Topic: Energy and Environment

Sprawl Does Not Reduce Economic Mobility

For the second time in a week, Paul Krugman has castigated urban sprawl. First, he blamed Detroit’s bankruptcy on “job sprawl,” when in fact many other factors are to blame and Krugman got his numbers wrong. Now he says Atlanta’s entrenched poverty is due to urban sprawl. “The city may just be too spread out,” he says, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

Krugman quotes the Equality of Opportunity Project, whose research found that one of many factors correlated with lower social mobility was “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals.” But income segregation is very different from sprawl, and can take place in communities of any density. New York City, for example, has pretty high economic segregation.

Krugman adds that Atlanta’s sprawl “would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.” He obviously doesn’t know the history of mass transit in Atlanta, which had a great transit system until regional leaders decided to build an expensive rail transit system. Since they aimed the rail lines at suburbanites and sacrificed bus service to inner-city neighborhoods to pay for rail construction, transit’s share of commuting has fallen by more than 60 percent and per capita transit ridership has fallen by more than two thirds.

Only 7 percent of Atlanta households lack a motor vehicle, and only 3.7 percent of Atlanta-area workers live in households that lack cars, which are both less than the national average. So jobs are not really out of reach to most people regardless of income. Krugman might argue that low-income people in Atlanta are forced to own cars because of sprawl, but for most people cars cost less and provide far better mobility than transit, so this is irrelevant.

The Equality of Opportunity Project found that economic mobility is low throughout the South (except Texas), not just in Atlanta. But the differences in the unit measured—the percentage of children in the bottom fifth of incomes who end up in the top fifth–are small, ranging from 4 percent in Atlanta to 11 percent in San Jose. Moreover, what differences there are appear to be unrelated to sprawl: Chicago, a fairly dense area, is almost as low as Atlanta, while Pittsburgh, a fairly low-density area, is almost as high as San Jose.

The study lists a lot of factors that seem to correlate with low economic mobility, but none of them are related to population density or sprawl. The most important factors appear to be tax rates, racial residential segregation, K-12 school quality, and the percentage of single-parent families. The South scores particularly high on racial residential segregation and low on K-12 schools, which together go much further toward explaining its relatively low economic mobility than urban sprawl.

Residential income segregation, which Krugman focuses on, is only one of several other factors mentioned by the study, and far from the most important one. Even if sprawl were one of the factors, the study itself notes that “all of the findings in this study are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects.” By blaming low economic mobility on sprawl, Krugman is relying on fabricated evidence while ignoring the real problems.

As it happens, the Daily Beast has just published a report by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox on Aspirational Cities, which they describe as cities with economic growth and a high quality of life. The majority of cities on their list are in the South, where people are moving to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

It is sad that some local residents, who may be victims of historic racial segregation, poor schools, and one-parent families, aren’t able to take advantage of these opportunities. But these problems did not result from urban sprawl. On the other hand, the factors that Kotkin & Cox say provide a higher quality of life and economic growth–minimal land-use regulation, low traffic congestion, and high housing affordability–are in fact positively correlated with sprawl.

Why is Krugman suddenly pandering to the anti-sprawl community? Back in 2005, Krugman correctly identified anti-sprawl policies as the cause of the housing bubble. He must be aware of research showing that minority homeownership rates are higher in sprawling regions than compact ones (mainly because housing is more affordable in the former than the latter). All else being equal, including quality of schools and racial segregation, sprawling areas are likely to have more social mobility than more expensive, compact areas.

The IPCC AR5 Is in Real Trouble

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is in the midst of finishing its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on the topic. Based on a series of content leaks, it seems as if the AR5 has so much internal inconsistency that releasing it in its current form will be a major fiasco.

The  central issue of climate change science is the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—that is, how much the earth’s average surface temperature will increase as a result of a doubling the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. New and mutually consistent re-assessments of this important parameter are appearing in the scientific literature faster than the slow and arduous IPCC assessment process can digest them (presuming it even wants to—given that they are making the current AR5 look pretty bad).

Further, even if the IPCC is able to do an adequate job of assimilating this evolving and quite convincing science, the vast majority of the rest of the IPCC’s report will also have to be changed as it is highly dependent on the magnitude of the climate sensitivity. 

By now, though, it’s too late in the game (the final report is due out in early  2014)—the  cows have all left the IPCC’s barn on these subjects and it’s too late to round them all up and rebrand them.

