Archive for February, 2009

Appointments Roundup

February 28th, 2009

Posted by: admin

A quick check to see how appointments to scientific and technical positions are proceeding:

OSTP: The full Senate vote on Dr. Holdren has not happened yet.  No particular reason outside of the budget focus of both houses of Congress.  As the House just passed the omnibus, and the continuing resolution expires on next Saturday, I don’t expect a confirmation until after this is resolved.  As the science adviser position does not require Senate confirmation, Dr. Holdren can work in that capacity while the OSTP confirmation is pending.

NOAA: No full Senate vote yet.  See above.

Organizations without an appointment for the top dog: NASA, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, NIH (and its parent Department, Health and Human Services), NIST.  The NIST and NIH openings have been there for a few months, but the NIH Director might be the most critical of the pending nominations.  You could make a case for most of the list, but with the NIH handling a huge amount of stimulus funding, it would be nice to have a Director in place who will be in the position for a while.

I also note the absence of a Chief Technology Officer, a new position President Obama promised to create.  The job also lacks a clear job description, which I would prefer to see prior to someone named to the post.  But action on this front of any kind is welcome, given the movements in many areas to increase the government’s use of technology in both functions and services.

Gore Echoes Prins/Rayner

February 28th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Al Gore appears to have adopted some language from a piece by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner titled The Wrong Trousers. For an long article on biochar (itslef interesting) in today’s FT:

Even if biochar does not fulfil all of the potential claimed for it, it could still make an important contribution. Al Gore, the former US vice-president and environmental campaigner, likes to point out that the search for a “silver bullet” to solve the problem of climate change has been a distraction. Instead, he argues, though there may be no silver bullet, “there is silver buckshot”. Only by bringing many different methods of cutting emissions or absorbing carbon to bear can we reduce atmospheric levels of carbon to within the limits of safety.

Biochar is another form of air capture of carbon dioxide. The Wrong Trousers by Prins/Rayner was published just over a year and can be found here.

Tim Flannery on Engaging Skeptics

February 28th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the FT today, Tim Flannery, an Australian activist and scientist, indicates that he has learned that the tactic of chasing skeptics around is a losing proposition. However, judging by the frenzied excitement over George Will this week, few others seem to agree. An excerpt, with emphasis added:

Apart from anything else, Flannery feels that talking one-to-one with a chief executive gives him greater leverage than delivering media-friendly sound bites. “There’s only so much you can achieve through using the media. Quite often there’s no way you can develop an effective argument of the right [level of] intellectual integrity,” he says. Does he worry about being co-opted by money and power? “I suppose there’s always a risk of that,” he says. “But I try to keep a strong vision of what I do and operate within that framework.”

Back at the café in Sydney, Flannery had said his decision to focus on a business audience reflected a growing awareness that he needs to be more selective in the way he engages with the world. “I think I now understand a little bit better how to actually do something about the problem. It’s not the scattergun approach of dealing with every sceptic that turns up in the local papers or magazines – you waste your time chasing your tail doing that. If you can get business acceptance for the need for change, then you’ve really done something.

Please Stop Giving Chris Mooney Low-Hanging Fruit

February 27th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The stimulus legislation has provided fodder for that time honored tradition of targeting specific line items for their apparent ridiculousness.  While they can make for good sound bites and PR copy, frequently such items are actually of some use.

You’ve probably heard Governor Jindal, get roundly criticized on many points for his response to the President’s address earlier this week.  One of those was his criticism of the stimulus funding “volcano monitoring.”  Putting aside the fact that his cited figure for volcano monitoring was actually for all U.S. Geological Survey spending, there is the irony of the Governor of Louisiana arguing against a measure that would help mitigate a natural disaster.  But it also feeds the fire Mr. Mooney occasionally stokes about a Republican War on Science.  As his war downplays the notion that using science for political purposes is a universal trend – not a partisan one – such low-hanging fruit perpetuates an idea that causes more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, Governor Jindal’s example is not an isolated incident in the last 12 months.  Other recent examples:


Fifteen Years Too Early

February 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In 1994 I defended my dissertation, titled “Completing the Circle: Global Change Science and Usable Policy Information.” The dissertation was an evaluation of the ability of climate science research to deliver the useful information (as required by law) to decision makers. I argued that the way that the program was set up, it was likely to do very good science but fall well short of delivering much useful information for decision makers, for adaptation or mitigation.

Today ClimateWire reports that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has now come to the same conclusion in a new report, writing that the climate program:

has largely ignored how the shifting environment will affect society, creating an information vacuum at a time when cities, states and Congress are rushing to address global warming. . .

