WPC's Center for the Environment brings balance to the environmental debate by promoting the idea that human progress and prosperity work in a free economy to protect the environment.

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Everything is Local for Somebody

March 11, 2009 in Blog

An ironic story in Crosscut talks about the number of "buy local" organizations popping up across the country. The purpose of these organizations is to make sure that none of the members of our buy local effort buy from any of the other buy local efforts. They're not local.

Such buy local efforts are silly for a number of reasons.

First, I don't like the us-vs-them attitude inherent in buy local efforts. I may root for the Huskies over the Cougars, but I'll buy Cougar Gold cheese because I like it and I tend to believe that my personal superiority over Cougars is limited to my choice of schools. Otherwise, I see no reason that I should choose someone from Seattle over someone from San Francisco, Lubbock or anywhere else. Any campaign to "support our own" is fraught with the definition of who is like us. That hasn't always been a positive impulse in history. This is more about excluding other communities than building your own.

Second, buying local doesn't mean it uses fewer resources or is good for the environment. Milk produced in King County may use more energy than milk produced in Yakima. More fuel is used shipping feed from Eastern Washington to King County cows than is used shipping milk from Yakima to King County consumers. Numerous studies demonstrate that distance between the producer and consumer doesn't always reflect the use of resources. In many cases, longer distances are also more "sustainable."

Third, for many buy local advocates, "buy local" means little more than "buy from me, not my competitors." One builder quoted in the article is excited about "buy local" because he is "working on how to approach weatherization, retrofitting and other items in Obama's package." In other words, he's excited about government programs that favor him. I am shocked.

Another "buy local" advocate in the story is a local book seller. His commitment to "buy local" appears to be based solely on his desire that people buy from him rather than Amazon or Barnes & Noble. On the book store's web page, the book seller lists his five favorite books. None of them is by a local author and certainly none of them are printed locally. He wants you to buy books that have been written and printed elsewhere and shipped to him rather than buying books that have been written and printed elsewhere and shipped directly to your home or to a major bookseller.

Some argue that local food tastes better. Others argue that local booksellers or hardware stores offer better service. Fine. In those cases, however, people aren't buying the "localness," they are buying taste or service. If those things are true, there shouldn't be a reason to start a "buy local" campaign. Too often, "buy local" is a misleading surrogate for other values. Worse, activists then look to government to mandate "buy local" rules, provide subsidies and other taxpayer-funded preferences that force consumers to adhere to the values of a few.

In the end, people should be free to buy what they want, whether their priority is taste, service or price, whether they get those attributes from a product made locally or elsewhere.

Shucking and Jiving: A Video Representation

March 9, 2009 in Blog

Bjorn Lomborg, last year's keynote speaker at the WPC environmental conference, has been trying to get Al Gore to debate the pros and cons of climate policy for years. Lomborg finally got a chance to ask a question of the former Vice-President at the Eco:Nomics conference in Monterrey.

Two things of note.

First, Gore refuses to answer the question of whether addressing climate change does more to improve human wellbeing than other policies, such as fighting malaria. He cites "scientists," but never mentions economists or any analysis of where limited resources are best spent. Which is better -- cap-and-trade or a stable carbon price? Should we spend money on stopping AIDS or expanding public transit? These are not scientific questions. They are questions of economics and values.

Second, he continues to ignore, and distort, the climate science while claiming to listen to scientists. At the end of the video, Gore says that for each 1 meter of increase in sea level there will be 100 million "climate refugees." This is wrong on two counts.

First, the UN agency on climate change, the IPCC, projects just over 1 foot of sea level rise during the next century. One meter is more than double the projection. So, Gore chooses an extreme example but passes it off as reasonable.

Second, this assumes that people would not move or adjust to the rise in sea level. As Lomborg mentioned in his speech last year, sea levels rose about a foot during the last century and we didn't notice it. It seems absurd to think that an addition 12-16 inches over 100 years would cause chaos.

Here is Gore ducking those key issues:

Which Way for Environmentalism: Science or NIMBYs

March 6, 2009 in Publications

The Puget Sound Business Journal published this op-ed on March 6, 2009

About mid-way through the public meeting, one resident summed it up. In considering whether to approve a new dock on Maury Island, he encouraged officials at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to “follow the science” and make the decision based on the evidence. He added, without a hint of irony, “but if the science is wrong, do what you think is right.”

Car-Free Days are back minus the eco-fad promise

March 4, 2009 in Blog

Just this week Seattle's Mayor, Greg Nickels, released the latest list of city streets that will be closed to vehicle traffic this summer.  The street closures are a continuation of the City's Car-Free Days from last year, however, this year the Mayor appears to have moved away from the over-reaching environmental promises that were used to promote last year's events.

