By Michael Reagan
Long before Al Gore went off the deep end over global warming, my home state of California was experiencing climate extremes. In fact Mark Twain, a former resident of San Francisco, used to complain that everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
Currently the state is experiencing ONE OF the most severe droughts since 1877 when record-keeping began.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “In June, nearly 80 percent of California was considered to be under “extreme” and “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest categories of dryness, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map.”
But it’s not like this is California’s first drought. (Homeowners whose formerly grass-covered front lawns have turned into mini-deserts might take issue with the notion that “the past century has been among the wettest of the last 7,000 years,” as Scott Stine, professor of geography and environmental studies at Cal State East Bay, asserted in the San Jose Mercury News.)
In response to the shortage of water, the California Water Resources Board wants to institute a punitive fine of $500/day for people it calls “water hogs.”
But I think Thomas Del Beccaro, writing in Forbes, has a better idea: Let’s fine the board for failing to do its job over the last 40 years.
He explains, “California is the most populated state in the Union, with more than 38 million people. Its population was just under 20 million in 1970, when the bulk of its current water storage and delivery systems were already built. In other words, the California governments have done very little to significantly increase water supplies in over 40 years, even though its population has doubled during that period of time.”
Instead of realizing that “water” was its middle name, the board has been made captive by enviro-Nazis who think people in general are the enemy. Rather than build dams and reservoirs to keep up with a growing population, state government has preferred to depend on the kindness of clouds to provide water for taxpayers.
Then the clouds stopped being kind.
Felicia Marcus, chairman of the water board, exemplifies the arrogant, buck-passing mentality of its members: “I like to say, having a browning lawn and a dirty car is a badge of honor.”
No Felicia, the dead grass and filthy car are the result of a do-nothing board that should be thrown out on its ear.
Forty years of advance warning wasn’t long enough for state government to build additional dams and reservoirs, so farmers are forced to rely on increased groundwater pumping to supply desperately needed water on the surface.
According to a report at TakePart.com, “As much as 20 cubic kilometers of Central Valley groundwater may have been pumped out in just the last three years, according to one estimate. That’s about 12 percent of the last 150 years’ total depletion.”
The problem caused by this groundwater depletion is somewhat confusing to a non-expert like me. In one part of the report the land is sinking as much as a foot per year, “damaging roads and other infrastructure and exposing communities to increased flood risk.”
But a few paragraphs later the problem is not enough weight: “Groundwater pumping unburdens the lithosphere,” said William Hammond, a geologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. When you pump that much groundwater, the load gets taken away and the landscape essentially bounces up. The Sierra Nevada is rising more quickly as a result of groundwater pumping in the Great Valley.”
Bouncing. Sinking. Make up your mind.
But the result of all this hyperactive geology is supposedly an increased potential for earthquakes. This is where the politicians come into the picture. Other states run by leftists have banned the oil extraction technique known as fracking because it supposedly causes earthquakes, too. The real reason for the ban is it works and proves “peak oil” environmentalists wrong.
Now it’s time for California Democrats to ban droughts for the same reason: Increased earthquakes.
I can see it all now, a statewide media tour that hits the driest part of the state.
Politicians desperately in need of a humidifier will express their concern for farms, lawns and vacant car washes. There’s even a chance for coalition-building and additional news coverage as a Blue Ribbon Drought Study Group reaches out to Native Americans to see if anyone recalls how to do a rain dance.
Of course it won’t do any good, but that’s never stopped the great minds in Sacramento before. Besides banning droughts will provide the rest of us with needed comic relief until our Maker decides it’s time for the rain to come again.
Michael Reagan is the son of former President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the League of American Voters.
Steven Novella, Neurologicablog
One of the strengths of the skeptical movement, as an intellectual community, is that we wrangle with important issues regarding the relationship between science and what people do and should accept as probably true. We deal with not only specific issues, but the bigger question of process. For example, how much weight should an individual give to any specific scientific consensus, and is this just an argument from authority?
This question has recently become central to the debate over climate change, one of those few scientific debates that fractures the skeptical community. We are fairly united when it comes to the question of ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs. But when certain topics come up, like climate change, there is disagreement over the meaning of consensus, what the consensus is, and the very definition of “skeptic”.
Consensus vs Authority
Deferring to the scientific consensus on a given topic is not the same thing as making an argument from authority, a logical fallacy to be avoided. The argument from authority essentially follows the pattern of concluding that a claim is true because it is being made by a person of some authority (scientific or otherwise). Most of us spend our childhood committing this logical fallacy, the right answer is whatever an adult says it is, or the teacher, or whatever the news reports “scientists” are saying.
As we mature and grow in personal knowledge we eventually cross a threshold where we feel confident relying on our own judgment, even to the point of rejecting authority. This seems to be instinctive for teenagers, and of course the rejection of authority simply because it is authority is an overcompensation. Ideally, as adults, we reach an equilibrium where we listen to authority, but understand its limits, and do not use authority as a replacement for independent thought.
As skeptics we have collectively tried to develop a nuanced and sophisticated approach to scientific authority, and many excellent articles have been written on this topic. Since we advocate rigorous and robust scientific methodology as the best way of understanding nature, we trust this process to some degree. We understand there can be fraud or sloppy studies, but generally if the research of others is all pointing toward one answer, we trust that research and its conclusions.
