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Washington's Five Worst Environmental Moments of 2009

December 30, 2009 in Blog

The past year was not a good one for promoting environmental sustainability in Washington state. The overriding theme of 2009 was the way politics displaced environmental honesty. Environmental policy offers benefits in two ways: benefits to the environment and political benefits to politicians associated with environmental policy. Sometimes, however, these two are at odds, especially when what is popular doesn't actually help the environment or what is good for the environment is difficult, costly or decidedly un-sexy. This year, popular trumped positive.

Along those lines, here are the top five worst environmental moments of 2009.

First, we have to give honorable mention to P-I cartoonist David Horsey. This doesn't really count as a "moment," but deserves attention because it is emblematic of the thinking that underlies so much bad environmental policy. On May 22, Horsey penned a cartoon showing the Earth goddess Gaia talking about a "dangerous infestation" that is destroying her. In the final frame she (and Horsey) renders judgment, saying "These humans have got to go." Overpopulation is a popular theme with environmentalists and they have claimed repeatedly that we've crossed the threshold time after time. Ironically, the problem they identify is always other people. I'm not sure how to describe this notion as anything other than "inhumane."

5. King County Eco-Consumer. Writing a twice-monthly column for the Seattle Times, the King County Eco-Consumer offers advice for those who want to buy and live environmentally. Frequently, however, his advice conforms not to the science or economics of sustainability but to well-worn political slogans. For instance, the eco-consumer told us that "the lower the food mileage we rack up, the better." This, however, is simply untrue. Food shipped many miles by train often has a lower carbon footprint than food shipped by truck. Shipping milk from Yakima is more efficient than shipping hay from Yakima to cows in King County, despite the fact that the actual milk travels a shorter distance. Following his advice would actually be counterproductive in many cases. For more about why the Eco-Consumer earned a spot on the list, read our piece King Coun!
ty EcoConsumer Advice: Bad for Consumers and the Environment

4. Dow Constantine chooses politics over the environment. When a political spokesman, in Nixonian tones, tells the media "We are being absolutely truthful," you can be sure the opposite is true. In his recent campaign for King County Executive, Constantine ran an ad attacking our position on climate change, calling us climate "deniers." Ironically, he continued to make the claim even after his source, the Seattle Weekly, retracted it. The Weekly, the Seattle P-I and the Seattle Times (twice, here and here) all criticized Constantine for the claim. Do!
w knew the claim was false because the campaign highlighted policies in the WPC's Policy Guide, but ignored our policy recommendation calling for creating a carbon price and tax cuts to encourage energy efficiency. His decision, however, was that the political benefit of lying was more important than the environmental benefit of honestly addressing our policy. Such a position commits Constantine to bad environmental policy because changing his position would mean acknowledging he was dishonest in the campaign. It is the best example of a bad trend where environmental politics trumps environmental sustainability.

3. The gap between "green jobs" rhetoric and reality. With the economy taking center stage politically, the promise of "green jobs" became a centerpiece of the rhetoric justifying new environmental taxes and regulations. The Governor has repeatedly claimed that Washington created more than 47,000 green jobs. As we noted earlier this year, however, those green jobs are not new in any real sense and have more to do with definitions than economic growth. It is obvious, as well, that many who promise green jobs don't even believe their own rhetoric. One version of the state's proposed cap-and-trade legislation required an economic analysis examining "How to address trade competition from countries and states that are not participating in an emissions reduction program." The legislation acknowledges that the regulati!
on will put us at an economic disadvantage compared to other states and nations. As we noted recently, the Governor's current Chief of Staff doesn't see that as a bad thing. The harm done to Washington's economy by the Governor's climate change Executive Order creates opportunities. Jay Manning wrote in his memo on the order that "An almost certain increase in the regulated community’s interest in getting a national program will be an important side benefit" of the Executive Order. Those businesses covered by the regulation will be hit so hard that they will look to the federal government for relief. Policymakers know they are playing games with the economy and jobs, but they hope that they can fool the public long enough to get what they want and that, somehow, jobs will materialize. It demonstrates that, despite their rhetoric, policymakers know !
their climate policies are likely to kill more jobs than they !

