Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: Carbon Taxes, Democracy’s Failure, and the “Astronomical” Warmth of February

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.

Welcome to this issue of You Ought to Have a Look, our round-up of under-appreciated and overlooked articles from around the web.  Here’s a trio from this week.

First up is an article in the American Spectator (online) by the Center for the Study of Science’s newest addition, adjunct scholar and University of Virginia Law Professor Jason Johnston. Jason takes a look at why decarbonizing the US economy is a bad idea, paying particular attention to Germany’s burdensome system of green subsidies that are leading to much higher energy prices and perhaps even future subsidies for fossil fuel-powered power generation. Jason’s bottom line:

Whether one is considering carbon taxes or renewable energy subsidies, the impact of such a policy is almost surely to increase prices for the basic energy and transportation necessities of life, harming especially the poor and middle class. If, as in Germany, renewables subsidies require subsidies for coal-burning power plants, and if, as economics predicts, expectations of a permanent and rising carbon tax generate increases in present day CO2 emissions, then where will be the environmental benefits to justify the enormous burden put on poor and middle class households? It would seem that the case for carbon taxes and renewables subsidies is not so simple after all.

“It would seem that the case for carbon taxes and renewables subsidies is not so simple after all.” You can say that again (we just did!).  Jason’s whole analysis is worth digging in to.

A Sixteen-Decade-Long Seawater pH Record from the South China Sea

In environmental circles, ocean acidification is one of the twin evils of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations (the other being global warming). The concern is that as more and more carbon dioxide dissolves into the surface waters of the world’s oceans, the pH values of the planet’s oceanic waters will decline to such a degree that great harm – and possibly death – will be inflicted upon vast quantities of marine life in the decades and centuries to come. As a result, many are calling for immediate reductions in CO2 emissions to avoid these potential outcomes.

However, much remains to be discovered and learned about ocean acidification before any policy-related actions to address it are implemented, including a basic understanding of the natural variability of oceanic pH and its impacts on marine life across space and time. Such understanding is essential in order to prepare realistic projections of future oceanic pH, as well as the impacts of those projections on marine life. Unfortunately, as reported by Wei et al. (2015), “seawater pH has seldom been recorded owing to the nonroutine nature of its measurement, and thus continuous long-term seawater pH records are scare.” As a result, the team of nine researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences states that “very little is known about regional variability in ocean acidification on decadal to centennial time-scales, especially since the industrial era.”

Does DC Need Metro Rail?

Yesterday’s shutdown of the Washington Metro rail system was supposed to result in horrible congestion. In fact, as reported in the Washington Post, congestion was “normal,” with a little heavier traffic than usual in some places and lighter in others.

A few people hadn’t gotten the word, but most made other plans. Some people took the bus, but many buses had empty seats. Some people took taxis, but some taxi drivers reported no more business than usual. Pedestrian and bike traffic across the Key Bridge doubled, but that just meant 1,150 more than usual. Capital Bikeshare parking slots downtown were full, indicating more people used them to commute to work than usual. 

Uber, Lyft, and ZipCar all had good days, showing that private enterprise is alive and well. Some commuters vowed to buy a car and stop taking the Metro, more because it was generally unreliable than this particular shutdown. 

The Washington Post’s architecture critic claims that the shutdown happened because “we decided to let our cities decay.” In fact, it’s because politicians decided that spending money on new construction projects, such as the Silver and Purple lines, would benefit their political careers more than spending it maintaining the existing system.

Before that, it’s because politicians decided to saddle Washington with an expensive, obsolete technology that the region can’t afford to maintain. Metro needs to spend $1.1 billion a year on maintenance to keep the system from deteriorating; it spent about a third of that in 2014, so it’s getting worse every year.

Yesterday’s lack of chaos suggests that Washington can get along without the rail system. It certainly can’t afford to keep it. It’s time to think about alternatives.

