Topic: Energy and Environment

The Best Government Action on Climate Change Is No Government Action on Climate Change

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.”

Many eyes will be on President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight watching to see how he follows his inauguration promise to “respond to the threat of climate change.” Rumors are flying that he will use his executive power to bypass Congress and further EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But his best response would be to get the federal government out of the energy market and allow it to flourish as it may. The inconvenient truth is that the U.S. influence on global climate is rapidly diminishing as greenhouse gas emissions from the rest of the world rapidly expand. As a consequence, whether or not the United States reduces its emissions at all is immaterial to the path of future climate change and its impacts.

Several reports last week have shown that carbon dioxide emissions from the United States declined in 2012 and now stand at a level on par with what they were back in 1994. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have dropped about 13 percent from their high in 2007.

All the while, global carbon dioxide emissions have been on the rise—primarily fueled by rapid emissions growth in developing countries, namely China (which is responsible for about two-thirds of the global increase during the past decade).


Figure 1. Emissions of carbon dioxide from the U.S., China, and the rest of the world, 1990-2010 (data from U.S. Energy Informat

Since carbon dioxide is well-mixed in the atmosphere, who actually emits it is of little consequence when it comes to its potential to lead to global warming.  This means that the global percentage of a country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions is equivalent to its annual percentage contribution to the increased warming pressure (we use the term “warming pressure” to indicate that things other than the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases also act to influence that global average temperature from one year to the next). Since total global carbon dioxide emissions are quickly distancing themselves from U.S. emissions, as time passes, the relative influence of U.S. emissions on the future state of the global climate is rapidly declining.

Live Blog of the 2013 State of the Union Address and the GOP Response

Please join us at 9:00PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, for live commentary during President Obama’s State of the Union address, the GOP response by Sen. Marco Rubio, and the Tea Party response by Sen. Rand Paul. Here is our panel of policy experts by research area:

General Comment and the Presidency:

Banking and Financial Regulation:

  • Mark Calabria, Director of Financial Regulation Studies (@MarkCalabria)

Infrastructure and Fiscal Policy:

Law and Civil Liberties:

Telecom and Information Policy:

  • Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies (@Jim_Harper)

Health Care:

Immigration:

Education:

  • Andrew Coulson, Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@Andrew_Coulson)
  • Neal McCluskey, Associate Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@NealMcCluskey)

Energy and Environment:

  • Patrick J. Michaels, Director - Center for the Study of Science (@CatoMichaels)
  • Chip Knappenberger, Assistant Director - Center for the Study of Science (@PCKnappenberger)

Foreign Policy and National Security:

Follow their comments directly on Twitter, or come back to this page at 9:00 PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, to join us. We look forward to having you, and sharing our insights with you.

You can also follow the conversation on Twitter by following @CatoInstitute and the hashtag #SOTU.

Also watch Cato’s Libertarian State of the Union.

Why High-Speed Rail Is a Ridiculous Fantasy

High-speed rail supporter Alfred Twu has gotten a lot of attention for having boldly drawn a map of where he thinks high-speed trains should go. Never mind that Twu’s map is even more absurd than Obama’s plan. What’s sad is that the romance of trains still manages to hold peoples’ attention long after passenger trains have become technologically and economically obsolete.

Slate calls this the “liberals’ dream [of] what America’s high-speed rail network looks like.”

Anybody can draw a map, and that map is likely to reflect their own particular preferences. My ideal high-speed rail line would connect my home in Camp Sherman, Oregon (population 380) with Cato’s offices in Washington, DC. Of course, I tend to move about every eight or nine years, so by the time the rail line was finished the only potential regular customer would be gone. But just think of the jobs that would be created!

Twu lives in California, and his map has six lines radiating from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco. Twu is probably thinking either of where he would like to go by high-speed train or that everyone else would like to come to California by high-speed train. (He would also like us to “imagine no cars” in which case everyone would happily live in high-density, mixed-use developments. Like many planning types, he doesn’t understand the economics behind the horror of dumbbell tenements.)

Economist Megan McArdle points out that Twu’s New York-Los Angeles line makes little sense. Few people will want to spend 18 hours (McArdle’s estimate) in a coach seat when planes can do the same trip in six at a far lower cost. Nor will many intermediate segments, such as Chicago to Omaha or Denver to Las Vegas, attract large numbers of passengers. Thus, the trains will be fairly empty for much of the route.

McArdle doesn’t mention the even more absurd Los Angeles-Miami line on Twu’s map. As this analysis shows, Los Angeles-New Orleans is Amtrak’s least-used long-distance train, and Amtrak’s attempt to extend this route to Miami failed (partly due to Hurricane Katrina) after just a few years.

Twu’s map also includes routes from Cheyenne to El Paso; Chicago to Montreal; and a line to McAllen, Texas and beyond into Mexico. Other than the politicians that represent these regions, how could anyone take these routes seriously?

Twu’s map violates conventional wisdom among high-speed rail aficionados, which holds that trains are most competitive in 100- to 600-mile markets, not 2,000- to 3,000-miles. By “most competitive,” of course, they mean “able to capture 5 or 6 percent of the market,” which–when all modes are counted–is all that Amtrak has in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Rail supporters argue that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor barely qualifies as high-speed rail as its top speed is only 150 and its average speed only about half that (which also means that none of the lines funded by the Obama administration, outside of California, qualify either). But dreaming about faster trains does little to change the fact that the fastest trains in the world are only about half as fast as jet aircraft, nor the fact that more Americans live and work within a few minutes of airports than downtown train stations. Anyone who is really serious about speeding travel would find ways to speed airport security, which would cost a lot less and do a lot more to help a lot more travelers than building multi-billion-dollar rail lines.