2. Maury Island Hypocrisy. As we noted last year, a dock on Maury Island has become a cause celebre for local environmentalists. Freshman Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark quickly moved to satisfy donors on the island by moving to stop the construction of the dock, designed to ship gravel off the island. He moved quickly to pull the dock's permit when a judge ruled that the US Army Corps of Engineers had not followed the proper procedure when analyzing the dock. It was hailed as an environmental victory, despite the fact that the judge did not rule on the environmental impact, just the process. It is important to remember that the project had been given permits by the state Department of Ecology and King County as well. The reason this decision is on the list, however, is the contrast between the attention given to a small project with all its environmental permits and the most serious water quality problem on the island in Quartermaster Harbor, which!
lies in an aquatic reserve managed by Goldmark. As the Maury/Vashon Island Beachcomber noted in September, the cleanup of that part of the island is far behind schedule. They wrote that the County can't get any of the homeowners to cooperate in assessing the impact failing septic tanks are having on the Harbor. The Beachcomber wrote that "Despite several meetings, no homeowner has stepped forward to allow the county to take a look at his or her system, and none has agreed to work publicly with county officials to find a solution to a system that may be failing or inadequate." The gap between the actions of King County and Goldmark regarding the dock and the problems in Quartermaster Harbor is a dramatic example of how the value of environmental policy is more about political benefit than environmental benefit.

1. Governor Gregoire's Climate Executive Order. After pushing for a bill authorizing a range of environmental regulations and supporting Washington's participation in a cap-and-trade system, the Governor instead simply signed an executive order implementing those policies after the legislature turned them down. The Executive Order raised a number of red flags. First, there are questions about its legality since it attempts to usurp legislative authority. Second, it attempts to pick and choose future technologies that will best reduce carbon emissions. This is a strategy popular with politicians looking to receive credit for "leadership" on climate change, but it rarely delivers results (see biofuels and hydrogen cars for recent examples). Finally, it spends money to continue Washi!
ngton's role in the Western Climate Initiative's effort to create a regional cap-and-trade system. The Department of Ecology claimed it could simply shift the money from other projects to cover the costs. Strange that it is so easy to find available money at a time when we face a significant budget deficit. Worse, the WCI is likely to collapse because none of the key decisions about the structure of the WCI have been made and political changes in the participating states make it unlikely that the system will ever be launched. That sets aside the reality that cap-and-trade systems have failed to meet their targets due to the many political payouts that are invariably included in these systems. An Executive Order that has legal questions, embraces failed strategies and wastes money on a system that doesn't work, earns the Governor's Executive Order on climate change the top spot in this year's list of worst environmental moments of 2009.

It wasn't all bad this year (although the bad certainly outweighed the good). Tomorrow we highlight the top five good environmental moments of 2009.

The Foolhardy Nature of Predicting Green Innovation

December 30, 2009 in Blog

It is hard to find a politician talking about climate change these days who fails to highlight the technological solutions they are certain will save us from climate catastrophe. Their record in this area, however, is very bad. In just the last decade we have been told that biofuels, electric cars, hydrogen cars, carbon capture and storage and the like would all usher in a new, carbon-free era.

The Wall Street Journal has a great article today about the foolishness of trying to determine the path that technology will take.The author Gordon Crovitz notes that "The more we learn about how innovation happens, the less straight the lines of advance look." He lists his top ten worst technology predictions of all time. Among them:

"The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys," Sir William Preece, chief engineer at the British Post Office, 1878.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" H.M. Warner, Warner Bros., 1927.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

"Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night," Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

We could create a similar list of predictions about environmental technologies (the 1977 Stanford Research Institute study predicted that solar energy "is likely to dominate the space-heating market for new construction as soon as the year 2000." It is less than 1 percent today.). This won't stop politicians from promising that they can predict the future and grant regulatory favor and government subsidies for their favored approaches. Before they continue down this road and repeat the mistakes of the past, they should read Crovitz's piece.

