Environment

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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A Pop(u)lar Eco-Fad

January 17, 2009 in Publications

In the 1958 World Series, Yankees catcher Yogi Berra advised Hank Aaron, the greatest hitter in the world (still), to turn his bat so he could read the label (Aaron responded that he was there "to hit, not to read"). The reason was simple.  When the label faced up where the batter could read it, the ball hit where the wood grain is tightest and, therefore, where the bat is strongest.

Filling in the gaps on climate change and famine

January 8, 2009 in Blog

The Seattle Times today writes about a study arguing that "Global Warming May Cause Famine." The reporter, Sandi Doughton, does a good job of reporting, drawing out comments from the authors and others. A closer look at the report, its authors and the claims is revealing.

When searing temperatures blasted Western Europe in 2003, more than 50,000 people died and harvests of wheat, animal fodder and fruit fell by up to a third.

While Europe did see tens of thousands of deaths from heat in 2003, it had more to do with the failure of the health system and lack of air conditioning. Similar heat waves have hit the US without the huge mortality. Further, there are far more deaths annually from cold than heat, so even if people don't adapt (which they always do), an increase in heat will probably reduce the number of temperature-related deaths.

"I'm not worried about Greenland sliding into the sea. I'm not worried about sea levels going up," said UW atmospheric sciences professor David Battisti.

Don't expect to hear this quote again in the future. Just one year ago, the Times wrote a story about a study on sea level rise from climate change where "even a rise of 6 inches" would increase the threat of flooding and damage. Al Gore spends quite a bit of time in An Inconvenient Truth dramatizing the threat from sea level rise. The Climate Action Team cites sea level rise as a significant concern. It will be interesting to watch climate alarmists embrace this report but dismiss this quote.

"We are headed for a completely out-of-bounds situation for growing food crops in the future," said report co-author Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment.

What credibility should we put in the claim of Ms. Naylor? Probably the same amount we should put in the words of her colleague and occasional co-author Paul Ehrlich who said in 1969 that "By 1980 the United States will see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million" and "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." Predicting catastrophe is a habit that dies hard.

"You're talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won't be able to find it where they find it now," [Battisti] said.

This indicates that crops will grow in some places where they don't now. In other words, this is an issue of trade. Further, the UN and others predict that in 2100 the average income in developing countries will be about $60,000 a year, higher than the US average currently. Thus, their prediction only comes true if the world makes no economic progress during the next century. Compare 2009, for instance, to 1909 to see how ludicrous that notion is. Realize also that even as world population has grown, the absolute number of people in poverty has fallen showing how dramatic economic growth has been, especially in developing countries.

Michael Glantz, a political scientist who studies the social impacts of climate and climate change, said the study raises some good points, but the developing world faces so many immediate problems it's difficult to worry about what will happen in five decades or more. "When I think about 2100 and climate-change impact on food security, I just glaze over," said Glantz, who directs the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

A voice of reason. What is behind Glanz's statement is a recognition that government policy has more to do with famine and poverty than climate change will. The major famines of the last century have been politically created, from the millions in Ukraine who died during Stalin's forced collectivization to the current conflict-created famine in Darfur. Climate change is a challenge, but the notion that we can predict the impact of 2.5 C of warming 100 years from now and how it will impact countries after a century of political and economic change is dubious.

Scientists should continue to offer sound estimates of future climate change and the potential changes that it will cause. When it comes to making decisions about how to deal with those challenges, however, it is a question best addressed by applying values, politics and economics.

2009 Agenda for Effective Environmental Stewardship

January 6, 2009 in Publications

As legislators and the Governor grapple with the economic challenges in Washington state, it is a good opportunity to reassess our environmental priorities to ensure that we are receiving the most environmental benefit in a way that truly promotes job creation and prosperity. Washington Policy Center's 2009 Agenda for Effective Environmental Stewardship offers five proposals that prioritize projects with guaranteed environmental benefit, creating personal incentives to reduce greenhouse gases and conserve and harnessing the knowledge of millions of Washington residents who know best how to take steps toward sustainability.

Drug Take-Back Programs: What Will They Solve?

January 1, 2009 in Publications

What really is in our water? Increasingly, attention is being given to the water quality of area waterways, not only for our own personal health, but that of the overall environment.

Is the Growth Management Act Working?

