Topic: Energy and Environment

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.

Four Centuries of Spring Temperatures in Nepal

In the past two decades, much scientific research has been conducted to examine the uniqueness (or non-uniqueness) of Earth’s current climate in an effort to discern whether or not rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations are having any measurable impact. Recent work by Thapa et al. (2015) adds to the growing list of such studies with respect to temperature.

According to this team of Nepalese and Indian researchers, the number of meteorological stations in Nepal are few (particularly in the mountain regions) and sparsely distributed across the country, making it “difficult to estimate the rate and geographic extent of recent warming” and to place it within a broader historical context. Thus, in an attempt to address this significant data void, Thapa et al. set out “to further extend the existing climate records of the region.”

The fruits of their labors are shown in the figure below, which presents a nearly four-century-long (AD 1640-2012) reconstruction of spring (Mar-May) temperatures based on tree-ring width chronologies acquired in the far-western Nepalese Himalaya. This temperature reconstruction identifies several periods of warming and cooling relative to its long-term mean (1897-2012). Of particular interest are the red and blue lines shown on the figure, which demark the peak warmth experienced during the past century and the temperature anomaly expressing the current warmth, respectively. As indicated by the red line, the warmest interval of the 20th century is not unique, having been eclipsed four times previous (see the shaded red circles) in the 373-year record – once in the 17th century, twice in the 18th century and once in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the blue line reveals that current temperatures are uncharacteristically cold. Only two times in the past century have temperatures been colder than they are now!

Figure 1. Reconstructed spring (March-May) temperature anomalies of the far western Nepal Himalaya, filtered using a smoothing spline with a 50 % frequency cut off of 10 years. The red line indicates the peak temperature anomaly of the past century, the blue line indicates the current temperature anomaly, the shaded red circles indicate periods in which temperatures were warmer than the peak warmth of the past century, and the shaded blue circles indicate periods during the past century that were colder than present. Adapted from Thapa et al. (2015).

Figure 1. Reconstructed spring (March-May) temperature anomalies of the far western Nepal Himalaya, filtered using a smoothing spline with a 50 % frequency cut off of 10 years. The red line indicates the peak temperature anomaly of the past century, the blue line indicates the current temperature anomaly, the shaded red circles indicate periods in which temperatures were warmer than the peak warmth of the past century, and the shaded blue circles indicate periods during the past century that were colder than present. Adapted from Thapa et al. (2015).

In light of the above facts, it is clear there is nothing unusual, unnatural or unprecedented about modern spring temperatures in the Nepalese Himalaya. If rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are having any impact at all, that impact is certainly not manifest in this record.



Thapa, U.K., Shah, S.K., Gaire, N.P. and Bhuju, D.R. 2015. Spring temperatures in the far-western Nepal Himalaya since AD 1640 reconstructed from Picea smithiana tree-ring widths. Climate Dynamics 45: 2069-2081.


Approaching Peak Transit

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so therefore fewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. According to California transit expert Tom Rubin, survey data indicate that there were an average of 1.66 unlinked trips per trip in 1985, while today the average is closer to 2.20. That means today’s unlinked trip numbers must be reduced by nearly 25 percent to fairly compare them with 1985 numbers.

Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.

The transit agency offers all kinds of excuses for its problems. Just wait until it finishes a “complete buildout” of the rail system, says general manager Phil Washington, a process (the Times observes) that could take decades. In other words, don’t criticize us until we have spent many more billions of your dollars. Besides, agency officials say wistfully, just wait until traffic congestion worsens, gas prices rise, everyone is living in transit-oriented developments, and transit vehicles are hauled by sparkly unicorns.

You Ought to Have a Look: Carbon Tax, Government Science, Laurel and Hardy Weather Observations

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.

The New York Times ran an op-ed  last week extolling the virtues of a carbon tax by trying to poo-poo the idea that a tax on carbon emissions (which are produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas during the production of 80% of our nation’s energy supply) would produce a negative impact on our economy. The Times’ editors attempt to do this by running through a couple of examples where they claim the imposition of a carbon tax has produced economic benefits (or at least, was somewhat neutral).

Economist Dr. Robert Murphy takes the Times to task on this in his post “The NYT Gets It Wrong on Carbon Tax.”

Murphy is a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, research assistant professor at Texas Tech, and also the lead author of our Working Paper (soon to be Cato Policy Analysis) examining the cost for a carbon tax.

