Skip to comments.Clearing the Air
Posted on 04/20/2004 11:22:04 AM PDT by neverdem
The journalist has the ultimate power, a cynic once said, the power to choose whom to be co-opted by.
That temptation is never greater than when you are writing about environmental policy. You can go to the environmental groups and get one set of facts. Or you can go to the industry groups and get an entirely different set of facts. Both sides have long histories of exaggeration and distortion, and there's no other realm of public policy in which it is so hard to find honest brokers, capable of offering a balanced perspective.
Nonetheless, over the past couple of decades, I've stumbled across a few, and I've been consulting them in the hope of getting a grip on the Bush clean-air record.
The first thing to be said is that air pollution trends are unchanged under President Bush. For the past three decades, the quality of our air has steadily improved. Air pollution from the six major pollutants has decreased by 48 percent over that time, even though our economy has grown by 164 percent. If you look at the charts showing that decline, you can't tell when the Clinton era ended and the Bush era began.
The Bush administration's biggest air pollution failure has been its inability to restart the global warming debate. There is ample evidence that we have a long-term global warming problem, and the sooner we address it the better. The old approach, the Kyoto treaty, was never going to be ratified by the Senate. But the administration could have moved aggressively to find another way forward. Instead it proposed a pitiable voluntary program, which has had no effect.
The administration's biggest success has been its regulation of diesel fuels. In the face of fierce industry hostility, the Bush crowd decided that the benefits of diesel regulation far outweighed the costs. The Bush initiatives were applauded by even its most ardent critics. An official from the Natural Resources Defense Council called the diesel emissions regulations "the most significant public health proposal in decades."
The most ambitious Bush proposal is over the nature of environmental regulation itself. Bush inherited a command-and-control regulatory regime called new-source review, which has metastasized into a regulatory behemoth. Bureaucrats try to issue rules site by site. Industries have a perverse incentive to rely on older high-pollution plants. The review process is opaque, expensive and riddled with litigation.
The administration is trying to supersede it with a cap-and-trade system, in which the government would set caps on overall emissions, allow companies flexibility on how to meet them and give firms the chance to buy and sell emissions credits. This general approach was recently embraced by a comprehensive study by the National Research Council. It builds on a phenomenally successful cap-and-trade provision in the 1990 Clean Air Act, which controls sulfur dioxide emissions at 25 percent of the cost of the old regulatory system.
Nonetheless, for two years Jim Jeffords and a Democratic-led coalition have blocked the Bush initiative. Many Democrats have in the past backed cap-and-trade reforms, but they don't want to allow Bush a victory. This has had several bad effects. The administration has tried to enact the reforms by administrative fiat, which means litigation and delay. More important, it means that there is no discussion or compromise on some remaining points of dispute.
How high should the caps be? Should we reduce emissions by 70 percent, as Bush wants, or by 90 percent? Would the benefits of that higher standard justify the costs? What about mercury? There are proposals to supplement the cap-and-trade approach with local measures to handle hot spots with high mercury concentrations. These languish during the deadlock. Finally, if utilities were given an incentive to switch to natural gas, would that decimate our coal industry?
All of these are open questions, which require a balancing of evidence and interests. These are exactly the sort of questions best hammered out through legislative wrangling. But, of course, that's not allowed to happen.
This is yet another issue around which it would be easy to build a sensible majority if things were judged on their merits. Instead, we've got paralysis.
It would be nice if Brooks shared some of that evidence with us. It would also be nice if Brooks applied his scientific expertise to the problem and explained to us what will need to be done if global warming (assuming it is actually occurring) is the result of long term changes in the Sun. If that is the case, does Brooks suggest we embark on an immediate program to finetune the amount of energy being put out by the Sun?
Global warming is happening. Just look at the shrinkage of glaciers. I'm sure average temperature measurements also show a small increase, IIRC.
The trouble is the plausible hypothesis that it is due to man-made increases in "greenhouse gases".