Feds and the States Tag-Teaming on Corporate Welfare

In a recent op-ed for the Indianapolis Star I discussed the symbiotic relationship between federal and state government when it comes to doling out corporate welfare subsidies. The focus was primarily on Indiana, but the issue is a national concern. 

A good example is the $2 billion Shepherd’s Flat wind farm in Oregon that was largely financed with federal and state taxpayer support. Ted Sickinger, a reporter for the Oregonian, has done an excellent job of digging into details behind the project (see here then here then here) and it appears that Shepherd’s Flat was one big taxpayer handout. In fact, the Obama administration signed off on the federal government’s share of the subsidies even though it knew the project didn’t need any support from taxpayers: 

In 2010, Shepherd’s Flat attracted national notoriety for its subsidies. In a briefing memo for the President leaked to the media, Obama’s top advisors worried that the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program was subsidizing projects that didn’t need it. 

Shepherd’s Flat was their case in point. 

Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, energy czar Carol Browner, and Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain said Shepherd’s Flat was “double-dipping” on $1.2 billion in federal and state subsidies – 65 percent of its projected cost. The incentives included a $500 million federal grant, $200 million in federal and state tax benefits from accelerated depreciation, $220 million in premium power prices attributed to state renewable energy mandates, and a $1 billion loan guarantee with a value of $300 million to the developers. 

They concluded that Caithness has “little skin in the game” – about 10 percent of the project’s cost – but stood to earn a 30 percent return on its investment. It also speculated that Shepherd’s Flat would likely go ahead without the federal loan guarantee because “the economics are favorable for wind investment given tax credits and state renewable energy standards.” 

Caithness Energy is the wind farm’s owner and operator. General Electric supplied the wind turbines (a $1.4 billion contract with Caithness) and part of the financing – financing backed by the federal loan guarantee. Both companies made sure they had Washington’s attention: 

Nationally, powerful interests were pushing in the same direction. A new president’s desire to build environmental credibility became an economic keystone to restore the collapsed economy. The Obama administration fast tracked loan guarantees to pump stimulus money into job-generating projects. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed companies with powerful lobbying arms were busy greasing the skids. 

The political action committee, employees and affiliates of General Electric - Shepherds Flat’s turbine supplier and an equity investor - gave more than a half million dollars to Obama’s 2008 campaign. The PACs for both GE and Caithness also have sprinkled sprinkled money among Oregon’s congressional delegation during the last five years, including Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio. 

According to e-mails released by the House Oversight Committee investigating federal subsidies after the bankruptcy of solar startup Solyndra, the Obama administration pushed hard on incentives for Shepherds Flat. Months before officials at the U.S. Department of Energy approved a loan guarantee for the project, General Electric was being told it was a done deal. 

In April 2010, Kevin Walsh, managing director of GE’s renewables business, emailed the director of the U.S. DOE’s loan program: “We have been advised by the White House and other sources that we are likely to get the “green light” this week to move forward with the Shepherds Flat wind project…Les Gelber (a partner at Caithness Energy) and I will be in DC tomorrow and would like to stop by any time between noon and 2pm to briefly discuss.” 

The deal took more time to fully bake. Four months later, DOE Loan Program Office Credit Advisor Jim McCrea emailed a contractor: “Pressure is on real heavy on SF due to interest from VP.” 

Later that day, McCrea sent staff an all points bulletin to promptly provide answers on Shepherds Flat: “To do otherwise would leave us firmly on the political path and give agencies an opportunity to blame us when they are pressures (sic) to make decisions. As you all know, the pressures to make decisions on this transaction are high so speed is of the essence.” 

But the shenanigans don’t stop at the federal level. 

Even though the wind farm is clearly a single entity, it somehow managed to qualify for three separate $10 million state tax credits after the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) agreed with Caithness’s claim that Shepherd’s Flat was three separate entities. According to Sickinger, the ODOE’s decision was bogus: 

Yet limited and often non-responsive information about the review provided to The Oregonian suggests it was neither rigorous nor consistent with state rules governing tax credits. In its review, ODOE ignored clear evidence in its own files and additional records identified by The Oregonian that should have disqualified $20 million of the $30 million in tax credits. It failed to ask for contracts or other documentation to answer fundamental questions that state rules pose about ownership, financing, construction, operation and maintenance.

