A Historic Perspective on the Greenland Ice Sheet and its Contribution to Global Sea Level

One of the most feared of all model-based projections of CO2-induced global warming is that temperatures will rise enough to cause a disastrous melting/destabilization of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS), which would raise global sea level by several meters. But how likely is this scenario to occur? And is there any way to prove such melting is caused by human activities?

The answer to this two-part question involves some extremely complex and precise data collection and understanding of the processes involved with glacial growth and decay. Most assuredly, however, it also involves a scientifically accurate assessment of the past history of the GrIS, which is needed to provide a benchmark for evaluating its current and future state. To this end, a recent review paper by Vasskog et al. (2015) provides a fairly good summary of what is (and is not) presently known about the history of the GrIS over the previous glacial-interglacial cycle. And it yields some intriguing findings.

Probably the most relevant information is Vasskog et al.’s investigation of the GrIS during the last interglacial period (130-116 ka BP). During this period, global temperatures were 1.5-2.0°C warmer than the peak warmth of the present interglacial, or Holocene, in which we are now living. As a result of that warmth, significant portions of the GrIS melted away. Quantitatively, Vasskog et al. estimate that during this time (the prior interglacial) the GrIS was “probably between ~7 and 60% smaller than at present,” and that that melting contributed to a rise in global sea level of “between 0.5 and 4.2 m.” Thus, in comparing the present interglacial to the past interglacial, atmospheric CO2 concentrations are currently 30% higher, global temperatures are 1.5-2°C cooler, GrIS volume is from 7-67% larger, and global sea level is at least 0.5-4.2 m lower, none of which signal catastrophe for the present.

Clearly, therefore, there is nothing unusual, unnatural or unprecedented about the current interglacial, including the present state of the GrIS. Its estimated ice volume and contribution to mean global sea level reside well within their ranges of natural variability, and from the current looks of things, they are not likely to depart from those ranges any time soon.

 

References

Reyes, A.V., Carlson, A.E., Beard, B.L., Hatfield, R.G., Stoner, J.S., Winsor, K., Welke, B. and Ullman, D.J. 2014. South Greenland ice-sheet collapse during Marine Isotope Stage 11. Nature 510: 525–528.

Vasskog, K., Langebroek, P.M., Andrews, J.T., Nilsen, J.E.Ø. and Nesje, A. 2015. The Greenland Ice Sheet during the last glacial cycle: Current ice loss and contribution to sea-level rise from a palaeoclimatic perspective. Earth-Science Reviews 150: 45-67.

New Hampshire Legislators Seek School Choice Solution

New Hampshire legislators are working to end a legal battle between a small town and state education bureaucrats over the town’s school choice program.

The town of Croydon (2010 population: 764) has fewer than 100 elementary-and-secondary-school-aged students. Unsurprisingly, the town found it was not cost effective to run its own K-12 school system. Instead, the town runs a very small K-4 district school and had a longstanding, exclusive agreement with a neighboring district to educate 5th through 12th graders. However, when their contract was nearing expiration, town leaders decided to allow students to take the funds assigned to them to a school of choice.

Sadly, the New Hampshire Department of Education wasn’t about to let a town empower parents to escape the district school system so easily. After a series of meetings and threats to withhold state funds, the department ordered Croydon to end their school choice program, which it claimed violated state law. However, former NH Supreme Court Justice Charles G. Douglas, III, the attorney for Croydon, that the department was misreading state law:

The letter from Douglas and [then-Croydon School Board Chairman Jody] Underwood argues against the state laws [NH Commissioner of Education Virginia] Barry used to support her order to stop school choice in Croydon:

“You cite RSA 193:1 and purport that it says that districts may only assign students to public schools. This is inaccurate. RSA 193:1 defines the duties of parents to ensure school attendance, and neither describes the duties districts have nor restricts the assignment ability of districts. In addition to your inaccurate interpretation, you cite to the portion of that statute that states: ‘A parent of any child at least 6 years of age … shall cause such a child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned.’ You fail to cite section (a) of the statute which clearly states that private school attendance is an exception to attending public school.”

The dispute is now being litigated.

Recently, some NH legislators sought to clarify any ambiguities in the law by explicitly authorizing local authorities to allow local education funding follow children to private schools of choice. As the New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized, this is a step in the right direction. However, the legislation does contain one serious flaw: it limits parental choices to non-religious schools, thereby discriminating against schools based solely on their religious affiliation.