Mann on Climategate: Theory good, data bad

December 23, 2009 in Blog

Following in the footsteps of former Washington state climatologist Phil Mote and Stanford professor Stephen Schneider, another political-scientist is arguing that the release of the Climategate e-mails is much ado about nothing. Michael Mann, author of the "hockey stick" graph weighs in on what it means to use a "trick" to "hide the decline."

Specifically he addresses the e-mail from Phil Jones where we discusses using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in the temperatures projected by tree-ring data after 1960. Temperatures went up while the tree-ring data, on which the hockey stick projections are based, indicated that temperatures should go down. He writes in the Washington Post:

In the same e-mail, Jones uses the phrase "hide the decline" in reference to work by tree-ring expert Keith Briffa. Because tree-ring information has been found to correlate well with temperature readings, it is used to plot temperatures going back hundreds of years or more. Briffa described a phenomenon in which the density of wood exhibits an enigmatic decline in response to temperature after about 1960. This decline was the focus of Briffa's original article, and Briffa was clear that these data should not be used to represent temperatures after 1960. By saying "hide the decline," Jones meant that a diagram he was producing was not to show those data during the unreliable post-1960 period.

This is more of the semantic games we've experienced on this issue already. Mann argues that "tree-ring information has been found to correlate well with temperature readings" until about 1960. The divergence at that point is "enigmatic." What is interesting, however, is that Mann and others who parrot this line, don't explain why the data after 1960 is unreliable and should be ignored. The only indication that it is unreliable seems to be that it inconveniently deviates from what Briffa and Mann projected. Given a choice between empirical data and their theory, they chucked the data and kept the theory. This is the very antithesis of scientific inquiry.

Climate alarmists like Mote, Mann and others had two options when reacting to the Climategate e-mails. They could have expressed sincere disappointment, taken a step back and worked to ensure that there was an appropriate distance between science and politics. They chose the other option, to engage in a flurry of political and semantic contrivances in an effort to "hide the decline" of their own credibility. Those trying to understand the true meaning of the e-mails need only look at the highly political and misleading excuses made after-the-fact to determine whether the language in the documents were unfortunate misunderstandings or intentional efforts to hide and suppress inconvenient science.

PlantBottle and the Economics of Environmental Sustainability

December 22, 2009 in Blog

PlantBottle One of the best examples of how economics and the environment go hand-in-hand is the way the free market constantly pushes to reduce use of scarce resources. Plastic bottles are a good example of this trend.

Frequently I've highlighted what Nestle calls its "eco-shape" bottle, which uses "30 percent" less plastic. The purpose is quite clear -- less plastic means less weight to transport and fewer resources to pay for. Now the Coca-Cola Company, who bottles Dasani water among a number of other products, is introducing the latest version of this trend.

Called the plantbottle, Coca-Cola uses plant-based ethylene, made from sugar cane, to replace the 30 percent of a standard PET (polyethylene terephalate) plastic bottle that comes from petroleum-based ethylene with ethanol. The bottle is the same in the end but changes the materials from which it is produced. What I found so interesting about the presentation Coke made those of us who attended their Seattle presentation was how explicit they were about the role economics plays in ensuring this works. Coke didn't simply take this step in the hopes it works out, they understand that for this to be environmentally sustainable in the long run it also needs to be economically sustainable.

For instance, it was important to them that the plastic be the same as current recyclable plastic. If the bottles were different it could contaminate current recycling systems, making it more difficult to recycle. They noted that Coke is a major recycler in their own right (Coca-Cola Recycling LLC is an actual subsidiary) and that making it more difficult to recycle is counterproductive.

Second, while they say that the bottle costs more to produce today, they expect the cost to go down as the supply chain improves. It also insulates them, to some extent, from the cost volatility of petroleum.

