Topic: Energy and Environment

More Fun with Not-so-Dumb Organisms and the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change

Last time around, we brought forth evidence against organismal “dumbness”—the notion that species found only in defined climatic environments will go extinct if the climate changes beyond their range. We picked on cute little Nemo, and “found,” much like in the animation, that his kind (Amphiprion ocellaris) could actually survive far beyond their somewhat circumscribed tropical reef climate.

The key was the notion of plasticity—the concept that, despite being linked to a fixed genetic compliment, or genotype, the products of those genes (the “phenotype”) changed along with the environment, allowing organisms some degree of insurance against climate change. How this comes about through evolution remains a mystery, though we may occasionally indulge in a bit of high speculation.

“Science,” according to the late, great philosopher Karl Popper, is comprised of theories that are capable of making what he called “difficult predictions.” The notion that gravity bends light would be one of those made by relativity, and it was shown to be true by Sir Arthur Eddington in the 1919 total solar eclipse. It just happened to be in totality in the Pleiades star cluster (also the corporate logo of Subaru), and, sure enough, the stars closest to the eclipsed sun’s limb apparently moved towards it when compared to their “normal” positions.

So we have been interested in a truly difficult test of phenotypic plasticity, and we think we found one.

How about a clam that lives in the bottom of the great Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica? Specifically, the burrowing clam Laternula elliptica. According to a recent (2017) paper by Catherine Waller of the University of Hull (in the, perhaps temporarily, United Kingdom) “75 percent of the recorded specimens [of L. elliptica] are from localities shallower than 100 m,” where the populations are exposed to “low and stable water temperatures in the range of -1.9 to +1.8 °C” (the remaining 25 percent inhabit cooler waters of the continental slope down to ~700m).

Laternula elliptica

Laternula elliptica

You Ought to Have a Look: The Catastrophe of Climate Catastrophizing and Fun at the House Science Committee

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. 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 time around You Ought to Have a Look at a brilliant analysis of the profound illogic of “climate catastrophizing” appearing, in all places, in Foreign Affairs, arguably the most important international contributor to precisely just that.

Written by the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass (“he’s just like you and me, only smarter”), who often finds himself YOTHALed in these writings, it’s a logical tour-de-force that skewers the exaggerated bathos of the apocalyptics with simple economic logic and hard numbers. Along the way, the usual purveyors of gloom-and-doom, like Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome, as well as some more modern-day would-be autocrats like Harvard’s Daniel Schrag, fall victim. The intellectual carnage wrought by Cass is truly breathtaking. And it’s all in Foreign Affairs.

Cass starts off with a bang:

Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news, but without question it has created a flood of despair. Climate researchers and activists, according to a 2015 Esquire feature, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” suffer from depression and PTSD-like symptoms. In a poll on his Twitter feed, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus found that nearly half of 416 respondents felt “emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change.” 

For just such feelings, a Salt Lake City support group provides “a safe space for confronting” what it calls “climate grief.”

Panicked thoughts often turn to the next generation. “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids?” pondered columnist Dave Bry in The Guardian in 2016. “[I] think about my son,” he wrote, “growing up in a gray, dying world—walking towards Kansas on potholed highways.” Over the summer, National Public Radio tackled the same topic in “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” an interview with Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, who offers “a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” And Holthaus himself once responded to a worrying scientific report by announcing that he would never fly again and might also get a vasectomy

Cass then notes that this fear is stoked at the highest levels, with gaudy statements by President Obama (as long as there’s no chance of an audience question, he notes), Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Bill di Blasio (the last made at the Vatican, which has also been fanning the flames).

A True Fish Story: Adaptive Responses to Global Warming

The simplistic notion that organisms are “dumb” when it comes to changing environments goes like this: Species X lives in a relatively stable environment and with a certain defined range of temperature. So, if the temperature changes enough, species X will go extinct.

In resuming our series on biological adaptation to environmental change, we are going to be looking in depth at the evolutionary and environmental nuances that—with some limits—invalidate the simple point of view. And, in doing so, we will discover important implications for environmental and climate-related policies.

We begin with revolutionary classic in evolutionary biology published in 1984 by Peter Hochachka and George Somero called “Biochemical Adaptation.” It summarized and expanded on much of their earlier work on what they called “phenotypic plasticity”.

Natural Variability’s Role in Arctic Sea Ice Decline Strengthens Case for Lukewarming

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our “Current Wisdom.”

A story this week that has been making the rounds in the climate-media complex finds that natural variability is responsible for perhaps as much as 50% of the summertime decrease in Arctic sea ice that has taken place over the past 30 years or so (anthropogenic climate change is the presumed factor in the remainder).

This isn’t new. The last (2013) science report from the UN’s Intergovernmental panel on climate change said:

Using climate model simulations from the NCAR CCSM4…inferred that approximately half (56%) of the observed rate of decline from 19979 to 2005 was externally (anthropogenically) forced, with the other half associated with natural internal variability.

