Posted by: bmeverett | September 14, 2014

Friedman Watch 9-9-14

I try to read all (or almost all) Thomas Friedman’s columns in the New York Times. I rarely agree with him, but every once in while, he writes a column that’s so bad that it just cries out for a reply. His September 6 column, entitled “Leading from Within” definitely falls into that category.

Mr. Friedman’s thesis in this piece is that the United States can combat ISIS and Vladimir Putin with two powerful actions: allow US oil to be exported and impose a carbon tax. He is way off base on both counts.

Let’s take oil exports. I agree with him fully that the US should allow the free export of crude oil and refined products. Doing so would eliminate some logistical bottlenecks inside the US and allow the US economy to reap the full benefit of the crude oil we produce. For decades now, many Americans have mistakenly believed that keeping oil in the US helps American consumers while sending oil oversees benefits foreigners. We saw this problem when the Alaska Pipeline opened in the mid-1970s. Alaskan crude was not a good quality fit with West Coaster refineries, and the sensible solution would have been to export Alaska oil to Japan and replace it with imported crude into the Gulf Coast. That proved politically impossible, and the companies were forced by law to bring the crude oil around to the Gulf Coast at significant additional cost. American consumers paid the difference.

This action was costly and unnecessary. American consumers care about the price of fuel and the potential for market disruption. There is a single global, integrated oil market with a unified price structure. Producers supply oil to the market, and consumers buy from the market. It doesn’t matter where your oil comes from. If Saudi Arabia collapses, the global price of oil will increase and all consumers will feel the impact, whether or not they happen to be purchasers of Saudi crude.

Mr. Friedman’s expectations from lifting the oil export ban are unrealistic. He quotes Andy Karsner, CEO of Manifest Energy, as saying “Let’s lift that export ban and have America shaping the market price in our own interest.” Producing additional oil is a great boon to the US economy, but we are hardly in a position to shape the world oil market. In 2013, the US produced about 10 million barrels of oil per day (MBD), up about 3.2 MBD since the low point of 6.8 MBD in 2007. That energy boom has created unexpected jobs, profits and tax revenue for the US. Over that same period of time, however, global oil demand has grown by about 4½ MBD from 82.4 to 86.8 MBD. US oil consumption has declined by about 1.8 MBD over that same period from 20.7 to 18.9 MBD, but we still have to import 8.9 MBD or 43% of our needs. Every barrel of oil exported from the US will have to be replaced by a barrel of imported oil. This trade may result in some sensible logistical cost savings, but they will be small when oil prices are around $100 per barrel.

The US has gone from producing 8½% of the world oil market to 11½%. That’s great, but it hardly puts us in a position to control world oil prices, particularly when the Middle East still produces one-third of the world’s oil supply. Mr. Friedman expects that lifting the export ban could reduce oil prices to $75-85 per barrel, resulting in a “draining of our enemies’ coffers”. A slight logistical shift in the destination of US oil supplies would have a negligible impact on world oil prices.

Mr. Friedman’s second proposal is a carbon tax that “puts a predictable premium on carbon, ensuring that we unite to consistently invest in clean energies that take us beyond fossil fuels, increase efficiency and address climate change.” Good luck with that. As discussed many times in this space, no politician in his right mind would impose a carbon tax high enough to induce a real change in the capital stock or in the way people use energy. So far, carbon taxes in Europe, the Northeast United States (The “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative”) and all the bills proposed in Congress would set carbon taxes sufficient to shift money from the private sector to the government but way below the level necessary to effect real change. Fossil fuels have no competitors in terms of cost or performance. Setting carbon taxes high enough to push fossil fuels out of the market would shut down the economy.

Mr. Friedman thinks he can compensate for the adverse economic impacts of carbon taxes by slashing income, payroll and corporate taxes. Seriously? Mr. Friedman is clinging to the naïve notion that our elected officials in Washington spend their time thinking about what’s best for the country. What they are in fact thinking about is how to extract the maximum amount of money from the electorate to allocate to favored constituents. Our Congress doesn’t do “revenue neutral”.

The problem with Mr. Friedman’s grandiose schemes is that they promise way more than they can deliver. If this is a weapon to be aimed at ISIS and Putin, it’s just another pea-shooter that will convince our adversaries that US politics is all about rhetoric and appearances and not about substance. This is exactly the wrong answer.

The idea that building a successful political/military coalition “starts with respect earned from others seeing us commit to doing great and difficult things at home that summon the energy of the whole country…” is ridiculous. Charles de Gaulle famously said, “France has no friends, only interests”. An understanding of that fact should be the core of our foreign policy.

Take Turkey, for example. The Turks sided with the Germans in World War I because they expected the Germans to win. They paid a heavy price for that mistake with the loss of their empire and sat out World War II as a neutral country. Today, Turkey is torn between the secular, modernist urban traditions of Mustapha Kamal and the more traditional Islamist view, which seems now in the ascendency. The current Islamist government of Turkey plays this game carefully as a major supporter of Hamas while remaining a member of NATO. None of this has anything to do with shared values or whether Turkey likes the US. They are simply picking winners. Remember that in 2003 the Turks refused to let coalition forces enter Iraq from the north which would have made our attack much easier.

How about Qatar? The US has made a major commitment to this small feudal sheikhdom by locating key military facilities there. While the Qataris are happy to have our protection and our money, they are also active financial supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and ISIS. Qatar host an office of the Taliban in Doha. The Qataris will always support the winners. If they are not sure who’s going to win, they’ll support everybody.

The Saudis have now agreed (maybe) to provide a base for training forces to fight ISIS. Wonderful. The US has treated Saudi Arabia as a friend for the last 70 years because they are the world’s key oil exporter. During this time, the Saudis have done nothing whatsoever to support US interests. The Saudi royal family has a deal with their Wahhabi extremists allowing the princes of the Saud family to keep most of the oil money and live in unimaginable luxury. In return, the Wahhabi clerics run Saudi Arabia with the brutal hand of Sharia law, making average people miserable. Everyone in the West, including myself, was shocked and disgusted by the video-taped beheadings of three westerners in recent weeks. Remember, however, that the Saudis carry out public beheadings not only for murder and rape but for crimes such as apostasy, blasphemy and witchcraft. Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia are subject to capital punishment for holding a Catholic mass. Sexual misconduct can be punished by stoning to death. These are the people who will help us to vanquish ISIS’s ideology?

The Middle East is a tough and mean neighborhood. The consequences of political failure can be a hangman’s noose or worse for you and your family rather than just a premature retirement from public life. As a result, Middle East politicians have an exquisite sensitivity not to those with whom they share values but to those expected to win. The United States can form a winning coalition against ISIS and Vladimir Putin by making clear that the US intends to win and that countries on the wrong side of the conflict will pay a price, while those who side with us will reap rewards. Coalition partners will be few and far between when the US shows ambivalence about the effort. The idea that the US can generate a stampede of support from Middle Eastern regimes by making the ineffective symbolic climate change gestures so beloved of the American left is simply embarrassing.

Posted by: bmeverett | August 15, 2014

Israel and Hamas

This blog is usually devoted to energy issues, but I feel compelled to weigh in on the situation in Gaza, partly since events in the Middle East have a substantial impact on the international oil market, but also because the public debate on events in Gaza seems to me terribly distorted and destructive. In my course at the Fletcher School, I emphasize the importance of precise language in formulating arguments. Unfortunately, politics often encourages people to do the exact opposite. Rather than add to the polemics on Gaza, let me offer a few comments on the language of this debate.

