Tag Archives: Climate change

Was $100,000 in Federal Research Grants Diverted to an Indian Community College?

Jagadish Shukla in his native village of Mirdha, in a 2003 New York Times photograph.

Jagadish Shukla (left) in his native village of Mirdha, in a 2003 New York Times photograph.

by James A. Bacon

George Mason University climate scientist Jagadish Shukla isn’t under congressional scrutiny just for paying himself handsomely with federal research funds over and above his university salary, he is also being questioned about donating $100,000 to his pet education charity in India.

Shukla attracted considerable notoriety as the lead author of a letter to President Obama urging a federal investigation into major energy corporations under the RICO statute for “knowingly deceiving the American people about climate change.” Climate skeptics quickly hit back by drawing attention to his pocketing of $250,000 in salary and compensation from GMU as well as $314,000 as president of the federally funded Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES) in addition to paying his wife Anastasia Shukla $146,000 in IGES funds.

On October 1, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, mailed a letter asking Shukla and IGES to preserve a “full and complete record of relevant communications” should the committee request them. Smith followed up with another letter, dated October 19, to request documents relating to the alleged shifting of $100,000 in federal grant money to the Institute for Global Education Equality of Opportunity and Prosperity in 2014, which then allegedly transferred the funds “to a school in India that was apparently founded by Dr. Shukla.”

“It appears that grants provided to IGES are not serving the intended purpose of providing services to the public,” wrote Smith. “Instead, taxpayers appear to be picking up the tab for excessive salaries, nepotism, questionable money transfers, and political activity while receiving little or no benefit.”

“The public expects non-profit organizations that receive taxpayer money to exercise responsible stewardship of their tax dollars,” he continued. “As the Committee is charged with investigating waste and abuse in agencies under its jurisdiction, I have initiated this oversight regarding grants received by Dr. Shukla.”

The query by Congressional Republicans occurs against the backdrop of a highly partisan debate over climate change. For years, climate warriors have tried to discredit skeptics by linking them to giant fossil fuel companies, with the implication that their arguments were tainted by self interest. The latest iteration of that argument, advanced in books and newspaper articles, is that Exxon Mobil knew the dangers of man-made climate change years ago but misled the public in a manner similar to the way tobacco companies hid the link between smoking and cancer. Exxon Mobil has heatedly denied the charges, responding that journalists cherry picked facts to fit their narrative. The letter signed by Shukla and 19 other climate scientists, including five from GMU, urged the Obama administration to prosecute energy companies if they were found to be lying to the public. Since then, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has subpoenaed documents from the oil giant to determine if the company lied to the public.

Skeptics have countered by arguing that research by climate alarmists is biased by the endless quest for federal research grants. Given the capture of the federal bureaucracy by climate alarmists, they contend, only research supporting the prevailing orthodoxy gets funded. Through his non-profit vehicle, IGES, Shukla has been a major beneficiary of federal funding, which he has used to fine-tune computerized climate models for forecasting global warming. As Shukla’s handling of the grant illustrates, skeptics contend, climate scientists aren’t pure either; they, too, pursue their self interest.

IGES describes itself as a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to climate research in service of society.” The institute was established to “improve understanding and prediction of the variations of the Earth’s climate through scientific research on climate variability and climate predictability, and to share both the fruits of this research and the tools necessary to carry out this research with society as a whole.”

In its 2014 Form 990 filing, IGES listed a $100,000 grant among its expenses, although it did not specify to whom the money was given. The Smith letter suggested that the recipient was the Institute for Global Education, Equality of Opportunity, and Prosperity. That group, which lists Anastasia (Anne) Shukla as its secretary, describes its mission as alleviating poverty, educating the public about the sources of poverty, establishing an education center in Washington, D.C., and “supporting Gandhi College in the Ballia district of Indian to provide education and training to poor rural students, especially women.” Continue reading

Why Is GMU Stonewalling?

stone_wallby James A. Bacon

Two months ago, Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University professor, was one of twenty climate scientists to affix their signatures to a letter calling for a federal investigation into “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” It was imperative, stated the letter, that “these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate.”

Outraged by the assault on free speech, climate skeptics brought to light some troubling facts about Shukla’s activities. Not only did Shukla take in $250,000 in salary and compensation from GMU, he paid himself $314,000 in 2014 as president of the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), the recipient of generous federal grants, and that doesn’t include the $146,000 salary paid to his wife Anastasia Shukla.

