July 2012

Post image for Was the Medieval Warm Period Confined to Europe?

That’s what the self-anointed ‘consensus of scientists’ claims. As noted in a previous post this week, right after the IPCC famously declared that the 1990s were likely the warmest decade of the past millennium, they stated: “Evidence does not support the existence of globally synchronous periods of cooling or warming associated with the ‘Little Ice Age’ and ‘Medieval Warm Period’” (Third Assessment Report, Chap. 2, p. 102).

But those remarkable Idsos, Shirwood, Craig, and Keith, keep reviewing studies that find evidence of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) and Little Ice Age (LIA) not only in Europe but also in Asia, Africa, Australia/New Zealand, North America, South America, the Oceans, and even Antarctica. What’s more, the preponderance of these studies indicate that the MWP was warmer than the current warm period (CWP). The Idsos divide these studies into two categories, Level 1 Studies, which attempt to quantify the difference between MWP peak temperatures and CWP peak temperatures, and Level 2 Studies, which indicate whether the MWP peak temperatures were higher than, lower than, or the same as CWP peak temperatures.

This week on their Web site, CO2Science.Org, the Idsos review a study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, that attempts to reconstruct the temperature history of the Antarctic Peninsula from ikaite crystals (an icy version of limestone) in marine sediments. [click to continue…]

Post image for The Greenland Ice Melt: Should We Be Alarmed?

If you follow global warming news at all, you’ve probably seen the NASA satellite images (above) many times. The images show the extent of Greenland surface ice melt on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). In just a few days, the area of the ice sheet with surface melting increased from about 40% to 97%, including Summit Station, Greenland’s highest and coldest spot.

NASA took a drubbing from Patrick Michaels and Chip Knappenberger at World Climate Report (“Illiteracy at NASA“) for describing the ice melt as “unprecedented” in the title of the agency’s press release. The word literally means without precedent, and properly refers to events that are unique and never happened before. In reality, as one of NASA’s experts points out in the press release, over the past 10,000 years, such events have occurred about once every 150 years:

“Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time,” says Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data.

Equating ‘rare yet periodic’ with ‘unprecedented’ is incorrect and misleading. “But apparently,” comment Michaels and Knappenberger, “when it comes to hyping anthropogenic global warming (or at least the inference thereto), redefining English words in order to garner more attention is a perfectly acceptable practice.” New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin also chided NASA for an “inaccurate headline” and the associated “hyperventilating coverage,” but for a different reason: NASA provided “fodder for those whose passion or job is largely aimed at spreading doubt about science pointing to consequential greenhouse-driven warming.”

Enough on the spin. Let’s examine the real issues: (1) Did anthropogenic global warming cause the extraordinary increase in surface melting between July 8 and July 12? (2) How worried should we be about Greenland’s potential impact on sea-level rise? [click to continue…]

Post image for Is Today’s Climate Warmer than the Medieval and Roman Warm Periods?

In 2001, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) featured a graph of Northern Hemisphere temperature history from a 1999 study by Profs. Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes. Because of its shape, the graph became known as the “hockey stick.” From A.D. 1,000 to about 1915, the graph depicts a gradual decline in Northern Hemisphere temperatures (the hockey stick handle) followed by an abrupt upturn in hemispheric temperatures during the remainder of the 20th century (the blade).

The graph appears in the IPCC 2001 report’s Summary for Policymakers, Technical Summary, and chapter 2 on Observed Climate Variability and Change. Based on the Mann-Bradley-Hughes (MBH) study, the IPCC famously concluded that, “The 1990s are likely to have been the warmest decade of the millennium in the Northern Hemisphere and 1998 is likely to have been the warmest year” (chapter 2, p. 102). The IPCC also asserted that, “Evidence does not support the existence of globally synchronous periods of cooling or warming associated with the ‘Little Ice Age’ and ‘Medieval Warm Period’.” The hockey stick instantly became the poster child for pro-Kyoto advocacy, touted as seeing-is-believing evidence that late 20th century warmth was unprecedented during the past 1,000 years, and that mankind’s fuelish ways must be to blame.