January 1, 2009 in Publications

Since passage of the Growth Management Act (GMA) there have been no comprehensive, independent reviews assessing the economic impacts, environmental successes or progress toward the fourteen policy goals of GMA.

One Down, Four to Go

December 31, 2008 in Blog

Yesterday, we made Seattle's decision not to salt the roads Washington's #1 Worst Environmental Moment of 2008. Today, the City announced it was changing the policy:

...the city kept using only de-icer and sand, saying salt could be harmful to Puget Sound. That policy was adopted by the city in 1998 "with the best of intentions," the mayor said, but the last weeks' weather proved the city should amend its plan.

So, a decade-old policy was thrown out in a week. This means either a) the original decision was made without science (but with good intentions) or science that could be thrown out after a week of consideration or b) the new decision confounds science but is being done under political duress.

This is the problem with so much environmental policymaking. Policies too often lack a scientific basis and are done more for political appearances than environmental benefit. Now if they promise not to try "Car Free Days" again, we'll be making progress.

Washington's Five Best Environmental Moments of 2008

December 31, 2008 in Blog

Yesterday we listed the five worst environmental moments of 2008 in Washington. Today, to end the year on a more cheery note, we're listing the best moments. I will say that 2008 was more bad than good, but there are hopeful signs on the horizon.

Honorable mention:

  • The 9th Circuit Court ruling noting that asking judges to substitute their judgment for the scientific judgment of the Forest Service "is not a proper role for a federal appellate court." Let's hope there are more courts who take this approach.
  • The Washington Court of Appeals struck down King County’s critical area ordinance (CAO) that required rural property owners to set aside up to sixty-five percent of their property without compensation. The Appeals Court ruled that this one-size fits all approach amounted to a, “tax, fee or charge” on !
    property owners.

5. Everyone is a "free-market" environmentalist. Environmental activists now feel compelled to call their actions "market-based," because the public is tired of command-and-control approaches they traditionally favor. Washington's Climate Advisory Team, its successor the Climate Action Team and the Western Climate Initiative all claim that their efforts are "market based." Even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claimed in Portland earlier this year that he supported free market appro!
aches, although I am skeptical of the claim. This is a recognition that market forces that harness the individual creativity and actions of millions of people making decisions about their own lives are powerful, not to mention consistent with the American ideal of personal freedom. The claim that these approaches are market-based isn't always true, but it is a good step.

4. Supreme Court ruling on wind farms in Ellensburg. Some who normally agree with me may not agree on this one. The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision (which says something), ruled that the county could not use zoning laws to stop landowners, like farmers, from leasing their land to site a wind farm. Two things stand out. First, the reason cited by the county commissioners for rejecting the permits were the "visual effects." How did they determine the impacts? Commissio!
ners suggested setbacks based on their personal "observations of noise and 'looming' impact..." That unscientific approach is no reason to violate property rights. The second reason is,
as we've argued in the past, that government should avoid zoning that significantly damages private property values for a public purpose. This decision doesn't address that issue directly, but it fits that approach and should be applauded. Wind farms are not a panacea, but they are a part of the effort to diversify energy sources and increase domestic energy supply. Honoring property rights is good for personal freedom, prosperity and the environment.

3. Growing support for alternatives to cap-and-trade. Earlier this year we called for a package that would cut sales and investment taxes and replace them with a modest carbon tax. The result would be a tax cut that encouraged individuals to improve energy efficiency and find ways to conserve. The free market is the most powerful way to improve energy efficiency and efficiency has nearly doubled in the last 25 years without government intervention. Now there is a broad consensus (the climate alarmists' favorite word) that carbon taxes are far superior to cap-and-trade and they put power in the hands of individuals to choose rather than government. This approach has a wide range of supporters!
60;including the
Democratic-run Congressional Budget Officeand the head of Obama's National Economic Council Larry Summers and conservative economists and thinkers like former head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors Greg Mankiw, founder of supply-side economics pan style="FONT-SIZE: 13px; COLOR: purple; FONT-FAMILY: Arial">Art Laffer
 and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. Let's hope this weakens the support for the costly and ineffective cap-and-trade approach being pushed by environmental activists.

