Topic: Energy and Environment

Statement on U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Treaty

In response to the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty, I’ve issued the following statement:

The Paris climate treaty is climatically insignificant. EPA’s own models show it would only lower global warming by an inconsequential two-tenths of a degree Celsius by 2100. The cost to the U.S.—in the form of required payments of $100 billion per year from the developed to the developing world—is too great for the inconsequential results. These very real expenses will consume money that could be used by the private sector to fund innovative new technologies that are economically sound and can power our society with little pollution.

Because of our private investments in technological innovation, America leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. We did that without Paris, and we will continue our exemplary leadership without it.

While Paris will be with us for the near future as the process of withdrawing transpires, this is a step in the right direction. If you’d like to read more on the science behind Paris, take a look at this recent piece I wrote for The Hill, called “The Scientific Argument against the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Greater reliance on user fees, federal loans rather than grants, and corporatization are three keys to the Trump administration’s infrastructure initiative released as a part of its 2018 budget. The plan will “seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained,” says the six-page document. More federal funding “is not the solution,” the document says; instead, it is to “fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies.”

In building the Interstate Highway System, the fact sheet observes, “the Federal Government played a key role” in collecting and distributing monies to “fund a project with a Federal purpose.” Since then, however, those user fees, mainly gas tax receipts, have been “inefficiently invested” in “non-federal infrastructure.”

As a result, the federal government today “acts as a complicated, costly middleman between the collection of revenue and the expenditure of those funds by States and localities.” To fix this, the administration will “explore” whether transferring “responsibilities to the States is appropriate.”

The document contains a number of specific proposals:

  • Allow states to toll interstate and other federally funded highways;
  • Encourage states to fix congestion using “congestion pricing, enhanced transit services, increased telecommuting and flex scheduling, and deployment of advanced technology”;
  • Corporatize air traffic control, as many other developed countries have done;
  • Streamline the environmental review process by having a one-stop federal permit process and “curtailing needless litigation”;
  • Expand the TIFIA loan program and lift the existing cap on private activity bonds, both of which will make more money available for infrastructure without increasing federal deficits.

The paper also includes proposals for reforming inland waterways, the Power Marketing Administration, and water infrastructure finance. Like the transportation proposals, these call for increased reliance on user fees, corporatization, privatization, or loans rather than grants.

“Corporatization” means creating a non-profit or for-profit corporation that may be government owned but doesn’t necessarily rely on taxpayer subsidies. Comsat is a classic example, but Canada and other countries’ air traffic control systems work in this way.

Except for air traffic control reform, Trump’s plan isn’t fleshed out in detail. But these ideas have all been tossed around enough that everyone pretty much knows what they mean. Most importantly, they mean a significant change in the way Washington deals with infrastructure.

Because it doesn’t contain a list of projects that members of Congress could take credit for, the plan has received relatively little notice in the media. Democrats, of course, are unhappy with it, but they would be unhappy no matter what Trump proposed.

One of the more controversial proposals is to allow the states to toll interstate highways. “I don’t like paying for a road twice,” Representative Sam Graves (R-MO), who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill. But, given that Congress has had to inject tens of billions of dollars of general funds into the highway trust fund in recent years, what makes Graves thinks existing user fees are paying for the roads now? All roads need maintenance and occasional rehabilitation, so the fact that user fees paid for construction 50 years ago doesn’t mean that costs stop.

The most important point is that Trump wants user fees to pay a greater share of infrastructure costs. Naturally, the transit lobby, which represents the most heavily subsidized form of transportation, per unit of output, is upset about this. But Trump’s agenda sounds good to anyone who wants an efficient, user-fee-driven infrastructure program.

Dilbert 1, Scientists 0.

A communications group at Yale University has put out a video that seems to be a rebuttal to a Dilbert cartoon by Scott Adams poking fun at climate scientists and their misplaced confidence in models. The video is full of impressive-looking scientists talking about charts and data and whatnot. It probably cost a lot to make and certainly involved a lot of time and effort. The most amazing thing, however, is that it actually proves the points being made in the Dilbert cartoon. Rather than debunking the cartoon, the scientists acted it out in slow motion.

The Dilbert cartoon begins with a climate scientist saying “human activity is warming the earth and will lead to a global catastrophe.” When challenged to explain how he knows that, he says they start with basic physical principles plus observations about the climate, which they then feed into models, pick and choose some of the outputs, then feed those into economic models, and voila. When asked, what if I don’t trust the economic models, the scientist retreats to an accusation of denialism.

The Yale video ends in exactly the same way. After a few minutes of what I will, for the moment, call “scientific information,” we see climatologist Andrew Dessler appear at the 4:28 mark to say “It’s inarguable, although some people still argue it – heh, heh.” As in, ah those science deniers.

What exactly is “inarguable”? By selective editing we are led to believe that everything said in the video is based on multiple independent lines of evidence carrying such overwhelming force that no rational observer could dispute it. Fine, let’s go to the 2:38 mark and watch someone named Sarah Myhre tell us what this inarguable science says.

“It’s irrefutable evidence that there are major consequences that come with climate warming, and that we take these Earth systems to be very stable, we take them for granted, and they’re not stable, they’re deeply unstable when you perturb the carbon system in the atmosphere.”

How does she know this? From models of course. These claims are not rooted in observations but in examining the entrails of model projections. But she has to pick and choose her models because they don’t all say what she claims they say. Some models show very little sensitivity to greenhouse gases.  If we put the low-sensitivity results into economic models the results show that the economic impacts of warming are very low and possible even negative (i.e. a net benefit). And the section of the IPCC report that talks about the consequences of warming says:

For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers (medium evidence, high agreement). Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.