“Protectionism Reduces World Income”

Buried in a recent Paul Krugman blog post is this statement:

… protectionism reduces world income.

This is correct, and is pretty much all you need to know about protectionism. Which approach to eliminating protectionism – unilateral, trade agreement, etc. – works best can be debated, but there should be no question we should get rid of it due to its impact on incomes.

Yet somehow for Krugman there is still a question. In the rest of the column, and various other recent ones, he comes up with contrived justifications for why we should not bother with protectionism. For example, he says:

if you want to make the case that trade liberalization has been the principal driver of growth, or anything along those lines, well, the models don’t say that.

Is trade liberalization the “principal driver of growth”?  I don’t know if it is the “principal driver of growth.” But I do know that it “reduces world income.” Isn’t that enough?

And a while back, he said this:

In fact, the elite case for ever-freer trade, the one that the public hears, is largely a scam. That’s true even if you exclude the most egregious nonsense, like Mitt Romney’s claim that protectionism causes recessions.

Look, I don’t know if every tiny bit of protectionism anywhere will cause a recession (and Romney’s statements were much more nuanced than what Krugman implies). But regardless, if we agree that protectionism “reduces world income,” isn’t that enough?

As for jobs, he said:

… what the models of international trade used by real experts say is that, in general, agreements that lead to more trade neither create nor destroy jobs.

I think that’s pretty much right: Trade is not about the total number of jobs, but rather about incomes. As for incomes, recall that protectionism “reduces world income”!

Obviously, Krugman has policy priorities other than trade right now, and he’s trying to push people away from the trade issue. Which is a shame, because it could be helpful to have someone like him on board to counteract the uninformed rhetoric of many leading politicians, who seem to believe, based on emotions rather than evidence, that they can use protectionism to “make America great again” or something.

Topics:

A Monetary Policy Primer, Part 1: Money

It occurs to me that, despite the unprecedented flood of writings of all sorts — books, blog-posts, newspaper op-eds, and academic journal articles —  addressing just about every monetary policy development during and since the 2008 financial crisis, relatively few attempts have been made to step back from the jumble of details for the sake of getting a better sense of the big picture.

What, exactly, is “monetary policy” about?  Why is there such a thing at all?  What should we want to accomplish by it — and what should we not try to accomplish?  By what means, exactly, are monetary authorities able to perform their duties, and to what extent must they exercise discretion in order to perform them?  Finally, what part might private-market institutions play in promoting monetary stability, and how might they be made to play it most effectively?

Although one might write a treatise on any one of these questions, I haven’t time to write a thesis, let alone a bunch of them; and if I did write one, I doubt that policymakers (or anyone else) would read it.  No sir: a bare-bones primer is what’s needed, and that’s what I hope to provide.

Do Immigrants Have “Trust” Issues?

One common criticism of immigrants is that they could undermine American institutions, weakening them so much that future economic growth will decrease so that the long run costs of liberalization are greater than the benefits. As I’ve written before this criticism doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny but a new line of attack is that immigrant trust levels could weaken productivity.  I decided to look at trust variables in the General Social Survey (GSS), a huge biennial survey of households in the United States, to see if immigrants and their children are less trusting than other Americans. The results were unexpected.

The first variable examined was “trust.” The question asked was: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” I confined the results to the years 2004-2014 to measure more recent immigrants. The first generation is the immigrant generation, the second generation are children of immigrants, the third generation are the grandchildren of immigrants, and the fourth+ generation includes their great grandchildren and every older generation.

The first and second generations are less trusting than the third generation, confirming the findings of the literature. However, the fourth-plus generation is about as distrustful as the first and second generations. The immigrants and their children are not the trust anomaly, the third generation is. They are more trusting than every other generation of Americans (Figure 1).           

Figure 1

Trust

Source: General Social Survey

Related to “trust,” the “fair” variable asks: “Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?” It reveals the same pattern as “trust” –first and second generations are much more likely to say people try to take advantage than the third generation (Figure 2). However, the fourth+ generations are nearly indistinguishable from the immigrant generation and their children. Only the third generation sees other people as particularly fair. 

Figure 2

Fair

Source: General Social Survey

The third variable examined was “helpful,” which asks: “Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?” The same pattern emerged – the first and second generations were more similar to the fourth-plus generation. The second generation is nearly identical to the fourth-plus generation. The third generation was most likely to say that most people were helpful and least likely to say that people look out for themselves. Again, the third generation is the trust anomaly, not the immigrants.    