Let’s start with the term “cycle of violence”. If you Google “Gaza, cycle of violence”, you’ll get 174,000 hits, including quotes from people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Time magazine, the Nation, The Drudge Report, and on and on. The term has no clear definition, but implies two parties stubbornly and irrationally angry at each other and caring about nothing other than inflicting pain on the other. By implication, breaking the cycle requires nothing more than one party replacing emotion with rationality and offering a hand in friendship to the other party. This situation may pertain to neighbors squabbling about their property line, but it does not apply to Gaza.

A quick reading of history shows that Israel, far from provoking the Palestinians in Gaza, made one of the greatest peace gestures in the history of the Middle East. In 2005, Israel voluntarily turned control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, abandoning the Jewish settlements and physically evicting the Israeli settlers who refused to leave. Israel expected – or at least hoped – that the Palestinian residents of Gaza would take the opportunity to engage in peaceful pursuits, like growing the local economy and improving their living conditions. Instead, in 2006, the residents of Gaza elected Hamas to govern them, thereby in essence declaring war against Israel.

The discussion of the Gaza situation in the western press strangely seems to exclude any discussion of who Hamas really is. This omission may result partly from a common, but powerful assumption of the political left that all foreign policy debates can be resolved through negotiation, that all parties have legitimate grievances that need to be respected and that splitting the difference is the solution to all trans-national issues. But is Hamas, formally known as “The Islamic Resistance Movement” really an organization with legitimate grievances that can be reconciled with Israel’s right to exist? Hamas’ Charter, which you can find at http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/www.thejerusalemfund.org/carryover/documents/charter.html?chocaid=397 suggests otherwise. A few observations on the Charter.

First, Article 11 states that Palestine is an Islamic “waqf”, a term referring to property given to Islam in perpetuity for religious purposes. The grant of land for construction of a mosque would be an example. This article states that, since the grant is “in perpetuity”, no party has a right to give away any part of it. To do so would be to give away the birthright of future generations of Muslims, for whom no one can speak.

Second, Article 13 states that “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” In other words, negotiation is inherently unacceptable.

Finally, Hamas’ charter makes clear that its war is not about Palestine alone, but against Jews universally. Article 7 states that Allah’s promise to Muslims cannot be fulfilled “until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”

These provisions are so startling and so clear that Hamas can be regarded as a legitimate negotiating partner only if you haven’t read the charter or don’t attribute any significance to it. This is precisely the mistake that Britain and France made in dealing with Hitler in the 1930s. In Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out his objectives in stark terms. I suspect that the Western powers just didn’t want to believe what Hitler was saying. Negotiations turned out to be not only futile but damaging, since Hitler was given the opportunity to grow in strength and improve his tactical position. When the Munich agreement was signed in September, 1938, Czechoslovakia had a large, well-equipped and well-trained army in fortified positions. Germany had not yet completed its Siegfried Line in the West and did not have the ability to fight a two-front war. Munich solved all these problems for the Nazis with catastrophic results.

Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia seem to me to be good examples of a “cycle of violence”, where there are no good guys and ancient hatreds overwhelm any interest in peaceful dispute resolution. Russia’s attack on the Ukraine, on the other hand, involves a predatory state seeking control over an innocent victim. China’s absorption of Tibet in 1950 was a blatant invasion, not a “cycle of violence.” Hamas differs from Russia and China only in its relative military weakness and not in its intent. The “cycle of violence” model just doesn’t work in Gaza.

The second puzzling term is “the international community”. President Obama often refers to the “international community” as though its approbation grants legitimacy while its disapproval is an unacceptable burden for any miscreant state to bear. The press often seems concerns about the reaction of the “international community” to what Israel is doing in Gaza. But what exactly is the “international community”?

The United Nations currently has 193 members, but only about two dozen are true democracies whose governments can claim to speak for their people. Most UN member sstates are governed by mafia-like elites. Fifty-six UN members – about 30% – are Muslim states who reflexively condemn Israel no matter what happens. The UN cannot speak to the morality of actions by the US, Israel or any other country.

Since nobody really cares what Chad or Yemen thinks about the morality of US or Israeli actions, the term “international community” has essentially come to mean Europe. During the Iraq War of 2003, the American press regarded Europe’s disapproval of the US effort as an important if not definitive indication that our actions were illegitimate. Since a number of European countries, including the UK, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, participated in the US coalition in Iraq, somehow the French and Germans became the true voice of Europe and of the “international community.” France and Germany are entitled to act as their national interest dictates, but they are hardly in a position to serve as judges of the morality of anything.

Europe is currently struggling with its own historical anti-Semitism, particularly in France, and with growing numbers of angry and unassimilated Muslims in their midst. Their anti-Israeli sentiments seem far more related to these issues than to an objective assessment of what Israel is actually doing in Gaza. Why should Israel or the US pay any attention at all to what Europeans think?

My final issue is over the term “self-defense.” In both municipal law and international law, self-defense is an inherent right to commit violence against aggressor who is posing an imminent threat to life or limb. The person or country asserting a right of self-defense has an obligation to take reasonable precautions to avoid harm to innocent bystanders. The right to survive, however, grants the self-defender wide latitude in choice of means. To people like President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and the Europeans, however, Israeli “self-defense” seems to require that no innocent civilians be hurt under any circumstances. In other words, Israel has a right to survive, but only if it can do so without hurting anyone.

This has never been an accepted principle. In fact, during World War II, the United States and Britain argued quite explicitly that the right of self-defense included the right to inflict massive damage on the enemy’s infrastructure, including not only military installations, but factories, railroads, power generation and residential communities. We further argued that enemy civilian deaths were a regrettable, but acceptable side effect of winning the war, since the consequences of losing would have been catastrophic.

Israel’s efforts to save civilian lives have been extraordinary, from text-messaging and leaflets to “door-knocker” explosives designed warn Gazans of impending attacks. Gaza has a population of about 1.8 million, and about 1,800 civilians have reportedly died in the most recent fighting. In other words, despite bitter fighting in a dense urban environment, 99.9% of Gaza’s civilian population has been spared. By comparison, Germany suffered 2-3% civilian casualties during World War II.

It’s clear that civilian deaths in Gaza would have been substantially lower than even these small numbers had Hamas not encouraged and/or forced Gazan civilians to remain in the line of fire, even when given advance warnings of specific attacks. Who then takes the blame?

We have an analogy for this situation in US municipal law. Let’s say two people rob a bank, take hostages and come out of the bank with automatic weapons blazing at the police. The police are obligated to take reasonable precautions to avoid shooting hostages or bystanders, but their primary obligation is to stop the bank robbers. Otherwise, they are providing potential criminals with a template for getting away with crimes. Under federal law, and the laws of most states, the bank robbers can be charged with second-degree murder if a police officer shoots a bystander during the incident. Why? Because the law reasonably argues that the bank robbers, not the police officer, started the chain of events which led to the bystander’s death and are therefore responsible for the consequences. This seems to me to be the correct analogy in Gaza. Hamas is the instigator of the war and therefore bears the responsibility for all the consequences that follow, provided only that Israel exercise reasonable care with civilian lives, which it has clearly done.

The situation in the Middle East is critical. We have one and only one true ally in the region – Israel. We need to keep a clear focus on what’s actually happening there and not get diverted by the sloppy use of language and the distortion of logic. Describing the situation as a “cycle of violence”, demanding European approval and redefining the concept of self-defense just muddy the waters. What we need is a clear policy of destroying Hamas, just as we destroyed the Nazis. Nobody wanted a cease-fire in Europe in 1944, and we shouldn’t want one in Gaza now.