A month ago, the controversy jumped from the Internet to the political realm when Congress got involved. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sent a letter informing Shukla that it was “foreseeable” that the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology would investigate him, along with IGES, for using science-research monies provided by taxpayers while participating in partisan political activity. Although Shukla later stated that he signed the letter in a personal capacity, he did identify himself as a GMU professor, and he did post the letter on the IGES website.

The Smith letter asked Shukla/IGES to preserve a “full and complete record of relevant communications” should the Committee decide to request documents. The request encompassed all e-mail, electronic documents, and datacreated since January 1, 2009. The congressman also asked Shukla to exercise reasonable efforts to notify employees, former employees, contractors and third parties to do the same.

Shukla is a high-profile member of the GMU faculty, whose combined salary/compensation exceeds that of GMU’s president and makes him among the highest-paid professors at the university, if not the highest paid. If you’re looking for a local hook on this story, Shukla serves on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, which is making recommendations to the governor regarding state climate change-related policy.

While the Congressional committee seems to be focused on Shukla, I would suggest that certain questions should be put to his employer, George Mason University.

  • What is GMU’s policy regarding faculty drawing salaries from outside organizations?
  • Did Shukla disclose to GMU that he and his wife were drawing salaries from IGES?
  • Did GMU review the arrangement to ensure that it complied with the university’s disclosure requirements, conflict-of-interest guidelines and other rules?
  • Has GMU been alerted to the congressional request for Shukla and IGES employees to preserve all electronic documents?
  • Do any such documents reside on GMU servers, and what measures, if any, has GMU put into place to ensure that the documents are preserved?
  • Has GMU “lawyered up”? Has Shukla “lawyered up?” If so, is GMU covering Shukla’s legal expenses?

Let’s crowd source this bad boy!

Contacting three separate people on the university’s communications team over the past three weeks, I have tried repeatedly to get answers from GMU. I received no answer from two spokepersons, and a non-responsive email response from a third. Clearly, GMU is stonewalling. To get answers of any kind, I apparently have no choice but to file FOIA requests. I expect that GMU will maintain that certain correspondence is privileged, either because it pertains to “employee” matters or “legal” matters. I get only one shot at this, and I want to make sure I craft the FOIA request correctly.

I would invite readers to crowd-source this story. If you dig up something worthwhile through Internet research, or if you have suggestions on how to word the FOIA request, let me know in the comments.

Fuzzy Thinking at the Top

Woolly headed

Woolly headed

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe views the implementation of the Clean Power Plan as a great opportunity for Virginia to create “green” jobs in solar energy and energy-efficiency while also reducing carbon emissions and head off global warming. “I am working hard with Virginia businesses and environmental leaders to seize this moment to lead for our planet and for our economy,” he wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

That’s a fine sentiment. Virginia does need to create more jobs. And McAuliffe correctly perceives that the commonwealth faces momentous decisions regarding its electric system. But there was so much platitudinous thinking in the op-ed that I found it thoroughly discouraging. At the highest level of Virginia government, banalities have replaced substantive thought. Let’s take a look at some of the assaults on reason in the piece.

Job creation. Yes, if Virginia builds more solar plants, installs more solar panels on roofs, and builds more wind-powered turbines, it will create jobs related to the construction and operation of wind and solar power. However, the State Corporation Commission staff said last year that implementing the Clean Power Plan could drive electric rates 20% higher. Higher electric rates would discourage industrial development and take money out of the pockets of business and residential customers, all of which would result in job destruction. The difference is that the new energy jobs would be highly visible while the lost jobs, distributed in dribs and drabs across economy, would be largely invisible. Which effect would outweigh the other? Nobody knows, and anyone who pretends to is just making stuff up.

Environmentalists claim that, if implemented properly, the Clean Power Plan would nudge rates only a little higher, and ratepayers would save enough money through energy conservation that their bills actually would be a little lower than today. Perhaps that’s so. It certainly would be a much more desirable income than a 20% increase in electricity rates. So… let’s see the plan! What combination of programs and strategies will lead to this ideal outcome? How would the McAuliffe administration propose implementing the Clean Power Plan differently than the SCC would, while taking care to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, to avoid that 20% rate increase?