Here’s the real problem: America is a two-dimensional place, and we have a 4-million-mile network of highways and streets that allows anyone to get from practically anywhere to practically anywhere else in the contiguous 48 states. Rail lines are one dimensional, and what is worse they serve only selected points on that one-dimensional line. The number of people going from one point served by trains on a line to another point will be a small fraction of the total travelers in any given corridor.

Cato Scholars Speaking at Students for Liberty Conference — Join Us

The 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference, now in its sixth year, will bring over a thousand students and young liberty activists to Washington, D.C. to talk about ideas, hear from leading policy experts, and network with organizations and each other. I’m proud to have been the first speaker at the first ISFLC conference, in New York in 2008.  This year, the conference will be hosted at the Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel, just three blocks from the Cato Institute.

I will be presenting two lectures that weekend, a session with Young Americans for Liberty on “The Ten Ways to Talk about Freedom” and a luncheon keynote in Cato’s Yeager Conference Center on Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics. Plus I’ll be on a special taping of the “Stossel” show.

Other Cato scholars will be speaking on policy issues throughout the conference.  All of the below sessions will be taking place in the Hyatt’s Constitution room B.

Saturday, February 16
10:00-10:45am Restoring Constitutional Liberty Roger Pilon
11:15-12:00pm Privacy Under Attack Jim Harper
12:10–1:20pm Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics *Luncheon @ the Cato Institute* David Boaz
1:30-2:15pm The Clone Wars: Fighting to Educate Free Individuals Neal McCluskey
2:45-3:30pm A Foreign Policy for Advancing Liberty Abroad (without Undermining It at Home) Christopher A. Preble
4:00-4:45pm Economic Growth and the Future of Liberty Brink Lindsey
5:15-6:00pm How the Government Uses “Science” to Take Away Your Stuff Patrick J. Michaels
     
Sunday, February 17
10:00-10:45am How to Win Every Libertarian Argument Jason Kuznicki
11:15-12:00pm Why Libertarians Should Care Much More about Immigration Alex Nowrasteh

To attend the student luncheon event, please register online or sign up for your ticket at the Cato booth at the conference exhibit hall.

Washington, DC: Congestion King

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual urban mobility report, and Washington, DC once again takes the crown of wasting the most time and fuel per commuter. Though the urban mobility report makes some questionable claims about the congestion relief provided by urban transit, not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average DC-area auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas. Yet, if rail transit really were such a good way to relieve congestion, it should have been able to absorb that growth.

Instead, the rail system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is actually losing capacity as maintenance shortfalls force the agency to run smaller trains and those trains become less reliable. Last summer, when passengers on the Green line were stranded and had to walk along the rail line in the summer heat, WMATA promised that the agency would improve its safety procedures and keep people better informed.

Yet just last week, several rush-hour trains on the Green line were again stranded for hours without power. Temperatures on underground trains quickly rose to 90 degrees or more, leading some passengers to get sick and others to force the doors open so they could escape. One passenger reported that the only message they heard from WMATA was, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” How reassuring.

Rearranging the Park Benches

Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can’t power a football stadium for the full length of a game. Their schools have significantly lower high-school graduation rates than the suburbs, even after accounting for differences in incomes. Housing in many cities is unaffordable, roads are congested, and jobs are fleeing, even in supposedly urban industries such as high tech and finance.

Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities. That’s right up there with rearranging the benches at Battery Park before Superstorm Sandy hits.

Like many planners, Florida believes problems can be solved from the top down. He is famous for urging cities to adopt policies that make housing unaffordable, forcing poor and moderate-income people out, thus increasing average incomes and making it look like the cities have attracted high-income “creative” people.

Now, relying on pre-recession data, Florida argues that “cities and metros are the engines of our economy,” and thus deserve their own cabinet-level department. By the same logic, maybe we should create a Department of Texas and North Dakota, as those two states seem to have been the engines of our economy since 2008. I am sure a federal DoT&ND could do much to muck up the growth of those states that is partly taking place because the state legislatures have so far kept their hands off.

California Irrigation Supplies Water to Phoenix

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.”

California’s Central Valley is one of the true wonders of the agricultural world.  Prior to settlement, it was grassland in its northerly regions (around Sacramento) and desert at the southern end (Bakersfield).  As a result of irrigation from water stored both in the ground and in the many rivers that drain into it, this 1 percent of the nation’s cropland produces 8 percent of our national agricultural output (by value). That doesn’t count the equally productive but much smaller Salinas Valley, which is likely where your artichokes came from.

John Christy, a fellow-lukewarmer (and a Valley native) who is also state climatologist for Alabama, has published extensively that irrigation has changed the Valley’s climate, resulting in a warming produced not by carbon dioxide but by water vapor, which tends to skew heating into the night.

Everything else being equal, increasing the surface moisture in a hot-as-heck environment (like the Central Valley) will increase atmospheric instability, and, given proper conditions, should result in increased convective (thunderstorm) activity. Add in that prevailing mid-atmospheric winds in this region blow from west to east, and you wind up running the increased water vapor uphill into the Sierras, the Wasatch, and the Rockies. That’s pretty much guaranteed to increase thunderstorm activity.

A newly published study fleshes this out with a computer model, and finds that irrigation in the Central Valley of California not only adds water to the local environment but also alters the regional climate across the Colorado River Basin, increasing summer precipitation by 15 percent and Colorado River flow by nearly 30 percent. Those are big numbers and important ones, given the water needs of some 35 million people from Las Vegas to Phoenix to L.A.