I only alluded to to it, but you stated it almost explicitly, i.e. there are natural variations in the radiant energy from the sun which have also been documented by recordings made by satellites.
The surface record, however, continues to go up.
The surface record continues to go up. But you have to be very careful with the surface record. It is taken with thermometers that are mostly located in or near cities. And as cities expand, they get warmer. And therefore they affect the readings. And it's very difficult to eliminate this--what's called the urban heat island effect. So I personally prefer to trust in weather satellites.
You've got one record that goes back 100 years, which has got imperfections in data gathering, and then you've got a much shorter record that also has questions about data gathering, the satellite record. From a statistical point of view, you get more power out of a longer record than a shorter record, don't you?
A longer record, in general, will give you more statistical power, if there is a general overall trend. But, in fact, the surface record also shows a cooling. So, which part of the surface record are you going to believe? The part before 1940, that shows a warming, or the part after 1940, that shows a cooling? See, that's the dilemma.
The curve--as the climate modelers have it--has three segments. They would say there was a warming, a cooling, and a sharp warming now...they would say...on the land surface. And that's their problem.
Well, since we're using models to predict the future--and the only way you can predict the future is to use models--the important question is: Can these models be validated by observations? And the models very clearly show that the climate right now should be warming at about the rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade, in the middle troposphere, that is, above the surface. But that's not what the observations show. So until the observations and the models agree, or until one or the other is resolved, it's very difficult for people--and for myself, of course--to believe in the predictive power of the current models. Now, the models are getting better. And perhaps in ten years we will have models that can be trusted, that is, that agree with actual observations
In point of fact, the issue of whether global warming is occuring is open to debate and right the arguments made by people who contend that global warming is occuring depend in large part on the point in time they begin their measurements. For example, if you start your measurements back 800 years ago when there was an ice age, then, yes, global warming has been occuring for some time. However, if you begin your measurements 40 years ago, then it is unclear whether global warming is occuring. As for your example of glaciers melting, I believe reports have been coming out of Antarctica for sometime that the ice cap appears to be increasing there. Likewise, as a recently as a few weeks ago, we were treated to reports in the European press that the 'global warming' may result in Britain going into the deep freeze in the coming years. So, in short, you can count me as being extremely sceptical when people like David Brooks say that there is strong evidence that global warming is occurring.
I'm familiar with the "urban heat island effect". I should have been more explicit for my belief in global warming. I came across an article in Scientific American within the last year, IIRC. The gist of it was that there are satellites that have been monitoring and measuring the sun's output in radiant energy since the late 1970s. The article stated that suns output has been increasing since then. Thanks for the links, BTW.
My problem with Brooks' article is that to get to the point where you think global warming is something we should do something about, you have to make five assumptions which he doesn't even address let alone make the case for. First, you have to assume global warming is happening. Second, you have to assume that if global warming is happening, that is a bad thing (the Russians argue that global warming would be great for them). Third, you have to assume that if global warming is happening and it is bad thing, human beings are the cause of it. Fourth, assuming human beings are the cause of global warming, you then have to assume that we can now do something to reverse it. And fifth you have to assume that if we are causing it and it can be reversed, that the costs of reversing global warming are outweighed by the costs of doing nothing about it. I haven't seen the case made definitively for any of those assumptions, so it would nice to see Brooks make the case before going on to argue that we need to 'do something' about global warming.
Someone from the NY Slimes wrote an article that actually makes it look like things are going ok in the Bush camp. Now look closer. The RATS have stalled any efforts of the administrations plans for reducing emissions.
What has been Kerry's flavor of the week? The Environment.
Excellent! Bears repeating.
For quite a while, at least since Bill Safire started writing for them. I believe Safire's immediate employer before the Times was Tricky Dick. He was a Nixon speechwriter. Brooks went onboard in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair affair. As for the rest of their regular OpEd columnists, Mo Dowd could be scathingly funny when she wrote about Clinton during the Lewinsky affair.
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