There was no hint in McAuliffe’s op-ed that such hard-nose thinking is even necessary. Chanting, “Rah, rah, green jobs,” is not a plan.

Norfolk flooding. If I hear one more invocation of rising sea levels and increased flooding in Norfolk as justification for spending billions of dollars overhauling Virginia’s energy infrastructure, I think my brain will explode. Here’s what the governor had to say on the subject:

Even before the hurricane headed toward Virginia’s coast, the city of Norfolk was bracing for a greater number of nuisance flooding days over the next year due to higher sea levels and more frequent storm surges. Because Norfolk houses the largest U.S. naval station in the world, this is also an issue of national security.

The Clean Power Plan is recognition of the need for action.

This logic is so woolly headed that if we could shave it, we could put the world’s sheep farmers out of business. The increasing incidence of flooding is a justification for building flood walls, hardening infrastructure, upgrading building codes, eliminating subsidies for flood insurance and reforming land use — not for restructuring Virginia’s electric grid.

The reality is that anything Virginia does to re-engineer its electric grid to reduce CO2 emissions will have an impact on global warming and rising sea levels too small to measure. According to estimates using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s MAGICC/SCENGEN climate model, the Clean Power Plan will reduce global temperatures about one-one hundredth of a degree (Centigrade) by the year 2100. Virginia’s implementation would account for roughly 1/40th that amount (based on its proportion of the U.S. GDP). To suggest that Virginia, by reducing global temperatures by 1/4,000th of a degree Centigrade, will slow the rate of rising sea levels enough to reduce the impact upon Norfolk is fantasy thinking.

As it happens, there is an argument for implementing the Clean Power Plan: By making the investment, the U.S. can thereby exercise the moral leadership to induce other countries, particularly China, India, to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. You can choose to accept that argument or not based upon your own partisan and ideological inclinations. But that’s not the argument that McAuliffe offers for supporting the plan.

The future grid. The Obama administration is imposing the Clean Power Plan upon America at a time when the electric power industry is in extraordinary flux, with new technologies and business models threatening to up-end the regulatory structure that has prevailed over the past 80 or so years. The pace of change, and the uncertainty it brings, is unprecedented during the era of regulated utilities. New technologies show enormous promise for replacing fossil fuels. At the same time, given the inherently intermittent nature of those power sources, there are many issues to work out for ensuring the reliability of the electric system, upon which our entire civilization is built. There is little room for error.

There are many profound questions to ponder. Should we invest in large nuclear- and gas-powered power plants with 40-year life spans when solar technology might produce electric power more cheaply within a 5- to 10-year time frame? Should we invest in the current generation of renewable fuels today when the next generation could well cost far less? In either case, we risk saddling Virginia’s electric power system with antiquated and uneconomic capacity. Do we want a big-is-better power system built around large power plants and a robust transmission system, or do we prefer a decentralized, small-is-beautiful approach that may not be as efficient but could be less vulnerable to catastrophic failure? What trade-offs are we willing to make between cost, reliability and the environment?

What path would McAuliffe urge us to take? We don’t know. The Governor offers no clue in his op-ed. Indeed, there are no simple answers to these questions. One way or the other, either we decide what future we want, or we will have a future thrust upon us.

George Mason Profs: Prosecute Climate Deniers

Jadadish Shukla (right) receiving award in India.

Jagadish Shukla (right) receiving Padma Shri Award in India.

by James A. Bacon

Jagadish Shukla, a George Mason University climate scientist, thinks corporate climate deniers should be criminally prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law.

Corporations and other organizations have “knowingly deceived” the American people about the risks of climate change, wrote Shukla and nineteen other scientists (five of whom also are GMU professors) in an open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.”

Wow. Is this what science has come to in the United States today — seeking criminal prosecution of those who espouse different views? The implications of this mindset are absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, only 20 scientists signed the letter, so we can be hopeful that the thinking expressed therein is not representative of most climate scientists or even climate alarmists generally — although the missive does cite as its inspiration a proposal championed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.

The premise is that fossil fuel companies, like the tobacco companies before them, are knowingly and fraudulently disseminating false science. Barry Klinger, also a GMU climate scientist, insists that the letter signatories aren’t trying to throw climate skeptics in jail or repress their right to free speech — just squelch the right of companies engaging in fraud to sell a product that does harm.

