The Current Climate of Extremes

What a day yesterday! First, our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2015 was the warmest year in the thermometric, and then the Washington Post’s Jason Samenow published an op-ed titled “Global warming in 2015 made weather more extreme and it’s likely to get worse.”

Let’s put NOAA’s claim in perspective.  According to Samenow, 2015 just didn’t break the previous 2014 record, it “smashed” (by 0.16°C).  But 2015 is the height of a very large El Niño, a quasi-periodic warming of tropical Pacific waters that is known to kite global average surface temperature for a year or so. The last big one was in 1998.  It, too set the then-record for warmest surface temperature, and it was (0.12°C) above the previous year, which, like 2014, was the standing record at the time. 

So what happened in 2015 is what is supposed to happen when an El Niño is superimposed upon a warm period or at the end year of a modest warming trend.  If it wasn’t a record-smasher, there would have to be some extraneous reason why, such as a big volcano (which is why 1983 wasn’t more of a record-setter).

El Niño warms up surface temperatures, but the excess heat takes 3 to 6 months or so to diffuse into the middle troposphere, around 16,000 feet up.  Consequently it won’t fully appear in the satellite or weather balloon data, which record  temperatures in that layer, until this year.  So a peek at the satellite (and weather balloon data from the same layer) will show 1) just how much of 2015’s warmth is because of El Niño, and 2) just how bad the match is between what we’re observing and the temperatures predicted by the current (failing) family of global climate models.

On December 8, University of Alabama’s John Christy showed just that comparison to the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.  It included data through November, so it was a pretty valid record for 2015 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Comparison of the temperatures in the middle troposphere as projected by the average of a collection of climate models (red) and several different observed datasets (blue and green). Note that these are not the surface temperatures, but five-year moving average of the temperatures in the lower atmopshere.

El Niño’s warmth occurs because it suppresses the massive upwelling of cold water that usually occurs along South America’s equatorial coast.  When it goes away, there’s a surfeit of cold water that comes to the surface, and global average temperatures drop.  1999’s surface temperature readings were 0.19°C below 1998’s.  In other words, the cooling, called La Niña, was larger than the El Niño warming the year before.  This is often the case.

So 2016’s surface temperatures are likely to be down quite a bit from 2015 if La Niña conditions occur for much of this year.  Current forecasts is that this may begin this summer, which would spread the La Niña cooling between 2016 and 2017.

The bottom line is this:  No El Niño, and the big spike of 2015 doesn’t happen.

Now on to Samenow. He’s a terrific weather forecaster, and he runs the Post’s very popular Capital Weather Gang web site.  He used to work for the EPA, where he was an author of the “Technical Support Document” for their infamous finding of “endangerment” from carbon dioxide, which is the only legal excuse President Obama has for his onslaught of expensive and climatically inconsequential restrictions of fossil fuel-based energy.  I’m sure he’s aware of a simple real-world test of the “weather more extreme” meme.  University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke, Jr. tweeted it out on January 20 (Figure 2), with the text “Unreported. Unspeakable. Uncomfortable. Unacceptable.  But there it is.”

 

Figure 2. Global weather-related disaster losses as a proportion of global GDP, 1990-2015.

It’s been a busy day on the incomplete-reporting-of-climate front, even as some computer models are painting an all-time record snowfall for Washington DC tomorrow.  Jason Samenow and the Capital Weather Gang aren’t forecasting nearly that amount because they believe the model predictions are too extreme.  The same logic ought to apply to the obviously “too-extreme” climate models as well, shouldn’t it?

The Presumption of Innocence and ‘Making a Murderer’

In response to the wild popularity of the Netflix series, Making a Murderer, the Washington Post is running a series this week about the presumption of innocence for those readers who are hungry to learn more about the American criminal justice system. The Post invited me to submit a piece for the series and it is now available online.  Here’s an excerpt:

Casual observers of our legal system will sometimes say that they would never plead guilty to a crime if they were innocent. An easy claim to make — but it is another thing when your freedom is actually on the line.

