Topic: Energy and Environment

VIDEO: Joe Biden’s Weak Case for Government Meddling

Vice President Joe Biden believes that human progress depends almost entirely on government vision and government incentive. Donald J. Boudreaux, Cato Institute adjunct scholar and George Mason University economics professor, details why Biden is wrong both generally and in the specific case he touts:

Produced by Caleb O. Brown. Shot and edited by Evan Banks.

Post-Election Outlook: Agriculture Edition

My colleagues have done a thorough job of analyzing the policy implications of Tuesday’s federal election outcome as it affects trade policy, health care, immigration, education, and the scope and size of government generally (more here on federal spending). Most of them are cautiously optimistic that a Republican-controlled House is good news for liberty-minded folk. Let’s hope so.

Unfortunately, there are fewer obvious reasons for optimism that Tuesday’s result will mean big changes in agricultural policy, a depressingly bipartisan area of federal intervention. Even Rand Paul, the poster child for the Tea Party, expressed “moderate” views on farm subsidies during his campaign.

On the positive side of the ledger, our friends at the Environmental Working Group make the excellent point that being a friend of Big Farming was not enough to shield many Democrats from defeat. Earl Pomeroy (D, ND) represents the congressional district that ranks Number One in farm subsidy receipts (now there’s a source of pride!) and even he got the boot. As did Senator Blanche Lincoln, chairperson of the Senate Agriculture Committee and shameless architect of a bailout package for farmers that was funded we-don’t-exactly-know-how. At least 15 (possibly 16 if Rep. Jim Costa (D., CA) loses his too-close-to-call race) Dem members of the House Agriculture Committee — friends of the farmer all — are now looking for work. In other words, support for Big Ag is not a sufficient shield.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that their replacements are an improvement as far as agriculture policy is concerned. With a new farm bill due to be written in 2012 (although soon-to-be-former House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D., MN) was trying to get that ball rolling earlier), it is not certain that the fiscal conservatism exhibited during most Republicans’ campaigns extends to farm policy. Indeed, probable new House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., OK) has said he disagrees with getting rid of the fiscally offensive (but less trade-distorting) direct payments that flow to farmers regardless of what, or even whether, they farm.  That was an area of reform that Collin Peterson was at least willing to look at. (More on the implications for direct payments here).

Chuck Abbott, agriculture reporter for Reuters, has more analysis on the outlook for farm policy. His is a more optimistic take, and I hope he’s correct. For my part, my skepticism is based on statements such as those by the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, speaking on a conference call yesterday:

[F]or the most part those that may have been defeated were replaced with equally strong advocates for value added agriculture and ethanol. Does anyone believe that Kristy Noem (R-SD) will not be a strong voice for ethanol?

Exactly. The fight’s not over yet, folks.

Ballot Initiatives Provide Underappreciated Election-Night Victories

Last week, I highlighted nine ballot initiatives that were worth watching because of their policy implications and/or their role is showing whether voters wanted more or less freedom. The results, by and large, are very encouraging. Let’s take a look at the results of those nine votes, as well as a few additional key initiatives.

1. The big spenders wanted to impose an income tax in the state of Washington, and they even had support from too-rich-to-care Bill Gates. The good news is that this initiative got slaughtered by a nearly two-to-one margin.  I was worried about this initiative since crazy  Oregon voters approved higher tax rates earlier this year. In a further bit of good news, Washington voters also approved a supermajority requirement for tax increases by a similar margin.

2. Nevada voters had a chance to vote on eminent domain abuse. This is an initiative that I mischaracterized in my original post. The language made it sound like it was designed to protect private property, but it actually was proposed by the political elite to weaken a property rights initiative that the voters previously had imposed. Fortunately, Nevada voters did not share my naiveté and the effort to weaken eminent domain protections was decisively rejected.  This is important, of course, because of the Supreme Court’s reprehensible Kelo decision.

3. California voters were predictably disappointing. They rejected the initiative to legalize marijuana, thus missing an opportunity to adopt a more sensible approach to victimless crimes. The crazy voters from the Golden State also kept in place a suicidal global warming scheme that is driving jobs out of the state. The only silver lining in California’s dark cloud is that voters did approve a supermajority requirement for certain revenue increases.

4. Nearly 90 percent of voters in Kansas approved an initiative to remove any ambiguity about whether individuals have the right to keep and bear arms. Let that be a warning to those imperialist Canadians, just in case they’re plotting an invasion.

