Recent American Public Opinion.

Iran. In March 2015, 68 percent of Americans approved of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Broadly, we can see the effects of the Iraq war on the public mind. Most people favored negotiations over the risk of war. What is remarkable is the degree to which the words and actions of leaders have had a disruptive effect in spite of this broad consensus.

First, Americans seem to have arrived at an “a plague on both your houses” attitude to the Obama-Netanyahu conflict. In March 2015, only 38 percent had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while 27 had an unfavorable view of the Israeli prime minister. In April 2015, only 37 percent approved of the Prime Minister’s handling of relations with the United States. However, only 38 percent approved of President Obama’s handling of relations with Israel.[1] In many eyes, it has begun to look like a personal dispute, rather than an affair of state.

Second, a sharp partisan division had begun to manifest itself in attitudes toward Netanyahu. In the March 2015 poll, 53 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while only 28 percent of Democrats had a favorable view. Doubtless, this division of views reflected the invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress that had been schemed-up by the Republican leadership and the Israeli ambassador, the former-American and former- Republican activist Ron Dermer. That isn’t the same as saying that American attitudes toward Israel itself have shifted dramatically. Yet.

Third, in March 2015, the Republicans pushed their luck by meddling with the negotiations with Iran.[2] Forty-seven Republican Senators sent a letter to the Iranians warning that an agreement that was only an “executive agreement” could be undone by a subsequent administration. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) disapproved of this action. The hyperventilation on the left about “treason” (cue Ricky Perry) was silly. However, a lot of Americans seem to take the same view as did Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”

Energy. In March 2015, Pew Research surveyed Americans on their attitude toward energy and climate issues.[3] At this point, 81 percent favored government-imposed higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and 64 percent favored tighter emissions limits on power plants. However, 59 percent favored building the Keystone XL pipeline. On the other hand, 31 percent opposed building the pipeline and 31 percent opposed tighter controls on emissions from power plants. On the subject of ranking the means to develop America’s energy resources, 60 percent assigned priority to alternative energy sources (wind, solar, hydrogen) and 30 percent assigned priority to exploring for and developing carbon sources (coal, oil, natural gas). At the same time, 56 percent favored more off-shore drilling for gas and oil, while 40 percent opposed it.

There is a lot of incoherence here. How to sort it out?

First, the opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and the opponents of controls on power plant emissions represent the very large numbers of crazy people in American politics. Together they total 62 percent. Either the middle ground learns how to make deals or we’ve got problems.

Second, more carbon energy means more oil and gas, not more coal. The “war on coal” has already been won. Mitch McConnell just doesn’t know it.

Third, the President is pandering to his base in vetoing the Keystone pipeline.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 13 March 2015, p. 17; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 15. In the March poll a lucky 23 percent had never heard of the Israeli leader.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 17.

[3] “Voice of the People,” WSJ, 31 March 2015.

Climate of Fear XIII.

A decade ago, back when climate change began to emerge as a serious concern, scientists and environmentalists composed a menu of possible future alternatives to burning carbon. Both solar power and wind power seemed likely to be massively expensive. In contrast, biofuels—the conversion of plants into fuel—seemed like it might be a low-cost winner. Both the government of the United States and European governments have invested billions of dollars in developing biofuels. In Britain, for example, subsidies and mandates were used to stimulate a shift to burning wood pellets made from sawdust and tree waste.[1] In the United States, the government mandated and subsidized the mixing of ethanol—a biofuel made from corn—with gasoline. Anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of America’s corn crop now goes to ethanol.

In fact, costs for wind and solar power dropped sharply over the same period that biofuels were being developed. However, until we transform battery technology it will not be possible to use solar or wind power for transportation. Many people continue to count on biofuels as a substitute for carbon-burning.[2] A 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urged replacing carbon with biofuels as an affordable means to hold back climate change. The International Energy Agency speculates that it may be possible to provide over a quarter of world transportation fuel needs by 2050. More immediately, the United States projects that 12 percent of its transportation fuel will come from biofuels within a decade. Similarly, the European Union projects a sharp increase in the role of biofuels to power transportation between today (2.5 percent) and 2020 (10 percent).

Now people are re-thinking this strategy.[3] For one thing, biofuel production has turned out to be massively inefficient: a huge amount of land is required to produce a meager amount of energy. (The 30-40 percent of the American corn crop devoted to ethanol reduces gas consumption by only about 6 percent.) The energy content of all current biomass (food crops, fodder for animals, lumber, biofuels) is about 220 exajoules. The IPCC estimates that the biofuels component alone will have to reach 250 to 300 exajoules by the end of the 21st Century to hold back climate change. This implies a massive expansion of biofuel acreage.

Skeptics believe it unlikely that farm productivity can actually be increased much on the ground, as opposed to on a chalk-board. The world faces an increasing demand for food as both population and incomes in developing countries rise. These will more than eat up any increase in productivity, leading to continued expansion of lands devoted to crops. The American bet on ethanol has driven up world food prices. Harvesting trees for biofuel seems like even more of a losing proposition. It reduces the amount of carbon dioxide captured by trees while increasing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions to the climate problem. It is going to take time to discover the best approaches, even though we seem to be short of time. Government hasn’t entirely succeeded at picking “winners” from among contending solutions. Decisions can have unanticipated consequences that turn out to be hard to un-do. Rather like the origins of the climate problem in the first place.

[1] The chief beneficiary of this effort may have been the members of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, which supplies much of the European demand.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “A Biofuel Debate: Will Cutting Trees Cut Carbon,” NYT, 11 February 2015.

[3] Justin Gillis, “New Report Urges Western Governments to Reconsider Reliance on Biofuels,” NYT, 29 January 2015. The story reports on a World Resources Institute study released on Friday.