Don't believe me?  Check out this week's press release from the Mayor where he declares that, "Biking, walking, drawing chalk pictures, taking in the sights or shopping and eating at local establishments, Celebrate Seattle Summer Streets is a great way to spend time with family and friends."

Compare this with last year's announcement when the Mayor promised, "we'll be fighting global warming at the same time."

Last year I questioned whether the Mayor's promises that Car-Free Days would have an impact on global warming or help to reduce Seattleites dependence on cars.  In fact, after the conclusion of last year's events I followed up with the City to see what environmental benefit, if any, was gained.

To summarize the City's response to my inquiry, there was no measurable environmental benefit.  Why?  Because the City didn't even try to measure the impact of these events.  You can read the full report of the City's response in our September 2008 edition of Environmental Watch, Car-Free Days are Seattle's latest eco-fad, but are there any real benefits?

The Mayor's elimination of environmental promises to this year's Car-Free Days marks the second policy shift by the City on issues highlighted in our Washington's Five Worst Environmental Moments of 2008.  It appears we are making some progress.

The Misleading and Misplaced Statistics of Cap-and-Trade in Britain

March 2, 2009 in Publications

When making the case for cap-and-trade here in Washington state, advocates of that complex system often look to Europe and in particular the United Kingdom for solace and as a hopeful example of potential success. Recently, two members of Parliament spoke before the legislature about the UK’s experience with cap-and-trade. The final claim they made in their presentation is, unfortunately, emblematic of the misuse of statistics that is required to claim success for the Kyoto Protocol and cap-and-trade.

Obama Budget Director v. Washington Department of Ecology

February 20, 2009 in Blog

Washington State Ecology Director Jay Manning today told KUOW that cap-and-trade is "the most flexible and efficient way to reduce [carbon] emissions." He is pushing the legislature to adopt such a system in Washington.

I disagree that cap-and-trade is the most efficient way to reduce emissions. And I have friends in high places.

President Obama's Budget Director Peter Orzag has argued repeatedly that a stable carbon price, a tax on carbon-emitting energy, is more flexible and efficient (not to mention transparent) than cap-and-trade. Here's what he said in November of 2007 when he ran the Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office:

From that perspective, a tax has an important advantage: It allows more emission reductions to take place in years when they are relatively cheap. Various factors can affect the cost of emission reductions from year to year, including the weather, the level of economic activity, and the availability of new low-carbon technologies (such as improvements in wind-power technology). By shifting emission reduction efforts into years when they are relatively less expensive, a tax can yield a given quantity of emission reductions at a lower cost than can a cap-and-trade program with specified annual emission levels. In addition, by avoiding the potential volatility of allowance prices that might result from a rigid annual cap, a tax could be less disruptive for affected companies. Provided that the tax was set at a level that reflected the expected benefit of reducing an additional ton of CO2 emissions, the tax would provide a motivation for firms and households to reduce emissio!
ns up to the point at which the cost of doing so was equal to the resulting expected benefits.

The simple truth is that the economic impact isn't the primary concern of Manning and others who support cap-and-trade. They care primarily about the cap because they believe it guarantees a reduction in carbon emissions. This guarantee has proven to be false in Europe.

Manning and others should simply say they prefer the security of a cap, even if it is ephemeral, to the uncertainty of a system without a hard mandate. The problem is that in these economic times a glib approach to the costs of the system is no longer credible. That doesn't justify, however, mischaracterizing the facts about the economic impacts of cap-and-trade.

Suspending Failed "Green" Building Rules Can Save Schools Millions

February 17, 2009 in Publications

The Spokesman Review published this op-ed on February 28, 2009
The News Tribune published this op-ed on March 3, 2009

Create Incentive to Cut Emissions with Carbon Price

February 17, 2009 in Publications

The Seattle Times published this op-ed on February 23, 2009

After years, numerous reports and legislation, Olympia is still searching for a coherent policy to address climate change, focusing on a complex accounting system known as cap and trade. That policy, however, won't cover most of Washington's carbon emissions until 2015 and is likely to cost billions in taxes, regulation and lost jobs.

Lincoln's Humble Approach

February 12, 2009 in Blog

Lincoln In honor of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, I listened to an interview with Michael Beschloss who said that Lincoln was a "man of self-doubt." This approach is echoed in other notes written by the President during his time in the White House, one in which he noted that,

In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.

He did not always know whether his approach was correct and constantly questioned himself and sought the advice of others, hence the "Team of Rivals" he gathered around him.