5. Arizona voters had a chance to give their opinion on Obamacare. Not surprisingly, they were not big fans, with more than 55 percent of them supporting an initiative in favor of individual choice in health care. A similar initiative was approved by an even greater margin in Oklahoma. Shifting back to Arizona, voters also strongly rejected racial and sexual discrimination by government, but they narrowly failed to approve medical marijuana.

6. Shifting to the local level, San Francisco, one of the craziest cities in America rejected a proposal to require bureaucrats to make meaningful contributions to support their bloated pension and health benefits. On the other hand, voters did approve a proposal to ban people from sleeping on sidewalks. Who knew that was a big issue?

7. Sticking with the ever-amusing Golden State, voters unfortunately eliminated the requirement for a two-thirds vote in the legislature to approve a budget, thus making it even easier for politicians to increase the burden of government spending. The state almost certainly is already on a path to bankruptcy, and this result will probably hasten its fiscal demise. Hopefully, the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives will say no when soon-to-be Governor Brown comes asking for a bailout.

8. The entire political establishment in Massachusetts was united in its opposition to an initiative to to roll back the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and they were sucessful. But 43 percent of voters approved, so maybe there’s some tiny sliver of hope for the Bay State.

9. Louisiana voters approved an initiative to require a two-thirds vote to approve any expansion of taxpayer-financed benefits for government employees. With 65 percent of voters saying yes to this proposal, this is a good sign that the bureaucrat gravy train may finally be slowing down.

At the risk of giving a grade, I think voters generally did a good job when asked to directly make decisions. I give them a solid B.

Yglesias on High-Speed Rail

On November 1, the Washington Post published a devastating critique of high-speed rail written by journalist Robert Samuelson. In fewer than 800 words, Samuelson blows up just about all the arguments put forth in favor of rail. An 8-word summary: costs are too high and benefits too low.

One person who remains unconvinced is Matthew Yglesias, who dismisses most of Samuelson’s arguments because some of them resemble the work of a “car-subsidy shill,” namely me. Apparently, if you believe, as I do, that all modes of transportation should be paid for by users, and not by tax subsidies, then you, too, are a “car-subsidy shill.”

Yglesias did not even read Samuelson’s article, instead reading only a Cato-at-Liberty blog post by Tad DeHaven about that article. But after a mere three or four paragraphs of analysis, Yglesias somehow concludes that $1 trillion for high-speed rail is “a bargain.” His analysis, such as it is, comes down to two points. First, Randal O’Toole opposes high-speed rail, so therefore it must be a good thing. Second (pulling out his mortgage calculator), at 4.1 percent interest over 30 years, $1 trillion is really “only” $58 billion per year. “Let’s do it!” he concludes.

I’ve never met Yglesias, so he probably doesn’t know that I personally love trains and hate driving. But as an policy analyst, I have to put my personal preferences aside and ask a couple of questions that never seem to occur to Yglesias. First, what are the benefits? Second, what do you have to give up to pay the costs?

The answer to the first question is: negligible. High-speed trains will carry less than 10 percent of the number of passenger miles carried by the Interstate Highway System (all the cost of which was paid out of user fees), and virtually no freight (interstate highways not only carry 20 percent of all passenger miles but about 15 percent of all freight ton-miles in the United States).

The history of transportation shows that new technologies succeed when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than existing technologies. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and (based on Amtrak’s Acela) at least five times more expensive than either. That means, as Samuelson says, “High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else.”

Moreover, really successful new transportation technologies significantly increase mobility. Yet Florida predicts that only 4 percent (see p. 13) of the riders on its 168-mph trains would be new mobility. California’s 220-mph trains would create even less new mobility: the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest estimate predicts that less than 1 percent (see p. 9) of its ridership would be new mobility. Here’s an arithmetic lesson for Yglesias: something that creates almost no new mobility, and merely substitutes high-cost transportation for a few marginal travelers previously using low-cost modes, is not a good deal.

Nor is high-speed rail the environmental answer to anything. The environmental costs of construction are high, while the environmental benefits of operations are low, leading Florida to conclude in its environmental impact statement that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the no build alternative” (see p. 2-38). In fact, both cars and airplanes are becoming more energy efficient so rapidly that, by the time a national high-speed rail system could be built, rail would be the brown form of passenger travel.

On the cost side, Yglesias only asks whether my $1 trillion estimate, which is “based on the costs estimates of the California system,” is valid considering that “California is an above-average cost jurisdiction.” That’s a legitimate question that would have been answered if he had bothered to read the footnoted reference. (I divided routes into low-cost and high-cost lines and used different estimates for each.)