The Washington Metro Strategy

The Washington Metrorail system is completely shut down for a safety inspection today after having suffered another fire on Monday. As Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, wants people to know, “Safety is our highest priority.”

The Washington Post says that this decision confirms that Metro is “a national embarrassment.” In fact, the shutdown appears to be a classic Washington Monument strategy, in which bureaucrats try to make budget shortfalls as painful as possible in order to get more money out of Congress or other legislators. Instead of shutting the entire system down, Metro could have done the necessary inspections between midnight and 5 am, when the trains aren’t running. If the full inspections will take the 29 hours the trains won’t be running Wednesday and Thursday morning, then doing them at night would take just six days.

There is no doubt that fires are serious; one in January, 2015, killed someone and hospitalized scores of others. But the fact that these two fires were more than fourteen months apart suggests that there isn’t a major risk of another one in the next few days.

Metro’s fundamental problem is that it uses an expensive, obsolete technology. The federal government paid to build the system, and local governments pay to operate it, but no one ever budgeted for maintenance costs. These costs become especially high after the infrastructure reaches about 30 years of age. The earliest parts of the Metro system will be 40 years old this year, and they have steadily deteriorated over the past decade.

A one-day inspection is not going to solve Metro’s problems. Metro did plenty of inspections since the January, 2015 fire, but that didn’t stop the March, 2016 fire from taking place. Moreover, fires are only a small part of Metro’s problems.

Other problems include worn-out railcars; replacement cars that are late because they are “beset with problems”; an unreliable automatic train operating system that Metro has been slow to restore since the 2009 accident that killed nine people; old rails that are prone to cracking; unreliable elevators and escalators; and a workforce that has so little concern for safety that train operators risk collisions by running red lights at least once a month, plus many more. No wonder Wiedefeld admitted, several months after becoming general manager, that problems are “worse than I thought.”

Fixing these problems is going to require around $10 billion, several years of work, and an overhaul of Metro’s bureaucracy to restore the safety ethic that ought to be, but isn’t, a part of Metro’s culture. That’s billions of dollars that won’t be available to relieve traffic congestion, repave Washington’s crumbling streets, provide safer bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and improve the bus service that is used by more than one out of three of the region’s transit commuters.

Lots of federal workers take the Metro. But the Census Bureau says that less than 10 percent of commuters in the Washington urban area (which includes parts of southern Maryland and northern Virginia) take Metro subway and elevated trains to work. (Another 6.6 percent take buses and a small percentage take Maryland or Virginia commuter trains.)

Instead of spending all that money on just 10 percent of commuters, it’s time for Metro to seriously consider replacing its worn-out rail system with economical and flexible buses. For a little more than $1 billion, Metro could buy enough buses to replace all of its railcars, leaving several billion dollars left over to spend on other transportation improvements that will benefit bus riders along with everyone else in the region, not just those who take Metro rail to work. It sounds radical, but at some point Metro will have to admit that it can’t afford to maintain its high-cost rail system, and buses are the low-cost alternative.

You Ought to Have a Look: Faced with a Losing Hand, Obama Sweetens the Pot

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. 

More and more, harsh reality is stacking up against our ability to achieve the cuts in our national emissions of greenhouse gases that President Obama promised the international community gathered in Paris last December at the UN’s climate conference. In that regard, here some items we think you ought to have a look at.

A couple of weeks ago, we reported that it was looking as if the EPA’s methane emission numbers were a bit, how should we say it, rosy. We suggested that emissions of methane (a strong greenhouse gas) from the U.S. were quite a bit higher than EPA estimates, and that they have been increasing over the past 10 years or so, whereas the EPA reports that they have been in decline. Factoring in this new science meant that the recent decline in total greenhouse gas emissions from the US was about one-third less than being advertised by the EPA and President Obama— imperiling our promise made at the UN’s December 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

Goings-on during the intervening weeks have only acted to further cement our assessment.

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: