The Climategate Verdict: Redemption or Whitewash?

The long awaited report on last year’s Climategate has just been released. The panel that conducted the inquiry was chaired by former U.K. civil servant Muir Russell. It was in response to the leaking of more than 1,000 confidential emails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU). Recommendations from the inquiry focused on minor concerns with the practices of the CRU: Sloppy data management and a lack of transparency in making their data publicly accessible.

Russell stated in his report, “we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt, we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.” Overall, the report did not find outright fraud by the unit in their reporting on climate change. Nonetheless, the report, much like Climategate itself, has created a lot of buzz. The responses so far to the report indicate the debate over this controversy is likely to continue even after its release.

I’ve posted links below which really give an array of reactions to the report:

  • The team at Real Climate find vindication in the report.
  • Climate Audit finds fault in the report and provides a detailed account of their contention with its findings.
  • George Monbiot no longer has second thoughts about the CRU and climate change after reading the report.
  • Gene Lyons declares “Mission Accomplished” after the panel’s report.
  • Gerald Warner argues that even after this report the CRU brand remains toxic.
  • The Guardian faults the CRU for too much secrecy in their operations which caused this problem in the first place.
  • Terrence Corcoran argues that even though Russell’s report is in, it does not resolve the issue that climate science is in shambles.

The Politics Over The Process of Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Over the past few months, the politics surrounding climate change continues to heat up . Recent efforts by global warming opponents have sought to disclaim the work, and credibility, of groups like the IPCC and CRU.  Opponents have been successful in their efforts to disclaim the work by these institutions by shifting the debate towards claims of cover ups and the mishandling of data by prominent climate scientists as proof of malfeasance. The goal of these efforts by global warming opponents is to redefine the debate over climate change.

By attempting to reshape the public’s perceptions of this issue, climate change opponents are attempting to provide an alternative explanation about some of the problems with the scientific consensus on global warming. This is a shift from previous attempts by global warming opponents to claim that climate change is either not happening or not a result of human activity. This strategy focuses on creating doubt among the public over the entire process in which scientific consensus was reached on this issue. Thus far opponents have done this in two ways. First, opponents have been successful in disclaiming the CRU. This led to the resignation of its Director, Phil Jones, over  leaked email messages that global warming opponents claimed was evidence of a corrupt peer-reviewed system by which scientific evidence on climate change was based.  Second, opponents have begun to discredit the IPCC over glacier-gate. Opponents claim the process that resulted in glacier-gate (faulty predictions over the melting of Himalayian glaciers) typifies a flawed process by which the IPCC makes their assessment on climate change; namely the IPCC’s process is driven by a political agenda and bureaucratic incompetence.  So, where does this leave us? Well, we should expect to see  global warming opponents up the ante in their efforts to challenge the process by which scientific consensus is reached over climate change.

Environmental Outliers

Today’s Environmental Outliers:

  • Reuters discusses the likely policy alternatives for Congress in dealing with climate change legislation in 2010.
  • Environmental ministers from BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries met in India to discuss the post Copenhagen scenario on climate change.
  • Pew finds global warming ranks last in immediate priorities for the U.S. government to tackle.
  • The lead climate change negotiator from China notes he has an “open mind” on whether climate change is caused by humans .
  • Bill Gates discusses his concerns that funding for climate policies will come at the expense of health funding.
  • Amy Harder gives an assessment of President Obama’s efforts on energy and environmental policies.
  • The Wall Street journal opines on the continuing glacier-gate controversy

Glacial Politics: The IPCC and Climate Change

A slow-moving storm is brewing over a recent apology from the IPCC due to  an erroneous climate prediction of Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035. As this story unfolds there are multiple perspectives for what caused the controversy:

Dr. Murari Lal used the claim to pressure governments into action.

Dr. Syed Hasnain, who was the source of this info, was misquoted and the IPCC process for disseminating information on climate change is driven more by political considerations than it is by scientific evidence.

Nevertheless, politics appears to be behind claims made by the IPCC as well as by critics of the process. Further, an important lesson from this case is that it exemplifies some of the problems policymakers face when trying to shape public policy based on scientific evidence. No matter how certain the politics may be around this issue, the uncertainty principle continues to be a major factor in developing policies that relate to climate change.

Copenhagen Climate Conference and Carbon Prices: A Look At The Policy Options

One of the policy options being discussed at the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, is the link between carbon prices and greenhouse gas emissions. The basis for this policy option is an efficient price of carbon serves as an effective means for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. And the rationale for using carbon pricing is that carbon emissions are considered a negative externality, a negative effect on a party not directly involved in a transaction, which results in a market failure.