I asked if they saw an impact on their market share by promoting the plantbottle. They have only just launched it in Denmark and are doing so now on the West Coast and in BC for the Olympics, so they don't have any market-share numbers yet. As we've seen with other "green" products, it can be a way to reach a certain type of consumer that businesses covet -- those who have disposable income and are willing to spend it to buy ideological amenities, like greenness.

Coke did a life-cycle analysis of the effect of the bottle as well to ensure that they weren't simply trading one environmental impact (use of petroleum products and CO2 emission) for another (pollution or deforestation). They found that the bottle was no worse in any area they tested and better in a few key areas. These types of analyses can be misleading and I think it is better to put a price on environmental impact. Putting a price on impact would add an incentive to reduce impact. Their analysis, however, is thoughtful and is more than many who make environmental claims are doing.

They also indicated that some of the claims being made by others sound good but may not be good for the environment. For instance, they noted that "100% recycled" bottles may not be better for the environment due to all of the design and other compromises that need to be made to get to that level. Again, price is a better metric than arbitrary standards because price is reflective of the amount of energy and materials put into a product.

PlantBottle is a good example of the principle that businesses are more creative and effective at promoting environmental sustainability than politically-motivated policymakers and government workers. Those from government agencies who attended the event could only raise concerns about the label, the logo, etc. and finished by asking Coke for money to support their agency's efforts. It dramatized the reality that government is behind in efforts to make real environmental improvements and is primarily involved in trying to grab the coattails of those who are making real improvements.

The Environmental Honesty of Brian Baird

December 18, 2009 in Blog

Third District Congressman Brian Baird has announced that he will retire from Congress next year. Certainly people will begin assessing his tenure on the issues of import to them. As for some key environmental issues, I appreciated his intellectual honesty.

The emblematic moment of his intellectual and scientific honesty was his willingness to take on an incomplete and misleading article about salvage logging that appeared in Science. The piece, written by a Masters candidate at Oregon State University, argued that salvage logging after a fire did more damage to the forest than leaving the area alone. The article was quickly seized upon by environmental groups, touted in Congress and used as a tool in the effort to end post-fire logging.

Despite the fact that many in his own party were breathlessly waving the report around, he challenged its science head on and even held a hearing. He demanded the data behind the study. Interestingly, the authors refused to provide it. We wrote at the time:

Despite saying their purpose was to influence the discussion of his bill, the authors refused to release their data to Congressman Baird. The authors did not say there was not enough time to collect the data, only that they were not required to. This not only violates a key tenet of scientific inquiry, but is an ironic suppression of their own data.

In the end, the authors backed off their conclusions, admitting they were incomplete and ultimately did not apply to most salvage projects.

This isn't the only time Baird expressed an intellectually honest opinion about an environmental issue that contradicted the party line. The environment will be much better off when there is more honesty about environmental issues -- highlighting those things that don't work and being willing to follow the science where it leads even when it is uncomfortable. On more than one occasion, Baird did just that.

Science that Depends on Your Values

December 17, 2009 in Blog

As is often the case, the reaction to a scandal is often more illuminating than the scandal. Such is the case with Climategate. We noted recently that former Washington state climatologist Phil Mote played semantic games trying to downplay the language of some of the e-mails. Now, Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford demonstrates another example of this.

The clip below shows a PR person attempting to stop Dr. Schneider from answering a question about the Climategate e-mails and the UN security tossing Phelim McAleer, who asked the question, despite the fact that he has valid credentials.

What is more interesting to me is what Dr. Schneider does say. At one point he says (or rather, spits out), "I don't make comments on redacted e-mails presented to me by people whose values I don't trust." Phelim notes quickly that everyone has confirmed that the e-mails, which are not redacted, are real.

I thought it was interesting that rather than arguing the science, Dr. Schneider goes immediately to "values" and discounts anything from people he doesn't trust. He represents himself as a scientist, but clearly his position is influenced tremendously by whether he shares the values of those who disagree with him. That isn't a scientific approach. That is the very definition of politics and it actually reinforces the claim that the Climategate e-mails show that many who claim to be making scientific judgments free of political influences are quick to turn to politics when it suits their purposes.