Instead, ODOE made assumptions, relied again on statements made by developers before the project was built, and reversed its own analysts’ earlier conclusions. Its review apparently tapped only one new source: a report by ODOE’s own staff for an entirely different purpose and largely irrelevant regarding tax credit eligibility. In the end, ODOE failed to apply its rules on separate and distinct facilities to Shepherd’s Flat. 

The result: “free” money for Caithness: 

The company, like many other tax credit recipients, received approval to sell the credit in exchange for cash. The pass-through option will net Caithness $20 million, but leave the state’s general fund out the full $30 million. 

There are more stories like the crony Shepherd’s Flat deal out there waiting to be uncovered. More state and local reporters should follow Sickinger’s example and start digging into these shady government-private collaborations that politicians and the financially-benefitting interests want the public to believe are so critical for “creating jobs.”     

Current Wisdom: We Calculate, You Decide: A Handy-Dandy Carbon Tax Temperature-Savings Calculator

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press. In this special issue, we focus on the climate implications of a carbon tax.

A year ago, July 23, 2012 to be precise, former Republican congressman Bob Inglis famously predicted the facts on global warming will “overwhelm” GOP resistance to climate change action and alter the party’s stance.  In response, he proposed a carbon tax.

That’s the kind of thing that always pops up during the hottest time of the year, which is late July, and it’s again in the public yakstream.

Inglis is “former” because he lost his primary in a heavily Republican South Carolina district by an unprecedented—for an incumbent congressman with no scandal—70-29 margin, and he (correctly) blamed his defeat on his newly-found perseveration on global warming.

Since then, he has associated with R-Street Partners, which calls itself a libertarian think tank, but which is very vocal in support of his tax.

So, as discussions of a carbon tax continue in the halls and chambers of Washington, we provide a handy tool for tax fans to determine the global warming “savings” from whatever emissions reduction their hearts desire.

We leave it to the user (policymaker, Congressman, former Congressman, think tank scholar, President, voter, etc.) to decide how much of a carbon tax should be levied to produce the desired result.

Using our calculator, you can specify

  1. the carbon dioxide emissions reduction amount (calculated from the 2005 baseline) that will take place by the year 2050 (and remain in place thereafter),
  2. the region which will take part in the emissions reduction plan (the United States, or for the more optimistic, the industrialized nations of the world),
  3. and the climate sensitivity (how much you think the global average temperature will increase as a result of a doubling of the pre-industrial atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration). The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) modestly-educated guess is 3.0°C,  but a collection of reports from the recent scientific literature puts the value around 2.0°C, and based on recent global temperature behavior, a value of 1.5°C may be most appropriate.  Not wanting to leave firebrands like former NASA employee James Hansen out of the fun, we include the option of selecting an extremely high climate sensitivity value of 4.5°C.

We calculate, you decide.

Once you make your selections, the calculator will return the amount of global temperature rise that will be averted as a result of your choices by the year 2050 and also by the end of the century.

Try it using this example. Choose a 100% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from the United States and the IPCC’s sensitivity value of 3.0°C. Hit “Submit.” The amount of temperature savings that results is 0.052°C by the year 2050 and 0.137°C by the year 2100. (Why we are using three significant digits is in the fine print at the end of this article.)

A Handy-Dandy Carbon Tax Temperature-Savings Calculator

Global Temperature Rise Averted

Your results will appear here.

Sorry, Major Kong (h/t to “Dr. Strangelove”), those are the figures.  That’s the right answer. Assuming the IPCC’s value for climate sensitivity (i.e. disregarding the recent scientific literature) and completely stopping all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. between now and the year 2050 and keeping them at zero, will only reduce the amount of global warming by just over a tenth of a degree (out of a total projected rise of 2.619°C between 2010 and 2100).

If you think that a rise of 2.482°C is vastly preferable to a rise of 2.619°C then all you have to do is set the carbon tax large enough to drive U.S. emissions to zero by mid-century—oh yeah, and sell that tax to the American people.

To explore other alternatives, use our handy-dandy calculator.

Have fun!



The fine print:

Hot Enough For You?

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

Is it hot enough for you?

You don’t know, and neither do global warming policy wonks.

Climatologically speaking, temperatures peak in the second half of July, especially here in the East. Thanks to this, global warming horror stories also max out, followed by the usual pleadings for this or that regulation of dreaded carbon dioxide. The latest greatest rage in a direct tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which will no doubt be trotted out in this week’s eastern heat.