Samuelson’s cost estimate was only $200 billion, but that was for high-speed rail in California and Florida and moderate-speed rail (90- to 110-mph) everywhere else. The $1 trillion is for a true national network of high-speed (150-220-mph) rail. I was not the first to use a $1 trillion estimate; that was Matt Rose, the CEO of the BNSF Railway, who probably knows a little more about rail costs than either Yglesias or me.

Beyond that, how could anyone conclude that $58 billion per year is a low price for anything, especially in today’s economy? Where is this money going to come from? Not the states, most of which are financially strapped. Perhaps we could cut all other federal spending on surface transportation–but that was only $54 billion in 2009. I know: let’s pass a health care law that will save money. But we already did that, and now federal health-care costs are projected to rise by, coincidentally, $58 billion between 2009 and 2011. Darn–there goes the money for high-speed rail. (All these numbers are from page 69 of the 2011 federal budget historical tables.)

High-speed rail riders aren’t going to pay $59 billion per year–they won’t even pay the operating costs of high-speed rail on most routes, which Yglesias managed to ignore. Amtrak claims its Acela trains earn a profit (not counting capital costs), but the Acela shares a lot of its operating costs with other Boston-to-Washington trains, which lose money. Between the two of them, they barely broke even in 2009 (see p. C-1). No other high-speed rail route in this country is likely to do as well.

By the way, in order to break even on Boston-to-Washington trains, Amtrak charged Acela riders 72 cents per passenger mile. That’s more than five times the average fares charged by airlines and intercity bus companies. Fares on Amtrak’s low-speed trains are only twice air and bus fares, which I am sure Yglesias thinks is a bargain.

I don’t know why Matt Yglesias thinks spending $1 trillion on trains that only a few people will ride would be a bargain. But I have no doubt that high-speed rail would be a high-cost burden on taxpayers.

The Current Wisdom

The Current Wisdom  is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels 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.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

 More Good News About Sea Level Rise

In the last (and first) installment of The Current Wisdom, I looked at how projections of catastrophic sea level rise—some as high as 20 feet this century—are falling by the wayside as more real-world data comes in. In the last month, there’s been even more hot-off-the-press studies that a) continue to beat down the notion of disastrous inundations, and b) received no media attention whatsoever.

Last month, I featured a new analysis which showed that the calibration scheme for satellite gravity measurements was out of whack, leading to an overestimation loss of glacial ice from Greenland and Antarctica by about 50%.   

This time around, there are two brand-new studies which further dampen the fears of rapid sea level rise spawned by a warming climate.  The one estimates that about 25% of the current sea level rise has nothing whatsoever to do with “global warming” from any cause, but instead is contributed by our increasing removal of fossil groundwater to suit our growing water demands. And the second estimates that the total sea level rise contribution of one of Antarctica’s biggest outlet glaciers—one which has been called “the weak underbelly” of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet—is most likely only going to be about 1/2 inch by the year 2100. Neither met the press, which is why you are reading about them here.

Last month we concluded that “things had better get cooking in a hurry if the real world is going to approach these popular estimates [3 to 20 feet of sea level rise by 2100]. And there are no signs that such a move is underway.” Now, there are even more signs that the massive sea level rise candle is flaming out as rapidly as cap-and-trade in an election year.

A team of scientists from the Netherlands, headed by the appropriately surnamed Yoshihide Wada, have been investigating the magnitude and trends of groundwater usage around the world. For millennia, humans  “mined” water under the surface, but the volumes were globally inconsequential.

Wada et al. found many regions, including the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S., in which groundwater extraction exceeds groundwater replenishment. Around the world, Wada et al. found that the total excess was about 30 cubic miles per year in 1960, which rose to about 68 by the year 2000.

What on earth does this have to do with sea-level rise?

Remember that, outside of nuclear reactions, matter is never destroyed.  Water taken out of the ground either runs off to a creek and makes it back to the ocean, or it evaporates.  Because the total water vapor concentration in the atmosphere is constant (depending upon the average temperature of the water/atmosphere interface), the additional evaporation is available for precipitation, adding to that which runs off.   

68 cubic miles of added water to the ocean each year amounts to about three-hundredths of an inch of sea level. Granted, this is a small amount, but (despite the scare headlines emanating from our greener friends), the annual rate of global sea level rise during the past 20 years has only been about 0.12 inches per year.  So groundwater extraction accounts for about a quarter (.03/.12) of the current rate of sea level rise.

