Tag Archives: Climate change

Putting the Clean Power Plan in Perspective

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe has created a working group to recommend concrete steps on how to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from Virginia’s power plants. As the task force undergoes its deliberations, I hope it will consider the tradeoffs between economic costs and environmental benefits.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, noted that implementation of the Clean Power Plan would reduce global temperatures a grand total of 0.023 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. From what I can glean from the Internet — readers, please point out if I have missed something — the Obama administration has not disputed that the magnitude of the change would amount to no more than a small fraction of a degree.

Rather than contest the numbers, the Obama environmental team has made two arguments: (1) that the Clean Power Plan regulating the electric power industry is only one element in a package of initiatives, such as promoting energy efficiency and improving better gas mileage for cars, that will have a much bigger impact, and (2) the United States needs to take the lead in order to persuade other CO2 emitters like India and China to accede to the United Nations framework for attacking man-made global warming.

Lomborg contends that the total U.S. package, of which the Clean Power Plan is only a part, will reduce global temperatures by only 0.057 degrees, and if the whole world follows through with commitments to the U.N. agreement, the forecast rise in global temperatures would moderate by only 0.3 degrees.

That’s the big picture. While one can reasonably argue that Virginia must “do its part” to achieve these benefits, it is also worth asking what difference Virginia’s contribution to that effort will make. In 2014, Virginia consumed 112 million kilowatt hours of electricity, about 3% of the national total. Assuming that Virginia’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan accounts for a comparable 3% of the national figure, the Old Dominion will contribute to a .0007-degree reduction. (Implementation of the administration’s other measures would increase Virginia’s total contribution to about .0017 degrees, but those are not an issue at the state level.)

For purposes of discussion, let’s assume that the Clean Power Plan wins the Supreme Court stamp of approval and moves forward as the law of the land. The plan provides states different paths to achieving its goals. The big decision facing Virginia at that point will be which of four broad approaches to adopt: one of four flavors of a “rate-based” plan or “mass-based” plan. (See here for details.)

All four options would reduce CO2 emissions, although one of the mass-based options would reduce it more than the others. Thus, the debate is over the difference between the two plans. When we ponder the trade-offs between the cost to Virginia rate payers, the reliability of Virginia’s electric grid, and benefits to the global environment, we should recognize that the most consequential decision Virginia can make will lead to a reduction (assuming the climate models are valid) of some fraction of .0007 degrees, with a margin of error of a couple ten thousandths of a degree, in global temperatures by 2100.

I fully concede that these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I’m sure they can be refined. I may have overlooked important considerations. I’m open to information that anyone can provide to help refine them, and I solicit your input. Consider this a starting point for discussion.

I’m not being a global warming “denier” here. I’m accepting the proposition that human-caused climate change is real, that the net impact to the world will be negative, and that the way to deal with the threat is to re-engineer the global energy economy. But I do think it is important to give Virginians an honest accounting of the costs and benefits. Citizens should press the McAuliffe administration either to acknowledge the rough validity of the numbers I have presented or to present their own numbers.

How Not to Turn Enemies into Friends

Governor Terry McAuliffe displays his CO2 emissions executive order. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Terry McAuliffe displays his CO2 emissions executive order. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Does Governor Terry McAuliffe deliberately misrepresent what skeptics of the prevailing Global Warmig Orthodoxy think, or does he simply repeat what others have said about what skeptics supposedly believe? Either way, we have a problem. Here’s what he said yesterday before signing an executive order to convene a work group to deliver recommendations for carbon reductions:

Now, some of our legislators have trouble keeping up with the times on this topic. They don’t believe the overwhelming science supporting climate change.

Now, I can’t speak for Virginia’s legislators, but I can speak as a skeptic of Global Warming Orthodoxy, and I don’t know of a single reasonably informed observer who doesn’t believe in “climate change.” Skeptics believe that climate is dynamic, and that it has changed throughout human history. Indeed, they emphasize the cyclical nature of climate, as seen in the alternation between the Roman Warm Period, the Medieval Warm Period, and the modern era with cooler periods. The question is not whether “climate change” exists but what role human activity plays in causing climate change. As even the most ardent advocates of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change will acknowledge, it is difficult to tease out the human impact from natural climate variability.