Imagine learning that the government has a “witness” who is willing to tell lies about you in court. And then your own attorney tells you that his best advice is for you to go into court, say you’re guilty and accept one year in prison instead of risking a 10-year prison sentence should the jury believe the lying witness. It’s an awful predicament for innocent people who get swept up in criminal cases. As William Young, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Boston observed in a 2004 opinion: “The focus of our entire criminal justice system has shifted away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused.”

Everyone is generally aware that some criminal cases go to trial and others are resolved by plea bargains, but most folks have no idea how lopsided the American criminal justice system has become.  Only about five percent of the cases go to trial.  One law professor says that finding a jury trial is about as likely as finding a hippopotamus in New York City.  It’s not impossible…you just have to know where to look.

For related Cato work, go here, here and here.

The TPP’s Fair Use Provision Is a Big Step in the Right Direction

At their core, trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership improve U.S. and foreign trade policy by reducing artificial barriers to mutually beneficial exchange.  That is, the TPP will bring us freer trade.  Unfortunately, the TPP will bring us other things as well.

For decades, trade agreements have included rules that are not strictly related to trade.  One area where this has become especially controversial is intellectual property.  A number of prominent U.S. industries, particularly movie studios and record labels, benefit immensely from strong copyright protection in the United States and want that same protection afforded in foreign markets.

But including copyright rules in trade agreements is problematic for a number of reasons.  For one thing, when U.S. negotiators press for these rules, they have to compromise on other demands.  The TPP will, for example, require Canada to extend copyright duration from its current length of 50 years after an author’s death to 70 years after death.  But it won’t require Canada to dismantle its protectionist supply management system that keeps out U.S. dairy products to the detriment of Canadian consumers. 

Removing protectionist trade barriers brings broad benefits to businesses and consumers throughout the region.  The same cannot be said for lengthening copyright terms from really long to really, really long.

Despite the inappropriateness of linking copyright policy and trade liberalization, intellectual property rules are likely to be a part of trade agreements into the foreseeable future.  It’s important, therefore, that we get the right rules in place.

Will Voters Commit Regicide against King Ethanol in Iowa?

Until now, conventional wisdom held that candidates of both major parties had to back ethanol welfare to win the Iowa caucuses. Like cotton was in the antebellum South, corn–in the form of ethanol–is king in Iowa.

Most of today’s candidates have fallen into line. However, Sen. Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. He holds a narrow polling lead over Donald Trump leading up to the upcoming caucuses. (Sen. Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom, but he remains far back in the race.)

Cruz’s political strength has dismayed ethanol makers. The group America’s Renewable Future, whose state director is the governor’s son, is deploying 22 staffers in the presidential campaign. The lobby doesn’t want to look like a paper tiger.

Ethanol subsidies once included a high tariff and generous tax credits, both of which expired at the end of 2011. However, the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007.

CBO Budget Report: Debt Disaster

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released new projections showing the debt disaster being manufactured in Washington. Federal borrowing from global capital markets is expected to soar from an outstanding $14 trillion this year to $24 trillion by 2026 under the baseline.

Every dollar of debt is an added burden on future taxpayers. Debt-fueled spending is both unfair and damaging. Members of Congress know how credit cards work, so either they are in denial or they lack the guts to make tough decisions. Either way, they are failing the nation.

The situation is actually worse that the baseline shows, and members should know that too. The baseline assumes that the economy chugs along with modest growth and avoids a recession, but we’ve had a recession every five and a half years, on average, since World War II. Deficits soar during recessions, pushing up debt and debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP).

Also, the CBO baseline assumes that Congress sticks to current discretionary budget caps. Discretionary spending is projected to fall from 6.5 percent of GDP this year to 5.2 percent by 2026. But what if Congress continues its spendthrift ways, keeps breaking the budget caps, and spending remains at 6.5 percent? That change alone would push up 2026 debt by roughly $2.7 trillion, including added interest costs.

