Monday, July 14, 2008

Climate of discontent

Enthusiasts for action on climate change may have put the cart so far before the horse that there are no longer any reins and other horse tack connecting them. Worldwide solutions to projected problems carry enormous potential costs, tens to hundreds of trillions of dollars, or years to decades of the total economic output of the United States. Before there can be any sustained commitment approaching such scales, there will have to be general agreement and near total certainty as to benefits and costs. Today there is only limited agreement and great uncertainty. Areas of agreement are recent trends of rising temperatures, rising sea levels and rising concentrations of trace gases in the atmosphere. Uncertainties include distinguishing causes from effects, assessing relative strengths of causes and predicting future effects from human efforts directed at causes.

Key knowledge and projections of climate change are coming from a few hundred people worldwide, who rarely if ever expose details of their work candidly to public view. Most reports rest on hackneyed assumptions, stated or not, that have never been conclusively proven. Only insiders at the private clubs get meaningful access. However, mavericks among them have explained that no model achieves much accuracy in predicting many decades of observations based solely on the profile of the Earth and on physics, chemistry and scalable, validated engineering. Models are tweaked with arbitrary adjustments, parameters determined by statistical inference rather than from physical principles, so that they get the right answers to match observations[1]. Who has the crystal ball to tweak them correctly for future years? An article evaluating several thousand models showed that only 15 years into the future, global temperature projections varied up to nearly 15 degrees Farenheit[2].

That situation does not reflect some kind of "junk science" [3] but rather an endeavor of great complexity, comparable perhaps to understanding the causes of and cures for cancer, and similar in that about 50 years of science has produced partial knowledge and limited success, leaving vast territories yet to be covered. Atmosphere and ocean circulations are dynamic, chaotic and dissipative, with many interacting factors and much potential for novel and unpredictable behavior. After 50 years of science, we are able to predict weather fairly accurately for about two days, but at about two weeks all our supercomputing and automatic monitoring does not improve much over what we can predict from typical weather for a time of year.

Climate, of course, is weather, averaged over years, decades and centuries. On a historic time scale, let alone a geologic scale, our records are spotty and shallow. We have a handful of temperature series extending back a few hundred years, some measurements of atmospheric gases for about a century and a half, and direct if controversial measurements of solar output since 1979. The past thirty years have seen major improvements in the density and sophistication of measurements, but such an amount of time is at best marginal as a baseline for estimating climate. Solar output, a critical factor in climate, can be estimated from longer records of sunspot activity, but the correlations are noisy and imprecise.

Historical records tell about sizable shifts in climate before the Industrial Age, such as the Medieval Warm Period, a shift in annual temperatures up to 2 degrees Farenheit found in Europe from about 800 to 1,300 CE. We have little to explain some such events except unmeasured changes in solar output. Modern measurements of the geologic record over the last several million years tell about more dramatic episodes of warming and cooling, shifting annual temperatures by more than 20 degrees Farenheit, with some substantial changes taking place in less than 100 years. Persistence of some patterns over centuries and millenia, recurrences at intervals around 40,000 and 100,000 years, and abrupt spikes and dips make explanations appear unlikely other than orbital patterns and solar output changes, stimulating changes in atmosphere and ocean circulation. In some warming episodes, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations lag rather than lead temperatures, thus appearing as effects rather than causes.

Many current climate models fail to consider records older than about 100 years, but useful records extend to three times that age. Among other things, they indicate warming trends since the early 1700s, while large effects of the Industrial Age on atmospheric gases emerge in the mid-1800s. Adjustment factors of current climate models may be tuning them to correlations between temperatures and atmospheric gases that would not be found in records over longer periods. Atmospheric emissions from power plants, motor vehicles and agriculture exploded since the 1940s, yet although it has been shown that the average exchange time for carbon dioxide between atmosphere and ocean is about ten years, records of temperatures and sea levels do not show closely correlated accelerations of most trends.

Experts at climate modeling seem increasingly focused on inside pursuits, such as cross-comparisons and increased areal and time densities. However, development of the science shows greatest improvements from understanding new factors, such as cloud cover, aerosols and particulates. Trustworthy knowledge is more likely to emerge from thorough understanding of systematics and interactions than from refinements of calculations. Unless we can obtain robust, accurate models grounded on principles of physics, chemistry and engineering, few people will trust the models with their lives and fortunes. Critical issues are whether, how much and how rapidly climate change could now be affected by human efforts and what levels of efforts may be required. If it were to turn out that rises in sea levels had become practically unstoppable and irreversible, then we might better spend resources reinforcing or relocating coastal communities rather than rushing to build photovoltaic panels.