Figure 3

Helpful

Source: General Social Survey

The differences between immigrants, their children, and fourth-plus generation Americans are small when it comes to levels of trust, opinions of fairness, and whether people are helpful. It’s hard to see how these small differences could comprise the micro foundations of an institution-based argument against liberalized immigration. The question is not why native-born Americans trust and immigrants don’t, it’s why do third generation Americans trust so much while all other Americans and immigrants do not?

Notes:

For “trust,” there were 1039 first generation respondents, 364 from the second generation, 327 for the third generation, and 4988 for the fourth-plus generation. For “fair,” there were 972 first generation respondents, 345 from the second generation, 304 for the third generation, and 4699 for the fourth-plus generation. For “helpful,” there were 986 first generation respondents, 347 from the second generation, 303 from the third generation, and 4700 from the fourth-plus generation. 

“She needed help, she didn’t need lockup.”

Today, our friends at Families Against Mandatory Minimums released a video documenting the case of Mandy Martinson. Mandy is one of the many non-violent drug offenders serving too long in federal prison. For her first, non-violent drug offense, Mandy was sentenced to 15 years.

 

To paraphrase FAMM’s Florida director and former Catoite Greg Newburn, mandatory minimums operate on the assumption that prosecutors are the best people to determine the sentence for a defendant…up until the point that prosecutor becomes a judge. 

All mandatory minimums should be repealed. Let the judges decide. 

Feinstein-Burr, Encryption and the “Rule of Law”

There’s a lot to say about the substance of the misguided anti-encryption legislation sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr, which was recently released as a “discussion draft” after a nearly-identical version leaked earlier this month.  I hope to do just that in subsequent posts.  But it’s also worth spending a little time on the proposal’s lengthy  pre-amble, which echoes the rhetorical tropes frequently deployed by advocates for mandating government access to secure communications and stored data. 

The bill is somewhat misleadingly titled the “Compliance With Court Orders Act of 2016”—which you’d think would be a matter for the Judiciary Committee, not the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—and begins with the high minded declaration that “no person or entity is above the law.”  Communication services and software developers, we are told, must “respect the rule of law and comply with all legal requirements and court orders.”  In order to “uphold the rule of law,” then, those persons and entities must be able to provide law enforcement with the plaintext—the original, un-garbled contents—of any encrypted message or file when so ordered by a court.

The politest way I can think of to characterize this way of framing the issue is: Nonsense.  Whatever your view on mandates of the sort proposed here, they have little to do with the principle of “the rule of law”: The idea that all citizens, including those who wield political power, must be governed by neutral, publicly known, and uniformly applicable rules—as opposed to, say, the whims and dictates of particular officials.  This formal principle says nothing about the content of the legal obligations and restrictions to which citizens are subject—only that those restrictions and obligations, whatever they are, should be known and consistently applied.  In effect, Feinsten and Burr are pretending that a sweeping and burdensome new regulatory requirement is nothing more than the application of a widely-revered formal principle central to free societies.  We can debate the merits of their proposed regulation, but this talking point really ought to be laughed out of the room.

There are two wholly different kind of scenarios in which technology companies have recently been charged with placing themselves “above the law” by declining to assist law enforcement.  Both are specious, but it’s worth distinguishing them and analyzing them separately.

First, you have the kind of situation at issue in the recent conflict between Apple and the FBI, which has received so much media coverage. In this instance, it is clear that Apple was indeed capable of doing what the FBI wanted it to do: Write a custom piece of software that would disable certain security features on the work iPhone used by a deceased terrorist, enabling the FBI to crack the phone’s passcode and unlock the data within.  Sen. Feinstein condemned the company for fighting that order in court, declaring: “Apple is not above the laws of the United States, nor should anyone or any company be above the laws. To have a court warrant granted, and Apple say they are still not going to cooperate is really wrong.”  A similar view of the conflict was implicit in a slew of lazy news headlines that characterized Apple as “defying” a court’s order.

All of this, however, reflects a profound and rather disturbing misunderstanding of how our legal system operates.  Subpoenas and court orders routinely issue initially in response to a request from the government, with no opposing arguments heard.  But the recipients of those orders, as  a matter  of course, have an essential legal right to contest those orders in an adversarial hearing.  Here, Apple raised a variety of different objections—among them, that the statute invoked by the government, the All-Writs Act, did not actually authorize orders of the sort that the FBI had sought; and that even if the statute could be generally interpreted to permit such orders, that this one imposed an excessive and unreasonable burden on Apple.