“What we need is a strong research program to support the sort of decisions we’re going to have to make in terms of society adapting to climate change,” said Christopher Justice, the University of Maryland geography professor who served as vice chairman of the committee that produced the new report.

Here are some references from back in the day:

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1994: Scientific Information and Global Change Policymaking. Climatic Change, 28, 315-319. (PDF)

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1995: Usable Information for Policy: An Appraisal of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Policy Sciences, 38, 39-77. (PDF)

and more recently:

Pielke, Jr., R. A. and D. Sarewitz, 2003. Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, pp. 27-30. (PDF)

Income Redistribution and Energy Consumption

February 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


The WSJ notes today of Obama’s cap and trade revenue generation plan that it is also highly redistributive:

A fundamental question is how the government will distribute the billions of dollars in revenue generated through a emissions trading system. Lawmakers from states dependent on coal and heavy manufacturing are expected to demand that more money go toward their constituents, since they will experience higher costs associated with the transition to low-carbon energy sources.

Mr. Obama’s aides say his plan would provide a refundable tax credit of up to $400 for working individuals and $800 for working families. The credits would phase out between $150,000 and $200,000 for a married couple, and between $75,000 and $100,000 for an individual.

“This is going to change the distribution of wealth potentially for a century,” said Dallas Burtraw, an economist at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

An astute Prometheus reader comments that such a redistribution could have the effect of increasing energy consumption:

It is not inconceivable in that case that the combination of relative “income” and “price” effects across the income spectrum in the US could lead to increased energy consumption. (just imagine what you might expect to happen if you took 5% of income from the top 10% of income and redistributed that among the lowest 10%. Energy consumption would almost certainly rise due to the income effect. If cross price elasticity for energy is low as you imply and I would agree, there would be little or no offsetting reduction from substitution.

Here is a quick graph of income versus energy use using 2001 EIA data (pdf), which is strongly suggestive that income redistribution will indeed lead to higher energy consumption.

Surely there is some good academic literature on the relationship of income and energy consumption in the United States, please offer pointers in the comments.

Exploring the FY09 Omnibus

February 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

While it might be overshadowed by the Obama Administration’s proposed FY 2010 budget, the House recently passed an omnibus bill to cover the rest of the current fiscal year’s budget.  The funding for most agencies this year is set to end late next week under the terms of the current continuing resolution.  The American Institute of Physics has been releasing breakdowns of the omnibus for various science and technology agencies, you can read them online (start with number 19).  You may notice that the final FY 2009 numbers for some agencies, or some components of agencies, show a decline from the Bush Administration’s requested FY 2009 amounts.  While it would be easy to chalk this up to the ongoing epic fail of non-biomedical science advocates to successfully persuade appropriators for increases, there are points worth noting:


Climate Revenue in the Budget

February 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Obama Administration has released its proposed FY2010 budget. In it, there is a tax increase called “climate revenue” which is identified in the budget as offsetting new spending on energy R&D and a middle class tax cut (details here in PDF). The tax increase is called “cap and trade” but its net effect will be to increase the costs of energy with the revenues raised added to the treasury. The notion that the climate revenue will go to a tax cut and energy R&D is of course just symbolic as that revenue could equally be identified to offset NASA spending, health care, or the military or anything else on the spending side. The positives about the plan are the investments in clean energy technologies, an investment which I, along with Chris Green suggested be funded by a low carbon tax.

To understand why the plan has little hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emisisons, consider this comment by White House spokeman Peter Orszag, as reported by Greenwire:

But White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag insisted that Obama’s budget takes into account projected increases in Americans’ energy bills as utilities pass on their compliance costs. The OMB chief said Obama’s cap-and-trade program would provide taxpayers with direct payments to help them cope with higher energy prices.

If (a) you raise the costs to utilities of providing energy, and (b) the utilities then pass those costs onto consumers, and (c) then the government gives people money to then help pay those increased costs, guess what is going to happen to consumer behavior? Just about nothing. Some might argue that consumers could become more efficient and save some money, and this is true, but consumers already could become more efficient today with the exact same incentive. Balancing cost increases with direct payments does nothing to alter this incentive.

More generally, as cap and trade legislation works its way through Congress you can fully expect a very loose cap to result because policy makers will never let it constrain GDP growth. So the cap will have loopholes and safety valves and other such back doors. What we will then have is a highly inefficient carbon tax, with lots or room for games and shenanigans (and making money for clever investors) in the carbon derivatives market. Only a subset of the new revenues will actually be going to clean energy technologies, the most important element of Obama’s climate policy, with the rest going into the general treasury. The plan will have very limited prospects for actually reducing emissions, unless the investments in energy technologies actually result in market-ready technological advances that change how energy is produced or consumed. Expecting large changes in technology by 2020 is a big gamble, but it must be what the Obama administration is betting on.