[1] A. Arakawa and W.H. Schubert, Interaction of a cumulus cloud ensemble with the large-scale environment, part 1, Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences 31(4):674-701, 1974. A.H. Van Tuyl, Physical initialization with the Arakawa-Schubert scheme in the Navy's operational global forecast model, Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics 60(1):47-55, 1996. T.M. Wagner and H-F. Graf, A spectral convection parameterisation with a dynamical Arakawa-Schubert quasi-equilibrium closure, Geophysical Research Abstracts 10, EGU2008-A-12443, 2008.

[2] D.A. Stainforth, et al., Uncertainty in predictions of the climate response to rising levels of greenhouse gases, Nature 433(1):403-406, January, 2005.

[3] Steven Milloy, ed., Martin Durkin, dir., “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” British television film, March 8, 2007, revised edition available as DVD. Lars Mortensen, dir., "Doomsday Called Off," Danish television film, 2004, first shown in Canada, November 27, 2005. Hilary Lawson, dir., "The Greenhouse Conspiracy," British television film, August 12, 1990.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A game of regulation with jokers in the deck

When courts call, the EPA folds. Most recently the call was for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, representing the Administration in office from 2001 to 2009, to justify its Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was under development from 2001 through 2003. The EPA lost everything. Its entire rulemaking action was canned, and the agency was told to start over, in a decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, North Carolina v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 05-1244, July 11, 2008.

From its beginnings, CAIR, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, was a scam purporting to regulate stringently the air pollution emitted by power-plants that flows from state to state, while actually offering power-plant operators a low cost, if not a free, ride. Emissions were to be regulated only on a regional basis, using a trading system through which power-plant operators could buy the rights to pollute. Pollution limits, on the other hand, were to be regulated on a local basis, requiring potentially draconian measures by cities and counties found out of compliance, but giving them no powers to stop emissions coming from somewhere else. Enforcement of local limits was scheduled for 2010, one convenient year after the Administration responsible for the system had left office, dumping inevitable problems onto its successor.

The tip-off to a scam was the EPA focus in CAIR on “highly cost-effective” emission controls. The agency was set up to regulate pollution, not industrial finance. It is charged by law to insure that power-plants use the "Best Available Control Technology" to reduce emissions when new plants are built or old ones are significantly renovated. As the Court of Appeals stated, "Because EPA evaluated whether its proposed emissions reductions were 'highly cost effective' at the regionwide level, assuming a trading program, it never measured the 'significant contribution' from sources within an individual state to downwind nonattainment areas." The EPA did not document the amounts of air pollution travelling from power-plants to local areas and had no plans to monitor them.

The power industry is now crying wolf and apparently influenced the New York Times to howl along. In an article published July 12, 2008, power industry representatives were quoted condemning the court decision, one spokesman saying, "one of the things we crave is certainty, and this goes in the other direction." The EPA Administrator during development of CAIR was a former governor who, according to the Times, had been criticized "in the name of attracting businesses" for having "compromised water pollution protections and cut spending for state offices that prosecute environmental abuses by industry." That was hardly enough, and the agency was routinely told what to do and sometimes how to do it. Evidence for its continuing manipulation can be read in an EPA proposal of July 11, 2008, to investigate regulating carbon dioxide, as the agency was instructed to do by a Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 549 U.S. 497, April 2, 2007. The recent announcement starts by exhibiting a letter to the current EPA Administrator from an appointee responsible for Regulatory Affairs in the President's Office of Management and Budget, saying what to do and how to do it.

But now the hands have been played, the game is almost over, and the jokers are leaving. The problems that CAIR would supposedly address are still with us, of course. Were we to take care in regulating pollution rather than CAIR, we would account not only for emissions but also for power flowing from state to state. Southern California, for example, is notorious for drawing heavily on coal-fired power-plants in the Southwest, thus enjoying "clean" power while sending most of the pollution somewhere else. One possible approach, in somewhat the spirit of the discredited CAIR, is to charge Southern California electricity consumers directly and explicitly for pollution emitted by their practices.

Tangle of air pollution regulations affecting energy

Federal court decisions from 2005 through 2008, unlike some from earlier years, indicate that without persuasive evidence attempts to weaken, subvert or avoid environmental regulations affecting energy production will be overturned and indicate that enforcement of regulations will be upheld.

Four Court of Appeals decisions and two Supreme Court decisions changed the landscape. An Administration seeking to obstruct regulations had resorted to wordsmithing and legalisms. A southern, coal-fired power-plant operator seeking to avoid regulations had persuaded southern courts to do the same.

The power-plant operator's case was sent back for enforcement. The Environmental Protection Agency was instructed to investigate regulating carbon dioxide. The attempts to weaken or subvert air pollution regulations were rejected, striking out seven actions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2002 through 2005 and restoring earlier regulations.