Posted by: bmeverett | July 21, 2014

Everett-Moomaw Climate Change Debate

On July 15, my friend and colleague Bill Moomaw and I debated climate change before the Fletcher School’s GMAP students. GMAP is a distance-learning degree program, but the students come together for two weeks at the end of the program for discussions and presentations.

Bill’s positions and mine haven’t really changed much over the last few years, although the audience is different each time. There’s no systematic way of gauging the results of the debate or the reactions of the audience, but here’s a run-down of what happened.

We agreed to address three component parts of the issue.

The first topic was the state of climate science. Bill offered three arguments: (a) physics itself tells us that expected levels of carbon emissions will cause a catastrophic greenhouse effect, (b) scientists all agree, as evidenced by a complete review of the literature and (c) recent reports, such as the National Climate Assessment, reinforce this consensus. In reply, I argued that: (a) the press portrays the discussion as “Is climate change real?”, while in fact the real problem is whether climate science can make any meaningful predictions, (b) the climate system is too complex and poorly understood to predict catastrophe (or any particular outcome for that matter) with any confidence and (c) science requires empirical support, not consensus.

The second topic was the cost of carbon mitigation. I argued that there are some cheap carbon mitigation measures, like planting trees, but that the easy steps are too small to matter. To bring about the massive emissions reductions demanded by climate activists would entail major damage to the economy. Bill argued that significant carbon reductions are possible at low cost. He offered as an example his fossil fuel-free house in Williamstown, Massachusetts which uses solar and other technologies for heating and cooling and has provided him with an exceptional return on his investment. He also noted the major substitution of natural gas for coal which has occurred without any major economic dislocations. In rebuttal, I noted that his house was heavily subsidized by the rest of us, who did not share in the benefits, and, furthermore, that natural gas substitution has occurred because gas-fired power plants are cheaper than coal to build and operate. Solar and wind, on the other hand, are much more expensive.

The final topic was what to do. Bill offered the usual climate program of renewable energy, efficient buildings and international negotiations to bring other countries on board. I argued in contrast that the steps he is proposing would have virtually no impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations and that the worst outcome would be to spend massive amounts of money for no results. I suggested that an honest assessment of the costs of stabilizing atmospheric carbon would show a prohibitive cost.

Here are the charts I used in my presentation. Comments welcome, as always.

Climate change debate 7-15-2014 combined

Posted by: bmeverett | June 24, 2014

Fracking and Earthquakes

The May 1 edition of Time magazine included an article by Bryan Walsh entitled “The Seismic Link Between Fracking and Earthquakes”. The first line of the story claims “New research indicates that wastewater disposal wells—and sometimes fracking itself—can induce earthquakes.” Pretty scary, right? Later in the article, Mr. Walsh notes that “Environmentalists who seek to block shale oil development in the Golden State [California] have seized on fears of fracking-induced quakes, and a bill in the state legislature would establish a moratorium on fracking until research shows it can be done safely.” Is this really prudent?

First, a little background. Earthquakes are conventionally measured according to the Richter Scale, which was developed in the 1930s by Charles Francis Richter and which measures the amplitude of the seismic wave generated by the earthquake, in other words the displacement of the earth. Richter set the zero point of the scale at the smallest disturbance that instruments could record at the time. The strongest earthquakes ever recorded, such as the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the 1964 Alaskan earthquake or the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile, measured between 9 and 10 on the Richter scale. The Richter Scale, however, is logarithmic. In other words, the wave amplitude of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake is 10 times the amplitude of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, which in turn is 10 times the amplitude of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and so on. The total energy released by the earthquake varies with the 1.5th power of the amplitude of the wave. Therefore, a magnitude 9.0 quake involves an energy release 31.6 times (10 to the 1.5th) that of an 8.0 quake. Bear in mind that this energy release does not occur at the surface like a bomb, but deep underground. Much of the energy is dissipated downward into the Earth’s crust.

This definition creates an extremely wide scale for measuring earthquakes. For example, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake releases a trillion times as much energy as a magnitude 1.0 earthquake. Here’s a brief guide to the earthquake scale.

The magnitude 9.5 Tohoku Earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 resulted from a shift in the tectonic plate about 40 miles offshore at a depth of nearly 20 miles below the sea floor. The severe shaking and the massive tsunami that followed killed 15,000 people, destroyed over 100,000 buildings and damaged another million or so, including several nuclear power plants. This event was a true catastrophe, but it required an energy release of about 2.5 billion tons of TNT – equivalent to detonating a substantial share of the US thermonuclear arsenal all at once.

The magnitude 8.0 earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906 released the energy of a single large thermonuclear weapon. This event was severe, but the devastation resulted as much from the poor quality construction of the city’s buildings and massive fires as from the quake itself.

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti measured 7.0 on the scale, killing over 100,000 people and destroying the flimsy infrastructure of much of the country. The energy release of this quake was about 500,000 tons of TNT –equivalent to a small thermonuclear bomb. In addition to the poor quality of buildings and overcrowding of the populace, the damage was intensified by the proximity of the epicenter, which was only 16 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince and only 8 miles underground.

In August, 2011 a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit the Washington DC area. This was one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit the US east of the Rocky Mountains, and involved an energy release of about 15,000 tons of TNT – about the size of the Hiroshima bomb. There were no casualties and only a modest amount of property damage – including cracks in the Washington Monument that closed the structure for nearly three years.

So far, we are discussing events that can, under some circumstances, cause serious damage and loss of life, particularly in crowded areas. Smaller earthquakes, however, are rarely so serious.

Quebec and Ontario suffered a magnitude 5.0 quake on June 23, 2010. The quake, equivalent to the detonation of 500 tons of high explosive, had an epicenter about 35 miles from Ottawa at a depth of about 10 miles. Although the effect was felt for hundreds of miles, there were no casualties and little property damage other than a few cracked windows. Most of the disruption caused by the earthquake resulted from indirect effects such as closing schools, suspending public transportation for inspections and overloaded phone lines.

I personally experienced two magnitude 5.0 earthquakes in Los Angeles. In both cases, the effects were so subtle that they were difficult to perceive. In one case, we were on the 11th floor of a hotel, which seemed to sway slightly. People on the first floor of the structure were unaware that anything at all had happened. In the other case, our door latch rattled a bit, which I originally attributed to the wind blowing through the window.

Magnitude 4.0 quakes involve an energy release equivalent to about 15 tons of TNT – about the size of the largest conventional bomb dropped in World War II. Such quakes are fairly common. For example, the world experiences on average one earthquake each year of magnitude 8.0 or higher and about 10,000 per year between magnitude 4.0 and 4.9. When such quakes occur in the US, the press generally reports that the local population was aware of the quake and occasionally frightened by the sensation, but that there were no casualties or property damage.

A magnitude 3.0 earthquake is generally described by those who feel it as similar to a heavy truck driving by. Indoor objects can rattle a bit near the quake’s epicenter, but people outdoors rarely notice the effect at all.

A magnitude 2.0 earthquake involves an energy release equivalent to about 15 kilograms (35 pounds) of heavy explosive, set off underground. Except for people directly above the epicenter of a very shallow event, most people would be completely unaware of an earthquake of this size. As a good benchmark, Seattle fans cheered, shouted and stomped their feet when the Seahawks beat the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football last December. The activity was measured as a Magnitude 2.0 earthquake on the University of Washington seismograph.

