EPA Budget Cuts: Challenging Inertia

President Trump’s proposed budget reduction has set off howls of protest from democrats and a wide range of environmentalists.  The instantaneous reactions tell their own story and it is not one of thoughtfulness.  Smaller budget proposals are a mechanism for organizations—public and private—to reassess, prioritize, and rethink missions.

EPA was created in 1970 and its mission and approach have not changed since then.  Over the past 47 years, true to the economic theory of public choice, its scope and bureaucratic control has been an example in mission creep.

No successful organization remains the same today as it was in 1970.  Most organizations resist change as do most human beings.  In the private sector, competition, reduced demand, a new CEO or potential obsolescence are motivators for change.  With the exception of a new President, those motivating forces do not exist in the public sector.  So, rather than begin with defense for the status quo, environmentalists and democrats should let the process play out during the budget hearing phase to determine which proposed changes to support or oppose. It is almost a given that the proposed 31% reduction will not get enacted.  EPA’s budget is $8.1 billion and the proposed reduction would take it to $5.5 billion the level it was at in 1990.

When EPA was created the nation faced serious environmental problems with air and water quality, waste disposal, and exposure to toxic substances.  Since then, tremendous progress has been made as can be seen in EPA’s Report on the Environment.  As one example, air quality has shown tremendous improvement since measurements were started in the late 1970s.  Ambient levels of pollutants specified in the Clean Air Act have been reduced from 27% in the case of ozone to 89% for lead, reflecting significant reductions in emissions of covered pollutants.  Water quality has also improved but unlike air pollution, is very difficult to monitor on a national basis. Hazardous waste and toxic substances are addressed through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.  Solid progress should be the major reason for rethinking its mission

While a case could be made that in the early days of environmental management, command and control was a means to make sure that all states developed programs to implement environmental improvement and compliance programs, the only justifications for command and control today are that is how it has always been done and environmental advocates don’t want to lose influence with bureaucrats.  Each state has set up environmental departments and those departments issue regular reports on compliance and progress.

A strong national commitment to environmental protection and in place compliance mechanisms make it possible to delegate implementation, compliance and enforcement to states with EPA focusing on research, technical assistance, oversight, incentives to continue making progress, and most important identifying the points of diminishing returns. Instead of micromanaging, the agency should focus on results.  How a state achieves specific environmental objectives is less important than their timely achievement.

Over the past eight years, EPA was a regulatory machine on steroids.  The number of major regulations—those with an impact of $100 million or more increased from 76 during the Bush Administration to 229 during the Obama Administration. The economic impact rose from $38 billion to over $100 billion annually.

Many of the Obama regulations were justified by questionable benefits flowing from equally questionable research and analysis.  For example, EPA asserted that further tightening of the ozone standard was justified because it would reduce the incidence of asthma attacks.  However, the incidence of asthma attacks has been increasing even as their quality was continually improving.  In justifying its Clean Power Plant rule, the agency claimed it would avoid 2700 to 6000 premature deaths.  According to CDC, there are 900,000 premature deaths annually.  EPA would have us believe that its epidemiological methodologies are sufficiently precise to measure changes between .003 and 1percent. EPA manufactured absurd results through modelling and research designed to support its beliefs; not to illuminate environmental conditions and impacts.  That approach needs to change and its research should fill gaps in knowledge while meeting objective scientific standards.

A smaller budget  changes incentives and helps reveal real environmental priorities.

EPA’s Shaky Foundation for Climate Regulations

During the Obama Administration, its climate agenda was driven by EPA using a bad Supreme Court decision to justify regulations that had no sound basis in science or economics.

In making its decision, the Court reached a number of conclusions of questionable validity.  It concluded, “Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles”… and,” A well-documented rise in global temperatures has coincided with a significant increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Respected scientists believe the two trends are related.”  The Court also accepted the IPCC’s conclusion about humans having a “discernable influence on climate”.

For years, courts have given deference to agencies based on the Supreme Court’s Chevron decision that found that when there is ambiguity in a law, deference should be given to an agency’s interpretation.

