Torturing the Data and the Facts

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there they go again. The so-called Partnership for Responsible Growth is running a series of ads in the Wall Street Journal that attempt to make the case that human activities like heating, cooling, and lighting our homes and factories and reaping the rewards of mobility are causing climate change, which it asserts will cause an environmental disaster. It provides citations for each of its comments to lend an air of credibility but they are more like the drunk who use the lamppost for support and not illumination.

In one recent ad, it makes the following assertions:

 

  • “Sixteen of the last eighteen years were the hottest on record and 2015 was confirmed as the hottest ever by far. Despite what you may have heard, there has been no “pause.”

 

  • “And not surprisingly, CO2 levels and temperatures track together in the geologic record”.

In spite of the use of citations, these statements are a manifestation of Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics. The first statement is technically correct but misleading, while the second statement is just wrong.

Since the 1998 high of 54.9 degrees, there have only been two years that exceeded that le3vel according to NOAA—2010 and 2012. The other years have ranged between 52.4 and 54.8 degrees. The data, government data, clearly show a pause. Annual temperatures in the 54 degree range are not unusual. They occurred in 1931, 1934, 1938, 1939, and 1953.

When advocates cite specific years as being the hottest or one of the hottest, they are relying on changes of tenths of a degree but implying much larger changes. The exceptions were 2010 and 2012, which were the hottest since the end of the Little Ice Age. Further, the averages reflect adjustments to correct for the heat island effect, changes in measurement devices, and locational factors. Mercury thermometers, which have been used in the past and record temperatures twice daily, are being replaced with electric devices called thermistors, which provide continuous readings. And, there is evidence that thermisters, which are more accurate, read warmer than the devices they replaced. So, the adjustments and change in devices introduce confounding variables that should produce interpretative caution, not bold pronouncements.

About all that can be concluded with confidence is that it has warmed since the late the end of the Little Ice Age and temperatures have shown a cyclical pattern since that time. From 1805 until the late 1930s, temperatures increased. From 1940 until the mid 1980s, they declined and then started increasing until the end of the 1990s. Since then, there has been no significant increases. The patterns observed over the past century are not consistent with the assertion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are causing dangerous warming and climate change.

The statement that CO2 levels and temperatures “track together in the geologic record” is not even grossly right; it is precisely wrong. A report by the CO2 Coalition, Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World: See for Yourself, contains a figure, CO2 Levels on Earth, that shows CO2 levels 600 million years in the past.   The following figure clearly shows that over the course of geologic history, CO2 have been declining, while temperatures have increased and decreased.

global-temp-co2-over-geological-time1

Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance contains a graph that was contructed to show almost constant levels of CO2 and temperatures until the recent past when they appear to go almost straight up. Of course, Gore’s graph was constructed to bolster his message; not to provide accurate information. When his data were plotted in a non-biased way, they reveal that there have been periods when CO2 has risen but not temperatures, when temperatures rose but not CO2, periods when temperatures have risen in tandem with CO2, periods when temperature declined and CO2 levels rose, and periods where temperatures rose but CO2 levels remained constant or declined.

There is a saying in analysis that clearly applies to the Partnership’s advertising campaign: torture the data until it confesses; torture it too much and it will confess to anything.

The Big Ethanol Scam

Annually over the past several years, Congress has considered the repeal of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) and each time has blinked because of the ethanol lobby. Consideration of repeal is before Congress again but in an election year it is likely to happen as seeing pigs fly.

The Renewable Fuels Association leaves nothing to chance and is once again making an all out push to convince consumers, thought leaders and others that the RFS is in the nation’s best interest. What it really is, is just another example of Baptist and Bootlegger economics, an alliance that allows an economic interest—corn farmers and ethanol producers—to enrich themselves by claiming to pursue a cleaner environment and bolster national security.