In a Q&A on his website, Klinger is sensitive to the charges of “ideologically based legal harassment.” That’s how he described former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s aborted investigation of Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate scientist whose name was prominent among those sullied in the East Anglia email scandal. “Apparently,” writes Klinger, “there are some who believe it is the return of the Inquisition to investigate a giant corporation but a good deed to investigate an individual scientist.”

In other words, while Klinger disapproves of Cuccinelli’s subpoena of Michael Mann’s emails — Cuccinelli never got the emails, by the way — he thinks ideologically based criminal prosecutions are OK if the targets aregiant corporations.” Pardon me for failing to see any meaningful differences between the two cases. If one is wrong, so is the other. Of course, the ultimate goal of the letter signatories is not to pursue justice but to de-fund and de-legitimize those with opposing views while maintaining their own sources of funding from government and foundations as sacrosanct.

Which brings us back to Mr. Shukla, Klinger’s colleague at GMU and lead signatory to the letter. Shukla is a scientist of some renown, who specializes in building computerized climate models and has served as a lead author for the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He has done work reconstructing the climate of the Mediterranean world in the Roman era that I, as a serious amateur student of 1st-century Palestine, find fascinating.

I am not remotely qualified to judge the scientific value of Shukla’s work, but I do feel competent to comment upon his foray into public policy. It appears that climate alarmism, to riff off an old Saturday Night Live routine, has been bery, bery good to Mr. Shukla. Roger Pielke Jr., a climate scientist himself, notes that Shukla runs his government grants through a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, the Institute of Global Environment and Society, Inc. The Institute raked in $3.8 million in 2014, from which Shukla paid himself $293,000 in reportable compensation and his wife Anne Shukla $146,000 as a business manager. It’s not bad money, considering that Shukla also received total compensation of $250,000 as a professor and chair of the GMU Climate Dynamics department. That would make Shukla slightly more highly compensated than GMU President Angel Cabrera — and I’m betting that Cabrera’s wife doesn’t knock down a $146,000-a-year salary for work related to his job as university president.

Shukla also has been granted numerous awards and medals, including the 2012 Padma Shri Award from the government of India. In sum, he is richly rewarded financially and with status conferred by his peers for his work building global climate-change models.

I wonder if Mr. Shukla’s climate models predicted the actual, real-world temperatures of the past 18 years. The mean temperature increase has been zero, as measured by satellite readings, and within the statistical margin of error, as measured by terrestrial readings. If after the expenditure of millions of dollars Mr. Shukla has failed to forecast those readings and yet persists in raising the cry of catastrophic climate change, could we conclude, using the logic he applies to others, that his work was not only in error but fraudulent, motivated by the desire to continue the flow of lucrative research contracts — and not only fraudulent but economically devastating because it justifies the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to combat an exaggerated threat?

Shukla certainly knows the stakes. As he himself is quoted in 2011 as saying: “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.”

Ordinarily, I would not be inclined to equate Mr. Shukla’s behavior with criminality, but it does seem reasonable to apply to him the same criteria he applies to others. Perhaps he should be more careful about what he asks for. Once the precedent of criminalizing science has been set, some future administration might decide Shukla falls on the wrong side of the ideological divide.

Heh, Heh. Virginia Electricity Less Carbon-Intensive than Its Neighbors’ — without RPS

by James A. Bacon

The Gooze, known in more polite company as Peter G. , is a big fan of solar power and wind power and thinks we ought to have more of both in Virginia. In his most recent post, he seems particularly impressed by the activities of Amazon Web Services, which has announced plans to build the largest solar facility east of the Mississippi in Accomack County and has joined in a large wind project in North Carolina. What Virginia needs to do, he suggests, is enact a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring Virginia electric utilities, like those in neighboring North Carolina and Maryland, to utilize more renewables such as solar, wind and biomass regardless of how much more expensive they may be than conventional power sources.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves exactly where Virginia stands nationally in the emission of Carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is both essential to life and implicated in global warming. The following data comes from “Benchmarking Air Emissions of the Largest 100 Electric Power Producers in the United States,” published by M.J. Bradley Associates, which bills itself as a strategic environmental consulting firm. No, the report was not funded by the Koch Brothers. It was prepared in consultation with Bank of America, several electric utilities and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report looks at two broad measures of carbon intensity: Total CO2 emissions for each state, and the CO2 emissions rate — emissions per megawatt hour of electricity generated. First total CO2 emissions:


Texas is by far the biggest CO2 emitter in the country. That reflects the fact that (1) Texas has a large gross domestic product (GDP) and (2) a fossil fuel-heavy electric generation mix. Note that although Virginia has the 11th largest state economy in the country, it ranks 26th by total CO2 emissions. In other words, Virginia is far more CO2-efficient than the national average.