A magnitude 1.0 quake is equivalent to the detonation of a stick of dynamite several thousand feet underground. Only under unusual circumstances would anyone be aware of such an event, which could be recorded only on a sensitive instrument. The Los Angeles Earthquake Tracker (which you can find at http://earthquaketrack.com/v/la/recent) generally records about 7 earthquakes in the 1.0-2.0 range every single day.

The zero point on the scale, as established by Richter, is defined as a wave amplitude of one micron (one millionth of a meter) at a distance of 100 kilometers from the event. The energy required for such an event is equivalent to a box of kitchen matches ignited several miles underground.

Using the term “earthquake” without qualification is equivalent to using the term “rainstorm” to describe everything from a sprinkle to Hurricane Sandy. We therefore need to be careful and precise when we discuss the effects of fracking. We should also remember that we are discussing the effects not of hydraulic fracturing itself, but of the reinjection into the ground of the waste water used in hydraulic fracturing.

A number of news outlets, including NBC News, have run stories over the last few months about a possible linkage between earthquakes and waste water injection in Ohio. The strongest earthquake under evaluation was a magnitude 3.9 quake near Youngstown. Based on the scale outlined above, such an event should be classified as perceptible but harmless. Most “quakes” attributed to fracking are in the 1.0-2.0 range. According to the Time article, “In Ohio, officials this month established new guidelines that would allow regulators to halt active hydraulic fracturing if seismic monitors detect a quake with a magnitude of 1.0 or higher.” State governments of course have a responsibility to look after the public welfare. It seems to me, however, that the proper metric is whether fracking causes injury and damage, not whether it causes disturbances that can only be perceived by sensitive instruments. If we are going to regard such events as serious enough to require policy intervention, then we had better be prepared to regulate football fans and the UPS truck driving through your neighborhood.

Perhaps the real point here can be found in the proposed California moratorium on fracking “until research shows it can be done safely.” This bill is typical of the approach environmentalists often use to oppose things they don’t like. Often called “the precautionary principle”, the idea is that nothing should be permitted until proven safe. Sounds fair, but nothing can actually be proven safe. Things can be proven dangerous through a single example of harm directly related to the thing under evaluation. Even hundreds of examples of safe water injection, however, don’t prove that the next case won’t cause a problem. Companies should be allowed to produce natural gas, and mineral rights owners should be allowed to profit from those rights, unless and until a clear threat to public safety has been demonstrated. Otherwise, we will never do anything.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 12, 2014

President Obama’s 1% Solution

President Obama claims that he is now putting in place the first serious US policy to combat global climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants by 30% by the year 2030 compared to the 2005 level. Let’s consider whether that claim has merit.

First, let’s dispense with a couple of bad arguments. Calling the President’s policy a “war on coal” or a “job killer” isn’t helpful. The President’s premise is that climate change poses an existential threat to human civilization, and therefore carbon reductions are necessary. As I have discussed often in this space, this premise is arguable, but let’s stipulate that the President is correct on this point and see if his actions will really help the cause he espouses.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the American electric power sector emitted 2,417 million metric tonnes (mmt) of carbon dioxide in 2005. A 30% reduction would give us an allowable level of 1,692 mmt in 2030. Note once again, the careful selection of a convenient base year. By 2013, US power plant emissions had already declined to 2,053 mmt – a 15% reduction due mainly to the market substitution of natural gas for coal. The EIA projects that, without the President’s new initiative, power plant emissions will begin to rise again, reaching 2,227 mmt by 2030. The President is therefore promising a reduction of 535 mmt (2,227 minus 1,692) or 24% compared to the level expected without the President’s new policy.

How significant is this step? According to the EIA, without the new policy, total US carbon emissions from all sectors are projected to be 5,527 mmt in 2030. The anticipated reduction of 535 mmt is therefore roughly 10%. Climate change, however, is a global phenomenon. Unlike air pollution, which can often be controlled at the local level, the atmosphere does not care where the carbon is emitted. The EIA projects total global carbon dioxide emissions at 41,464 mmt in 2030. President Obama’s power plant proposal would therefore reduce global carbon emissions by just over 1%. As discussed often in this space, the real carbon problem is China, not the US. Even substantial reductions in US emissions would be insufficient to affect atmospheric carbon concentrations on a global scale.

Why would the President make such a modest proposal with such massive fanfare? After all, 1 1% reduction is nothing more than a rounding error. My guess is that the President is targeting three groups.

The first is “low information voters” who don’t pay much attention to politics. The hope is that some of these people will say, “I’ve heard that climate change is a problem, and the President seems to be doing something about it. Good for him.” Personally, I doubt that there are very many people like this, but the White House is probably counting on the fact that many people don’t have the time or interest to look into the issue enough to understand that the President’s proposal is inconsequential.

The second group is “lifestyle” environmentalists who believe that reducing their carbon footprint is an act of civic responsibility, like picking up your trash. These are people who feel a moral commitment to fighting climate change by driving a Prius, using compact fluorescent light bulbs, keeping their thermostat low, buying carbon “offsets”, installing solar panels and supporting municipal wind turbines, but don’t necessarily bother to calculate the actual impact of proposed policies on atmospheric carbon concentrations. In this sense, their actions are aesthetic rather than practical.

There is, however, a third group of more thoughtful and analytical climate activists who do understand the numbers and the likely impacts of various policy measures. Why would these people applaud the President’s 1% solution? The answer was outlined clearly by former Princeton Professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in his June 5 column entitled “The Climate Domino”. Prof. Krugman sees the President’s proposal not as a solution in and of itself but as a catalyst for three-stage global action that could lead to a true solution to the climate change issue.

Stage 1 is the President’s policy. Stage 2, according to prof. Krugman, works as follows, “…it’s fairly certain that action in the U.S. would lead to corresponding action in Europe and Japan.” Stage 3 involves the US, Europe and Japan putting the screws to China. Prof. Krugman claims that “China is enormously dependent on access to advanced-country markets — a lot of the coal it burns can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to its export business — and it knows that it would put this access at risk if it refused to play any role in protecting the planet.” Hence, according to Prof. Krugman, the President’s program can leverage a real solution to the problem.

His Stage 2 and Stage 3 assertions are highly questionable. It’s difficult to argue that Europe has been waiting for American leadership on climate change. The European Union, after all, went ahead and implemented the 1997 Kyoto Protocol even after the US refused to ratify it. Kyoto was an exercise in smoke and mirrors which allowed Europe to claim complete success in meeting their treaty obligations without actually reducing carbon emissions. (For more detail on this farce, see my post “Europe’s Big Lie” of November 18, 2009). Europe then instituted a carbon trading scheme with caps so loose that carbon prices have fallen to laughably low levels. The closing price on June 11 was 5.39 Euros per metric tonne, equivalent to about 7¢ on a gallon of gasoline and hardly sufficient to induce much energy efficiency or technological innovation. German imports of US steam coal have more than quadrupled in the last four years as Germany has begun closing its low-carbon nuclear plants and has discovered that renewable energy cannot fill the gap.

The only reasonable explanation for European behavior is that EU governments are trying to satisfy their environmental constituents without damaging their already weak economies. In a battle between economic growth and environmental symbolism, the economy will always win. Otherwise, elected officials in Europe would find themselves looking for new jobs.