In his response to the Times, Murphy points out the Times’ editors’ favorite example of a carbon tax done well—British Columbia—actually serves as a counter-example when looked at a bit more carefully. Not only did British Columbia’s economy suffer after the establishment of a carbon tax, but also, the revenue-neutrality of the BC tax is not a real-world possibility in the U.S.

Metro Flunks Snowstorm 101

For the past several years, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has vied with San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority for the non-coveted title of “Worst-Managed Transit System in America.” It is still only January, but with its performance, or rather non-performance, during snowstorm Jonas, Metro appears to have already clinched the title for 2016.

 This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

To start with, rather than try to provide transportation for people who needed to travel over the weekend, Metro pre-emptively shut down, ending all bus service at 5 pm Friday (well before the worst of the snow fell) and ending rail service for the weekend at 11 pm. By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)–serving an area that received much more snow than the district–kept its subways running throughout the weekend and kept its above-ground trains and buses going for as long as it could into the storm.

Metro could have followed MTA’s example by keeping the underground portion of its subways running–Ballston to Eastern Market, Medical Center to Union Station, and Fort Totten to Anacostia–all weekend, but chose not to do so. These lines cover much of the length and breadth of the district and could have provided vital transportation for many people. 

Metro’s excuses for shutting down were rather thin. It claimed that passenger safety was more important than the convenience of having service. But how safe is it to be out in a blizzard compared with riding on a subway? Metro also said it needed to put its employees to work to put it back in service on Monday. But the people who operate trains are not maintenance workers and union rules probably prohibited Metro from putting them to work shoveling snow.

Besides, Metro didn’t do a very good job of putting the system back into operation. Most of MTA’s above-ground trains were running by Sunday afternoon. MTA also put most of its bus lines back into service on Monday. Metro was content to open the subway portions of its lines on Monday, leaving its above-ground lines still closed, and to run just 22 out of its 325 bus lines.

Metro might argue that federal offices were closed Monday anyway, so the demand for its services was lower. But if Metro had been more on the ball, federal offices might not have had to close.

In short, MTA passes but Metro flunks Snowstorm 101. But Metro puts itself well ahead of the pack in the race to being the worst-managed transit agency of 2016.

On the Bright Side: The Effects of Elevated CO2 on Two Coffee Cultivars

Compliments of rising atmospheric CO2, in the future you can have a larger cup of coffee and drink it too!

In the global market, coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities, where more than 80 million people are involved in its cultivation, processing, transportation and marketing (Santos et al., 2015). Cultivated in over 70 countries, retail sales are estimated at $90 billion USD. Given such agricultural prominence, it is therefore somewhat surprising, in the words of Ghini et al. (2015) that “there is virtually no information about the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 on field-grown coffee trees.” Rather, there exists only a few modeling studies that estimate a future in which coffee plants suffer (1) severe yield losses (Gay et al., 2006), (2) a reduction in suitable growing area (Zullo et al., 2011), (3) extinction of certain wild populations (Davis et al., 2012) and (4) increased damage from herbivore, pathogen and pest attacks (Ghini et al., 2011; 2012; Jaramillo et al., 2011; Kutywayo et al., 2013), all in consequence of predicted changes in climate due to rising atmospheric CO2.

In an effort to assess such speculative model-based predictions, the ten-member scientific team of Ghini et al. set out to conduct an experiment to observationally determine the response of two coffee cultivars to elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 in the first Free-air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) facility in Latin America. Small specimens (3-4 pairs of leaves) of two coffee cultivars, Catuaí and Obatã, were sown in the field under ambient (~390 ppm) and enriched (~550 ppm) CO2 conditions in August of 2011 and allowed to grow under normal cultural growing conditions without supplemental irrigation for a period of 2 years.

No significant effect of CO2 was observed on the growth parameters during the first year. However, during the growing season of year 2, net photosynthesis increased by 40% (see Figure 1a) and plant water use efficiency by approximately 60% (Figure 1b), regardless of cultivar. During the winter, when growth was limited, daily mean net photosynthesis “averaged 56% higher in the plants treated with CO2 than in their untreated counterparts” (Figure 1c). Water use efficiency in winter was also significantly higher (62% for Catuaí and 85% for Obatã, see Figure 1d). Such beneficial impacts resulted in significant CO2-induced increases in plant height (7.4% for Catuaí and 9.7% for Obatã), stem diameter (9.5% for Catuaí and 13.4% for Obatã) and harvestable yield (14.6% for Catuaí and 12.0% for Obatã) over the course of year 2. Furthermore, Ghini et al. report that the increased crop yield “was associated with an increased number of fruits per branch, with no differences in fruit weight.”

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?