2. Bill Gates and the "Skeptical Environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg. The meeting of the richest man in the world and a man who has one of the clearest visions for how to improve the wellbeing of the planet and people can only produce good results. Gates has shown a true, and intellectually honest, commitment to doing what is best to help people across the world. Lomborg brought together perhaps the finest collection of economists, including Nobel laureates, to find ways to make the most positive impact on the world. After speaking at our environmental luncheon earlier this year, Lomborg met with Gates to discuss ways to work together. We are proud to have helped put this meeting together. In the past we&!
#39;ve written that
the priorities of Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus and the priorities of the Gates Foundation were similar. The combination of these two dedicated and clear thinking minds can only produce great things.

1. Approval of permits for the construction of a dock on Maury Island. There is no better example of environmentalists substituting hype for science than the "controversy" about the construction of a dock to ship gravel off the island. Every scientific agency who looked at the issue, including the Department of Ecology, the Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers and King County, approved the project. The Democratic-controlled Legislature refused to stop th!
e project twice. Environmental activists, however, set all that aside and hoped that
political theater would substitute for science. Two aspects stand out. First, the crusade against the dock was led by those on the island and the motivation was NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard), not the environment. The evidence? The water quality problems around Vashon/Maury Island are caused by the failing septic tanks of the island residents themselves, not the project they protest. The most polluted place on the island is far from the new dock but is surrounded by homes. There is also an irony that residents, who ride ferries twice a day, claim to be worried about a barge traveling to and from the island. Second, opponents of the dock cited general science from !
the Puget Sound Partnership, saying that overdevelopment can i!
mpact water quality. True enough, but they chose to ignore the specific science on this dock which said otherwise. Put simply, this issue was about politics, not the environment. Activists criticized Republican Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who granted the final permit, but never criticized the Democrats in charge of Ecology, Fish & Wildlife and King County who granted earlier environmental permits. They also failed to attack the Democrats who control the legislature and could have stopped the project. The more Washington bases environmental decisions on political theater and partisan politics and ignores the science, the more long-term damage we will do to the environment. That's why the approval of the permit for the dock on Maury Island is not only good for jobs and prosperity, it put environmental science ahead of environmental theater.

Best wishes for the new year and let's hope that these positive trends strengthen in 2009.

Washington's Five Worst Environmental Moments of 2008

December 30, 2008 in Blog

It was a mixed year for environmental policy and we saw the good and the bad. If there is one theme, however, it is that 2008 was the year of eco-fads. Science and thoughtful policy were set aside frequently in the name of showing "leadership" on environmental issues. As we've noted before, "leadership" is the justification politicians cite when there is no other compelling reason to support a particular policy. What all of these share is not only that they are expensive or science-free, but that they will actually do harm to the environment by distracting from approaches that truly improve environmental stewardship.

So, here are the worst environmental moments of 2008. Feel free to add any moments you think deserve mention in the comments.

Honorable mention:

Here are the top five.

5. "We're talking about remaking the economy of the nation, the whole globe." - Becky Kelley of the Washington Environmental Council on the passage earlier this year of the state's legislation to reduce greenhouse gases. The foolishness of this statement, from the environmental community's lead on climate issues, is remarkable. The economy is extremely complex (as we are seeing now) and efforts to "remake" the economy have repeatedly failed. Even small efforts to change the economic calculus are fraught. Witness the impact of biofuel mandates on food prices. As long as environmental activists believe they can remake the economy, they will continue to fail to improve the environment and will damage prosperity and jobs.

4. Seattle's Car Free Days. This program, designed to make it difficult, or impossible, to drive your car in Seattle earned ridicule even from the enviro-conscious residents of Seattle. Fundamental to the environmental philosophy of the left is the belief that politicians need to force people to change their lifestyle. That approach often fails, as evidenced by the backlash to the program because people often have their own ideas. As WPC's Brandon Houskeeper noted in his analysis of the program, the City didn't even make an effort to see if the campaign actually reduced CO2 emissions. This was the ultimate in policymaking to show leadership.

3. Banning bonfires on Alki. The City of Seattle ended up deciding against this policy, but it is another example of commitment to the cause displacing science. We wrote about Seattle's effort to ban bonfires on the WPC blog earlier this year. Banning bonfires would have done little (or nothing) to reduce CO2 emissions. Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Burning wood then releases that CO2 which is absorbed by other trees. This is why biomass is listed as a renewable energy source by the state's "green" energy law. It was an ill-considered proposal that lacked science or common sense.