OK, but what if Prof. Krugman is right, and the Europeans rally to the cause? “Corresponding action” by Europe and Japan would presumably mean the same 10% reduction in emissions versus the level expected in 2030. The EIA estimates 2030 carbon dioxide emissions at 4,151 mmt in Europe and 1,215 mmt in Japan. A 10% reduction would therefore be 415 mmt for Europe and 122 mmt for Japan. Added to the 535 from the US, the total reduction would be 1,072 mmt or 2.6% of total global emissions. Still not much to brag about, but what about Stage 3, the full court press on China?

The idea of the US, Europe and Japan pressuring China is a little far-fetched. Vladimir Putin’s drive to dismantle Ukraine poses a serious threat to western security interests. There’s no argument about its “scientific basis” or its potential implications. Furthermore, the threat is greater for Europe than for the US. Even so, the US cannot get Europe to agree on more than weak, symbolic “sanctions” against a few Russian oligarchs. Why? Because Europe relies too heavily on Russian energy imports and is not willing to rock the boat in the face of weak economic growth. Why would we expect Europe to threaten severe economic sanctions on China, which is a larger trading partner than Russia, when the nature of the threat is not even clear? Seems most unlikely, but, again, let’s assume that Prof. Krugman is right. What happens then?

Chinese President Xi Jinping could cave to this pressure and offer to cut his emissions by the same amount as the US and Europeans – 10%. China’s projected 2030 emissions are 14,028 mmt, so their reduction would be 1,403 mmt. Total emissions reductions by the US, Europe, Japan and China in 2030 would thus be 2,475 mmt – about 6% of the global total of 41,464 mmt.

Most climate activists believe that substantial reductions in global carbon emissions are needed to forestall catastrophic climate change. The figure of 80% by 2050 is often thrown around. The year 2050 is politically useful because few if any of today’s senior politicians will still be in office then, so they can’t be held accountable for failing to meet their target. If we are to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050, however, shouldn’t we be showing at least a little progress by 2030? Prof. Krugman’s analysis suggests that global emissions will increase from roughly 32,700 today to 39,000 in 2030 – a 19% increase – rather than the 27% increase without the President’s policy. Instead of achieving an 80% reduction over 36 years (2014 to 2050), we would then have to achieve an 83% reduction over just 20 years (2030 to 2050).

Prof. Krugman claims that “The new carbon policy, then, is supposed to be the beginning, not the end, a domino that, once pushed over, should start a chain reaction that leads, finally, to global steps to limit climate change.” Really?

There’s one last issue here: cost. Some of the reduction in coal use may be achieved anyway through market forces, since natural gas is likely to be less expensive than coal for new power plants for the foreseeable future. The President’s proposed reduction, however, would rely heavily on regulatory (read expensive) actions that would raise electricity bills for consumers and businesses. The US Chamber of Commerce has estimated the cost to the US economy at $50 billion per year through 2030. With about 115 million households in the US, the total cost of the President’s program would be about $7,000 per households ($50 billion times 16 years divided by 115 million).

Prof. Krugman doesn’t dispute the Chamber’s conclusions, but says in a May 29 column entitled “Cutting back on Carbon” that “Remember, we have a $17 trillion economy right now, and it’s going to grow over time. So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!”

$7,000 per household might be cheap if the result were a definitive solution to a real and well understood problem. Given the uncertainties over climate science and the heroic assumptions that Prof. Krugman has to make to make the numbers work, the President’s program looks like nothing more than an expensive Hail Mary pass.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 4, 2014

A Despicable Ad from the American Lung Association

The climate change debate just hit a new low with the latest ad from the American Lung Association, which you can find at:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/04/american-lung-association-carbon-rules-ads_n_5441997.html?utm_hp_ref=politics

Some climate activists argue that anthropogenic climate change will create public health problems, such as an increased incidence of insect-borne diseases and heat stroke. This argument may or may not be true, but in any case, these effects are indirect results of carbon emissions. The ALA ad suggests that carbon is a form of pollution analogous to arsenic, lead or mercury and that “unlimited carbon” will poison the air your baby breathes. This is factually incorrect. Carbon dioxide levels in your baby’s nursery could increase dramatically without any effect whatsoever on your baby’s health.

This ad is way beyond misleading, and the American Lung Association should be ashamed of themselves.

Posted by: bmeverett | June 2, 2014

Friedman Watch 6-2-14

Everyone holds some views which are more or less contradictory, and struggling to reconcile those views is a constructive and intellectually important part of life. The right starting point for this process is recognizing that your views do conflict and avoiding the trap of forcing them to fit together when they really don’t. Thomas Friedman has been struggling for a very long time with his mutually exclusive opinions on democracy and totalitarianism and writes periodic columns attempting to reconcile these ideas. I first pointed this out in my post of January 17, 2010 in which he expressed admiration for the Chinese leadership who can spend their time doing the right things instead of worrying about getting elected. Mr. Friedman is at it again in his May 24, 2014 New York Times column entitled “Memorial Day 2050.”

In this piece, Mr. Friedman bemoans the fact that the American public is insufficiently motivated to follow his advice on climate change because they are “skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life”. Heaven forbid that voters be skeptical of a pundit who instructs them on what to believe. Mr. Friedman is overjoyed to have found a new and creative solution to this problem in the form of a recommendation by a young Dutch philosopher named Thomas Wells. Mr. Wells is a post-doc fellow at Erasmus University in Rotterdam who suggests that a certain bloc of votes, say 10%, be reserved for “trustees” who would take the interest of future generations into account in the democratic process. According to Mr. Wells, those interests include “decarbonizing the economy” and the trustees would be “nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks”. In other words, the Ford Foundation and Friends of the Earth get extra votes to offset the provincialism and short-term bias of the peasantry, who could care less about their children and grandchildren.

Apart from the oxymoron of non-partisan think tanks with voting power and the absurdity of charging environmental organizations with understanding the future (cf. the population bomb, acid rain, global cooling, The Silent Spring, alar, ethanol, etc.), the logical problems with this line of thinking should be obvious. Mr. Friedman starts out with the premise that he has acquired some eternal truths, particularly the link between fossil fuels and catastrophic climate change. He has thought these issues through and is absolutely convinced of the correctness of his thinking. Therefore, by definition, people who disagree with him must be flawed in some way. They are perhaps not very bright or motivated by selfish considerations or, in Mr. Friedman’s latest criticism, “preoccupied with the demands of daily life” and therefore unable to think clearly. This is the root premise of totalitarianism.

Lenin was the first to put into practice the idea of a small group of right-thinking people (The Vanguard of the Proletariat) seizing power and exercising it on behalf of the people. Since the people had limited consciousness (“clueless” in today’s parlance), smart people would rule in such a way that the broad masses would eventually enjoy utopia and be grateful. The first task for the vanguard, of course, was to eliminate the people’s enemies, and somehow those in power never got beyond that stage.

Democracy, however, is a powerful moral idea, and even Lenin was careful to create a veneer of democracy. He spoke of “democratic centralism”, i.e., a system in which anyone could voice his opinion until Lenin had made up his mind. Then everyone had to shut up and do as they were told. Lenin’s state was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. China is called the People’s Republic of China. Iran is called the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and not the Pitiless Dictatorship of Kim Jong Un.