The facts are completely different than the image being sold by the ethanol lobby. It has been known for almost 30 years that lower tailpipe standards could be met without the oxygenate mandate in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. In spite of self serving rhetoric, the ethanol mandate does nothing for the environment, nothing for national security, and instead wastes a valuable food source, damages engines, and robs consumers. Before the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, the Oil and Auto industries presented Congress with the results of the largest and most expensive research program on fuel-vehicles interactions ever conducted. It demonstrated that the lower tailpipe emissions being contemplated could be achieved without an oxygenate—ethanol—mandate. Congress ignored those results because it needed the support of the farm lobby for passage. In addition to writing a formula for gasoline into law, Congress provided a generous tax credit to offset the higher cost of complying with the mandate.

The Renewable Fuels Association makes the incredulous claim that the ethanol industry “doesn’t receive any federal government subsidies and that it is not a program which the government pays companies to convert corn into ethanol alcohol into an additive.” While these two statements are technically correct, they are misleading and disingenuous. Congress did repeal the ethanol federal tax credit in 2011 but in 2007 imposed a volumetric mandate that increases over time. Forcing refiners to use an additive that they don’t want or need, forces them to purchase ethanol from manufacturers and rewards farmers for planting more corn than consumers demand. A subsidy does not have to be a direct government payment. The existence of the mandate represents “financial assistance provided by a government to another entity, usually a business or industry,” which is a definition of subsidy. The cost to consumers has been calculated to be about $10 billion annually

Were it not for the mandate, the ethanol industry would be a lot smaller and so would be the corn crop, 40% smaller. The mandate has driven up the price of corn and the cost of foods made from corn and foods where corn is a feed for animals. The higher cost of these foods is a tax that is especially punitive to those on low and fixed income and devastating to the global poor who subsist on less than $2 a day.

Ethanol proponents claim that ethanol increases national security because it reduces the amount of oil imports from unstable regions of the world. At first blush, the claim appears to make sense since ethanol is substituted for an equal quantity of gasoline. However, ethanol is less energy efficient than gasoline, so more gasoline has to be consumed to travel the same distance as can be traveled with ethanol free gasoline. An analysis in 2009 by the Energy Insider newsletter reached this conclusion, “The easiest conclusion is that the claims of petroleum import displacement have been at a minimum grossly exaggerated. It may even be that ethanol hasn’t backed any petroleum imports out, or that the impact is so small as to be unnoticeable.” Oil imports have been declining since 2008 but that is a result of fracking, not ethanol. Further, our major sources of oil imports isn’t the Persian Gulf, it is Canada and Mexico.

The dominance of special interest influence is Washington is fueling the anger so visible in the electorate. Congress and the next Administration can take a corrective step by repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard and letting the market determine the composition of the fuel that powers our trucks and cars.

 

 

 

Snookering the Wall Street Journal

Even though the Wall Street Journal is skeptical about climate change claims and has been very critical of the climate orthodoxy, it agreed to run 11 climate change ads by a group called The Partnership for Responsible Growth. Unfortunately, in attempting to be fair and open minded, the Journal did not do a good job of fact checking the factual foundation of the  June 16 ad titled, Carbon Traps Heat.  It got snookered.

This group begins by stating that “IF WE CAN AGREE ON THAT (carbon traps heat), WE CAN HAVE A CONVERSATION.” Actually you can agree with that statement and still not be able to have an informed conversation because this so called Partnership wraps its political agenda in the cloak of science. It is true that scientists have known for almost 200 years that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to warming by absorbing solar energy that otherwise would be reflected back into space. That observation about CO2 is where the Partnership’s statement of fact ends and its political rhetoric begins.

Asserting that CO2 acts “like a blanket” and that “excess heat remains trapped on earth” are gross distortions intended to imply that absent reductions in CO2 emissions warming will go in only one direction, up. The creator of theses ads are attempting to convince readers that CO2 emissions from using fossil fuels will cause run away warming that will cause a climate catastrophe. When advocates draw such extreme images, it is a virtual certainty that facts and reality have been abandoned.