Soon after its PR boost from the IPCC, the hockey stick became embroiled in a controversy that persists to this day. Books both pro and con have been written on the subject. Two leading critics, mining consultant Steve McIntyre and economist Ross McKitrick, argued that MBH’s computer program generates hockey stick-shaped graphs from random data. As for the IPCC’s dismissal of the Medieval Warm Period as a European phenomenon, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change maintains a large and growing archive of studies indicating that the Medieval Warm Period was global and/or warmer than recent decades.

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change further undermines the credibility of the hockey stick. The study, “Orbital forcing of tree-ring data,” by Jan Esper of Johannes Gutenberg University, in Germany, and colleagues from Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and Scotland, used X rays to measure changes in the cell-wall density of trees in Northern Finland over the past 2,000 years. The analysis examined both “living and subfossil pine (Pinus sylvestris) trees from 14 lakes and 3 lakeshore sites.” [click to continue…]

Post image for Historical Perspective on the Recent Heat Wave

Over at World Climate Report, the indefatigable Pat Michaels and Chip Knappenberger review a new study updating National Climate Data Center (NCDC) data on U.S. State climate extremes. I’ll cut right to the chase. The paper, “Evaluating Statewide Climate Extremes for the United States,” published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, finds that far more State-wide all-time-high temperature records were set in the 1930s than in recent decades.

From Pat and Chip’s review:

Despite the 24/7 caterwauling, only two new state records—South Carolina and Georgia—are currently under investigation. And, looking carefully at Shein et al. dataset, there appears to be a remarkable lack of all-time records in recent years. This is particularly striking given the increasing urbanization of the U.S. and the consequent “non climatic” warming that creeps into previously pristine records. . . .

Notice that the vast majority of the all-time records were set more than half a century ago and that there are exceedingly few records set within the past few decades. This is not the picture that you would expect if global warming from greenhouse gas emissions were the dominant forcing of the characteristics of our daily weather. Instead, natural variability is still holding a strong hand.

The chart below shows the number of State heat records and the year in which they were set. (When the same all-time high occurs in two or more years in the same State, each of those years gets a fraction of one point.)


Post image for CFL Bulbs May Pose Risk to Skin

Via Kenneth Green and The Daily Caller, comes some research which suggests that ultraviolet rays from compact fluorescent bulbs may pose a risk to healthy skin cells.

From the studies abstract:

In this study, we studied the effects of exposure to CFL illumination on healthy human skin tissue cells (fibroblasts and keratinocytes). Cells exposed to CFLs exhibited a decrease in the proliferation rate, a significant increase in the production of reactive oxygen species, and a decrease in their ability to contract collagen. Measurements of UV emissions from these bulbs found significant levels of UVC and UVA (mercury [Hg] emission lines), which appeared to originate from cracks in the phosphor coatings, present in all bulbs studied. [click to continue…]

Post image for When Drought Strikes, Should U.S. Policy Endanger Hungry People?

The question answers itself. Of course not. But that is the effect of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), more commonly known as the ethanol mandate.

Under the RFS (Energy Independence and Security Act, p. 31), refiners must sell specified amounts of biofuel each year. The “volumetric targets” increase from 4.0 billion gallons in 2006 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. The amount of corn ethanol qualifying as “renewable” maxes out at 15 billion gallons in 2015. Already, ethanol production consumes about 40% of the annual U.S. corn crop.

By 2022, 21 billion gallons are to be “advanced” (low-carbon) biofuels, of which 16 billion gallons are to be made from plant cellulose. But with cellulosic ethanol proving to be a complete dud, corn growners and ethanol producers are lobbying to redefine corn ethanol as “advanced.” If they succeed, mandatory sales of corn ethanol could significantly exceed 15 billion gallons annually.