Setting an appropriate price floor for carbon is not an easy task. The difficulty in setting a carbon price is that if it is too high, or too low, the unintended consequences of such an action results in an inability of government being able to protect many consumers who would be affected by this pricing scheme. In some cases, an inappropriate pricing mechanism can actually hurt the individuals who were intended to be protected. The problem of trying to set a carbon price is that it distorts the allocation of resources where prices that are too high tend to cause surpluses and prices which are too low tend to cause shortages.

To get a sense of carbon prices and emissions reductions, I have outlined a table that summarizes the work of William Nordhaus, a leading environmental economist at Yale whose Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (DICE) estimates the cost-benefit of various policy proposals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The DICE model focuses on the economics of climate change that links factors affecting economic growth, CO2 emissions, the carbon cycle, climate change, climate damages, and climate-change policies. The underlying assumption of the model is that it views the economics of climate change from the perspective of growth theory; that is, economies make investments in capital, education, and technologies, thereby abstaining from consumption today, in order to increase consumption in the future. I have listed the results of few policy options that have been estimated using the DICE model in the table below.

The first policy option listed in the DICE table is the business-as-usual approach; this means no restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. The estimated damage of doing nothing amounts to approximately $23 trillion in current dollars by the year 2100. The second kind is the “optimal policy,” judged by Nordhaus to be the most cost-effective, with a worldwide tax on carbon emissions adjusted each year to give the maximum aggregate economic gain as calculated by DICE. The third and fourth approaches are options based on the Stern and Gore approaches. The Stern policy option imposes severe limits on emissions that are much stronger than those included in the Kyoto Protocol. The Gore approach results in dramatic emissions reductions which reach 90 percent of current levels before the year 2050.

The economic problems with the Gore and Stern strategies, though they both have high emissions control rates and carbon prices, is that the high emissions controls (80-90% for 1990 levels) require carbon prices which range from $600 to $900 per ton of carbon. The total cost of the Stern Plan is $37T and the Gore Plan is $44T in 2005 dollars. The dislocations involved from either option results in prices that are extremely large, which result in severe economic costs.

So from these options, where do the two major proposals circulating in the U.S. Congress stand regarding carbon pricing? The Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry have estimated carbon prices of about $20 per ton where 85% of the emissions permits would be given away to polluters and the Boxer-Kerry bill is about $15 per ton to at least 2019. Currently the recommended price is about $40 per ton with it doubling in 40 years. Unfortunately both U.S. bills do not provide adequate price floors to curb emissions. More to come…

Public Perceptions of Climate Change: Based on Fact or Artifact?

The difficulty for policymakers in understanding public perceptions of climate change is determining whether individuals’ responses are based on a well-developed understanding of scientific arguments or on a pseudo-opinion that is manufactured during the survey-taking process. Current research notes that respondents to general surveys lean towards the latter (Bishop 2002, 2008; Zaller 1992). As pollsters pose their queries, individuals are likely to begin to develop an attitude towards the issue at hand; respondents are using the information provided in the questions as an educational tool (Converse 1964, 1970; Krosnick 1991; Zaller and Feldman 1992; and Bishop 2002). As pollsters pose their queries, individuals are likely to begin to develop an attitude towards the issue at hand; respondents are using the information provided in the questions as an educational tool (Converse 1964, 1970; Krosnick 1991; Zaller and Feldman 1992; and Bishop 2002). My research adds to this literature by arguing that an individual’s perception of climate change, specifically, is an artifact derived from the words or concepts presented in the question and not an attitude developed over time about the issue.

To test this proposition, I used survey questions on climate change and global warming from Pew survey data from June 2006, January 2007, and April 2008. I combined all three surveys into one master dataset in order to account for variation across samples and time in order to conduct an inferential statistical model to estimate individuals’ responses controlling for partisanship, socio-economic status, and respondents’ ideology.

The data show that individuals construct their opinions on climate change based on heuristics which tend to bias their opinions on this issue. The most prominent heuristic used by individuals is partisanship. Thus, partisan preferences explain approximately 40% of individuals’ responses to this item, other things being equal. To understand how partisanship biases individuals’ attitudes on climate change, I have illustrated differences among partisan regarding whether there is solid evidence supporting global warming and the degree of seriousness of this issue. The above charts show significant differences between Democrats and Republicans on each question. Democrats overwhelmingly agree with both statements while Republicans remain skeptical.