Climate skeptics do understand that, all other things being equal, an increased percentage of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will warm the planet. The question is how much will it increase warming? The computer models predicting steep temperature increases over the 21st century assume the existence of feedback loops in which more CO2 increases temperatures, which increases the evaporation of water (another greenhouse gas), which increases temperatures even more. How that process works still remains an object of scientific inquiry. An unresolved question is the extent to which water in the atmosphere leads to more cloud formation, which reflects sunlight, which cools the planet and counteracts the presence of greenhouse gases to some degree. For the most part, computer models have significantly over-stated warming compared to the historical record. Yes, global temperatures have risen, and, yes, this is the hottest decade since humans have been measuring global temperatures (not “in human history,” as Secretary of State John Kerry recently mis-spoke) but it is not as hot as the computer models of twenty years ago said it would be.

Once we move from the domain of “how fast are temperatures rising and what role do humans play” to “what do we do about it?”, we depart the realm of science and enter that of philosophy and public policy. The Global Warming Orthodoxy reaches far beyond science. It proclaims that the only proper response to warming temperatures is to re-engineer the world’s energy economy in order to reduce CO2 emissions. Even among environmentalists, there is disagreement how to go about this. While championing efforts to combat global warming, the Obama administration concedes that there is a legitimate role for natural gas as a transition fuel to renewable fuel sources, and for nuclear power as a source of base-line electric generation. Many Virginia environmentalists are hostile to both natural gas and nuclear, preferring all new electricity production be renewable. Reasonable people can debate the pros and cons of an all-renewable energy grid, but this is not a debate about “science,” much less about “settled science.” It is a debate about technology, economics, and the trade-offs between electric rates, grid reliability and clean fuels.

There appears to be a widespread prejudice that global warming skeptics (and by that, I mean skeptics of the Global Warming Orthodoxy) are anti-scientific knuckle draggers. In era of polarized politics, I suppose there is no dispelling that notion. But the skeptics themselves know differently. And McAuliffe, by suggesting those who disagree with him “haven’t kept up” with scientific thinking belittles their intellect and, thereby, diminishes any chance of winning cooperation with his agenda.

Republicans and Leftists Are Outraged, Outraged, I Tell You

Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji in "Yoshino Mountain"by James A. Bacon

Here’s what I missed in yesterday’s quickie post about Governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to convene a clean energy task force: Both Republicans and leftist environmental groups are attacking the move, though for opposite reasons.

Republican legislators see the initiative as an end run around the state budget, which specifically prohibits any spending on the federal Clean Power Plan for reducing CO2 emissions from electric power plants while it is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Normally, such accusations strike me as political blather, but Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor’s office, confirmed that that was precisely the motive. Here’s how the Washington Post summed up his statement: “The governor did not create the work group to assuage environmental groups but rather as a way to dodge the Republican-controlled General Assembly.”

House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, was not pleased: As quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said: “This order is another deliberate attempt to circumvent the legislature and the will of Virginia voters.  The governor is developing a troubling tendency to prefer Washington-style executive action instead of the dialogue and collaboration that Virginians expect and deserve.”

Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s initiative was belittled from the left, who cited his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would supply natural gas to Virginia and other Southeastern markets, as evidence that he is not serious about combating climate change. A joint statement by the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Virginia Organizing called McAuliffe’s initiative “a minor environmental policy” dwarfed by the harm of natural gas transportation and combustion.

The kinds words came from mainstream environmental groups who have been working through the administration to implement the strictest of the Clean Power Plan alternatives available to the state.