If the Wall Street Journal had held this group to any reasonable standard of proof, it would have summarily rejected, at least, this ad as being nothing more than special interest propaganda. Last year, a new scientific organization, the CO2 Coalition published a report, Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World: See for Yourself that provides the scientific basis for refuting the Partnership’s erroneous claim about the effects of CO2 and its image of future dread.

One of the most important, but neglected, facts that this group ignores is that CO2’s warming effect decreases in efficiency because the relationship between CO2 concentrations and warming is logarithmic; not linear. As CO2 concentrations have increased the incremental warming is less than that from prior levels. While advocates focus their attention on CO2, they neglect to mention that water vapor is the most potent greenhouse gas and that atmospheric levels have not been increasing.

The Partnership also neglects to mention that CO2 is a nutrient that is necessary for live. It contributes to the efficiency of plant and crop growth and to making them more drought resistant. Satellite imagery clearly shows a greening of the earth as atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased.

If the Partnership is truly interested in a “conversation” about CO2 and climate change, it should first abandon its campaign style rhetoric and its selective use of scientific facts and engage scientists like those who comprise the leadership of the CO2 Coalition in a serious debate.

 

 

 

Bogus Claims About Oil and Asthma

Mark Twain once observed that he was not bothered by all of the things people didn’t know but bothered by all of the things they knew that just weren’t so. That observation applies perfectly to environmentalists who continue to claim that air pollution is causing an increase in the incidence of asthma.

Recently the head of the Urban Air Initiative made such a claim in an opinion piece—Less Oil, Less Asthma— and in the process advocated increased use of ethanol as the solution. It is unclear whether the head of this organization knows a lot of things that just aren’t so or knows the facts but is shilling for ethanol because of benefits the ethanol lobby provides his organization. If it is the latter, it is a clear example of the Baptist and Bootlegger alliance. In either case, he doesn’t want to be confused with facts.

The facts on asthma and air pollution are very clear. High levels of air pollution can trigger asthma incidences. As the levels of air pollution have declined, identifying the threshold that triggers an incident has become more speculative and the alleged relationship less credible.

The Environmental Almanac published by the Pacific Research Institute contains data showing the tremendous improvement in air quality and the dramatic decrease in air pollution emissions between 1970 and 2013—the last issue of the Almanac—59%. Between 1980 and 2008, ozone emissions declined 27% and particulate emissions 38%. The number of ozone non-attainment areas, according to EPA declined from 113 in 1997 to 31 in 2011.

If air pollution emissions were the main driver of asthma incidence, it should be the case that as emissions declined and air quality improved, asthma incidences should have declined also. That has not been the case. Data from the National Institute of Asthma and Infectious Diseases shows that asthma has been increasing among all age groups over the past decade.

According to the Mayo Clinic “it isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it’s probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.” Mayo cites the following as asthma triggers, which are different from person to person and can include:

  • Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
  • Cold air
  • Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
  • Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen (Aleve)
  • Strong emotions and stress

 

This list of triggers goes a long way in explaining why the reductions in air pollution emissions have not led to a comparable decrease in asthma.

As for the claim that increasing the volume of ethanol in gasoline would be environmentally beneficial and contribute to a reduction in the incidences of asthma, it is pure bunk!

In the late 1980s, before reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1990, the oil and auto industries engaged in one of the largest environmental research projects undertaken involving fuels and vehicle systems. The goal was to identify the most cost-effective ways to achieve lower tailpipe emissions. One of the results was that lower emission levels could be achieved without increasing the use of ethanol. Congress ignored that research finding because it needed farm lobby support to secure passage of the Clean Air Act, which actually contains a formula for reformulated gasoline.

Since then drivers have been paying a higher price for gasoline so that corn farmers and ethanol manufacturers can be subsidized to the tune of several billion dollars annually. The scientific literature is replete with studies showing that ethanol at best has small environmental benefits but most likely they are negative. The adverse impact of ethanol on small engines and even fuel systems in premier vehicles like BMW and Lexus are beyond question.