(This measure is, admittedly, a rough one and overlooks important nuances. For example, Virginia has built one of the nation’s largest clusters of data centers, which consume a tremendous amount of electricity but replace electricity that would have been consumed in other states had businesses not outsourced their computing and data storage to the cloud. On the other hand, Virginia is a net importer of electricity from other states, meaning that some of the CO2 emissions attributed to its economy is allocated to other states.)

emission_rateHere are the numbers for the CO2 emissions rate, which reflects fuel mix. Virginia’s fuel mix includes a lot of zero-CO2 nuclear power as well as natural gas, which, though a fossil fuel, releases less CO2 per kilowatt hour than coal or oil. By this measure, Virginia ranks 38th on the list — lower than the two states with renewable portfolio standards that Peter admires so much, Maryland and North Carolina.

Not only does Virginia emit less CO2 per megawatt hour than its two neighbors, its average electricity costs are lower. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (not funded by the Koch Brothers, by the way), here’s how electric rates compare based on 2013 data:

Virginia — 9.07 cents per kilowatt hour.

North Carolina — 9.15 cents per kilowatt hour.

Maryland — 11.3 cents per kilowatt hour.

And for purposes of comparison, California, the state that has gone “all in” with renewable energy — 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

My point is not that renewable energy is bad. Eventually, the cost of renewables will be competitive with other fuels, and then we should embrace them. My point is that there are trade-offs entailed with imposing renewable energy before it’s ready for prime time. One of those trade-offs is price. Once upon a time, progressives like Peter deemed it outrageous for power utilities to raise their rates on the grounds that a high cost of electricity punished the poor. No longer. Fear of global warming trumps social justice. The irony here is that Virginia’s electric power fleet outperforms North Carolina and Maryland in carbon intensity and price — all without mandated renewables. How about that?

Grid Pro Quo

Exhaust fumes blown into a sky.The EPA wants to restructure Virginia’s electric grid. Skeptics argue that slashing CO2 emissions will drive electric bills higher. Environmentalists disagree. Who’s right?

by James A. Bacon

President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan gives Virginia fifteen years to cut CO2 emissions by 38% from 2012 levels. Not only will the plan usher in a better world of cleaner air, bountiful “green” jobs and diminished global warming, supporters contend, Virginians will use less electricity and enjoy an 8% reduction in electric bills by 2030.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has nothing to say about global warming or green jobs, but the staff has commented upon the Clean Power Plan’s impact on electric bills:  Rates under the plan could be 20% to 22% higher for a typical Dominion Virginia Power customer than under a business-as-usual approach. That’s on top of the 14% that electric rates have increased since 2007, including rate adjustments for lower fuel prices that took effect this month, and it doesn’t include the impact on Appalachian Power or smaller utilities.

Who’s right? Will electric bills go up or down?

What we have here is a battle of dueling experts – Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its allies in the environmentalist community on the one side, and the state regulatory commission and the electric power industry on the other. Whom do we believe?

It’s hard for citizens to know. The issues are anaesthetizingly complex, and few people have the patience to wade through both sides of the issues. For each assertion that one party makes, someone provides a counter. Peel away one layer of the debate, and there always seems to be another.

That’s why God created Bacon’s Rebellion. My goal in this article is to clearly delineate the main points of contention. You may not change your mind – who ever does? — but at least you will leave with a clearer idea of what the issues are.
Because this piece is so long, I have broken it into digestible chunks. Use these links to navigate the article.

The Clean Power Plan and how it works
McAuliffe administration asks EPA to modify Virginia targets
The SCC response
SELC sides with EPA
Nukes vs. Renewables
Wholesale electricity to the rescue
Energy efficiency to the rescue
How reliable is renewable power?

The Clean Power Plan and how it works

The purpose of the Clean Power Plan is straightforward: It is designed to radically curtail the CO2 emissions blamed for global warming by setting CO2 targets for each state. Nationally, the plan aims to cut CO2 emissions by 30%, but state targets vary widely. Under proposed regulations, Virginia would have to slash 2012-level emissions by 38% by 2030, with a majority of the cuts occurring by 2025.