Virtually all countries try to present a democratic face to the world. Iran, for example, holds periodic elections, but only among candidates pre-approved by the unelected rulers. The idea is that people should be free to choose, but only within a narrowly defined range of possible outcomes. This seems to be exactly what Mr. Friedman has in mind. Americans should be allowed to vote, but certain outcomes, i.e., decarbonization of the economy, should not be at issue. If, for example, the American electorate is divided 50/50 on what to do about climate change, the 10% special voting rights for right-thinking people would create the proper majority. What would happen if 90% of the population voted against Mr. Friedman’s views of appropriate climate change action is not clear.

I suspect that if you had asked Lenin privately, he would have admitted he had no interest in democracy, which he regarded as purely tactical. He wanted certain outcomes from the political process, and he was bound and determined to get them one way or another. It seems to me that it’s time for Mr. Friedman to abandon his effort to have it both ways. He really doesn’t believe in democracy. He believes in getting his way. A statement to that effect would at least have the virtue of honesty, something sorely lacking in “Memorial Day 2050”.

Posted by: bmeverett | May 19, 2014

More on Carbon Reporting

On May 3, I posted an extensive comment I offered to a discussion paper prepared by the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB). The comment prompted an email exchange with Dr. Jarlath Molloy, the Technical Manager of the CDSB. I’ve copied the exchange here for my readers. To me, Dr. Molloy’s commentary demonstrates the difficulty of having a constructive exchange of views on climate change, but you can make up your own mind.

May 6, 2014
To Bruce Everett
I note your recent comment on our proposals for reporting on Carbon Asset Stranding Risks. I have moderated the comment, given the nature of your post.
You specifically ask “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?” You can simply say just that in a comment in the same section.
Regards,
Jarlath Molloy

May 6, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Hope you are well. I’m not sure I understand your email. Are you saying that you would like to replace my extensive comment with the simple, one-line question “What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference?”?
Regards,
Bruce Everett

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
To clarify, we will review and consider your comment in the normal way once the consultation is complete. If you want to engage constructively and/or establish a discussion on the merits of the text, I suggest you keep your contribution concise and on-topic. Anything else will be moderated.
Regards,
Jarlath

May 7, 2014
Good morning, Jarlath-
Thanks for the clarification. I would certainly disagree that my comments were either off-topic or not constructive, but, under the circumstances, I withdraw my comment.
You have offered a 10,000-word discussion paper that makes comprehensive and highly debatable assertions. If you want to have a true discussion about these important issues, you need to allow your commenters the opportunity to make an equally comprehensive reply. You cannot have a debate in which one side gets 30 minutes to present and the other side gets 10 seconds to respond.
Best regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Dear Bruce,
Perhaps you have misunderstood my previous email. If you believe that there are highly debatable assertions in the text, the consultation platform is specifically designed to allow users highlight, review and comment on these.
We welcome all comment and my earlier suggestion was that to get the most out of the process, you should avoid long comments dealing with multiple issues, as they are less likely to be considered by other users.
The consultation platform has worked very well for other organisations and we encourage you to look again and be a little more specific in your review.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Climate change is a complex topic and doesn’t lend itself to a set of short, disjointed comments. For example, your discussion paper starts out with the assertions that there is a 2 degree C permissible temperature increase, that we know how much carbon would cause such an increase and that we therefore know what the allowable “carbon budget” is. Those statements determine how to evaluate CASRs and what fossil fuel companies should do in response. A comment such as “I disagree with this.” is not useful to the conversation.
The only useful response is to make a complete and interconnected argument, which is what I have attempted to do. I have offered a comment, which lays out the argument as I see it. I can’t see how my comment is either unconstructive or off-topic, but it’s up to you whether to accept it or not.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
To reconfirm, it is not the case that your comment was accepted/rejected. Like all comments, it will receive due consideration at the review stage. It did not fit the parameters of the consultation platform and what we are trying to achieve with it, so it is just no longer visible there. It will be made public in the same way as all others, at the end of the process.
Our experience with the recent GHGMI review of the ISO standards (using this consultation platform) was that users were quite able to review and comment on lengthy documents, adding supporting / dissenting opinions with appropriate justifications, as appropriate.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 7, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
Maybe we are just misunderstanding each other. Your initial email suggested that my comment was non-constructive and off-topic and would therefore be “moderated.” I have my own Blog, and I understand that “comment moderation” is a way of eliminating spam and inappropriate (hateful, profane, etc.) commentary. Nobody wants a serious discussion filled with “Buy cheap Canadian pharmaceuticals now!”. I interpreted your email as saying that I should either extensively rework my comment or it would be rejected. If that’s incorrect, what did you mean by “moderate”? Did you mean that you would edit my comment? Surely not.
I understand that many documents are worked in the way you prefer. It’s a useful technique to get from 90% agreement to 100% agreement, when all the basic terms of reference and key arguments are agreed among the participants. Although the Climate Community (and your discussion paper) claim that this is true for climate change, it is not. Hence the need for more extensive and comprehensive commentary.
I know you are very busy, and I don’t want to take up more of your time. I have offered you a comment, which I regard as relevant and constructive. Please use it as you wish.
Regards,
Bruce

May 7, 2014
Hi Bruce,
Yes perhaps moderate was a poor choice of phrase. It might be more accurate to say my intention is to actively manage the process to ensure we make the most of the opportunity to establish a dialogue on the specifics in the text. This is entirely separate to longer submissions which we also welcome on/offline.
Your claim of a lack of consensus is not supported by the evidence; see Cook et al. 2013 and Oreskes 2004 for two journal articles which spring to mind. The discussion paper highlights just a small number of the many growing calls for this issue to be addressed, by leaders in the global financial and investment area. You are entitled to disagree with the international expert consensus on these issues, but I didn’t notice any evidence cited to the contrary in your comment.
I now regard this query as closed.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
As noted, I have made my comment, and you are free to use it or not as you wish.
Not so fast, however, on your second paragraph. First of all, scientific issues are not resolved by expert consensus. Science concerns the testing of hypotheses against empirical evidence, not asking scientists to express their opinions. The catastrophic climate scenarios, the 2 degree “limit” and the “carbon budget” are based on computer models that do not match the empirical evidence and have never been able to predict anything. As Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman once said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
The two sources you cite don’t help your point. Naomi Oreskes’ essay is first of all 10 years old. Second, she reviewed papers to measure their conformity with “the scientific consensus” without being clear about what that meant. Was the consensus that some warming is anthropogenic? Most warming? All warming? Was the consensus that future warming will be catastrophic? Might be catastrophic?
Cook’s study did not meet even the minimal conditions for sound analysis. His team reviewed the abstracts of about 2,000 journal articles on climate. Without actually asking the authors, he deduced from the abstracts whether the authors agreed with the assertion that observed warming was primarily caused by human activity. He included in his 97% consensus (1) the articles which explicitly stated that humans are the primary cause of warming, (2) the articles that stated that human activity caused some warming without saying how much and (3) the articles that implied that human activity caused some warming without saying how much. It turns out that most of the articles in the 97% were in category (3). This of course does not even address the issue of whether future warming will be catastrophic, a conclusion that requires additional major and questionable assumptions.
I think your comment made the point that these issues cannot be addressed by short, pithy sentences.
Regards,
Bruce

May 8, 2014
Hi Bruce,
A quote from Upton Sinclair has been in my mind in recent days when reading your emails: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” I don’t expect that your views will change in response to anything I might say, even if I highlight the relevancy of the precautionary principle. However, I find the means by which you articulate those views as somewhat puerile. For one thing, generalising the entire “Climate Community” – and by this I take it you include all those working on climate science, impacts, adaptation, mitigation, as well as those focused on various related policy issues – is quite vacuous. Indeed, comparing the climate community to an ill-informed and misguided anti-vaccination campaign is illogical.
As entertaining as all this is, unfortunately it is not my day-job to critique your straw man arguments.
Regards,
Jarlath.