The Bush Administration could have strongly rebutted the arguments that led to the Court’s conclusions but instead opted for challenging the petitioners standing to bring suit and some technicalities.

Beginning with the conclusion that EPA could determine that CO2 was a pollutant, the Court then easily moved to the decision that the Agency could regulate it if it found that CO2 endangered human health and welfare.  What the Court ignored was that Congress in passing the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments explicitly decided against granting EPA authority to regulate CO2.  Clearly in this instance, deference should have been given to Congressional intent.  The Court also ignored the established fact that CO2 was a nutrient; not a pollutant.  In citing the rise in global temperatures and increase in CO2 concentrations, the Court made the serious blunder of equating correlation, which really doesn’t exist, with causality.

By allowing EPA to stretch the definition of pollutant, the Court had to accept that increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere would cause harm and that regulating emissions would avoid that harm.  Even if you concede the Court’s assumption, there is no way that EPA regulations would produce any beneficial effect.  To make significant reductions in atmospheric concentrations, it would be necessary for all nations to reduce emissions.  At the time of the Court decision, the only global agreement was the Kyoto Agreement, which exempted developing countries, the major source of emissions.  So, it should have been abundantly clear that granting EPA the authority to regulate would impose large costs and no warming reduction or climate benefits.

Beyond the errors cited, the Supreme Court also ignored a1993 Supreme Court decision –Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals which set forth a standard for scientific evidence.  The Court stated, “ … in order to qualify as “scientific knowledge”, an inference or assertion must be derivied by the scientific method.”  It went on to state, “…in determining whether a theory …is scientific knowledge … will be whether it can be (and has been) tested.  Scientific methodology today is based on generating hypotheses and testing them to see if they can be falsified.”  The conclusions of the IPCC and the work it uses in drawing a conclusion that human activities are the primary cause of global temperature increases and associated climate events are based on climate model outputs and not the results of experiments that can be falsified.  The models have not been validated, nor have most of the assumptions incorporated in them.  It is that simple.




Scott Pruitt’s Heresy: Telling the Truth and Not Being Politically Correct

The chattering climate apocalyptics are in a state of high state of agitation as a result of  EPA Administrator Pruitt’s comment that “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

The main stream media and some charter members of the climate club reacted predictably by trotting out the infamous 97%, other elements of the climate orthodoxy, and hanging the label of “denialist” around his neck.  It would have been refreshing if at least one major newspaper could have asked for an explanation of why he held a view that was at odds with many scientists.  Reporting is supposed to be about digging for facts; not pre-emptive dismissal.

Mr. Pruitt did not say that the earth had not warmed, he did not deny that climate changes, and he did not say that there was no human influence on the climate system.  His sin was to challenge the certitude of the adherents to the climate orthodoxy.  There is an abundance of evidence that the case that humans are mostly responsible for warming since the middle of the last century is a construct that rests on a shaky scientific foundation.

No one disputes that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that warms the earth and no one challenges the conclusion that a doubling of CO2, absent positive feedback, would increase global temperatures by 1 degree C.  The IPCC and other climate advocates assume enhanced feedback that will cause temperatures in the future—note that it is always decades in the future—will be significantly higher.  While these assertions are made as if there is no uncertainty, the IPCC estimates that climate sensitivity is somewhere between 1.5 degrees C and 4.5 degrees C.  A factor of 3 difference undermines the certainty with which advocates make their announcements and predictions.

In addition, if the case for human causality was so compelling, climate advocates would not have to resort to statistical tricks and manipulation to mislead the public.  Each year, NASA announces with great fanfare that the current year is one of the warmest on record or in the case of 2016 was the warmest on record.  What NASA doesn’t tell is that for most of the years in question, the difference from a prior year is measured in tenths of a degree and often within the margin of measurement error.  In the case of 2016, it was warmer than recent years because of El Nino but it was not the warmest ever recorded.  1934 according to NASA data was the same as 2016.