While the EPA sets targets for each state, it theoretically allows states flexibility as to how they achieve those targets. The agency provides four broad strategies, which, it contends, should achieve the goals at a reasonable cost. States can mix and match as best fits their circumstances. The strategies include:

  • Make coal-fired power plants more efficient. By capturing more heat from coal combustion, coal-fired plants can generate the same amount of energy with fewer CO2 emissions. EPA says that an average “heat rate improvement” of 6% should be achievable.
  • Use more natural gas. Although it is a fossil fuel, natural gas releases less CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal. The EPA expects the biggest reductions to come from switching to this fuel.
  • Use more renewables and nuclear. Solar power, wind power and nuclear power release zero CO2. In the EPA’s estimation, this strategy is second only to natural gas in its potential to cut CO2 emissions.
  • Conserve energy. Investing in energy efficiency reduces the demand for electricity, which means less generating capacity is needed. The EPA says it should be possible to increase demand-side energy efficiency by 1.5% annually.

Continue reading

Adapting to Climate Change: 11 Proposals


Working under the direction of University of Richmond professors Peter D. Smallwood and Stephen P. Nash, eleven UR environmental studies majors wrote papers on topics relating to the environment and climate change in Virginia. Each paper defines a problem and lays out a practical solution. All eleven papers are compiled in a document entitled, “Nature Virginia’s Economy, and the Climate Threat.” The papers are of such interest that I re-publish the abstracts below. — JAB

Seed Banks: An Insurance Policy Against Extinction from Climate Change
by Casey Schmidt

Climate change is causing the ranges of native species to shift northward at a pace that outstrips the ability of many plant species to migrate and adapt. … Although assisted migration, the process of relocating individuals or spread of seeds through human intervention, has been used successfully in some cases to preserve species, it comes saddled with potential ecological damage, and legal complications arise when these ranges cross state lines.

These complications threaten Virginia’s biological diversity, especially among rare plants and those plants from habitats affected most by climate change. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of native species before populations become isolated and inbred, this paper proposes that Virginia create a seed bank. Seed banks have been used for a variety of reasons worldwide to preserve the genes of plant species, including the preservation of crop species and for research purposes. … For this proposed seed bank, Virginia would use information collected by the state Natural Heritage Program to identify eligible species that face the greatest threat from climate change in order to preserve biodiversity, establish a genetically diverse sample for research, and potentially reestablish these endangered species in the future.

Branching Out: How Virginia Can Use Trees Strategically to Combat Biodiversity Loss
by Taylor Pfeiffer

Biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase global temperatures, decreases in the abundance and diversity of species has reduced ecosystem resiliency during these changes. … Weakened ecosystems decrease the environment’s capacity to provide humans with services like safe drinking water, fuel, and protection from natural disasters. …

The agricultural industry plays a unique role in this environmental conversation, as farmland both contributes to climate change and is jeopardized by the negative effects created by the issue in a complex reciprocal cycle. This relationship, along with the presence of 8.3 million acres of farmland in Virginia, suggests that agriculture should be incorporated into the state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. …

Agroforestry, the strategic integration of trees in agriculture to create a sustainable land-use system, has been utilized for environmental benefits in the past. … This paper proposes the creation of a statewide program that requires the use of agroforestry on large farms in order to preserve biodiversity in the wake of climate change. An alternative solution is a certification program for farmers who use agroforestry practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Economic incentives and implementation assistance will encourage participation, while funding for the establishment of this program, creation of publications, and organization of events will be sourced from governmental and private grants.

Continue reading

How to Reform Virginia’s Conservation Tax Credit

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia's upper peninsula.

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia’s upper peninsula.

by James A. Bacon

The state of Virginia spends $100 million a year in the form of tax expenditures to place conservation easements on land parcels around the state. Could the state get more for its investment? Amy Murphy, an environmental studies major at the University of Richmond, thinks so. In a paper presented to the  Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission Tuesday, she recommended three changes t0 make the law more effective, including a restructuring of the tax credit to favor easements that offered greater environmental benefits.