Fiscal Policy and Cap and Trade

February 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have long thought that for many politicians the most compelling reason for cap and trade legislation is not just an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but to tap a new source of revenue in an era where explicit tax increases are politically dangerous. The economic meltdown coupled with the large deficit spending, along with President Obama’s commitment to reduce the deficit make it more likely that cap and trade legislation will in fact be passed as a mechanism of revenue generation. Whether or not it will actually reduce emissions is a separate question. A story in today’s E&E Daily discusses this process, asking whether or not expected cap and trade revenues will appear in the Congressional budget resolution. Even though the resolution is non-binding, if the cap and trade revenue appears in it, then the commitment to cap and trade as a source of general government revenue will have been made. Here is an excerpt:

President Obama will submit a budget proposal to Congress today that urges it to plan for passage of a mandatory cap-and-trade program, raising questions about whether Democrats will push to include such revenue in the annual budget resolution.

Key Democrats and sources close to the administration confirmed Obama’s plan to submit a fiscal 2010 budget blueprint suggesting lawmakers make assumptions for new cap-and-trade revenue over the next five years as companies are forced to comply with the market-based system.

Obama administration officials have not provided exact details on the climate elements of the budget plan, though the president’s own speech Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress included a hint when he said his cap-and-trade plan would drive a $15-billion-a-year investment “to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.”

Government estimates from last year’s Senate climate debate suggested the permits from a cap-and-trade program could raise around $50 billion in the initial years of its operation and up to $300 billion a year by 2020.

On Capitol Hill, top Senate Democrats have been talking throughout the week about the climate funding expected in the Obama budget.

“I knew there was going to be an item in the budget that was revenues from cap and trade,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Tuesday night after Obama’s speech. “I have been very pleased about that for a few days”

“It’s in the president’s budget,” added Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “We’re going to have to have a discussion about it. It’s clearly by all reports in the president’s budget.”

Conrad and House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) will be key decisionmakers when it comes to writing the nonbinding fiscal 2010 budget resolution. Asked if he had included the funding assumptions for cap-and-trade, Conrad replied, “I learned a long time ago not to buy a pig in the poke. I want to see the details. And I want to understand fully how it affects the people I represent before I sign off on it.”

Lawmakers would be making a major statement should they agree to include Obama’s request for funding assumptions on cap-and-trade legislation, an issue that will no doubt split members of Congress by both regional and party lines.

Munich Re on Hurricanes and Disaster Trends

February 26th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This week a group of three authors from Germany, including two from Munich Re, have a paper out in the journal Regional Environmental Change titled “The impact of socio-economics and climate change on tropical cyclone losses in the USA” (here in PDF). The paper looks at hurricane losses in the United States and the role of socio-economic development and climate change and variability. Here is what they conclude (emphasis added):

Socio-economic developments and the impact of climate change are considered to be the primary causes of the higher tropical cyclone losses observed in the USA. Socioeconomic changes largely account for the loss evolution of both tropical cyclones in the USA and weather-related natural catastrophes in general, the main reasons for this being increased wealth and greater settlement of exposed areas (cf. IPCC 2007b), as confirmed by our results. On the other hand, the conclusions about the role of natural and anthropogenic climate change are less clear-cut. . . .

A positive but not significant trend was identified for the period 1950–2005. However, a positive, statistically significant trend was identified for the period from the start of the last ‘‘cold phase’’ (1971) until 2005.23 Annual adjusted losses increased on average by 4% during this period compared with 5% for annual losses adjusted to exclude inflation but not greater wealth.24

[FOOTNOTE 24 SAYS:] Were one to look at the Pielke et al. (2008) dataset over the same period, the quantitative findings would be identical. . .

It should be noted when assessing the results of both this paper and Schmidt et al. (2008) that it is generally difficult to obtain valid quantitative findings about the role of socioeconomics and climate change in loss increases. This is because of criteria such as the stochastic nature of weather extremes, a shortage of quality data, and the role of various other potential factors that act in parallel and interact. We therefore regard our results as being an indication only of the extent to which socio-economic and climate changes account for the increase in losses. Both studies confirm the consensus reached in May 2006 at the international workshop in Hohenkammer attended by leading experts on climate change and natural catastrophe losses (see Table 6).

So with all due respect to Al Gore, he still has some significant accuracy problems in his presentation on the subject of disasters and climate change. Switching to a Munich Re dataset does not address these problems.

This situation could be because of my “corporate, right wing” ties, or perhaps, it just might be because that is what the science says. You be the judge.