Too often, the debates we have about policy focus on what policy will work best assuming that the perfect solution is merely a question of craftsmanship. We need to remember, however, that just as the knowledge and judgment of that great man was imperfect, our ability to craft perfect political solutions is limited, to say the least.

It is a reason that I have so many doubts about cap-and-trade, a policy that one environmental activist said would involve "remaking the economy of the nation, the whole globe." It is a quote I have used often to highlight the leap of faith required in adopting such massive, all-encompassing approaches.

A more humble approach puts people in charge of these issues, recognizing that only they can know how best to improve energy efficiency and find the best ways to reduce the environmental impact they cause. That's why these approaches are not only more moral by giving individuals control over the key decisions in their life but are consistently more effective than government approaches based on an arrogant, and inaccurate, belief in the expansiveness of their knowledge.

Jay Manning Gets It Wrong...Again...and Again

February 12, 2009 in Blog

Ecology Director Jay Manning is playing extremely fast and loose with the facts in his tour of legislative committees talking about climate change.

Last week he claimed that Europe was on target to meet their CO2 emissions reduction targets by 2012. This requires a great leap of faith. On Sunday, we highlighted the recent data from Europe showing that they are far from reaching the CO2 reductions.

Now there are two more claims which are either ignorant or intentionally misleading.

"We haven't seen any, that I know of, abuses of the market in Europe... We haven't seen any abuse that I am aware of." - Jay Manning before the Transportation Committee, February 9, 2009

This is a remarkable claim. There have been tremendous, well-publicized problems with the cap-and-trade system in Europe with regard to organizations gaming the system. For instance, free credits (i.e. permits to emit CO2 that can be sold) were allocated politically, leaving organizations who lobbied effectively, with extra carbon allocations to sell and a windfall, as we've highlighted before. The director of Germany's carbon trading authority commented last month that "It was lobbying by industry, including the electricity companies, that was to blame for all these exceptional rules," which "enabled companies to get allowances that did not reflect the real situation of their emissions."

In addition to the political gaming that has occurred, others have exploited the rules to sell carbon offsets that produced no real reductions. The US General Accounting Office released a report last November highlighting the many games being played with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which certifies projects designed to reduce CO2 emissions. The key question is whether the reductions are "additional" or whether the reductions would have occurred anyway. The GAO notes that

"significant challenges to ensuring credit quality exist. Many experts and stakeholders have suggested that a substantial number of nonadditional projects have received credits through the CDM, a conclusion supported by several studies."

In other words, there are a "substantial" number of projects that receive funding that do not deserve it. Isn't that the textbook definition of an "abuse?"

"It is a scientific fact that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at this point is about 360 parts per million. Pre-industrial revolution, which is easy to measure from tree cores and ice cores, it was between, for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, between 190 and 200. Incredibly stable." - Jay Manning before the Transportation Committee, February 9, 2009

Wrong. The chart below shows CO2 levels from ice cores going back 600,000 years. I've adapted this chart from a chart used by Al Gore found at a web page that promotes science arguing that climate change is real and significant. The chart starts with year 0, which is up to recent years and the time runs backwards 600,000 years as you move right.

CO2-Historical-Trends  Note that CO2 is not "incredibly stable." It has ranged from a low of about 180 parts per million (ppm) to about 300 ppm, a change of 67 percent. Mr. Manning's claim is simply false and is intended to make us believe that the only reason CO2 increases is due to human causes. He wants to discount any indication that CO2 fluctuates naturally, which it clearly does.

One thing Director Manning is right about is that CO2 has risen in the past several decades beyond what we've seen in the last several hundred thousand years. The chart does not show it, but we are at 360 ppm and increasing. I argued just two days ago in Olympia that I believed that taking carbon out of the ground (i.e. coal and oil) and burning them has undoubtedly contributed to this increase. Furthermore, I believe there is risk from increasing CO2. We are offering solutions to address that risk -- solutions that are more likely to actually reduce CO2 and improve energy efficiency than the system Manning supports.

One may argue that my argument here is a nit-pick. He is right that CO2 is increasing due to human causes. He said, however, that all of the change was due to humans. That is not correct. One may argue that this isn't an important distinction. Well, if it isn't important, don't bring it up. If you bring it up, get it right. Mr. Manning didn't.

There are judgment calls in any policy, especially a policy as expansive and complex as dealing with climate change. The errors Director Manning is making, however, are not judgment calls. They are errors of ignorance or are intended to mislead. These errors make it less likely that good policy will emerge on an issue that is likely to have a major impact on our environment and economy.