Topic: Energy and Environment

A Century of Forest Coverage Change on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula

The world’s forests provide a number of vital ecosystem services that benefit both society and nature alike. However, in recent years many have opined that the future of forests is in doubt. Deforestation, drought, fire, insect outbreaks and global warming represent only a handful of the many challenges that are claimed to be causing a near-term demise in forest health that is predicted to become only worse in the years and decades to come. But how valid are these fears? Are Earth’s forests truly on the eve of destruction?

Though there are indeed some locations that are suffering from a variety of maladies, there are many that are not. In fact, multiple studies reveal forests that are thriving, with many increasing in productivity and expanding their ranges (see, for example, the many reviews posted on the CO2 Science website under the heading Greening of the Earth and Forests). And they are typically accomplishing these things despite all the real and imagined assaults on Earth’s vegetation that have occurred over the past several decades. In fact, forests have more than compensated for any of the negative effects these phenomena may have inflicted upon them.

A recent example of this phenomenon is presented in the work of Poulsen and Hoffman (2015), who examined aerial and ground-based photographs to estimate long-term changes in the distribution of forests on the Cape Peninsula of South Africa. Specifically, the pair of researchers analyzed a series of forest-related characteristics from aerial photographs taken in 1944 and 2008, along with 50 historical ground-based repeat photographs that were initially imaged between 1888 and 1980 and then repeated in 2011 or 2012.

Comment on New Satellite-Observed Temperature Dataset

A new piece of scientific research hit the presses last week. It reported finding more warming in one of the (several) satellite-observed temperature histories of the earth’s lower atmosphere than had been previously reported. As these satellite-measured temperatures were the recent subject of comments made by presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a lot of scrutiny and interest surrounds these new findings—findings which seemed to refute some of Cruz’s assertions.

In researching his story on the new study, the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein solicited my opinion about them and how they may alter climate change skeptics’ way of thinking about the satellite-observed temperatures—temperature datasets which had previously shown precious little warming over the past nearly two decades.

I was happy to offer my thoughts, and equally happy to see some of them reflected in Seth’s AP story. Given topical and length constraints, understandably, Seth had to be selective.

But I do have a bit more to say about the new research finding besides that it “shows ‘how messy the procedures are in putting the satellite data together.’”

Many of my additional thoughts were included in my broader email response to Seth’s initial inquiry and, with his permission, I am reproducing our correspondence below.

To Seth’s summary of my thoughts, I’d add “but even considering the new findings, the complete collection of satellite- and weather balloon-observed temperature histories of the earth’s atmosphere  indicate that climate models are projecting too much warming in this important region.”

Again, my thanks to Seth for reaching out to me in the first place. Here is out question and answer exchange:

No Temporal Decline in the Foxe Basin Polar Bear Population of Canada

Introducing their work, Stapleton et al. (2016) write that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are “considered among the most highly sensitive marine mammals to the projected consequences of climate change,” citing Laidre et al. (2008). Indeed, increased sea ice losses projected for mid-century have led to concerns that “polar bears may be extirpated from or substantially reduced across most of the circumpolar Arctic.” As a result, the Arctic polar bear has become the proverbial canary in the coal mine for those seeking proof of climate change impacts in the far northern latitudes of our planet. Efforts have long been under way to study trends in these northern mammals and relate those trends to changes in climate.

The study of Stapleton et al. is no different in this regard. Their objective was to provide an updated analysis of the polar bear population within the Foxe Basin of Canada, a region that spans 1.1 million square kilometers across the Nunavut territory and northern Quebec. Last inventoried in the early 1990s, the Foxe Basin has been identified as a region of concern as climate conditions over the period 1979-2008 have led to a deterioration of the sea ice habitat (Sahanatien and Derocher, 2012) that has long been thought to engender a stable polar bear population. Against this backdrop of potential decline, Stapleton et al. set out to conduct an updated population survey of polar bears in this region to discern whether or not declining sea ice conditions had indeed affected their numbers as model-based projections claimed it would. And to this end, the three researchers conducted a series of aerial surveys in late summer of 2009 and 2010.

So what did their survey reveal?

You Ought to Have a Look: Paris Climate Agreement, Clean Power Plan, Canadian Carbon Taxes, and New Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

This week’s collection of not-to-be-missed stories is larger than most—it’s been a busy week!

First up is an examination by Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Marlo Lewis as to whether or not the Paris Climate Agreement is a treaty requiring the assent of two-thirds of the Senate. 

Prior to the U.N.’s climate conference held in Paris last December, President Obama was quick to insist that whatever came out of it would not be considered a “treaty” but rather some sort of “executive agreement.” That’s because it would never get the approval of the Senate that is required under the Constitution in order for it to have the force of law.  

Marlo builds the case why the President was unsuccessful and why the Senate should act—now.

He writes:

Far from being toothless, the Paris Agreement is the framework for a multi-decade global campaign of political pressure directed chiefly against Republican leaders, Red State voters, and the fossil fuel industry. Specifically, the treaty is designed to advance three political objectives:

1. Deter the next president, future Congresses, and even courts from overturning the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) so-called Clean Power Plan (CPP) and other climate regulations, including some not yet proposed, by rebranding those policies as “promises” America has made to the world.

2. Pressure future U.S. policy makers to make increasingly “ambitious” emission-reduction pledges—known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)—every five years starting in 2020, implement those pledges via ever-more stringent regulations, and pony up untold billions in “climate finance”—foreign aid to subsidize “green energy” ventures in developing countries.