So what can we expect from policymakers regarding this phenomenon? Namely that proponents, and opponents, of this policy have an opportunity to distort the facts surrounding the policy outcomes which deal with climate change because individuals’ views on this issue tend to be biased by their partisanship and political ideology.

Climate Change Legislation: Not This Year

Climate change legislation will have to wait. All indications coming from the U.S. Congress, the White House, and global community suggest that a legally binding climate change agreement will not be an immediate priority. President Obama has signaled that his next priority will be dealing with job creation and deficit reduction, not climate change. What does this mean for proponents of climate change legislation? First, environmentalists have lost the “bully pulpit” that President Obama brought to this issue. Second, since the executive branch is not going to push this bill, the probability for substantive legislation on greenhouse gas emissions being passed during the current term has been significantly reduced. Third, since this issue will likely be marginalized by Democrats, it will give ample reason for Republicans not to work with the majority party on climate change legislation. Thus, it is highly likely this issue will have to be revisited during a second Obama term, presuming there is one.

If the White House has decided not to make climate change legislation a priority, then what about Congress? Currently, the U.S. Senate is deliberating over the Boxer/Kerry bill on climate change. As noted in earlier posts, the bill was dislodged from the Environment and Public Works (EPW) by Chairwomen Barbara Boxer (D, CA) in response to a Republican boycott of the mark-up process. Even so, it is unlikely that a major push for its passage will happen anytime soon in the Senate as a whole, mainly because a number of senators who represent mid-western states worry the current climate-change bill could punish their states economically. Ideology has also created a wedge between senators. This ideological schism between senators is not driven solely by party membership in the Senate. A group of moderate senators from both parties are beginning to form a coalition separate from the more liberal members of the Democratic Party. Last week’s decision by Boxer to remove the bill from the EPW committee did not help to bridge the gap between moderate senators and liberal proponents of the bill.

Proponents of the bill will find it difficult to have climate-change legislation reach the Senate floor for consideration because power within the chamber has shifted towards rural interests. More specifically, moderate senators, who represent rural areas, have begun voicing their skepticism over the bill. Recently, Richard Lugar (R, IN) stated he will not support the bill because economic interests of his state take precedence over climate change. The sole Democrat to vote against Boxer’s move in the EPW committee is Max Baucus (D, MT). Senator Baucus, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, indicated that the current bill does not do enough to protect domestic interests; he added that some type of carbon import tax should be added to the bill. Charles Grassely (R, IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has also indicated his opposition to this bill. Senator Grassley argues the legislation needs to reflect the true economic costs of the bill and should not be centered on “purported environmental benefits.” But push-back on the bill among senators is not limited to Republicans. Midwestern senators Sherrod Brown (D, OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) have both voiced their hesitations over the bill in its current form. They have indicated the bill which needs “a lot of work”, should include more provisions to help energy-intensive industries such as steel, pulp, paper, and cement.

What is the probability of the bill receiving 60 votes to move forward for consideration? As of now, it is very unlikely. In an analysis of the current margins in the Senate of senators who support the bill, probably support the bill, are on the fence, and those who do not support the bill, the number of members who would vote for cloture (to break a filibuster) is 42. The chart below illustrates the current voting patterns of members voting for cloture on the bill. The estimates range from “1” vote for cloture to “0” a vote against cloture. Members who have a probability between .4 and .6 are moderate members who could in fact help boost the bill’s chances for passage. Members below the .5 threshold are unlikely to vote for cloture. I have circled the senators whose support for this bill is crucial if it is to move forward.

Members who fall within the circle include:
Begich (D,AK)
Lincoln (D,AR)
Pryor (D,AR)
Bayh (D,IN)
Landrieu (D,LA)
Collins (R,ME)
Snowe (R,ME)
Mccaskill (D,MO)
Baucus (D,MT)
Tester (D,MT)
Nelson (D,NE)
Hagan (D,NC)
Conrad (D,ND)
Dorgan (D,ND)
Voinovich (R,OH)
Specter (D,PA)
Johnson (D,SD)
Webb (D,VA)
Byrd (D,WV)
Rockefeller (D,WV)

In any event, the differences in the likely voting patterns of senators on the bill is a primary reason, I suspect, that the president has backed down from pushing the passage of this legislation in the near-term. As a result, President Obama’s inaction may in fact discourage senators who “are on the fence” from taking a supportive position of the bill—killing this piece of legislation before it goes up for a full vote.