Murphy’s paper on conservation easement reform was one of 11 prepared under the tutelage of biology professor Peter D. Smallwood and journalism professor Stephen D. Nash that were packaged for consideration by the climate change commission. Each paper focused on a practical, small-bore proposal for helping Virginia ecosystems adapt to warming temperatures. While climate change was the unifying theme, it struck me that many of the proposals make sense whether you believe in catastrophic global warming or not.

Murphy’s paper, in particular, addressed concerns that I have long harbored about Virginia’s conservation easement program. On the plus side, the program provides a way to protect Virginia lands from development that is far cheaper than purchasing the land outright. Landowners receive a tax credit worth 40% of the fair market of the value of the land, with deductions up to $100,000 for the year of donation and 10 subsequent years. In effect, taxpayers pay 40 cents on the dollar to protect land from development beyond its current use, typically agriculture or forestry. Not a bad deal.

The problem is that not all land is equally worth conserving. Some lands harbor endangered species and biological diversity; others don’t. Some easements abut other easements, creating larger bodies of protected habitat; others are tiny islands, creating fragments of little ecological value. The state caps the easement credits at $100 million per year but has no system for prioritizing one easement over another.

Murphy proposes creating a statewide plan, to be administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to rank and prioritize land based on conservation value. Factors to be considered would include biodiversity, land resilience, land cover, proximity to existing lands and threat of development. Parcels would be scored. Parcels with high scores (of greater conservation value) would receive higher tax credits, while lower-scoring parcels would receive lower credits.

“Ideally, implementing these changes will result in obtaining easements on more land of high ecological importance without altering the total amount of tax credits given annually,” she writes.

A second tweak to the program would address problems created by freezing an easement in judicial stone. Static easements that prescribe specific responsibilities and expectations of future land owners can become outdated over the decades, limiting adaptation to changes in scientific knowledge and climate conditions. Murphy recommends that Virginia require the inclusion of “adaptive management plans” in easement terms. “These plans should require that the landowner manages the land in a manner consistent with preserving the conservation purpose of the easement rather than require specific management techniques.”

Finally, Murphy recommends setting up a system for monitoring easements to ensure that the terms are being adhered to. In Maine, which requires monitoring, 90% of the easements were in compliance — which implies that 10% were not. There is a cost to monitoring, she acknowledges, but the burden “may have a positive influence as [it] may force landowners to limit their holdings so they can provide proper stewardship to them. This may cause a selective pressure away from low value easements.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s conservation easement program is a valuable tool for protecting the natural environment. It’s also a great tax break for landowners, some of whom may be motivated to participate for less-than-altruistic motives. Murphy’s recommendations would ensure that this significant state investment yields maximum benefits.

The Tangible Economic Value of Biodiversity


Healy Hamilton

by James A. Bacon

From the oceans to the rain forests, from the wetlands to the Virginia Piedmont, wildlife habitats around the world are under tremendous pressure from human activity. One reason that environmentalists get alarmed about global warming is that a rapidly changing environment adds one more source of stress to many species. In a pre-human environment, species would respond to a warming climate in Virginia by migrating north. But human activity — cities, farming, subdivisions, roads, railroads and power lines — fragments wildlife habitat and creates barriers to migration.

Human pressure is causing one of the greatest mass extinctions of species the planet has ever seen. But not everyone gets weepy at the prospect of demise of the Littlewing Purleymussel or Rock Gnome Lichen, endangered species here in Virginia. Some people say, “So what? What’s it to me?”

There is tremendous unrecognized value to biodiversity, Healy Hamilton, chief scientist with NatureServe, argued in a session yesterday at the University of Richmond that preceded the meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission. Just to mention those species that are directly useful to humans, she said 30,00 plant species have edible parts; 7,000 are used as foods. Forty percent of all medicinal drugs come from plants, animals or micro-organisms. Timber, firewood, fibers, rubber and biofuels, all derived from plants, are multibillion-dollar industries.

And that’s just for starters. Increasingly, scientists are turning to nature for solutions to engineering problems, a phenomenon called biomimicry. Nature and evolution have worked over billions of years to accomplish such tasks as enhancing flow without causing friction, or creating light, flexible materials. The greater the number of species in existence, the greater the number of potential solutions.