3. Make U.S. energy and climate policy increasingly unaccountable to Congress and to the American people, and increasingly beholden to the demands of foreign leaders, multilateral bureaucrats, international pressure groups, and their media allies.

Not-So-Rapid Transit

Washington, DC opened its long-delayed streetcar for business on Saturday. Actually, it’s a stretch to say it is open “for business,” as the city hasn’t figured out how to collect fares for it, so they won’t be charging any.

Exuberant but arithmetically challenged city officials bragged that the streetcar would traverse its 2.2-mile route at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour, taking a half hour to get from one end to the other (which is 4.4 miles per hour). If there were no traffic and it didn’t have to stop for passengers or run in to any automobiles along the way, they admitted, it would still take 22 minutes (which is 6 miles per hour).

“After more than $200 million and a decade of delays and missteps,” observed the Washington Post, “it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.” After all the costs are counted, the Uber trip probably cost less.

The streetcar opening caught the attention of the Economist, which called it “pointless” because it follows a route that is already served by a bus that is faster, can get around parked cars that are slightly sticking into the right of way, and actually goes somewhere beyond the already gentrifying H Street neighborhood. Despite the problems and criticisms, DC officials were already talking about extending the line another 5 miles. 

Washington isn’t the only city caught up in the streetcar fad. Following Portland’s example, Atlanta, CharlotteCincinnati, Kansas City, and several other cities have opened or are building streetcar lines. Most of these lines are about two miles long, are no faster than walking, and cost $50 million or more per mile while buying the same number of buses would cost a couple million, at most.

Portland wants to build 140 miles of streetcar lines. At the average cost of its most recent line, this would require as much money as it would take to repave every street in the city–streets that are falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain them. According to the latest census, seven times as many downtown Portland employees bicycle to work as take the streetcar, but another survey found that two out of three Portland cyclists “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.” 

New York’s Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $2.5 billion on a 16-mile streetcar between Brooklyn and Queens. Apparently that city is so flush with cash that it doesn’t have anything better to spend its money on than a slow transit line that won’t even stop near a subway station.

These cities argue that streetcars stimulate economic development. Yet a recent study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration found that not only was there no evidence of such stimuli, none of the cities that had built streetcars were systematically measuring such impacts. Instead, most were busy subsidizing or coercing (through prescriptive zoning) new development along the streetcar routes.

In fact, there is no reason to think that a slow, congestion-causing, bicycle-accident-inducing rail line would promote new development. Streetcars were technologically perfected in the 1880s, so for Washington to subsidize the construction of a streetcar line today is roughly equal to New York City subsidizing the opening and operation of a factory in Manhattan that would make non-QWERTY typewriters, or Los Angeles subsidizing the manufacture of zoopraxiscopes. Rather than build five more miles of obsolete line, the best thing Washington can do is shut down its new line and fill the gaps between the rails with tar.

Clean Power Plan on Cato Daily Podcast

While we at the Center for the Study of Science recommend you listen to the Cato Daily Podcast, well, daily, today’s edition may be of particular interest. Host Caleb Brown spoke with Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) about the Clean Power Plan, regulatory overreach and American competitiveness. While they didn’t delve much into climate science, they touched on the inadequacy of global climate agreements.

We don’t want to spoil all the fun, so take a look below–or, better yet, subscribe to the Cato Daily Podcast on your app of choice (iTunes / Google Play / CatoAudio).

NSF in Climate Denial?

Note:  David Wojick, who holds a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, sent me this essay.  It is thought provoking and deserves a read.

The US National Science Foundation seems to think that natural decades-to-centuries climate change does not exist unless provoked by humans. This ignores a lot of established science.

One of the great issues in climate science today is the nature of long-term, natural climate change. Long-term here means multiple decades to centuries, often called “dec-cen” climate change. The scientific question is how much of observed climate change over the last century or so is natural and how much is due to human activities? This issue even has a well known name – The Attribution Problem.

 This problem has been known for a long time. See for example these National Research Council reports: “Natural Climate Variability on Decade-to-Century Timescales (NAP, 1995)” and “Decade-to-Century-Scale Climate Variability and Change (NAP, 1998). The Preface of the 1998 Report provides a clear statement of the attribution problem:

The climate change and variability that we experience will be a commingling of the ever changing natural climate state with any anthropogenic change. While we are ultimately interested in understanding and predicting how climate will change, regardless of the cause, an ability to differentiate anthropogenic change from natural variability is fundamental to help guide policy decisions, treaty negotiations, and adaptation versus mitigation strategies. Without a clear understanding of how climate has changed naturally in the past, and the mechanisms involved, our ability to interpret any future change will be significantly confounded and our ability to predict future change severely curtailed.

Thus we were shocked to learn that the US National Science Foundation denies that this great research question even exists. The agency has a series of Research Overviews for its various funded research areas, fifteen in all. Their climate change research area is funded to the tune of over $300 million a year, or $3 billion a decade.

The NSF Research Overview for climate change begins with this astounding claim:

Weather changes all the time. The average pattern of weather, called climate, usually stays the same for centuries if it is undisturbed.

This is simply not true. To begin with, there is the Little Ice Age to consider. This is a multi-century period of exceptional cold that is thought to have ended in the 19th century. Since then there have been two periods of warming, roughly from 1910 to 1940, and then from 1976 through 1998.  There’s real controversy about what happened since then.  Until our government joggled the measured ocean surface temperatures last summer, scientists could all see that warming had pretty much stopped—what happened has been attended to here, and to say the least, the new record is controversial.