May 8, 2014
Hi, Jarlath-
I’m disappointed that you would turn an exchange of views into a personal attack. You do not know me and have no basis to question my motivations or my integrity.
In response to your points, I use the term “Climate Community” to denote people who believe that catastrophic climate change is likely without a major restructuring of the global economy. This term is not pejorative in any sense, and I use it only because most of the people I know who hold that view use that term to describe themselves. I avoid at all cost emotionally charged terms like “climate alarmists” or “climate extremists”, since I respect the people who disagree with me.
Second, I never compared the Climate Community to the anti-vaccine crowd. I was using an analogy to raise the question of how corporations should properly respond when asked to report on a risk that they do not regard as serious. It seems to me that this issue is critical to the discussion you are promoting.
Regards,
Bruce

Posted by: bmeverett | May 14, 2014

Another Bad Climate Study

With great fanfare, President Obama announced last week the release of the third National Climate Assessment (NCA), a periodic report required by law under the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The White House called the report “the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change and its impacts across every region of America and major sectors of the U.S. economy.” The climate chorus naturally echoed the refrain. The New York Times ran a front page headline, “U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods.” ABC News says, “Fed Report Says Climate Change ‘Has Moved Firmly Into the Present’”. If you Google “National Climate Assessment”, you’ll get 118,000,000 hits.

Far from being a fresh look at climate change, the report is just a tired rehash of all the old climate arguments. The Climate Community will love it, but nobody interested in climate change will learn anything new. For future reference, there should be three no-no’s for climate reports: (1) calling its conclusions definitive because it was written by scientists, (2) claiming that any meteorological event off the trend line is clear evidence of impending catastrophe and (3) presenting climate model simulations as evidence. If you eliminate these three problem areas from the NCA, there’s nothing left.

Take no-no (1), for example. The New York Times article starts out “The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported…” The implication here is that scientists are united in their view and that non-scientists lack standing to object. The White House tried hard to reinforce this view by explaining that the report had been prepared by 300 experts overseen by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee. The report was subjected to extensive public review, etc.

Anyone who has participated in a study group understands the pitfalls. Somebody gets to decide who’s invited to participate and, more importantly, who’s not invited. Somebody gets to draft the report, and finally, somebody gets to decide which comments to incorporate and which to reject. Some studies are managed by people who try very hard to produce a high-quality report that advances our understanding of the issue. Others, however, are structured to produce a predetermined answer.

The study was chaired by Dr. Jerry Melillo, a Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and a Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr. Melillo is a scientist of the highest caliber with distinguished credentials and an important position at a prestigious institution. But (and this is a big BUT), he has for years expressed a clear position on climate change. For example, Dr. Melillo was the co-author of the 2009 report “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” At the press conference announcing the issuance of that report, Dr. Melillo stated, “It is clear that climate change is happening now. The observed climate changes we report are not opinions to be debated, they are facts to be reported.” Dr. Melillo has every right to state his view, but by doing so he has switched from scientist to political advocate. Scientists want to find the truth; political advocates want to win the debate. His appointment as Chair of the NCA determined from the outset what the report would say. To be clear, Dr. Melillo did nothing in any way unethical or unprofessional. He simply organized the work to show what he wanted to show. Does anyone believe that the NCA would have produced the same result under the chairmanship of Pat Michaels, Ross McKitrick or Stephen McIntyre?

Regarding no-no (2), the NCA’s portrayal of the current (and supposedly obvious) evidence of extreme weather events is an embarrassment. This problem persists in our climate change discussion for a couple of reasons. First, weather is a long-term phenomenon, and humans have very short data sets of personal experience. A bad winter may seem unusual, but who carries in his head enough data to determine how unusual it actually was? Second, extreme weather variability is the rule, not the exception.

DC snow stats

As an example, I’ve attached a chart showing annual snowfall in Washington, DC since 1888, when record-keeping started. Just a quick glance at the chart shows the enormous year-to-year variation and the difficulty of discerning a pattern. Snowfall in our nation’s capital has averaged 18.1 inches per winter, but the average annual variation from that average has been roughly 50%. There have been years when snowfall was nearly triple the average (2010 and 1899, for example) and years when there was virtually no snow at all (1973 and 1998). What are we to make of this?

All of the following statements are true.

1. 2010 was the highest winter snow accumulation in DC’s recorded history.
2. Three out of the five snowiest winters in the last 45 years occurred in the last 10 years.
3. Snowfall in the first 15 winters of the 21st century was 6% higher than in the last 15 winters of the 20th century.

However, the following statements are also true:

1. Three of the four snowiest decades in DC history were the 1890s, the 1900s and the 1910s.
2. DC snowfall over the last 50 years was 13% lower than snowfall in the prior 50 years.
3. So far, DC snowfall in the 21st century has been 14% less than snowfall in the 20th century, which was in turn 27% less than snowfall in the 19th century.

Since the data are all over the map, it’s easy to craft statements that support whatever position you wish. Extreme weather events occurred just as regularly a hundred years ago, before human greenhouse gas emissions became significant.

If I were to catalogue all the occurrences of this fallacy in the NCA, this post would be way too long, so let me give you one clear example. Page 41 of the report contains Key Message #8 “The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.” But we have data for Atlantic storms back to 1900, so why look at just the last 30 years rather than the whole data set? Furthermore, climate change is a global phenomenon, so why not look at hurricanes on a worldwide basis?

Worldwide, there were 318 hurricanes in the 1980s, 347 in the 1990s, 308 in the 2000s, and we are on track for 275 in the 2010s. See a pattern? I don’t.

There were 10 Category 4/5 North Atlantic storms in the 1980s, 14 in the 1990s and 23 in the 2000s, so the NCA’s statement about major storms is true, but I could say with equal validity that there have been no Category 5 storms in the last 6 years compared to 8 in the previous 6 years. Does this mean that severe storms are decreasing? If the high severe hurricane activity in the 2000s was in fact caused by human-induced climate change, what caused the high activity levels in the 1930s (16 Category 4/5 hurricanes) when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were much lower than they were today? What caused the drop in the 1970s (8 Category 4/5 storms) when atmospheric carbon levels were increasing?

In many ways, no-no (3) is the most troubling. The NCA frequently conflates statements about what is happening now with statements about what is predicted to happen in the future. Chapters 16-25 address regional impacts. The overall regional section starts out with the statement that “One common challenge facing every U.S. region is a new and dynamic set of realities resulting from our changing climate. The evidence can be found in every region, and impacts are visible in every state.” This theme was repeated extensively in the press. For example, US News and World Report states “[The NCA’s] main conclusion is that climate change is already here. Worse, its effects have arrived with a speed and severity that few thought possible.” Each regional chapter includes a series of “Key Messages”. Have a look at the Key Messages for the Northeast from page 372:

1. Heat waves, coastal flooding, and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems.
2. Infrastructure will be increasingly compromised by climate-related hazards, including sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events.
3. Agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised over the next century by climate change impacts.
4. While a majority of states and a rapidly growing number of municipalities have begun to incorporate the risk of climate change into their planning activities, implementation of adaptation measures is still at early stages.

