Topic: Energy and Environment

‘La, La, La—I Can’t Hear You’

Here is an interesting essay/blog post from James Annan, a scientist with the Global Change Projection Research Programme of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and a leading researcher into constraints on estimates of climate sensitivity. Annan has long-held the opinion, borne from his own investigations, that the bounds of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates of the earth’s climate sensitivity are too wide, especially at the high end.

The IPCC’s “fat right-hand tail” of their distribution of possible climate sensitivity values means that the IPCC maintains that there is a non-negligible probability that the earth’s actual climate sensitivity—the global average temperature rise from a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—is upwards of 6°C (11°F) and perhaps has high a 10°C (18°F).  If the climate sensitivity were indeed this high, we’d be in a bunch of trouble. And so long as the IPCC concedes that this possibility exists, it allows folks to gin up truly alarming scare stories for what lies in ahead if we don’t immediately and drastically curtail carbon dioxide emissions.

But Annan has been arguing for years that the IPCC’s stance is scientifically unjustified.  And a host of recent scientific studies, including several of his own, seem to have made this point abundantly clear.

But apparently the IPCC is slow to let go of its alarmist notions.

In his recent post, Annan points out that the now-under-construction Fifth Assessment Report from the IPCC (which is due out later this year), continues to hang onto the fat right-hand tail of the distribution, even in the face of a large and growing body of research to the contrary.

But what I find most interesting in Annan’s post is his opinion and insight as to why the IPCC is behaving this way. Annan suggests that the IPCC is more tied to the results of “a small private opinion poll” than it is to the broader literature when it comes to the climate sensitivity estimates. 

LaHood’s Legacy

Best known for admitting to the National Press Club that the Obama administration wants to “coerce people out of their cars,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has announced his plans to leave office as soon as a replacement can be found. Aside from an admirable emphasis on transportation safety, the main legacy he leaves behind is a record of wild spending on ridiculous projects that do little to improve transportation but do much to add to the nation’s debt.

Much of that spending came out of the 2009 stimulus bill. Prior to the stimulus bill, a Bush (II) administration rule required that most spending on transit projects meet certain measures of “cost effectiveness.” Streetcars, for example, had to be cost-effective relative to buses, which they never are, so no streetcar projects could be funded. The stimulus money was exempt from these rules, so LaHood immediately gave funds to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Tuscon for new streetcar lines. LaHood then announced that he was rescinding the Bush rule, an action that was formally completed on January 9 of this year.

Similarly, at the request of the Obama administration, the stimulus bill included $8 billion for so-called high-speed rail projects. But most of the projects funded are anything but high speed. Vermont, for example, spent $52 million speeding up a New York-to-Burlington train to an average of 38 miles per hour. Washington State is spending $590 million speeding up a Portland-to-Seattle train from an average of 53.4 to 56.1 miles per hour.

The main criteria for elibility for these funds was not whether a project was worthwhile but whether the environmental documentation had been written. Florida, for example, had written an environmental impact statement for high-speed rail that concluded that the environmental costs exceeded the benefits, but LaHood was happy to give the state $2.4 billion to build it anyway until the state had second thoughts.

As a result, cities and states all over the country are scrambling to write environmental impact statements for all sorts of inane projects so they will be ready the next time the floodgates of federal spending open. Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group, has cataloged more than 600 transit plans under way in more than 100 metro areas. These include 125 streetcar projects in at least 50 cities which may now be eligible for funding now that the Bush cost-effectiveness requirement has been eliminated.

Altogether, the nearly 500 projects for which costs have been estimated would require more than $250 billion in capital expenditures, which rail advocates lament mean that it would take more than 100 years of federal funding at the current rate to fund them all.

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

Crowdfunding Science

File this under “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

While it seems hard to believe (as attested to by the growing budget for National Science Foundation) federal and state budget decisions are apparently putting the squeeze on some forms of government-funded science, and so some scientists are seeking alternative ways of raising funds for their projects of interest. One such “novel” method is a direct appeal to the masses for support.

Witness this announcement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Crowdfunding Science: Appealing to the online community for research money

Event Date: January 29, 2013 12 p.m. Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. GMT, 6 p.m. CEST

With federal and state funding for science on the downward trend, many young scientists are bypassing the grant writing process and appealing directly to the public via the Internet for money to support their research. Crowdfunding, as it is known, holds huge potential for scientists who can effectively capture the imagination of the public and get them to open their wallets in support of science.

In AAAS MemberCentral’s webinar “Appealing to the online community for research money”, we’ll look at #SciFund Challange, a website that helps researchers get their projects funded by the public, and we’ll also hear from two scientists who successfully funded their projects via the crowd. We’ll find out what they learned along the way, share tips on how to reach your funding goal and give you an opportunity to ask the panelists questions.

This seems a step in the right direction towards producing better-justified science projects that will be done for a lot less money with a lot more transparency.

How this fits in to a University setting should be interesting. Almost certainly it will bring the often exorbitant overhead rates for science funding into focus.  Most schools tack on an additional 50% or so which goes from the producer departments (science and engineering) to those that can’t carry their own weight.  Will the “crowd” accept being dunned for work they don’t support?  If this caught on, maybe our schools would better serve the market rather than centrally planning their own.

It’ll be interesting to see how this method of fundraising develops, but from the surface, it seems a positive development.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

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.”

