Topic: Energy and Environment

Heavy Rains Increasing, but Not Disproportionately So

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 monthly “Current Wisdom.”

A new paper has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that examines trends in heavy rainfall amounts across the U.S. The paper is authored by Newcastle University’s Renaud Barbero and colleagues, and, to summarize, finds that the heaviest rainfall events of the year have been increasing in magnitude since 1951 when averaged across nearly 500 stations distributed across the U.S. (note: results from individual stations may differ from the general finding).

Someone with a critical eye might ask the real question, which is “how much?” That such a number does not jump out of this paper—a cynic would say—probably means it is very small. Read on and you will find the answer.

That rainfall on the rainiest day of the year is increasing is, of itself, hardly surprising considering that the total annual rainfall amount averaged across the U.S. has also been increasing during this same period (again, results from individual locations/regions may (and do) depart from this generality).

Changes in heavy rainfall like this are often luridly described as a “disproportionate increase” in extreme events, or that extreme precipitation increases are “worse than expected.”

You Ought to Have a Look: How to Properly Worry about Climate Change, aka, Lukewarming

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.

In our last episode of You Ought to Have a Look (which was prominently quoted in an editorial in Nature magazine this week), we looked at reasons why folks who are wishing climate change mitigation should be the driving force behind most federal regulations should be very worried about what the incoming Trump Administration has in store. Most of his announced agency heads, etc., don’t share their vision (unlike those currently running the Obama Administration).

This week we start off with a guide to how folks should worry about climate change in general. Is it really true that, according to President Obama, “No challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change”? The short answer is no. The long answer is provided by Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass is his recent piece for National Affairs called “How to Worry about Climate Change”.

Oren describes how climate change is different from typical political policy questions:

Climate change is a different kind of problem from health-care reform, gender equality, or almost any traditional subject of political attention and action. Its relevant effects are still decades or centuries away. Scenarios with the most extreme effects, rather than the most likely ones, provide the sense of urgency and the rationale for policy responses. Those extreme outcomes are often distant ripples from the initial effect of a warmer climate, transmitted outward through multiple steps of causation and combined with other factors to produce or amplify the damage. By the time actual impacts arrive, the time for action may have long passed. But if climate change is not a typical policy problem, how should policymakers approach it?

…Yes, climate change is a problem. But what kind of problem?

He then sets out to answer that question:

Climate change—forecasted, irreversible, and pervasive—might therefore be called a “worrying problem.” Here, “worrying” does not mean “concerning” (though it is that as well), but rather something tailor-made for worry. Its effects exist primarily in the imagination and have poorly defined bounds that encourage speculation; a point of no return looms. Yet the contours of those bounds and that point may become clear only after it is too late to correct course.

Other worrying problems exist. They tend to emerge where clear long-term trends in technological or social change produce concerning side effects.

Oren provides other examples of “worrying problems” such as a global pandemic caused by international travel and urbanization, overuse of antibiotics, nuclear weapons, interconnectivity of financial systems, democratization of communications technologies, computer viruses, superhuman computer intelligence, weaponized nanotechnology, and many more, including social ones, as well as the sustainability of the Western welfare state itself. As Oren says there is “much to worry about,” but reminding everyone that “we should heed the well-known warning: ‘What worries you masters you.’”

Devolving Federal Lands

The federal government owns 28 percent of the land in the United States, including about half of the land in the 11 westernmost states. Federal agencies are poor land managers in many ways, and the government’s top-down regulations on land use are frustrating to many Westerners, as I discuss in studies here and here.

Much federal land would generate more value if it were owned by the states or the private sector. Economic and environmental needs would be better balanced by local policymakers than by the unaccountable bureaucracies in faraway Washington. Increased federal control over lands does not automatically benefit the environment, as liberals seem to think. Instead, it usually creates disincentives for sound environmental management.

The good news is that the House took a step toward devolving federal lands yesterday, as reported by the Washington Post:

House Republicans on Tuesday changed the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, a move that will make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands.

Many Republicans, including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have been pushing to hand over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, on the grounds that they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents.

But…

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter Tuesday to fellow Democrats urging them to oppose the rules package on the basis of that proposal.

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value.”

Rep. Grijalva gets it backwards. Devolving ownership would increase the value of federal lands to Americans, not reduce it. And far from being “outrageous and absurd,” devolution was the general policy of the government for much of the nations’ history. The federal government privatized 792 million acres of land between 1781 and 1940, and it transferred 470 million acres of land to the states.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee to head the Department of the Interior apparently lean against devolving federal lands. But I hope they reconsider, as there are 640 million acres of diverse lands we are talking about here. I am not saying that we should privatize Yellowstone. But what about the Bureau of Land Management’s 250 million acres, which is mainly used for cattle grazing?

Today, artificially low federal grazing fees encourage overgrazing. Federal ownership also makes ranchers insecure about their tenures, such that they have an incentive to overstock grazing lands and a disincentive to make long-term investments to improve the lands. Privatizing grazing lands would create more secure property rights, and thus encourage ranchers to improve their stewardship of the lands. That would benefit the economy and the environment.