All of these Key Messages are predictions of dire consequences in the future, not conditions that have already happened. The text includes some disjointed observations of actual climate events, but these observations are mixed in with predictions. The same is true for the Key Messages from the other regions.

Predictions are not evidence of anything, unless they are based on models which have a meaningful theoretical and empirical basis and a track record of success. We can predict with real accuracy what would happen if we drop a brick from the top of the Empire State Building because we understand not only how gravity works, but also the more subtle impacts of air pressure and wind. Climate models reflect our limited understanding of climate dynamics. These models will become a useful basis for policy when and only when they are able to make correct predictions. Furthermore, these predictions must be falsifiable. It’s meaningless to say that our model predicts extreme weather events, since we always have extreme weather events. The models would have to predict which extreme events would occur and where. So far, they can’t predict anything.

Nice try, but nothing new here.

Posted by: bmeverett | May 3, 2014

The Real Problem with Corporate Carbon Reporting

I recently received an email from a former student with a copy of a discussion paper by the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) on corporate carbon reporting and an invitation to comment. This is an important topic and deserves serious attention. We need to know more about the influence of human activity on climate and how corporations are addressing the issue. A good statistical database on carbon emission is essential, and most corporations, including fossil fuel producers, are already providing such data. So what else should companies report? Rather than encouraging an open discussion of how to report climate change risks, the CDSB discussion paper is just a rehash of the arguments predicting climate catastrophe and demanding radical action in response. This discussion can produce nothing serious without more open and realistic terms of reference.

The Executive Summary of the discussion paper starts by citing the IPCC’s conclusion “that warming of the climate system is ‘unequivocal’” and “that to have a 66% chance of limiting temperature rises to the internationally agreed 2°C target, cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources will have to be limited to 3,670 GtCO2; i.e. a global CO2 cap or budget.” These numbers are political fictions and scientifically meaningless. All we actually know about climate change is that there has been modest warming over the last 100 years and that some indeterminate part of that warming was caused by man-made carbon emissions. The catastrophic climate scenarios, the 2° C target, the 66% probability and the “carbon budget” are based on computer models that rely on questionable assumptions and have never been able to make useful predictions regarding the impact of human activity on climate. These terms of reference end the discussion before it starts.

What is the appropriate response for companies that reject these terms of reference? The recent case of ExxonMobil is illustrative. Most large publicly traded companies encounter shareholder proposals of various types at their annual meetings. Often these proposals are offered by activist groups or “ethical investment funds” that own shares in the company for the specific purpose of pursuing economic and social agendas rather than earning a return on their investment. In March of this year, Arjuna Capital, whose stated mission is “to advance the understanding of what sustainability means for investor returns and corporate profitability” requested that ExxonMobil issue a report on climate change and, in particular, on the risk to the corporation of stranded fossil fuel assets that the company would be unable to produce in a low carbon future. Much to the surprise of Arjuna and other activists, ExxonMobil agreed.

The ExxonMobil report, which you can find at http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/search?search=carbon%20report, makes the following arguments (my phrasing, not theirs!):
1. ExxonMobil regards climate change as an important issue.
2. Fossil fuels are critical to economic growth, which will be the primary driver of government policy.
3. Governments are likely to apply small carbon prices in the range of $20-$80 per metric tonne of carbon dioxide (equivalent to 18-70¢ per gallon of gasoline).
4. These relatively low carbon prices will encourage gradual improvements in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production, but are not large enough to imperil the fossil fuel industry.
5. Over time, the growth in global carbon emissions is likely to slow, reaching a peak around the year 2030 and declining thereafter.
6. The Corporation expects that none of its profitable fossil fuels assets will become stranded.

This seems like a perfectly reasonable story to me. Despite the desires of the Climate Community to eliminate fossil fuels, no government has ever indicated any inclination actually to do so. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the flagship accomplishment of international climate negotiations, was a clever web of loopholes and accounting tricks that allowed its signatories to meet their treaty obligations without any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The climate policies currently advocated by the Obama Administration, the Senate Democrats, the State of California, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and other programs are symbolic actions which would have no measurable impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations. In effect, governments around the world have simply been seeking to define a minimum climate program that will satisfy their environmental constituencies without further impeding the anemic economic growth the world is currently suffering. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate a change in this approach.

Although ExxonMobil did exactly what they were asked, Arjuna, the activist group that made the reporting demand, was still unhappy. Natasha Lamb, Director of Equity Research at Arjuna, wanted the Corporation “to explain what would happen if society did in fact adopt policies that would lead to sharply lower emissions, something known broadly as a low-carbon standard.”. This is a rather strange comment. Would it make sense to ask United Airlines to state to its investors that a government prohibition on air travel would strand all the Company’s assets and put them out of business? How about asking Microsoft to report on the consequences of a government ban on personal computers? What on Earth is the purpose of asking companies to report on the consequences of government actions that would put them out of business? The statement “Policies that would put me out of business would put me out of business” is a tautology.

The intent here is clearly to maneuver ExxonMobil into stating that the risk of governments’ mandating “sharply lower emissions” is high, thereby discouraging investors from buying ExxonMobil shares and depriving the Corporation of capital. The “divestment movement” is currently encouraging universities, mutual funds, pension funds and other financial institutions to divest their fossil fuel holdings. That is their right, but do they really expect the fossil fuel companies to cooperate?

Despite ExxonMobil’s failure to tow the line, the Climate Community has been spinning the company’s carbon report to the best of its ability. On December 13, for example, The New York Times claimed that “More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.” That statement is quite misleading. In fact, ExxonMobil predicted only that governments would impose a small price on carbon. A simple analysis would demonstrate that ExxonMobil’s assumed carbon price is nowhere near high enough to “control global warming”.

There’s an interesting analogy here in the anti-vaccine movement. In the mid-late 1990s, an eclectic group of people, including the trial lawyers, environmental guru Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and celebrities like actors Jenny McCarthy, Reese Witherspoon and Jim Carrey and radio host Don Imus and his wife Deirdre, argued that childhood vaccinations cause autism. The argument focused first on the preservative thimerosol, but then shifted to vaccines in general and other “toxic” components when the elimination of thimerisol failed to reduce the incidence of autism. The fire was fueled by a 1998 article in the prestigious British journal The Lancet, claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. Even though the study was completely discredited and retracted by the journal and even though its author lost his license to practice medicine, the controversy continues. Like the Climate Community, the anti-vaccination crowd believes passionately in the justness of its cause and has no patience with disbelievers or with contrary scientific evidence. If you want to get a sense of the emotional power of this debate, check out Deirdre Imus’s rant at http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/1546174739001/how-are-vaccines-linked-to-autism/#sp=show-clips (Skip the first four minutes of fluff). Some doctors are attributing the surprising resurgence of childhood measles to parents’ fears about these vaccines.

What should Merck tell its shareholders under these circumstances? Would you expect them to state that there is a real risk that a ban on the MMR vaccine would strand significant manufacturing or intellectual assets? A more reasonable statement would be (a) there is no proof of any link between vaccines and autism, (b) the benefits of childhood vaccination far outweigh the small number of allergic reactions and other side effects and (c) these vaccines are more than likely to remain in widespread use for the foreseeable future. Such a statement might outrage Mr. Kennedy, but it would seem like a responsible statement to most people.

Carbon reporting makes sense only as a means to better understand carbon emissions and to track what companies are doing to manage their carbon emissions. It will not be a useful exercise if its purpose is merely to score debating points.

The beatings will continue until the suspect confesses.

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.