Berniecare Outline Leaves Important Questions Unanswered and Would Add Trillions to the Debt Even After Massive Tax Increases

Just before last weekend’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders finally released the long-awaited plan for his health care proposal, which would fundamentally transform the health care sector by replacing all health insurance with a single program administered by the federal government. Michael Cannon has ably explained how Obamacare was really the big loser of the back and forth at the debate, but it’s worth looking further into Sanders’ outline of a plan. At just seven pages of text, it leaves most of the major questions unanswered. It does list a bevy of tax increases that it say will finance the needed $1.38 trillion in new federal spending each year, although even this is a significant underestimate. Bernie’s plan promises universal coverage and savings for families and businesses without delving into of the necessary, and often messy, trade-offs. 

While he calls the plan ‘Medicare for all,’ the plan would actually cover even more services than Medicare and do away with the program’s cost-sharing components like co-payments, deductibles, and premiums. Giving people comprehensive coverage of “the entire continuum” at little cost to themselves would seem to significantly increase utilization, which would strain the system’s capacity while also rendering it unaffordable. The plan makes no effort to answer fundamentally important questions: How would the new system determine payment rates for health care providers? What, if anything, would it do to try to rein in the growth of health care costs?

The “Getting Health Care Spending Under Control” section of the plan is one paragraph long and offers little beyond assurances that “creating a single public insurance system will go a long way towards getting health care spending under control” and under Berniecare “government will finally be able to stand up to drug companies.” That this is hardly a comprehensive plan and gives the impression that in this system, cost control measures would somehow be painless.

Campbell-Ewald: SCOTUS (Still) Doesn’t Resolve Class Action “Pick-Offs”

In this morning’s 6-3 ruling in Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, the Supreme Court, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing for the majority, ruled that a defendant’s offer to settle in full the claim of a named plaintiff did not in itself avail to moot the claim and thus (its goal) knock-out the associated class action. The case, which John Elwood and Conor McEvily previewed in their contribution to the latest Cato Supreme Court Review, is the latest in a series–notably Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk three years ago–raising the question of when and whether defendants can end a group action by “picking off” named plaintiffs. While this case on its face is a win for the liberal side and embraces the analysis argued previously by Justice Elena Kagan in her Genesis dissent, it still leaves important elements of the wider question unresolved, while giving Justice Clarence Thomas the chance to write an interesting concurrence asking whether either camp of justices is asking the right questions. 

Dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito) argues that an individual lawsuit that has been met with a fully adequate offer of settlement has ceased to be a “case or controversy,” the only sorts of disputes our courts may adjudicate. (Because the federal law that underlies the suit – the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA – has a statutory maximum for damages, it is reasonably knowable what constitutes full relief for plaintiff Gomez.) By contrast, the majority points out with some force that a valid claim countered with a full offer of settlement is not in quite the same posture as a grievance that never became a valid claim in the first place. Ginsburg, Kagan, et al. would apply principles of contract to an offer of judgment made under federal Rule 68 and, under such principles, a contract offer–handsome or otherwise–need not be accepted. 

Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring separately, disagrees with both sides’ approach. He is not satisfied with the conservatives’ somewhat Legal Realist approach (if one may call it that) as to when a case or controversy has ceased, but is equally wary of the liberals’ resort to contract principles (laying a legal controversy to rest is not quite the same thing as contract-making, even if they have much in common.) Instead, he would look to the early common law of tenders, which preceded (and led up to) what is now Federal Rule 68 on offers of settlement. Thomas concludes that in this particular case common law analysis would lead to the same destination as reached by the majority. 

While this morning’s outcome is being hailed in some quarters as a huge victory for class actions, note well the narrowing language on pages 11 and 12 of Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, which suggests a concern to keep courts rather than the parties or their lawyers in final control: 

We need not, and do not, now decide whether the result would be different if a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff’s individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount. That question is appropriately reserved for a case in which it is not hypothetical.