A good first step for the Trump administration would be to create a detailed inventory of federal land holdings. Then the administration should work with Congress and the states to identify those parcels that might be better managed by state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and businesses.

 

You Ought to Have a Look: Panic Among Alarmists

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.

As the time towards Trump’s inauguration closes, panic mounts in the climate change-agenda community as evinced by their hyperventilation about what a Trump Administration might unleash on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. This includes ventilation about blocking access to climate data, data manipulation, investigating climate scientists, squashing dissent, selective science, end runs around Congressional intent, etc…sort of like a catalog of what they have been doing since climate change went prime time in 1988.

Many of these bloviations are completely unfounded—for example, a particular favorite of the press during recent weeks has been that “Scientists [are] Rac[ing] To Preserve Climate Change Data Before Trump Takes Office.” This is nonsense—despite the hand-wringing and (faux) concern raised by some folks. And while we, like everyone else should be, are opposed to deleting government datasets (paid for with our tax dollars), there is simply no evidence that such an action is in the works or even being contemplated.

Many of the other fears are overblown as well, but there are, in fact, some things that should bother climate campaigners (and no one else). These include efforts to retract the Clean Power Plan, to eliminate the use of the social cost of carbon as currently constituted in federal cost/benefit analyses, and acknowledgement the current generation of climate models has no utility with regard to policy.

The Feds Want to Track Your Car

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC) formally proposed to mandate that all new cars be equipped with “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communications, also known as connected-vehicle technology. This would allow vehicles stuck in traffic to let other vehicles know to take alternate routes. It would also allow the governments—or hackers—to take control of your car anytime they want.

The good news is that the Trump Administration will take office before NHTSC has a chance to put this rule into effect, and may be willing to kill it. The bad news is that this rule will feed the paranoia some people have over self-driving cars.

This article, for example, considers self-driving cars to be a part of the “war on the automobile” because they offer an “easy way to track the movements of individuals in society.” In fact, the writer of the article is confusing self-driving cars with connected vehicles. As I’ve previously noted, none of the at least 20 companies working on self-driving cars or software appear to be making V2V an integral part of their systems. This is mainly because they don’t trust the government to install or maintain the infrastructure needed to make it work but also because self-driving cars don’t need that technology.

There are good reasons to be paranoid about connected-vehicle mandates. First, they will give government the ability to control your car, and some governments in the United States have shown that they are willing to use that control to reduce your mobility. The state of Washington, for example, has mandated a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. This is a state that has forbidden people to build homes on their own land if they live outside of an urban-growth boundary. If they can’t reduce per capita driving through moral suasion, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that they will just turn peoples’ cars off after they have driven so many miles each month.

Second, if every car uses exactly the same vehicle-to-vehicle software, they will be incredibly vulnerable to hackers. Remember that hackers figured out how to remotely control a Jeep that Chrysler had wired to the cell phone network. Chrysler responded by recalling 1.4 million cars to install a firewall between the network and the car’s operating system. But now the government wants to mandate that all cars connect their operating systems to the cell phone or other wireless network, with no firewalls allowed.

While the risks of mandatory V2V systems are significant, the benefits are tiny. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes that, “As NHTSA readily admits, hypothetical safety benefits of the mandate will be trivial for the next 15 years, at which point far superior automated vehicle technology may be deployed to consumers,” especially if manufacturers aren’t locked into technologies prescribed by the government.

People should not be paranoid about self-driving cars because none of the technologies required for self-driving cars would allow someone to remotely control your car. But people should be paranoid about V2V communications, especially those mandated by the government. Some auto makers are already offering various connected technologies with their cars, such as OnStar, which leaves it up to consumers whether they want to buy those kinds of systems and gives manufacturers incentives to keep their systems hack-proof. But government mandates for connected vehicles are both dangerous and pointless.

Cutting Energy Subsidies

The incoming Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, has talked in the past about abolishing the department that he will be running. President-elect Donald Trump has expressed skepticism with some types of energy subsidies. However, Trump’s campaign website mentioned support for “continued research into advanced energy technologies.”

As they consider their energy policy approach, the Trump team should look at the past record of federal spending, which I discuss in a new study on energy subsidies at DG.org.

You Ought to Have a Look: How-to Guides to Undoing the Climate Action Plan, Fixing the National Flood Insurance Program, and Killing Mosquitoes

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.

With news of the past week or so dominated by announcements and then post-announcement scrutiny of Trump’s cabinet picks, we highlight a few pieces that go into deeper waters on these (and other) topics.

First up is an informative piece by Vox’s Brad Plumer that’s built from an interview he conducted with Jody Freeman, a Harvard law school professor and former climate adviser to President Obama. Over the course of their conversation, Plumer and Freeman pretty much lay out a road map as to how the Trump Administration could go about undoing much of President Obama’s ill-advised (in our opinion) Climate Action Plan. The selection of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is definitely a big step in that direction.