It goes on to show (Figure 10-1) that at low levels of warming the net economic effects are zero or positive. As to the climate being “deeply unstable” there’s hardly any point trying to debate that since these are not well-defined scientific words, but simple reflection on human experience will tell you that the climate system is pretty stable, at least on decadal and century time scales. The main thing to note is that she is claiming that changes to atmospheric CO2 levels have big warming effects on the climate and will cause a global catastrophe. And the only way she knows this is from looking at the outputs of models and ignoring the ones that look wrong to her. Granted she isn’t bald and doesn’t have a little beard, but otherwise she is almost verbatim the scientist in the cartoon.

You Ought to Have a Look: Time for a New “Hiatus” in Warming, or Time for an Accelerated Warming Trend?

As you can tell from our blog volume, there’s been a blizzard of new and significant climate findings being published in the refereed literature, and here’s some things You Ought to Have a Look at concerning the recent “hiatus” in warming and what might happen to our (now) post-El Niño climate.

With President Trump still deciding on U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, new research suggests the Earth’s global mean surface temperature (GMST) will blow past the so-called 1.5°C Paris target in the next decade. But before making that ominous prediction, Henley and King (2017) provide us with a good history lesson on a taboo topic in climate science circles: the recent global warming “hiatus” or “pause” from 1998-2014. One could be forgiven for thinking the hiatus was “settled science” since it featured prominently in the 2013 IPCC AR5 assessment report. But a concerted effort has been made in recent years to discount the hiatus as an insignificant statistical artifact perhaps based upon bad observational data, or a conspiracy theory to distract the public and climate policymakers. Even acknowledging the existence of the “hiatus” is sufficient to be labeled as a climate change denier.      

Social scientists, psychologists, and theologians of all stripes feared that widespread community acknowledgement of the hiatus would wither support for climate policy at such a pivotal juncture. 

In a 2014 Nature Commentary (Boykoff Media discourse on the climate slowdown) saw the rise of the terms “hiatus and pause” in the media in 2013 as a “wasted opportunity” to highlight the conclusions of the IPCC AR5 report, which in itself ironically struggled with explaining the hiatus/pause (IPCC: Despite hiatus, climate change here to stay. Nature September 27, 2013). Amazingly, in a Nature interview a week prior to AR5’s release, assessment co-chair Thomas Stocker said this:

Comparing short-term observations with long-term model projections is inappropriate. We know that there is a lot of natural fluctuation in the climate system. A 15-year hiatus is not so unusual even though the jury is out as to what exactly may have caused the pause. 

An Electrifyingly Bad Decision

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao’s support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.

The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains’ contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.

Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution. 

Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California’s bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state’s rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won’t really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.

10 Reasons to Stop Subsidizing Urban Transit

As the Trump administration debates whether to help fund a $1.75 billion transit project in California that will do almost nothing to increase transit ridership, it is time to reconsider whether transit should be subsidized at all. Here are ten reasons to end those subsidies.

1. It’s the most costly transportation we have

In 2015, the transit industry spent $1.15 to move one person one mile, of which $0.87 was subsidized. No other major form of transportation is so expensive or so heavily subsidized. Auto driving cost about 26 cents per passenger mile of which subsidies were 2 cents. Flying was about 16 cents a passenger mile of which subsidies were also about 2 cents. Intercity buses cost about 12 cents a passenger mile of which subsidies were about 3 cents.

Other than transit, the most expensive passenger transport was Amtrak, which cost about 53 cents per passenger mile in 2015 of which 19 cents was subsidies. Not coincidentally, Amtrak is also government owned, suggesting that government ownership either makes transportation more expensive or government is stuck with the obsolete clunkers in the urban and intercity transport markets.

2. Subsidies haven’t increased ridership

Federal subsidies to transit began in 1965, when transit carried 60 trips per urban resident. Since then, federal, state, and local subsidies have exceeded $1 trillion (in today’s dollars), yet annual ridership has dropped to 40 trips per urban resident. Ridership responds more to changes in gasoline prices than to increased subsidies.

Since federal subsidies began in 1965, transit ridership has declined from 60 annual trips per urban resident to 40.

3. Few use it and fewer need it

In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.

The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.

In 1960, 22 percent of American households did not own a car and transit subsidies were partly justified on the social obligation to provide mobility to people who couldn’t afford a car. Since 2000, only 9 percent of American households don’t own a car, so the market of transit-dependent people has dramatically declined.

Half the households with no cars also have no employed workers in the households. Of the 4.5 percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, well under half–41 percent–take transit to work, meaning transit doesn’t even work for most people who don’t have cars.

Why Few Americans Use Transit

In 1964, most transit was privately owned, earned a profit, and was used by the average urban American 60 times a year. Then Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, offering capital grants to cities that took over their transit systems. Since then, most transit has been municipalized, we spend nearly $50 billion a year subsidizing it, and today the average American rides transit just 40 times a year.

Transit advocates complain that Americans have some sort of irrational love affair with their automobiles. But Americans have excellent reasons not to rely on transit. Here are nine of them.

1. Transit is slow.

Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling. While the average speed of driving in most American cities is more than 30 mph, and in some it is more than 40 mph, the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book admits that the average speed of rail transit is just 21.5 mph while the average speed of buses is 14.1 mph. That doesn’t count the time it takes to get to and from transit stops.

2. It doesn’t go where you want to go.

Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore as less than 8 percent of urban jobs and 1 percent of urban residences are located in central city downtowns. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless as hub-and-spoke transit systems can require hours to take you to destinations that are only a few minutes away by car.

3. It’s expensive.

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit. Transit fares in 2015 averaged 28 cents a passenger mile. That’s less than the cost of driving if you count all the costs of owning a car and are the only person in the car. But if you already own the car, the cost of one more trip is less than 20 cents a mile, and you save even more if you carry any passengers.