Climate of Fear VI.

Burning carbon emits carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases then trap heat in the atmosphere, preventing it from escaping out into space. This effect is responsible for global warming. Since the late 18th Century, burning carbon has fueled the Industrial Revolution. In the 1980s and 1990s, the surface temperature of the Earth rose by 1.2 degrees. This rise then caused substantial melting of the polar ice caps and extreme weather events.

How much worse, then, would be the effects of the spread of industrialization into the non-Western world in the 21st Century? This has greatly increased the burning of carbon. Between 2000 and 2010, 110 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. This amounts to an estimated one-fourth of all the greenhouse gases ever emitted. At this rate, the volume of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere compared to pre-industrial times will double by 2050. In 2007 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that such a doubling could lead to a temperature rise of 5.4 degrees, with increases each decade of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. (Which I think, but I’m a dumb American, works out to be 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit.) So, the temperature of the Earth should be rising even faster than before.

It isn’t. Since 1998 the surface temperature of the Earth has risen by 0.2 degrees. However, this is much less of a rise than climate scientists had projected by extrapolating the temperature increases that were recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. (I think that we should be about 0.5 degrees warmer, but see my earlier disclaimer.) “Baby, Baby, where did the heat go?”

Some climate change skeptics love this: “There is no problem with global warming. It stopped in 1998.” OK, but why did it stop? Will it restart? Another stripe of skeptics take issue with the accuracy of the models used to estimate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that the climate is not as sensitive to increases in greenhouse gases as many models assume. We have more time to adapt and at a lower cost than “alarmists” predict.

Climate scientists offer a number of possible explanations for the “missing heat.”

The deep seas absorbed the extra heat, the way they did the “Titanic.” While surface sea temperatures have remained stable, temperatures below 2,300 feet have been rising since 2000.

The rhythms in the heat radiated by the Sun are responsible. The highs and lows of this rhythm are called solar maximums and solar minimums. One solar maximum ended in 2000 and we are in the midst of a solar minimum.

The pollution emitted by major carbon-burners like China actually reflects away some of the Sun’s heat before it becomes trapped in the atmosphere. (You can see how this answer would alarm proponents of responding to climate change. “The real problem with air pollution is that we don’t have enough of it.”)

Climate scientists have also scaled-back their predictions from a possible 5.4 degree rise in surface temperatures to projections between 1.6 and 3.6 degrees. These less-warm decades will then be followed by the roof falling in. The sun will move toward the next solar maximum; the heat trapped in the deep sea will rise toward the surface to boost temperatures; and the “pollution umbrella” will go back to trapping heat in the atmosphere. We’ll fry like eggs. Or perhaps just get poached. Depends on which scientists you believe.

“The missing heat,” The Week, 30 August 2013, p. 11.

Judith Curry, “The Global Warming Statistical Meltdown,” Wall Street Journal, 10 October 2014.

Climate of Fear III

People tend to fixate on oil as a key natural resource. How much oil is there in the world? Have we passed “peak oil” or is there a lot still to be discovered? (See: “The Blood of Victory.”) They should also give some thought to water. Water was a key natural resource long before oil and it will be a key resource long after oil has ceased to be the chief fuel source. We need it for drinking and for crop irrigation at a minimum.

Of all the water on the earth, 97.5 percent is salt water. Unless one goes through a very costly desalinization process ($2.50-$16/gallon, compared to $0.50-$2.00.gallon for conventional fresh water), this water is not available for use. This leaves 2.5 percent of the world’s water as usable fresh water.

This sounds scary. In theory, there is about 1.5 billion gallons for each person currently living on earth. However, only a small portion of that water is readily available for human use.   The polar ice caps and the glaciers hold about 68 percent of this fresh water. Another 31 percent of it is not readily accessible because it is buried deep underground. Thus, 99 percent of the 2.5 percent is not available for human use (at this time).

Even so, there is a huge amount of fresh water on the earth. Readily available fresh water surface run-off averages 524,151 gallons per person. That sounds reassuring.

The 6.3 billion people now living on earth use about 54 percent of that readily available water. So, it looks like we have a comfortable margin. That is reassuring. It is estimated that world population will rise to 7.8 billion people by 2025 and that use of readily available water will increase to 70 percent of the total. That sounds scary.


That small amount is unevenly distributed, just like most other resources. The UN (God bless its pointy little head) has worked out a scale of measurement for water supply per capita.

“Water abundance”:    >19,000 cubic meters/person. Canada, Russia, the Congo basin, almost all of South America.

“Water surplus”:          3,400-18,999 cubic meters/person. United States, Mexico, France, Ireland, the Balkans, Turkey, Southeast Asia, Kazakhstan.

“Water sufficiency”:   1,700-3,399 cubic meters/person. Most of Europe, Iraq, northern Iran, Afghanistan, most of India, southern and western China, Japan.

“Water stress”:            1,000-1,699 cubic meters/person. Northern Pakistan, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Syria, Czech Republic, Poland.

“Water scarcity”:         < 1,000 cubic meters/person. North Africa, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, southern Iran, southern Pakistan, northern China, southern India.

See: Jen Joynt and Marshall Poe, “The World in Numbers: Waterworld,” Atlantic, July/August 2003, pp. 42-43.

It seems likely that water shortages will start to weigh on both domestic and international politics. The pressure will come from the bottom, from those countries already facing “water stress” and “water scarcity.” One issue will be a campaign for international sharing.   Here the experience of the American West is likely to be useful. Western states have been sharing water resources for decades. It hasn’t always been easy or painless. It’s better than starting from zero.

A second issue will be migration—first internal, then international–by “water refugees.” People will try to ignore this problem for as long as possible. They will describe it as a domestic problem in water-deficient countries. It will not stay contained, any more than climate change.