January 26, 2016 4:22PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Carbon Tax, Government Science, Laurel and Hardy Weather Observations

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  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.


The New York Times ran an op-ed  last week extolling the virtues of a carbon tax by trying to poo-poo the idea that a tax on carbon emissions (which are produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas during the production of 80% of our nation’s energy supply) would produce a negative impact on our economy. The Times’ editors attempt to do this by running through a couple of examples where they claim the imposition of a carbon tax has produced economic benefits (or at least, was somewhat neutral).

Economist Dr. Robert Murphy takes the Times to task on this in his post “The NYT Gets It Wrong on Carbon Tax.”

Murphy is a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, research assistant professor at Texas Tech, and also the lead author of our Working Paper (soon to be Cato Policy Analysis) examining the cost for a carbon tax.

In his response to the Times, Murphy points out the Times’ editors’ favorite example of a carbon tax done well—British Columbia—actually serves as a counter-example when looked at a bit more carefully. Not only did British Columbia’s economy suffer after the establishment of a carbon tax, but also, the revenue-neutrality of the BC tax is not a real-world possibility in the U.S.

Murphy writes:

It’s worth pointing out that these dire economic impacts on the B.C. economy occurred even though they did a surprisingly good job of implementing offsetting tax cuts. Were a carbon tax to be introduced in the United States, the politics would almost certainly result in a large net tax hike.

 Ultimately Murphy concludes his piece with:

The American public is being sold a bill of goods regarding a carbon tax. On the one hand, proponents tell progressive citizens about all the “green” goodies that can be funded with the trillions in revenue that such a tax will bring in. On the other hand, supporters assure conservative citizens not to worry, that the tax will be revenue neutral and will allow for huge cuts in the corporate income tax rate. As Dr. Evil would say, “Riiight.”

 Check out Murphy’s full piece for the details of what’s wrong with the Times’ op-ed, and our “The Cost Against a Carbon Tax” Working Paper for what’s wrong with the concept of a carbon tax at large.

One of the many (bad) ideas behind a carbon tax is that the federal government will have more money in its hands to do with what it wants, including funding more climate change science to support why it needs to implement a carbon tax.

Dr. Roy Spencer frets over this is his recent blog post examining the observational science behind last year’s record high global temperatures. After reviewing the strength of the claims as to 2015’s temperature (including those as measured by satellites), Dr. Spencer‘s response is rather ho-hum: yes, the surface temperature data compilations do have 2015 as the warmest year in their record (thanks, in part, to a big El Niño); no, the same is not true for satellite observations which show the year as ranking 3rd or 4th; and take everything with a grain of salt, because all the data compilations have “issues.”

What really gets Roy fired up is the government’s behavior in all of this. Roy writes:

And this brings up the elephant in the room that I have a difficult time ignoring

By now it has become a truism that government agencies will prefer whichever dataset supports the governments desired policies. You might think that government agencies are only out to report the truth, but if that’s the case, why are these agencies run by political appointees?

Roy continues:

There indeed is a climate change problem to study…but I don’t think we know with any certainty how much is natural versus manmade. There is no way to know, because there is (contrary to the IPCC’s claims) no fingerprint of human versus natural warming. Even natural warming originating over the ocean will cause faster warming over land than over ocean, just as we already observe.

But since the government has framed virtually all of the research programs in terms of human-caused climate change, that’s what the funded scientists will dutifully report it to be, in terms of supposed causation.

And until the culture in the government funding agencies changes, I don’t see a new way of doing business materializing. It might require congress to direct the funding agencies to spend at least a small portion of their budgets to look for evidence of natural causes of climate change.

Because scientists, I have learned, will tend to find whatever they are paid to find in terms of causation…which is sometimes very difficult to pin down in science.

Be sure to check out Roy’s full post “On that Record Warmest 2015 Claim” for a more complete treatment of his concerns.

And, finally, as an amusing anecdote in support of Roy’s comments about the inherent uncertainties in weather observing systems comes this report on how snowfall during the weekend’s blizzard was measured at NOAA’s official weather station in our nation’s capital—Reagan National Airport.

Turns out it was snowing so hard at the height of the storm that the weather observers at the airport couldn’t find the official “snow board” on which the snowfall measurements were supposed to take place. So they improvised—and in doing so seemingly under-reported the snow total during the storm (to the great dismay of many snow nerds).  We are not making this up. From the Capital Weather Gang’s investigation:

It’s not that 17.8 inches of snow wasn’t enough.

But the number that will go down in the history books as Washington’s official total — recorded at Reagan National Airport — is downright paltry compared with some other spots in the region, raising the question: Why the disparity?

The reason, it turns out, may be partly due to the improvised technique used by a small team of weather observers at the airport who lost their snow-measuring device to the elements midway through the blizzard. It was buried by the very snow it was supposed to measure.

Couple the problem measuring snow at Reagan National Airport with the problem measuring temperature there that we identified last summer (see here and here) and you have the makings of a Laurel and Hardy routine on how weather observations of even fairly straightforward variables are collected. And to think, these types of somewhat major problems were identified as occurring at what would have to be considered among the best observing stations in the world.

Now you know why the data must be “adjusted.” Not a pretty picture.