Ten years ago, a study was conducted by a team led by Julienne Stroeve that looked at the observed rate of Arctic sea ice loss and compared it to climate model expectations. [A side note here: the loss of Arctic sea ice (which is floating ice) does not lead to sea level rise just as the melting of ice in your cocktail doesn’t lead to your glass overflowing]. What Stroeve and colleagues found was the Arctic sea ice was being lost at a far brisker pace than climate models had predicted (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent from observations (red think line) and climate models (colored spaghetti), from Stroeve et al. (2007).

How Does One Justify One of the Most Expensive Regulations in American History?

In an effort to justify its massive global warming regulations, the Obama Administration had to estimate how much global warming would cost, and therefore how much money their plans would “save.” This is called the “social cost of carbon” (SCC). Calculating the SCC requires knowledge of how much it will warm as well as the net effects of that warming. Needless to say, the more it warms, the more it costs, justifying the greatest regulations. 

Obviously this is a gargantuan task requiring expertise a large number of agencies and cabinet departments. Consequently, the Administration cobbled a large “Interagency Working Group” (IWG) that ran three combination climate and economic models. A reliable cost estimate requires a confident understanding of both future climate and economic conditions. The Obama Administration decided it could calculate this to the year 2300, a complete fantasy when it comes to the way the world produces and consumes energy. It’s an easy demonstration that we have a hard enough time getting the next 15 years right, let alone the next 300.

Consider the case of domestic natural gas. In 2001, everyone knew that we were running out. A person who opined that we actually would soon be able to exploit hundreds of years’ worth, simply by smashing rocks underlying vast areas of the country, would have been laughed out of polite company. But the previous Administration thought it could tell us the energy technology of 2300. As a thought experiment, could anyone in 1717 foresee cars (maybe), nuclear fission (nope), or the internet (never)? 

On the climate side alone, there’s obviously some range of expected warming, often expressed as the probabilities surrounding some “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS), or the mean amount of warming ultimately predicted for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the UN’s last (2013) climate compendium, their 100+ computer runs calculated an average of 3.2°C (5.8°F). A rough rule of thumb would be that this is also an estimate of the total temperature change predicted from the late 20th century to the year 2100.

Southern’s Subsidies Subverted Sound Strategy

In recent House testimony, I said that energy subsidies should be repealed because they distort business decision making. They induce firms to invest in activities that do not make sense in the marketplace.

That appears to be the case with Southern Company’s “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. The plant is far behind schedule and massively over budget—a first-class boondoggle. The Wall Street Journal reports that the estimated cost has soared from $3 billion to $7.1 billion. (This says the original estimate was $2.2 billion). The utility’s customers could be in for a $4 billion rate hike.

What the WSJ leaves out is that the Kemper plant received federal subsidies and Obama administration support, which may have tilted company executives in favor of the wasteful project instead of a far cheaper natural gas plant. The project had been scheduled to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and tax credits, although I understand that some of the bounty was later rescinded.

Federal subsidies covered only part of the original estimated cost, but they were likely the tail that wagged the dog. When subsidies induce private businesses to invest in dubious projects, the damage comes not just from wasting taxpayer dollars, but also from misallocating private investment funds.

More on energy subsidies, here, here, and here. More on Kemper, here, here, and here.

House Testimony on Energy Subsidies

I testified to a House committee today on Department of Energy (DOE) loan programs. These were the Bush/Obama-era subsidies to Solyndra and other renewable energy businesses.

I discussed five reasons why the loan programs should be repealed:

1. Four Decades Is Enough. The federal government has been subsidizing solar and wind power since the 1970s. These are no longer the sort of “infant industries” that some economists claim need government help. Solar and wind are large and mature industries, and they already receive subsidies from state governments, particularly in the form of utility purchase mandates, which are in place in 29 states.

2. Failures and Boondoggles. The DOE claims that Solyndra’s bankruptcy was the exception, and that the agency’s overall loss rate on loans is low. But as an economist, I’m more concerned with whether the overall benefits of projects outweigh the costs, and that appears not to be the case for numerous projects. The Ivanpah solar project in California, for example, is producing less electricity and consuming more natural gas than promised, and its cost per kwh is at least three times more than for natural gas plants.

3. Corporate Welfare and Cronyism. The Washington Post found that “Obama’s green-technology program was infused with politics at every level.” Public opinion polls have shown plunging support for both politicians and big businesses over the years, and one of the reasons is such cronyism. Businesses and policymakers would gain more public respect if they cut ties to each other by ending corporate welfare.

4. Private Sector Can Fund Renewable Energy. Most DOE loan guarantees have gone to projects backed by wealthy investors and large corporations, such as Warren Buffett and General Electric. Such individuals and companies are fully capable of pursuing energy projects with their own money. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has invested $17 billion in renewable energy since 2004. With that kind of private cash available for renewables, we do not need the DOE handing out subsidies.

5. Subsidies Distort Decisionmaking. Federal energy subsidies create counterproductive incentives in the economy. For example, subsidized firms tend to become slow and spendthrift, thus subsidies undermine productivity. Also, because subsidies are not driven by consumer demands, they can induce firms to invest in activities that will not succeed in the marketplace in the long term.

You can watch the full hearing here. My testimony is here. More background on energy subsidies is here.