The governor is trying to reconcile his desire to combat climate change with his priority of creating jobs. Thus, he defends construction of two natural gas pipelines through the state on the grounds that they will create economic opportunity for the Tidewater region of the state, which is effectively precluded from competing for important categories of industrial expansion due to an insufficient supply of natural gas. At the same time, he has supported the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), which seeks to curtail CO2 emissions from Virginia power plants. If the CPP passes legal muster, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be charged from choosing from one of four broad approaches for the state to implement the plan. Environmentalists favor the option that would curtail CO2 emissions the most, although industry consumer groups worry the approach would drive up electric rates. McAuliffe has not yet endorsed an option.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m still not sure what the fuss is all about. McAuliffe has already enacted a series of measures driving state government to pursue energy efficiency goals and to purchase solar energy. There is not much else that he can legally do. This new working group can recommend anything it wants, but it won’t have power to spend a dime. Meanwhile, the big action revolves around the Clean Power Plan. If the Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality, the focus turns to the already-instated DEQ working group to recommend how to implement it. If the Supremes nix the CPP, regulatory decision-making effectively reverts to the State Corporation Commission, which responds to legislative guidance enacted into law, not to gubernatorial directives.

I regard this whole hoo-ha as political theater — a kabuki production in which the actors rigidly play out their assigned roles.

Lawsuit Pries Loose Warmist Emails

Playing with fire

Playing with fire

by James A. Bacon

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has prevailed in a lawsuit to obtain emails detailing how GMU climatologists organized a call for a federal investigation into corporations that “knowingly deceived” the public about climate change. The campaign was organized by Jagadish Shukla, director of the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), who subsequently drew notoriety for paying himself lavishly with federal research grant monies on top of his university salary.

Quoting from the account in the Watts Up With That? blog:

The [Richmond Circuit Court] judge ruled for CEI on all counts in an April 22 ruling in Christopher Horner and CEI v. George Mason University that the court released [Friday]. The ruling concluded that by leaving it to faculty who simply told the school’s FOIA officer they had no responsive records, GMU failed to conduct an adequate search; the judge also ruled that documents including emails from GMU Professor Ed Maibach must be released to CEI.

“This victory puts on notice those academics who have increasingly inserted themselves into politics, that they cannot use taxpayer-funded positions to go after those who disagree with them and expect to hide it,” said Chris Horner, CEI fellow and co-plaintiff. “These records … will be of great assistance to the public in trying to understand how their tax dollars are being used for political fights.”

Here are the emails:

Pages 1- 59
Pages 60-102
Pages 103-133
Pages 134-178
Pages 179-190

I haven’t had a chance to read through them, but judging from the highlights I’ve read in the Global Warming (GW) skeptic blogs, there are no smoking guns here. Some hint that the email haul could be as big as the so-called East Anglia “Climate Gate” scandal, but I don’t see it. The scandal in this case was right out in the open — scientists calling for a federal investigation into Exxon Mobil and other entities for allegedly lying to the public. The emails flesh out the details but don’t illuminate any fresh efforts at quashing threats to GW orthodoxy.

However, the emails do illuminate the thinking behind the controversial letter calling for the investigation. Marc Morano, author of the Climate Depot blog, sums up the tone of the correspondence:

It quickly emerges that some of the involved scientists (unwittingly) meandered out of their academic realm, with which they are comfortable and familiar, and into a political one that is very unfamiliar to them. Their scheme was ultimately aimed at intimidating and silencing scientific dissent. … Early on they were even advised that their case was very weak, and probably best left aside. … Yet [Ed Maibach] seemed unable to resist the opportunity of getting ‘lots of media attention.’ … Clearly the political arena was a new one for scientist Shukla.

The Climate Gate emails revealed how a handful of activist scientists conspired to keep dissenting views out of peer-reviewed journals, thus corrupting the scientific process. By contrast, the GMU emails show how a group of politically naive scientists wanted to suppress dissent from Global Warming orthodoxy in the political sphere — an odious sentiment, to be sure, but not one that undermines the scientific process.