As economic heavyweights assembled for their annual summit held by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, they were greeted by a call for $700 billion/yr of increased spending out to the year 2030 to “to close the green investment gap worldwide, leading to sustainable economic growth that attains global climate change goals.” They were told that this goal can be reached through an additional $36 billion/yr investment from the world’s governments (on top of the $96 billion/yr currently spent) that will “spur up to US$ 570 billion in private capital needed to avoid devastating climate impacts on economy.”

This call was made by the WEF’s own Green Growth Action Alliance as it released its first Green Investment Report at the outset of the Davos conference.

The Green Growth Action Alliance justified the call for the extra spending this way:

Such investments are urgently needed to avoid the potentially devastating impacts of climate change and extreme weather events as witnessed in many parts of the world in 2012. Scientists agree that extreme weather has become the “new norm” and comes at a huge, and rising, cost to the global economic system. Without further action, the world could see a rise in average global temperatures by 4ºC by the end of the century. According to scientists, this could lead to further devastating impacts, including extreme heat waves, more intense tropical storms, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Using a poor excuse to call for a bad idea doesn’t seem much like progress.

The science of global warming re extreme events is hardly compelling.  The data noise, generated from both natural processes and from other human influences, largely overwhelms any anthropogenic greenhouse effect signal in most cases.

However, compelling evidence is emerging that the magnitude of the climate sensitivity—that is, how much warming we should expect from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—has been overestimated. Even if there was good scientific evidence that higher temperatures lead to a more “extreme” climate (there’s just about as much evidence for the opposite), an overestimate of the sensitivity would lead to an overestimate of extremes.

And these overestimates are being used by the Green Growth Action Alliance to oversell the need to do something about climate change.

In fact, there are much more pressing needs.

Will Vehicle-Mile Fees Be a User Fee or a Tax?

Earl Blumenauer, Oregon’s bow-tie wearing, bicycle-riding member of Congress, has endorsed the idea of replacing gas taxes with vehicle-mile fees. Last week, he introduced a bill directing the Department of Transportation to start vehicle-mile fee pilot programs in every state and authorizing $150 million to fund the pilots. Since privacy is a major concern for many people, Blumenauer wisely makes protection of personal privacy a top priority of the legislation.

Blumenauer’s support for vehicle-mile fees is refreshing considering that, during the last Congress, the House passed a bill forbidding the Department of Transportation from even studying the possibility of such fees. (The otherwise-fiscally conservative member of Congress who introduced that bill ended up being a one-term congressman.) But Blumenauer’s stance also has some questioning his motives as he is one of Congress’ leading advocates of funding rail transit and other non-highway programs out of gas taxes.

It’s true that Blumenauer supports building streetcar lines more than new roads. In introducing the bill, the congressman focused on the fact that, over the past four years, Congress has had to transfer $48 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund, and is currently spending $15 billion a year more on surface transportation than is coming in from gas taxes and other highway user fees. The Oregon representative obviously hopes vehicle-mile fees will help close the gap, allowing him and his colleagues to continue funneling billions of dollars into rail transit and other forms of travel that are actually pretty obsolete.

Getting Highway Numbers Right: The Tax Foundation’s Response

On Thursday, January 17, the Tax Foundation (TF) issued a paper arguing that only 32 percent of state and local highway costs were paid out of user fees, while the remaining costs came from “general funds.” In a post here, I pointed out that, actually, user fees for highways cover 76 percent of the costs of roads and most of the remaining 24 percent come from interest on user fees before they are spend and bond sales that will be repaid out of user fees.

TF replied, saying “O’Toole conflates taxes and fees.” In fact, TF specifically said that state gas taxes are user fees, but somehow defined federal gas taxes as “general funds.” I simply argued that, to be consistent, TF should count federal gas taxes as user fees as well.

TF went on to say, “O’Toole suggests we include federal gasoline tax collections in state-local revenue.” Again, TF said that federal gas tax collections are “general funds” and I disagreed with that statement. If state gas tax collections are user fees, then federal gas tax collections are too. They are certainly not general funds, any more than state gas taxes are general funds, since federal law dedicates them to transportation projects and mostly to highways.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include motor vehicle registration taxes and fees, but not the associated expenses” such as highway patrols. In fact, I said nothing about the associated expenses because, for the most part, those expenses are already included in the reported $155 billion cost of highways.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include state and local bond sales for road construction, which would double-count revenue.” But nothing I said would double-counting revenues. What I said was that bond sales for highways are not, in any sense, “general funds” if they will be repaid out of user fees.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include $13 billion in “investment income” on state-local gasoline tax and user fee revenue, but that is not a net interest figure.” What TF means is that some of that interest might come from investments of non-user fees, which is true. But since user fees cover the vast majority of state and local road costs, interest on those user fees makes up the vast majority of interest. Yet TF counted all interest as “general funds.”

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we use Federal Highway Administration data rather than U.S. Census Bureau data. We have no evidence that the U.S. Census Bureau is unreliable in this area.” I suggest that the fact that the Census Bureau, which uses secondary data, differs from the Federal Highway Administration, which uses primary data, is itself evidence that the Census Bureau data are unreliable.

In sum, by TF’s own definition of user fees as being gas taxes and tolls, something like 55 percent of the cost of roads is collected in user fees. Adding vehicle registration fees brings this to 76 percent, and most of the rest is covered by bonds that will be repaid by user fees and interest on those user fees. TF’s reply failed to address my main point, which is that none of these revenues can be considered “general funds.”