But how hot is it? We know what the thermometer reads, but how does that compare to past thermometer readings?

It turns out there are several factors that confound temperature histories—some obvious, some subtle, and no doubt an unknown number of things that are simply missed.

An obvious one is that bricks, buildings and pavement increasingly “urbanize” the climate, retaining the heat built up during the day and impeding cross ventilation from the local wind regime. To compensate, most long-term temperature histories adjust urban temperatures in comparison to neighboring stations.

A more subtle one is that a systematic change in the time of day in which the high and low temperatures are read (and reset) is also important. As an example, consider a station in which the observer records the previous 24-hour high and low temperatures at 5pm, local time. That’s near the time of day, in the summer, when temperatures are around their daily high. If the day is really hot, say, 100° or so, the temperature at 5:01 is likely to be the same, meaning there are two very hot days recorded when there may have only been one if temperatures were reset at midnight.

There are plenty of other adjustments made to local temperature histories such as accounting for movement of weather stations, changes to the local environment, and adjustments for technological changes, such as switching from mercury-in-glass to electronic thermometers.

And there are some factors that are completely ignored and unaccounted for, having to do with economic factors. Near-neighbor comparisons aren’t going to do a bit of good if an entire country (say, Chad) is too poor to spend anything maintaining weather stations. The fact is that as they “weather,” unattended stations get darker, which means that the temperature gets hotter.

Hurricane Bluster

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

When it comes down to scaring people into accepting onerous reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, it’s always a good idea to trot out the specter of increased hurricanes, despite the lack of backing for this in the science literature.

“Bluster” isn’t the name of an Atlantic hurricane (although it would be a good one*), but rather our description of the stories about new research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology projecting an increase in the frequency and magnitude of hurricanes as a result of anthropogenic climate change.

Publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, M.I.T.’s Kerry Emanuel projects a rather large increase in the global frequency of tropical cyclones as well as their intensity over the course of the 21st century.

Emanuel is the first to admit that the changes he found were largely of a different character to those in the generally accepted literature, which projects little change in the frequency of tropical systems (with perhaps even a slight decline) and only a slight increase in the future intensity.

The difference between Emanuel’s results and those from the bulk of other studies arises primarily for two reasons; 1) the future emissions scenario used to drive the global climate models; and, 2) the method of downscaling coarse climate model output to the finer scale necessary to model tropical cyclones.

When it comes to emission scenarios, Emanuel chooses to use the most extreme scenario, which more than triples the effective atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by the end of the century, while most other studies have used a more modest scenario which leads only to about a doubling. With new technologies opening up vast abundances of lower CO2-emitting natural gas available for power generation, the extreme emissions scenario used by Emanuel seems unlikely.

Great News from Greenland

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

I recently returned from a trip to Greenland’s Jokabshavn Glacier, which discharges more ice than any other in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Our route of flight from Reykjavik traversed the ice cap from about fifty miles north of Angmassalik to the airport at Ilulissat, on Disko Bay, about one-third of the way up Greenland’s west coast. In southeastern Greenland, we flew very close to the country’s second-highest peak, Mt. Forel (11,099 feet), and in the near future I will upload a image of a nearby mountain approximately 8,000 feet high completely covered by the ice cap.

It is obvious from the air that there is very little movement over the deepest regions of the ice, and the drift patterns in the lee of some of the submerged peaks are strongly suggestive of at least some regional accumulation. There is virtually no evidence for summer melt in the southeast, while the southwest portion of the ice cap is known to melt and refreeze at the surface on an annual cycle—I saw considerable evidence for multi-year, but small, lakes in that region.

In preparation, I read just about everything I could get my hands on, including a recent very remarkable paper by Dorthe Dahl-Jenson and about 70 coauthors. Dahl-Jensen heads up the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. Dahl-Jenson’s team drilled to the bottom of the ice in northwestern Greenland, providing us with the first climate history of Greenland that includes the warmest period in the last interglacial period, from about 128,000 to 122,000 years ago, known as the Eemian. That was embedded in the Sangamon Interglacial, which ran from approximately 135,000 to 95,000 years ago. 

(For perspective, the last (Wisconsin) glaciation started then and lasted to (nominally) 10,800 years ago—that last date being about a blink of a geologist’s eye ago. Homo sapiens appeared in the ice age, and evidence is that proto-civilization developed while the hemisphere was glaciated.)