The real scandal, brought to light by Climate Warming skeptics who were punching back against Shukla, has gone relatively unremarked upon: the potential for professors to enrich themselves with federally funded research grants and the inability of conflict-of-interest forms and in-house academic review to either spot or do anything about such double dipping. We still don’t know whether Shukla’s practices, which included putting his wife on the payroll and funding a private charity in India, is widespread among research scientists — not just climate change scientists, but researchers of all stripes. The sad thing is that no one in the media or punditocracy seems remotely interested in knowing the answer. Having put Shukla in his place, even the skeptics don’t seem interested.

Update: The emails may be more significant than I thought. Katie Brown with the Energy in Depth blog argues that the emails “pull back the curtain further on the level of collusion between anti-fossil fuel activists, their funders, and the attorneys general that have launched climate investigations into people, companies, and think tanks with which they disagree on the issue.”

How Many Millions Have Died from This Failed Scientific Orthodoxy?


Graphic credit: Washington Post

One of the most rigorous scientific experiments on the effects of fatty foods in the diet took some 40 years to complete, but the results are now in. Reports the Washington Post:

Collectively, the fuller results undermine the conventional wisdom regarding dietary fat that has persisted for decades and is currently enshrined in influential publications such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And the long-belated story of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment suggests just how difficult it can be for new evidence to see the light of day when it contradicts widely held theories.

The special diet given to mental patients in Minnesota did succeed in its intent to reduce cholesterol levels. What no one anticipated was that participants were more likely than patients on a conventional diet to die earlier.

Bacon’s bottom line. First question: By regulating and brow-beating food processors to reformulate their packaged foods and by pushing Americans into embracing the new nutritional guidelines, social engineers succeeded in altering the American diet. How many millions of Americans have died as a result?

As an aside, given the obsession with race and class today, one is tempted to ask also if minorities and the poor were disproportionately impacted. Did the nutritional social engineering of the 1970s lead to more obesity, more hypertension, more coronary blockage, and more diabetes than would have occurred otherwise? How many millions suffered death and disability as a result?

Second question: Will the social engineers ever own up to this calamitous public health failure and their complicity, however well intended, in the premature death of millions of Americans? Will Black Lives Matter point an accusing finger at the nutritional policies that arguably have snuffed out a thousand times more African-Americans lives than unjustified police killings?

Third question: What can we learn about what happens when science, politics and scientific funding intersect? As the WaPo summarizes why early results of the study were buried when they conflicted with orthodoxy:

The Minnesota investigators had a theory that they believed in — that reducing blood cholesterol would make people healthier. Indeed, the idea was widespread and would soon be adopted by the federal government in the first dietary recommendations. So when the data they collected from the mental patients conflicted with this theory, the scientists may have been reluctant to believe what their experiment had turned up.

Could the same thing be happening in some other sphere of public policy? Could contradictory scientific evidence be ignored or suppressed? Just asking.


Learning from the “Fat Hypothesis” and the Intersection of Science and Politics

Image credit: The Guardian

Image credit: The Guardian

by James A. Bacon

Ian Leslie has written a long piece for The Guardian, a left-wing English newspaper that to the best of my knowledge is not funded by the Koch Brothers. He chronicles how the medical hypothesis blaming fat and cholesterol for heart disease became ensconced as scientific orthodoxy in the United States and Great Britain in the 1970s. He shows how that orthodoxy was suborned by government, how it was used with the best of intentions to alter the dietary habits of the two nations, and how it created the obesity epidemic that has shortened the lives of millions. Nearly fifty years later, that orthodoxy is being overthrown as  blame for heart disease increasingly shifts to processed sugar.

At a time when some in Washington, D.C., cite a “consensus” regarding climate change and call for the federal prosecution of climate change “deniers,” the article is worth quoting at some length, for it shows how badly science in the hands of politicians can go off the rails. Leslie does not himself note a parallel between the debates over fat and climate change, but such a comparison is inevitable. Perhaps the article will instill some humility among those tempted to revamp large sectors of the economy based on the latest scientific fashion. At the very least, it should discourage people from snuffing out dissenting scientific voices with threats of criminal prosecution.