In any event, the RFS sets aside a large and increasing quantity of the U.S. corn crop each year for ethanol production regardless of market demand for competing uses — and heedless of the potential impacts on food prices and world hunger. No matter how much of the U.S. corn crop is ruined by drought, no matter how high corn prices get, no matter how many people in developing countries are imperiled, the RFS requires that billions of bushels of corn be used to fuel cars rather than feed livestock and people. This is crazy. [click to continue…]

Post image for Ethanol Added $14.5 Billion to Consumer Motor Fuel Costs in 2011, Study Finds

Today, FarmEcon LLC released RFS, Fuel and Food Prices, and the Need for Statutory Flexibility, a study of ethanol’s impact on food and fuel prices. FarmEcon prepared the study for the American Meat Institute, California Dairies Inc., Milk Producers Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, and National Turkey Federation.

The study argues that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), commonly known as the ethanol mandate, is detrimental to both non-ethanol industry corn users and food and fuel consumers. The program should therefore be reformed. The RFS has “destabilized corn and ethanol prices by offering an almost risk-free demand volume guaranty to the corn-based ethanol industry.” Consequently, food producers who use corn as a feedstock “have been forced to bear a disproportionate share of market and price risk” when corn yields fall and prices rise. This has become painfully obvious in recent weeks as drought conditions in the Midwest depress yields and push corn prices to record highs.

Appropriate reform* would assure food producers “automatic market access” to corn stocks “in the event of a natural disaster and a sharp reduction in corn production.” Ethanol producers should “bear the burden of market adjustments, along with domestic food producers and corn export customers.” The study also recommends that the RFS schedule “be revised to reflect the ethanol industry’s inability to produce commercially viable cellulosic fuels.”

Pretty tame stuff. An argument for flexibility to avoid the RFS’s worst market distortions and the cellulosic farce rather than an abolitionist manifesto. Nonetheless, the study paints a fairly damning picture of the RFS as a whole:

  • Increases in ethanol production since 2007 have made little, or no, contribution to U.S. energy supplies, or dependence on foreign crude oil. Rather, those increases have pushed gasoline suplies into the export market.
  • Current ethanol policy has increased and destabilized corn and related commodity prices to the detriment of both food and fuel producers. Corn price volatility has more than doubled since 2007.
  • Following the late 2007 increase in the RFS, food price inflation relative to all other goods and services accelerated sharply to twice its 2005-2007 rate.
  • Post-2007 higher rates of food price inflation are associated with sharp increases in corn, soybean and wheat prices.
  • On an energy basis, ethanol has never been priced competitively with gasoline.
  • Ethanol production costs and prices have ruled out U.S. ethanol use at levels higher than E10. As a result, we exported 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011.
  • Due to its higher energy cost and negative effect on fuel mileage, ethanol adds to the overall cost of motor fuels. In 2011 the higher cost of ethanol energy compared to gasoline added approximately $14.5 billion, or about 10 cents per gallon, to the cost of U.S. gasoline consumption. Ethanol tax credits (since discontinued) added another 4 cents per gallon. [click to continue…]
Post image for MIT Study Debunks RFA/Vilsack Claims on Ethanol, Gas Prices

Back in May, I discussed a study conducted for the Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) by Iowa State University’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Development (CARD). The study claims that from January 2000 to December 2011, “the growth in ethanol production reduced wholesale gasoline prices by $0.29 per gallon on average across all regions,” and reduced average gasoline prices by a whopping $0.89 per gallon in 2010 and $1.09 per gallon in 2011. Ethanol boosters like the RFA and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack tout this study as proof that federal biofuel policies benefit consumers and should be expanded.

The CARD researchers, Xiaodong Du and Dermot Hayes, attempt to determine the consumer benefit of ethanol by inferring what motor fuel prices would have been over the past decade had there been no increase in ethanol production. Ethanol now constitutes roughly 10% of the motor fuel used by U.S. passenger vehicles. Du and Hayes conclude that without ethanol, U.S. motor fuel supply would be significantly smaller and pain at the pump significantly greater.