This is a rather large bite out of the apple of sea level rise, and it means that estimates of just how much sea level rise is being caused by ongoing global warming have to be slashed.

In a much-hyped paper appearing in Science magazine back in early 2007, Stefan Rahmstorf and colleagues (including NASA’s infamous Cassandra James Hansen, the Nouriel Roubini of climatology), proclaimed that sea level rise is occurring at a rate which was at the very high end of the projections from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—fuelling claims that the IPCC sea level rise projections from climate change were too conservative.

(Hansen is also the lonely champion of the notion that sea level will rise 20 feet in the next 89 years.  Twenty years ago, he predicted that New York’s Westside Highway would be inundated by now.)[1]

If the Rahmstorf et al. analysis were updated through 2010 and the impact from groundwater depletion figured in, it would turn out that the observed rate of sea level rise from global warming would fall at or below the IPCC’s mid-range projection which ultimately results in about 15 inches of sea level rise by 2100. Such a finding of course would ignite very  little hype—which is why you are reading it here.

Ah, but you say, don’t the global warming doomsayers tell us that  the rate of sea level rise will accelerate rapidly as the climate warms and glaciers atop Greenland and Antarctica slip off into the seas, and so the total rise by the end of the century will be much above a value based on an extrapolation of the present?

The idea—graphically portrayed in Al Gore’s science fiction film—is that summer meltwater will flow down the, say, 10,000 feet required to get to the bottom of Greenland’s ice, and “lubricate” the flowing glaciers.  (Of course, the reason glaciers flow to begin with is because the pressure is so great that the bottom water is liquid, but never mind that fact).

Last time, I noted a recent paper by Faezeh Nick and colleagues that basically pooh-poohed the idea that surface meltwater does this. 

Offing the PIG

Another oft-repeated threat is that there are a plethora of glaciers in Antarctica that are grounded in the oceans, and that higher water temperatures will lead to melting from below that will ultimately “unground” them, floating them and causing rapid retreat.  

Alarmist fingers are most often pointed at Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier (PIG), the leading candidate to unground and raise sea levels by up to 4.5 feet a relatively short amount of time.  It was Terence Hughes (from University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, which—surprise—thrives on climate change) in the early 1980s that labeled the PIG as the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for, in his view, having the biggest potential to contribute a lot of sea level rise in a short amount of time.  Hughes’s belief has become popular of late as the rate of retreat of the PIG increased in the early 1990s.

In 2008,  University of Colorado’s Tad Pfeffer and colleagues projected that the PIG (and the nearby Thwaites glacier) would add between 4.3 and 15.4 inches of sea level rise by 2100.  In early 2010, the reliably alarmist New Scientist headlined “Major Antarctic Glacier ‘Past its Tipping Point’”, inaccurately quoting Oxford’s Richard Katz who actually said “the take-home message is that we should be concerned about tipping points in West Antarctica and we should do a lot more work to investigate” (translation: can I scare you into sending me more money?).

But throwing cold water in the PIG pen are the prolific polar researcher Ian Joughin and his colleagues.  In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Joughin et al. reported their efforts to simulate the future behavior of PIG using a “basinscale glaciological model” that they verified against a large amount of satellite observations documenting the flow rate and thinning rate of the PIG. Once they were happy that their model depicted the observations correctly, they turned to look at what the future may hold in store.

What they found came as a bit of a surprise. 

Instead of an accelerating retreat, it seems that the PIG’s still-tiny decline may remain constant. Joughin et al., write:

PIG’s dramatic retreat and speedup may not indicate a trend of continued acceleration, and speeds may stabilize at their current elevated levels as thinning continues.

This result ties into another investigation of  recent PIG behavior that was published this summer.  In that one, Jenkins et al. concluded that the geometry of the sea floor upon which the PIG rested is what allowed for a rapid retreat when warming first commenced. In other words, the PIG was predisposed to a rapid response—initially.

When Joughin et al. plug potential future climate change into their glaciological model of PIG, they found that the initial acceleration is not maintained for very long, and instead soon stabilizes. This has large implications. Instead of PIG contributing many inches of sea level this century, they found about a single inch—and that was the worst case.  Joughin and colleagues best estimate is something closer to ½ inch.