In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the nutritional advice on which we have relied for 40 years was profoundly flawed, this is not a mistake that can be laid at the door of corporate ogres. Nor can it be passed off as innocuous scientific error. … Instead that this is something the scientists did to themselves – and, consequently, to us.

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Turning Sea Level Rise into a Competitive Economic Advantage

Routine flooding -- not just for Mississippi River towns anymore.

Recurrent flooding in Hampton Roads

by James A. Bacon

To hear Henry R. “Speaker” Pollard describe all the economic risks associated with rising sea levels in Hampton Roads — soaring insurance rates, higher financing costs, declining property values, disruption to business — one might be forgiven for wondering why any business would ever want to consider investing there. “It’s easy to get caught up in a gloom-and- doom perspective,” he says.

But Pollard draws a counter-intuitive conclusion: If business and government respond by moving up the learning curve on how to manage the risk, rising sea levels could provide a positive stimulus to the low-lying, flood-prone region. Speaking to an audience at the 2016 Resilient Virginia Conference, he said, “In the end Hampton Roads can achieve a competitive economic advantage compared to other coastal communities.”

Pollard’s optimism was echoed by other speakers at the conference, who described how Norfolk and Virginia Beach, among others, are grappling with the challenge of coping with sea levels that could rise two feet by 2100, if the historic rate prevails, or as much as eight feet, if more pessimistic global warming scenarios pan out.

Christine Morris, chief resilience officer for Norfolk, says her goal is to “marry the city to innovation.” By leading the way in devising positive responses to flooding and inundation, Norfolk can become a test bed for new technologies, solutions and urban designs. She foresees the city brokering knowledge, incubating new businesses and attracting companies that want to get in on the ground floor.

Rising sea levels pose several problems for Hampton Roads, some obvious and some less obvious, said Pollard, who is an environmental attorney with Williams Mullen. Inhabitants endure frequent road blockages during hard flooding, and the frequency of disruptions has increased markedly from decade to decade. Shoreline property owners are combating erosion, storm damage and sky-high insurance rates. Manufacturers worry about the ability of employees to make it to work during extreme-weather events and the ability to ship goods out of the region on a timely basis.

Less visible to the public, municipal and industrial water treatment facilities could find it more difficult to discharge treated wastewater when storm waters run high, said Pollard. Also the flooding of industrial property could flush out surface contamination and spread toxic pollutants. The retreat of wetlands could cause the loss of nursing grounds for fisheries.

Conceptually, there are three broad approaches to dealing with sea level rise: protect assets with hard infrastructure like walls and jetties; buffer the impact of storm surges with green infrastructure such as wetlands and oyster reefs; or retreat from the rising tide by limiting development and infrastructure.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty. We need to accept that — you never have perfect data,” said Pollard. Accordingly, there is no way to know which sea level scenario will occur. A slower pace of sea-level rise gives the region decades to prepare; a rapid rate calls out for more dramatic action.

Either way, he said, “there are opportunities out there.” He expects private lenders and insurers to play a major role in evaluating the risk. Companies devising successful approaches in Hampton Roads can apply their expertise in coastal communities around the world. He expects to see new real estate development strategies such as the re-purposing of industrial brownfields, and new financing strategies like public-private partnerships. Green infrastructure could give rise to new technologies, products and business opportunities.

Speaking from a planning perspective, Morris said she expects to see an evolution in the urban form to encourage denser development on the one hand and more “green and blue” — flood plains used for parks, ballfields and open space that suffer little loss in value when flooded. A key goal of Norfolk’s Coastal Resilience Strategy, she said, is to design “the coastal community of the future.”

Brian Batten, an engineering consultant to Virginia Beach, advocated matching capital investments to expected sea level rise over comparable time horizons — 1 1/2 feet of sea level rise over 20 to 40 years, and 3 feet over 50 to 80 years. Moody’s, the bond rating firm, is asking local governments how they are dealing with sea level rise. Sound planning can lead to superior bond ratings, he said, noting that Virginia Beach, which is thinking about these issues, had its AAA bond rating confirmed recently.

“If we do it well,” Pollard said, “we could come out better.”