Even the extent of warming is open to debate.  Since the end of the Little Ice Age, the US temperature record shows a cyclical pattern but also a warming trend.  Over the course of more than 120 years, surface measuring stations and devices have changed.  The location of measuring stations, the development of urban areas, and the switch from mercury thermometers to electric thermistors affect temperature recordings.  Urban development creates heat islands and adjustments are necessary to correct for the heat they retain. Those adjustments are based on beliefs and assumptions.   An audit of the more than 1200 measuring stations by Anthony Watts found that “89 percent of the stations – nearly 9 of every 10 – fail to meet the National Weather Service’s own siting requirements that stations must be 30 meters (about 100 feet) or more away from an artificial heating or radiating/ reflecting heat source.”  https://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/surfacestationsreport_spring09.pdf

In 1954, Darrell Huff wrote the classic How to Lie with Statistics.  A sequel could be written just relying on the analytical tricks and misused statistics used by climate advocates.

The case for skepticism about the climate orthodoxy provides a strong platform for Mr. Pruitt to stand on.  If he holds the EPA staff to accepted standards of scientific evidence, the case built during the Obama Administration by Gina McCarthy will wilt away.  That would be a real public service.





Starve a Feeding Bureaucrat

Few things in life are predictable with certainty but the reaction of the climateers to the proposed cut in government climate research certainly was.

The Global Change Research Program dates back to the 1990s and the Clinton Administration.  During that time, the views of Vice President Gore and the strength of his office dominated how federal research dollars were spent. Anyone who questioned the orthodoxy need not apply.

With the election of George W Bush, the program was reoriented and placed under the Department of Commerce.  The new Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI), was intended “to reduce significant uncertainties in climate science, improve global observing systems, develop science-based information resources to support policymaking and resource management, and communicate findings broadly among the international scientific and user communities”.

Not surprisingly, the program got captured by a bureaucracy that reflected the beliefs of Al Gore and NASA’s James Hansen.  The goal quickly shifted from gaining new scientific knowledge to “research” that would confirm the indictment of CO2 and an impending catastrophe caused by human activities such as driving, heating and lighting homes and commercial facilities, and carrying on a life that was enriched by the use of fossil fuels.

Between 2002 and 2016, the climate research program grew from about $5 billion to $7.5 billion in 2009.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, there was a dramatic increase to almost $38 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What did we get from those dollars?  Based on the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not much.  We don’t know much more about natural variability, climate sensitivity, although its lower bound has been reduced, cloud formation, water vapor, or solar impacts.  In the early 2000s, NOAA did initiate an enhanced oceans observation system which has improved knowledge of oceans.

The history of the federal government’s climate research program makes clear that unbiased research is not likely to come from the federal bureaucracy.  A CATO Institute paper by Patrick Michaels– Is the Government Buying Science or Support? A Framework Analysis of Federal Funding-induced Biases—provides an insightful explanation for the biases that have been widely documented.  Michaels provides a reference to a critique of the USGCRP by Professor Judith Curry, recently retired from Georgia Tech.  She describes it as “off the rails” because it is designed to promote policies rather than advance climate science.

None of this should be surprising.  The beginning of the CATO report includes a reference to Thomas Kuhn: “fundamental beliefs can take over a scientific field”. He called these entrenched beliefs “paradigms” and noted that they tend to direct scientific thinking in specific directions. Once these beliefs become entrenched they are difficult to dislodge, despite growing evidence that they may be incorrect. Science, like any human endeavor, is subject to fads and fashions”.

James Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, who developed the public choice theory of economics proved that bureaucrats are like the rest of us.  They pursue their own self interests.  Holding government positions doesn’t convert them to angels who selflessly guard the public interest.  That doesn’t make them venal, only human.

There are a lot of questions about the climate system than need answering but the approach taken over the past several decades won’t provide robust answers.   And, just cutting budgets isn’t the answer either.  Our nation has a long history of supporting basic research that has produced new knowledge in every field of science.  Funding basic research in physics, meteorology, oceanography at well-known centers of excellence through competitive bidding is a route, but not the only one, to producing improved  understanding about our climate system as well as human impact on it.

So yes, starve a feeding bureaucrat but not our thirst for knowledge.