Proponents of increasing the volume of ethanol above the current 10% are either ignorant of the effects on vehicles or else their pursuit of increased wealth has blinded them to the adverse impacts on others, especially those who can ill afford the impact higher food prices—the elderly, low income families, and more than 1 billion people who subsist on less than $2 a day.

 

 

 

 

The Truth: Politically Incorrect

Recently, the CEO of Chevron, John Watson, came in for criticism from environmental activists and climate change advocates for stating that “fossil fuels are here to stay” and that “climate change might even prove positive for Chevron, if it spurs more the planet to shift from coal to natural gas.” His remarks were factually accurate, so why the criticism?

The Wall Street Journal stated that his views set him “apart from his oil industry counterparts.” The CEO of Shell tried to capitalize on Mr. Watson’s statement by saying, “ We believe absolutely that climate change is real. Not all oil companies do that.” That was not a very cleaver or subtle dig at Mr. Watson, who never said that climate change was not real. Indeed, no one with any intelligence could make such a statement.

Clearly, Mr. Watson was making a statement that is in Chevron’s best interest. His job is to earn returns for shareholders for investing in Chevron. He was simply following Adam Smith’s dictum that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher or baker that we get our daily food but from the pursuit of their own self interest. That is how a market based economy is supposed to work. If Mr. Watson had distorted the truth or intentionally mislead, criticism would be justified but he was telling the truth.

In its most recent Energy Outlook, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows fossil fuels–oil, gas, and coal– remaining the dominant sources of energy through 2040, in spite of a decline in the use of coal and energy policy actions intended to discourage their use. The picture is much the same internationally. In its international Outlook, EIA forecasts that energy consumption will increase by 48% with growth occurring mainly in the developing world as a result of population and economic growth. It forecasts that in spite of rapid growth in renewable energy, “fossil fuels (will) still supply more than three-quarters of world energy use.”

Pretending that last December’s Paris Agreement on climate change will somehow lead to a significant reduction in fossil energy use or its greenhouse gas emissions is not a sound foundation for either economic or energy policy. Basing policy on illusions will simply result in continued failure of climate initiatives, as has been the case since the Kyoto agreement in 1997, and the waste of scarce resources that could be more effectively allocated to stronger economic growth and advances in technology.

Advances in our understanding of the climate system and its complexity should be a cause for increased humility and reflection. A paper by Professor J. Ray Bates, a former NASA scientist and now on the faculty of the University College Dublin, concludes that climate models have systematically overestimated climate sensitivity because they underestimate the amount of heat reflected back into space from the tropics. And research from the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) has reinforced Svensmark theory about cosmic rays and climate change and suggests that past cloud cover was much greater than assumed. This means that assumptions about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures have been over-estimated.

The assumptions of climate advocates that have not been confirmed by new knowledge and empirical evidence are strong reasons for skepticism and for changing the prevailing climate paradigm to reflect greater uncertainty and advances in knowledge. Planning that is based on a higher level of uncertainty would have a shorter time horizon and more policy options.

Telling the truth about fossil fuels may be seen as politically incorrect by some but it is consistent with the Boorstin view that we need to restore our ability to test the image by reality rather than continue to do the opposite.

An Introduction to a new website and blog post

In 1961, the late historian and former Librarian of the Library of Congress Daniel Boorstin wrote The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America. 1961 was before television, and now social media and the internet, became one “ of the most powerful forces in American life”.

In the opening pages of “The Image, Boorstin describes how we have used our resources and progress to “create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life”. He describes the condition as national self-hypnosis where each of us “provides the market and the demand for the illusions which flood our experience.

Over a half a century ago, Boorstin, described an America where citizens are “less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed. Practitioners of pseudo-events are skilled in creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Near the end of his book, he observes that we have become more accustomed to testing reality by the image and find it harder to once again test the image by reality. As a result, “it becomes harder to moderate our expectations, to shape expectations after experience and not vice versa.”

The purpose of realitybasedpolicy.com is to challenge the illusions that dominate public policy discussions, especially those dealing with energy, environmental issues, and the general willingness to accept government actions that undermine our economic well being and future.