2. Washington's Cap-and-Trade legislation and the Western Climate Initiative. The state's approach to reducing greenhouse gases has turned into a hodge-podge of approaches that will encourage political game playing, require wide-reaching efforts to force lifestyle changes, will cause dramatic economic costs and will ultimately fail to achieve meaningful reductions in CO2. Other than that, it is fine. The accounting system that underlies the Western Climate Initiative is extremely complex and the result of a political negotiation. Is it any wonder that the two biggest financial collapses of this decade, Enron and the housing bubble, involve accounting games? WCI creates an accounting web many times more complex. That complexity is an invitation to gaming the system as the Government Accounting Office's recent report on Europe's cap-and-trade makes clear. Fortunately, th!
at complexity is beginning to cause some to look for alternatives.

1. Seattle's decision not to salt roads during the December snowstorm. This list is fairly Seattle heavy, but they have earned it. This is another policy undertaken without good science or clear thinking. In justifying the sorry state of the roads during the storm, the City claimed that salting the roads was bad for the environment. The Seattle Times reported, however, that some believe the approach ultimately chosen by the city, sanding the roads, may be more damaging. While I was at the Department of Natural Resources, our top concern in forestry was to keep silt and sand out of the water, so it would not surprise me if the City's current strategy did more damage. Ultimately they chose to risk the safety of people and access to businesses during Christmas in favor of ill-conceived environmentalism. p>

It wasn't all bad this year. There are some good moments as well. We list the top five good moments tomorrow.

Who needs science when we're saving the planet?

December 29, 2008 in Blog

A British group, Sense About Science, has published their Celebrities and Science Review 2008 and one issue we've addressed in the past made the list.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain indicated that they believe the vaccine preservative Thimerosal was linked to rising autism rates. The President-elect noted during the campaign that:

"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said.

The problem is that numerous studies have disproven the link. Earlier this year a study noted that even though the preservative was banned in California several years back, autism rates continue to climb. The problem is that this eco-fad needlessly increases the cost of vaccines and distracts from efforts to find the real cause of autism. Researching proven dead ends is costly and dangerous.

The study lists numerous other scientific errors made by celebrities and politicians. This is an ongoing problem in environmental policy. The City of Seattle's decision not to salt the streets to clear the snow is another example. As long as we are making policy decisions based on fads, not science, we shouldn't be surprised when the result is bad for prosperity and the environment.

Political Presents Under the Tree

December 16, 2008 in Blog

The Seattle Times reported recently that Governor Gregoire favors allocating free carbon credits to companies in Washington as part of the cap-and-trade system she advocates. Companies would be allowed to emit the same amount of CO2 as they have in the past. If they are able to reduce their emissions, they can sell the allowances they were given from the government. The allocations would decline year to year, but the initial allocation would be based on historical emissions - plus politics.

This system was used in Europe and led to some companies being given large excesses of carbon credits which they then sold on the market. In short, government gave something of value (carbon credits) to companies who then profited from them. Worse, a recent report by the Government Accounting Office found that politicians handed out presents, choosing winners and losers when it came to handing out allocations, leaving some industries short and others long.

Most power generation facilities were short whereas industrial facilities, including iron and steel; manufacturing ceramics; and pulp, paper, and board manufacturing were long. Member states allocated the shortage to the power sector because they believed this sector could reduce emissions at a lower cost than covered entities in other sectors. In addition, there were concerns that compliance with the ETS (emissions trading system) would create costs for covered entities that compete with facilities outside the EU that are not subject to carbon limits. Therefore, member states generally allocated the surplus to the globally competitive industrial sectors and the shortage to the power sector, which does not generally compete with entities outside the EU.

In other words, politicians changed the allocations arbitrarily to favor some sectors over others for political reasons. This is a major problem with cap-and-trade. Free allocations allow politicians to hand out favors to those they like and punish others. Some of these accounting games have already occurred.

It is one reason why the EU is not likely to meet the Kyoto targets. Governments over allocated credits in an effort to limit the impact on the economy, making it difficult to reach the targets.

The alternative to free allocation is auctioning. There are some advantages to this system, but the version of auctioning favored by the environmental community would be worse than free allocations and would amount to a multi-billion dollar tax increase in the middle of a recession.

A complex system like cap-and-trade invites accounting tricks and political favoritism. That's why many who once favored cap-and-trade are looking to other alternatives to reduce the risk from CO2. Unfortunately, Washington seems mired and married to a bad system.