While there is value to preserving individual species, there also is value to preserving ecosystems. Hamilton referred to “ecosystem services,” or tangible economic benefits that ecosystems provide humans. Pollinators like bats and bees contribute roughly $30 billion a year in services nationally to agriculture and landscaping. Coastal wetlands provide billions of dollars annually in storm-surge protection. Nature provides billions of more of value in recreation and tourism. The inspiration upon arts and philosophy cannot be expressed in dollars.

Hamilton described biological diversity as “a magic carpet ride of life we don’t even know we’re on.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Of all environmental issues, the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is one that bothers me most. When species go extinct, they are gone forever (unless someone figures out how to reconstruct a wooly mammoth from DNA, but re-creating one mammoth isn’t enough to resurrect the species). The greater the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the greater its stability. The loss of species makes the system more prone to debilitating perturbations, which, even if you care nothing about gray bats or dustytail darters, can impact those species (pine trees, corn, azaleas, whatever) that humans do care about.

The loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is real, it’s here, and it’s now. To me, it’s a lot more real than catastrophic climate change, an outgrowth of computer model forecasts that failed to see the current 17-year temperature plateau. (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a heretic. Burn me at the stake!)

What I’m groping for here is the idea that biodiversity may be a patch of common ground where wild-eye climate alarmists and sober-minded skeptics (ha! ha! I’m just trying to goad LarryG and PeterG) can actually agree on something. While the two camps will likely disagree over the desirability of re-engineering the state’s energy economy, perhaps we can come together in promoting environmental resilience by buffering the impact of human activity on threatened species.

In the near future, I will explore some ideas generated by some bright University of Richmond students on practical ways Virginia can protect biodiversity from human threats of all kinds, whether climate change or humanity’s heavy footprint the landscape.

McAuliffe Climate Change Commission Playing for Small Stakes

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

In December 2008, Governor Tim Kaine’s climate change commission issued a detailed action plan. In 2009, Bob McDonnell was elected governor, and work on anything remotely connected to climate change promptly ended. In January 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, and he set up a new commission to review and update the Kaine plan. What can we expect from this latest initiative?

Judging from the proceedings of a meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission yesterday at the University of Richmond, nothing breathtaking is likely to emerge from this group. Part of the reason is that the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would radically restructure Virginia’s electric power industry for the purpose of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, is so massive that everything else seems small by comparison.

But the other reason for expecting only tweaks to existing policy is that McAuliffe set politically realistic goals. McAuliffe understands that multimillion-dollar spending or regulatory initiatives to combat climate change will be still-born in the Republican dominated General Assembly. So, he has charged the Commission to develop recommendations that can be implemented either through executive action or in partnership with private groups. And it’s quickly becoming obvious that only so much can be accomplished this way.

The small-bore nature of the proposals under discussion became evident from preliminary reports of working-group chairs.  The education/outreach work group, for instance, suggested building a website to function as a authoritative clearinghouse for Virginia-related climate change and resilience information. Of course, that can happen only if resources can be found within an already over-stretched state workforce to build and curate it. Another work group is trying to identify data sources on everything from sea-level rise to the carbon sequestration capacity of Virginia forests for use in intelligent decision making. It’s not clear yet how much of this data even exists.

The public-funding work group seeks ways to leverage limited public funds with private dollars. “We don’t have a printing press here in Virginia,” quipped Walton Shepherd with the NRDC. His group is looking for opportunities to create public-private partnerships, to create “resiliency bonds” for infrastructure-hardening improvements, or to find a clever way that the up-front cost of flood-proofing improvements, such as elevating houses, can  be paid for through lower flood insurance rates. This group is thinking creatively, but it’s not clear whether it can come up with anything tangible.

The energy work group is wrestling with some of the biggest issues, like how to promote cogeneration (which utilizes waste heat) and microgrids (which better accommodate small-scale renewable energy sources). Not only would such recommendations likely require General Assembly action, however, it may be difficult to obtain consensus within the work group. As an example of the potential friction within the commission, an individual representing Virginia’s electric co-ops questioned the blithe assertion of another commission member that a warming climate will increase the frequency and severity of storms. Contrary to predictions, the incidence of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coast actually has declined in recent years.

More to the point, it is difficult to see how a commission that meets episodically over one year can master an incredibly complex suite of issues and develop solutions that meet McAuliffe’s political criteria. As Jagadish Shukla, with the Institute of Global Environment and Society at George Mason University, said at one point, the commission needs more time. “Two hour meetings don’t do justice to these problems.”