This procedure, I argued, is ridiculous. First, it assumes that refiners are like deer caught in the headlights and do not respond to incentives. Even if motor fuel prices increase by up to $1.09/gal nationwide over a 10-year period, we’re supposed to believe refiners would not increase output and take advantage of this opportunity to sell more of their product at higher prices. But that’s exactly what refiners would do. In the process, supply would come back into balance with demand, pushing fuel prices down.

Second, the CARD study ignores the opportunity costs of ethanol policy. Capital is a finite resource. Dollars that refiners are mandated or bribed to invest in ethanol production are dollars they cannot invest in gasoline production. The CARD study implausibly assumes that all the refining capacity diverted by federal policy into ethanol production would have been left idle in a free market and not used to produce gasoline instead.

Admittedly, the CARD study is full of math I don’t understand. But two experts in the field — MIT energy economics professor Christopher Knittel and UC Davis agricultural economics professor Aaron Smith — have just produced a technical critique of the CARD study. Titled “Ethanol Production and Gasoline Prices: A Spurious Correlation,” the researchers make several telling points, some of which are funnier than the standard fare found in the ‘dismal science.’   [click to continue…]

Post image for Consumer Preferences Versus Energy Efficiency Regulations

The Mercatus Center released a paper (PDF) this month co-authored by Ted Gayer (an economist at the Brooking Institution) and W. Kip Viscusi (an economics professor at Vanderbilt), titled “Overriding Consumer Preferences with Energy Regulations” which questions the economic justification for various government schemes implemented to force energy efficiency improvements in consumer household products, automobiles, lightbulbs, etc. The abstract is below:

This paper examines the economic justification for recent U.S. energy regulations proposed or enacted by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The case studies include mileage requirements for motor vehicles and energy-efficiency standards for clothes dryers, room air conditioners, and light bulbs. The main findings are that the standards have a negligible effect on greenhouse gases and the preponderance of the estimated benefits stems from private benefits to consumers, based on the regulators’ presumption of consumer irrationality.

The paper walks through the basic economic understanding of consumer rationality, and explains why behavioral critiques of consumer rationality fail to undermine the general conclusion that consumers are overwhelmingly rational and tend to act in their own best interest, and that “in most contexts consumers are better equipped than analysts or policymakers to make market decisions that affect themselves.” [click to continue…]

From the Sunday talk show circuit, summary courtesy of Politico:

High energy costs, not the drought gripping more than half the country, may take a bite out of Americans’ grocery bills, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Sunday.

With 26 states in drought conditions, CNN’s Candy Crowley repeatedly pressed Vilsack on “State of the Union: over a connection to jumps in the prices of some food items, but Vilsack resisted the connection.

“If [people] are using this drought to inappropriately raise prices, shame on them,” Vilsack said.

Typically, when it is discovered that in the future there will be much less of a certain commodity than previously expected, the price rises. While some energy prices have risen, they haven’t changed enough to warrant such a dramatic rise in the price of corn. The primary cause is lowered yields resulting from drought:

U.S. feed grain supplies for 2012/13 are projected sharply lower this month with lower production for corn on lower yields. Extremely hot weather and drought result in a 20- bushel-per-acre decline in the projected corn yield to 146 bushels per acre reducing projected production to 13.0 billion bushels, compared with 14.8 billion bushels last month. The June Acreage report increased planted acreage relative to March intentions but harvested acreage was reduced 249,000 acres. Corn supplies for 2012/13 are projected1.8 billion bushels lower. Forecast 2012/13 prices are increased for corn, sorghum, and barley and oats. With tighter supplies and higher price prospects, domestic corn use is projected down 755 million bushels as feed and residual and ethanol use prospects are lowered. [click to continue…]