Also, University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass writes an excellent piece about the Climategate e-mails. The whole thing is worth reading. He addresses the "trick" that Mote tried to dismiss, noting that the approach used by the East Anglia scientists wasn't very scientific. Mass explains this:

In the famous "trick" email the east Anglia emails talk about replacing the proxy tree ring records with instrumental records for the past several decades (because the tree ring records disagreed with what the instrumental records were saying)--instead of just showing those records and noting the difficulty. Not quite open.

An honest approach to science means highlighting uncertainty where it exists and encouraging further research. Unfortunately, too many are trying to fill the knowledge gap with politics and values.

When Environmental Politics Kill Environmentalism

December 17, 2009 in Publications

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In politics, however, there is an even higher form of flattery: having your opponent lie about your beliefs.

Businesses, Taxpayers and Environment; All Part of New Storm Reponse Policy

December 11, 2009 in Blog

The Seattle Times is reporting that the City of Seattle has done a complete 180 regarding the City’s policies to use sand when ice forms on roads.  The City is now using salt as part of a proactive approach, keeping streets free and clear of ice.

Last year we noted that the City’s decision to avoid salt, based on environmental concerns, was not supported by the facts.

A point that the City’s new director of street maintenance, Monty Sedlak, seems to get.  He told the Seattle Times that, “his former employer, suburban Arapahoe County south of Denver, switched to salt in 2001… ironically, that was for environmental reasons — flying sand created brown clouds over the valley.”

But perhaps most noteworthy of Sedlak’s comments came in response to a question about the department overusing the salt during this past week when dryer weather has prevailed.  Sedlak replied:

“Frost did form on car windshields Thursday, a harbinger that pavement could freeze, too. The relatively low cost to spray brine is weighed against the enormous cost if the roads do ice, causing accidents and economic loss.”

The City’s new policy is not only good for the environment, but for businesses and taxpayers as well.

Do What I Want or the Economy Gets It!

December 9, 2009 in Blog

Yesterday, we released a confidential briefing memo written by Governor Gregoire's current Chief of Staff Jay Manning on the likely impact of her Executive Order on climate change. The memo notes that a "benefit" of the order would be to "increase in the regulated community’s interest in getting a national program." In other words, the impacts of the order on businesses and families will be so significant that it will drive them into the arms of a federal cap-and-trade program.

This is at odds with the constant proclamations that Washington's "leadership" on climate regulation will help our economy. Internally, the Governor's Chief of Staff understands that this is not the case. That fact is not a side effect, however, it is part of the strategy. As we used to say in my computer programming days, "It's not a bug, it's a feature."

News reports today that the federal government is using a similar strategy. According to Fox News, an EPA official says that business better get on board the cap-and-trade program or the EPA will come up with rules that are far more costly and damaging to the economy. They report the unidentified official as saying:

If you don't pass this legislation, then ... the EPA is going to have to regulate in this area. And it is not going to be able to regulate on a market-based way, so it's going to have to regulate in a command-and-control way, which will probably generate even more uncertainty.

This would be a huge "deterrent to investment" for companies. The Administration understands the extremely high costs of this approach, but they see those costs as a benefit because they can be used to coerce the opposition into accepting legislation that kills jobs, but hopefully less than the alternative.

These comments demonstrate that despite the constant rhetoric claiming that the taxes and regulations associated with cap-and-trade and other climate policies will create jobs and help the economy, there is a recognition that this is not the case even among advocates of those programs. What advocates are saying, quite simply, is that they don't care if the economy is hurt because climate policy is more important. We can have that argument but it is clear that they don't really believe their own talking points about the economic benefits of more taxes and regulation.

Governor’s Chief of Staff: State’s Climate Policy Worse than Federal Cap-and-Trade

in Press releases

Seattle - Claiming that Washington families and workers benefit from her executive order on climate regulation, Governor Christine Gregoire is preparing to head to Copenhagen to attend the conference on climate change. Despite those claims, however, internal briefing documents marked “confidential” show that officials know the proposal will hurt Washington businesses and families.