Joughin et al. conclude:

While we have not modeled the other [nearby Antarctic] glaciers, PIG is the most rapidly changing and largest contributor to the current imbalance, indicating future model-derived upper bounds on 21st century sea level for the entire region are likely to fall well below the heuristically derived 11-to-39 cm upper bound [Pfeffer et al., 2008].

Hardly catastrophic.

Sooner or later, these facts may penetrate into public consciousness… but until then I hope you’ll continue to consult The Current Wisdom.


Hughes, T. J., 1981, The Weak Underbelly of the West Antarctic Ice-Sheet. Journal of Glaciology, 27, 518–525.

Jenkins, A., et al., 2010. Observations Beneath Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica and Implications for its Retreat. Nature Geoscience, 3(7), 468–472, doi:10.1038/ngeo890.

Katz, R. F., and  M. G. Worster, 2010. Stability of Ice-sheet Grounding Lines. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 466, 1597-1620.

Nick, F. M., et al., 2009. Large-scale Changes in Greenland Outlet Glacier DynamicsTtriggered at the Terminus. Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038, published on-line January 11, 2009.

Pfeffer, W. T., Harper, J. T., and S. O’Neel, 2008. Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-century Sea-level Rise. Science, 321, 1340-1343.

Rahmstorf, S., et al., 2007. Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections. Science, 316, 709.

Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., and D. M. Holland, 2010. Sensitivity of 21st Century Sea Level to Ocean-induced Thinning of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20502, doi:10.1029/2010GL044819.

Wada, Y., et al. 2010. Global Depletion of Groundwater Resources. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20402, doi:10.1029/2010GL044571.


[1] In 1988, author Robert Reiss asked Hansen, whose office is on Broadway, what greenhouse-effect changes would occur in the next twenty years.  He said, among other things, “The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water. And there will be tape across the windows across the street because of high winds. And the same birds won’t be there. The trees in the median strip will change.” Then he said, “There will be more police cars.” Why? “Well, you know what happens to crime when the heat goes up.”

Bootleggers & Baptists, a Welcome Correction

In my recent “Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition” post, I wrote that environmentalists and agribusiness team up to support ethanol subsidies. An alert Cato@Liberty reader writes to my colleague Jerry Taylor:

[Cannon] is no doubt right that environmentalists and agribusiness worked together to promote government subsidies to ethanol through about 2006. But by 2007 (when the ethanol mandate was doubled) the environmentalists had dropped out of the pro-ethanol coalition, to be replaced by national-security hawks! If you run into him, please tell him to stop blaming environmentalists for current biofuels policies!

If environmentalists have recently dropped their support for ethanol subsidies, they deserve credit for that. Mea culpa.

I would rather have been completely wrong about the environmentalists’ support for ethanol subsidies. But I’ll settle for being partly wrong.

November Nail in Rail Coffin?

The New York Times offers an unintentionally hopeful story on Republican candidates running for governor who could become significant obstacles for the Obama administration’s high-speed rail agenda.

As I recently discussed, Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has taken the position that Washington can keep the $810 million it allocated for a “high-speed” rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that would operate at speeds achieved in the 1930s. The Times article shows that Walker isn’t alone:

Similar concerns are threatening to stall many of the nation’s biggest train projects. In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, John Kasich, is vowing to kill a $400 million federal stimulus project to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati by rail. In Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has questioned whether the state should invest in the planned rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The state got $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money for the project, but it will cost at least twice that much to complete.

And the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project, California’s $45 billion plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles per hour, could be delayed if Meg Whitman, a Republican, is elected governor. “In the face of the state’s current fiscal crisis, Meg doesn’t believe we can afford the costs associated with new high-speed rail at this time,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.

Whitman is right: California can’t afford high-speed rail, nor can the rest of the country. A Cato essay on high-speed rail notes that it would cost around $1 trillion to build a nationwide system of high-speed rail. That’s a lot of other people’s money to spend on a mode of transportation that “would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

Randal O’Toole nicely sums up why high-speed rail doesn’t make any sense:

The history of transportation shows that we adopt new technologies when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than either one. As a result, it will never serve more than a few marginal travelers.

In the meantime, Amtrak – the poster child for bad federal transportation ideas – recently unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year “vision” for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.

From the Washington Post:

At a news conference at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the proposal is at the visionary stage, and there’s no funding plan in place. It aims for high-speed rail by 2040.

Of course Amtrak has no funding in place – it depends on taxpayer subsidies to remain in operation!

As a series of Cato essays on the Department of Transportation demonstrates, policymakers should be focusing on getting the private sector more involved in the financing and operation of transportation.