress and state legislatures allow this practice to continue, more innocent Americans will end up fighting for their livelihoods like Lyndon McLellan had to.  

For the Institute for Justice page detailing Mr. McLellan’s case, click here.

For Cato’s explainer on the troubling history of civil asset forfeiture, click here.

The TPP: Signed, But Not Yet Sealed or Delivered

The big trade news from yesterday was that government officials from the 12 nations negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership traveled to New Zealand for the official signing ceremony. While the negotiators are no doubt relieved, and are looking forward to some time off, we now get to perhaps the most difficult part of the process: Seeing whether Congress will approve what the Obama administration negotiated.

Finding a way for different branches in a divided government to work together is never easy. This year you have Presidential elections thrown into the mix, which makes things even harder.

Senator Mitch McConnell is sounding pretty skeptical about holding a vote before the election, and maybe even after as well:

McConnell said his “advice” is that Congress not vote on TPP prior to the election in part because the two Democratic presidential candidates and several Republican candidates oppose the agreement.

With respect to a lame-duck vote, McConnell signaled it may not be fair to constituents to take a vote on a controversial issue such as trade after they cast their votes for who should represent them in Congress.

People are sometimes able to resolve their differences, and maybe there is some deal to be struck here. On the other hand, Senator McConnell feels pretty strongly about the “tobacco carveout” that was included in the TPP’s investment provisions. The Obama administration has used this carveout to generate TPP support from groups such as the Cancer Action Network, but it’s not clear that such support will lead to any Democratic votes for the TPP, whereas it clearly is affecting Republican views of the TPP.

So, the TPP has been signed, but it is not clear whether it can be sealed and delivered.  In fact, at this point, it seems very possible that whoever becomes President will want to take a fresh look at the terms. Hillary Clinton might want to see if it is “progressive” enough (the Obama administration keeps calling it the “most progressive trade agreement in history”); on the other side, Marco Rubio might want to make it a lot less progressive (e.g., by taking out the minimum wage provisions, and deleting the tobacco carveout).

I’ll close with a quote from Victoria Guida of Politico: “The future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is as clear as mud … .” 

Oil Prices Too Low?

Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.

Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. I wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.

Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.

A more cogent argument is made by UC Berkeley sustainability professor Maximilian Auffhammer, who argues that “gas is too cheap” because current prices fail to cover all of the external costs of driving. He cites what he calls a “classic paper” that calculates the external costs of driving to be $2.28 per gallon. If that were true, then one approach would be to tax gasoline $2.28 a gallon and use the revenues to pay those external costs.

The only problem is that most of the so-called external costs aren’t external at all but are paid by highway users. The largest share of calculated costs, estimated at $1.05 a gallon, is the cost of congestion. This is really a cost of bad planning, not gasoline. Either way, the cost is almost entirely paid by people in traffic consuming that gasoline.

More Debate Over Things the TPP Doesn’t Do

Just days before the Trans-Pacific Partnership is scheduled to be signed by its 12 member governments, an official expert from the UN Human Rights Council released a statement criticizing the agreement for being incompatible with the goals of the UN human rights regime.  The criticism isn’t about the TPP in particular so much as the modern model of trade agreements as an inadequate vehicle for furthering wealth redistribution and massive regulatory intervention to pursue progressive goals.  That is, it’s a complaint about what the TPP doesn’t do.

There are, of course, lots of things the TPP doesn’t do.  Critics have complained that the TPP doesn’t prevent climate change, doesn’t eliminate human trafficking, and doesn’t reform repressive regimes in Vietnam and Brunei.  But these are not things the TPP was ever supposed to do.  It’s like complaining that Obamacare doesn’t end the drug war.

There are legitimate criticisms to be leveled against the TPP—things it does but shouldn’t and things it doesn’t do as well as it should.  There’s also a lot to like.  But debates over trade agreements often get bogged down with unrelated controversies that are easier to argue about.  Not one of the complaints the UN expert makes is explicitly about trade liberalization.  

The statement includes two specific criticisms of the TPP.  One is the secrecy of the negotiations, and the other is investor-state dispute settlement.  These are well-worn, standard complaints opponents of the TPP have been making for years.  The persuasiveness of both arguments relies on reflexive fear of the unknown—opponents can hint at what horrible things might happen from the TPP rather than looking at specific, measurable impacts.

These issues have become so controversial, in fact, that eliminating ISDS from future trade agreements and increasing transparency in negotiations would probably result in more free trade

The proliferation and prominence of non-trade arguments against trade agreements show that agreements like the TPP have strayed too far away from their core mission.  Using “human rights” as an argument against trade agreements will be harder to do if they focus more on simply eliminating tariffs, quotas, and subsidies.  A debate over the value of protectionism in promoting national and global welfare sounds very appealing and would surely lead to better policy.

A Lawful Executive Action: Declassifying Marijuana

I’ve been quite hard on President Obama for his abuse of executive power – and will soon file another brief in the 26-state challenge to his immigration action – but there are certainly things that he or any president can do to protect and secure our liberty without violating the Constitution. One such executive action would be to “declassify” marijuna: remove it from the list of controlled substances (or at least move it further down the list, which would have significant positive legal effects). I explain in this video:

In case you don’t have time to watch, here’s a transcript:

While legalizing marijuana as a matter of federal law would take an act of Congress, President Obama can decriminalize it. He can do this by moving it out of Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is reserved for substances of no medical purpose and a high potential for abuse, and therefore have high criminal penalties attached to their mere possession.

Virtually all marijuana-­related arrests are handled by state and local law enforcement. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) simply lacks the resources to enforce the federal ban across all 50 states. That’s why the Justice Department decided not to fight the legalization of marijuana in the handful of states that have taken that step.

President Obama — without rewriting any laws or going outside of his constitutional authority — can direct the attorney general to start the process of reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule IV or V substance, or declassifying it altogether.

Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III substance or lower would have significant benefits for the budding marijuana industry and individual users. For example:

Declassifying marijuana would solve all of these problems.

But even merely reclassifying it would make it easier for legal businesses to access the full economy and reduce violent crime.

Marijuana deregulation sits squarely within the control of the executive. The president should use his executive powers to allow for intelligent enforcement of drug policy without eroding the rule of law.

I guarantee that if President Obama does this, he won’t be impeached for high times crimes and misdemeanors.