New York, et al., v. Environmental Protection Agency
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [3rd] Circuit
No. 02-1387, June 24, 2005, 413 F.3d 3
"In 1977, Congress amended the Clean Air Act (CAA or 'the Act') to strengthen the safeguards"
"major stationary sources undertaking modifications...process known as “New Source Review” (NSR)"
"petitioners now challenge this 2002 [NSR] rule, which departs sharply from prior rules"
"EPA erred in promulgating the Clean Unit applicability test, which measures emissions increases by looking to whether 'emissions limitations' have changed"
"Congress directed the agency to measure emissions increases in terms of changes in actual emissions"
"EPA also erred in exempting from NSR certain Pollution Control Projects (PCPs) that decrease emissions of some pollutants but cause collateral increases of other"
"we vacate the provisions...regarding the Clean Unit applicability test and Pollution Control Projects"

New York, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [3rd] Circuit
No. 03-1380, March 17, 2006, 443 F.3d 880
"Equipment Replacement Provision (“ERP”)...amends the Routine Maintenance, Repair, and Replacement Exclusion (“RMRR”) from NSR requirements"
"Under section 111(a)(4) of the Clean Air Act, sources that undergo 'any physical change' that increases emissions are required to undergo the NSR permitting process."
"ERP would allow sources to avoid NSR when replacing equipment notwithstanding a resulting increase in emissions"
"because it violates the Act, we vacate the ERP"

Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency
Supreme Court of the United States
No. 05–1120, April 2, 2007, 549 U.S. 497
"organizations petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin regulating...carbon dioxide"
"EPA ultimately denied the petition, reasoning that (1) the Act does not authorize it"
"Court of Appeals...judges agreed that the EPA Administrator properly exercised his discretion"
"EPA has offered no reasoned explanation...Its action was therefore 'arbitrary, capricious"
"The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed"

Environmental Defense, et al., v. Duke Energy Corp., et al.
Supreme Court of the United States
No. 05-848, April 2, 2007, 549 U.S. 561
"Duke Energy Corporation replaced or redesigned...coal-fired electric generating units"
"the United States filed this enforcement action"
"the District Court entered summary judgment for Duke on all PSD claims...The Fourth Circuit affirmed"
"The Fourth Circuit’s reading of the PSD regulations amounted to the invalidation of the PSD regulations"
"The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated"

New Jersey, et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [3rd] Circuit
No. 05-1097, February 8, 2008
"petitions for review of...rules regarding the emission...from electric...generating units (EGUs)"
"first rule [Delisting rule] removes coal- and oil-fired EGUs from the...sources...regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act"
"second rule [CAMR] establishes total mercury emissions limits for States and certain tribal areas"
"Clean Air Mercury Rule [CAMR]"
"Petitioners contend that the Delisting Rule is contrary to the plain text and structure of section 112"
"in section 112(c)(9)...Congress limit[ed] EPA’s discretion to remove sources...from the section 112(c)(1)"
"EPA can point to no persuasive evidence suggesting that section 112(c)(9)’s plain text is ambiguous"
"Because coal-fired EGUs are listed sources under section 112, regulation of existing coalfired EGUs’ mercury emissions under section 111 is prohibited"
"the court grants the petitions and vacates both rules"

North Carolina v. Environmental Protection Agency
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [3rd] Circuit
No. 05-1244, July 11, 2008
"Petitioner North Carolina challenges CAIR’s programs for pollution-trading"
"Clean Air Interstate Rule [CAIR]"
"North Carolina contests the lack of reasonable measures in CAIR to assure that upwind states will abate their unlawful emissions."
"EPA...never measured the 'significant contribution' downwind nonattainment areas."
"No amount of tinkering...will transform CAIR, as written, into an acceptable rule"
"we vacate CAIR and its associated FIP [federal implementation plan]"

(7) [added Aug. 23, 2008]
Sierra Club v. Environmental Protection Agency
Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [3rd] Circuit
No. 04-1243, August 19, 2008
"Clean Air Act emission limits...are scattered throughout rules promulgated by states or EPA"
"1990 Amendments...created a national permit program"
"Title V gives EPA...the duty to identify its 'minimum elements'"
"in 1997...the agency took the position that...permitting authorities could supplement...requirements"
"In 2002, EPA proposed a regulation codifying this view of §70.6(c)(1)"
"an industry group challenged the...rule...Util. Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, No. 02-1290
"the agency settled the litigation by agreeing to...a...rule that would prohibit...supplementing"
"Several environmental groups challenge the 2006 rule...arguing that they violate the Clean Air Act"
"We hold...that Title V of the Act unambiguously precludes EPA’s interpretation in the 2006 rule"
"Accordingly, we vacate the 2006 rule"