But science is complex, and few people can master more than a fairly narrow range of scientific expertise. And so outside our area of expertise (which is all of science for non-scientists) the best approach to take, in my opinion, is a hybrid approach, first, try to understand what is the consensus of scientific opinion. This is a good starting point, what do scientists believe, what do they agree on, and where is there legitimate controversy? How sure are they of their conclusions, and how strong is the consensus on any particular question?
But also, those interested in science will want to understand the evidence directly and how it relates to the consensus. But at the same time it must be recognized that a non-expert understanding of the evidence is a mere shadow of expert understanding. For example, I have read many articles about Archaeopteryx, a transitional species between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. I can rattle off some of the anatomical details that mark Archaeopteryx as transitional, the presence of teeth and a long bony tail, for example. But there are details of anatomy that I cannot hope to appreciate, that require months or years of study and apprenticeship, and experience actually examining and describing fossils, of immersing oneself in the literature at the finest level of technical detail. And so ultimately I am trusting experts to interpret the fossil for me, not to mention to reconstruct the bones in the first place. I can only try to understand it on the deepest level I can.
What I conclude from this is that it is extreme hubris to substitute one’s frail non-expert assessment of a detailed scientific discipline for the consensus of opinion of scientific experts.
But there is still more complexity to this issue. First, the consensus of opinion is not always right, it is just usually right. So one can always think that for any particular question this is one of those rare times when the consensus got it wrong. Also, there is almost always a minority opinion among experts, the outlier who is an expert but who constructs the evidence in a different way. So the non-expert can always tell themselves that a particular scientist who is an expert agrees with their opinion. This is not very reassuring, because such minority opinions are in the minority for a reason, and generally turn out to be false. (Although they serve a very useful function in the process of debate and analysis that is science.)
Further, I would argue that there are skill sets that apply, at least to some degree, to just about any science. There is knowledge of scientific methodology and the pitfalls of pathological science. So it is possible to recognize pathological science even in a discipline in which one is not an expert. But even still such out-of-field critiques should be undertaken with extreme caution. The question is, is the criticism dependent upon a detailed technical knowledge of the field, or a recognition that some underlying assumptions and methods are wrong. Even in the latter case, it is good practice to check oneself with an actual expert, to make sure you are not missing something.
I offer as an example the recent criticism of evolutionary theory by non-biologists Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. P.Z. Myers explains very well where they went wrong, they make all the mistakes of not respecting a consensus or the limits of their technical knowledge outside their area of expertise.
Getting back to climate change, all of the complexities of assessing consensus are in play. Generally, non-experts tend to accept or reject anthropogenic climate change based upon their politics and world-view. That is a strong indication that most people are not assessing the science objectively, but are simply fitting the science to their ideology.
Don Braman, a faculty member of George Washington University and part of The Cultural Cognition Project, is quoted as saying:
“People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view,” Braman says.
The Cultural Cognition Project has conducted several experiments to back that up.
In the same report, Robert Kennedy Jr. is quoted as saying:
“Ninety-eight percent of the research climatologists in the world say that global warming is real, that its impacts are going to be catastrophic,” he argued. “There are 2 percent who disagree with that. I have a choice of believing the 98 percent or the 2 percent.”
That is a basic statement of acceptance of the scientific consensus. But Robert Kennedy is not always a fan of the scientific consensus, for example he rejects the scientific consensus on vaccines, choosing to believe that the consensus is a deliberate fraud (exactly what global warming dissidents say about the climate change consensus). This makes Robert Kennedy a hypocrite, he accepts the scientific consensus and cites its authority when it suits his politics, and then blithely rejects it (spinning absurd conspiracy theories that would make Jesse Ventura blush) when it is inconvenient to his politics.
But Kennedy is not alone, this seems to be what most people do most of the time. In fact I would argue that we need to be especially suspicious of our scientific opinions on controversial topics when they conform to our personal ideology (whether political, social, or religious). That is when we need to step back and ask hard questions that challenge the views we want to hold. We also need to make sure that our process is consistent across questions, are we citing the scientific consensus on one issue and rejecting it on another? Are we citing conflicts of interest for researchers whose conclusions we don’t like, and ignoring them for researchers whose conclusions confirm our beliefs?
Being a skeptic is partly about wringing our hands and closely examining these very question, especially as they pertain to our own beliefs. The question of scientific consensus is complicated, and my views on the topic have evolved over the years as I have discussed the issue with my fellow skeptics and tried to apply it to specific issues. It is an issue worth examining closely.
A new study by NERA Economic Consulting and commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) reveals that a new ozone regulation from the Obama Administration could cost $270 billion per year and place millions of jobs at risk. This would be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public.
In December 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely propose a more stringent National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone, lowering the existing standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to as low as 60 ppb.
To date, the EPA has only identified one-third of the controls needed to meet the possible new standard; the other two-thirds must come from controls the EPA has not identified. NERA’s report looked at the types of controls needed to fill that unknown gap and found that they will be much more expensive. This is because they are likely to include the shutdown, scrappage or modification of power plants, factories, heavy-duty vehicles, off-road vehicles and even passenger cars. As a result, the negative impacts of a new NAAQS for ground-level ozone will reverberate throughout the entire economy. Total compliance costs could measure in the trillions of dollars, and barriers to energy production could severely limit economic growth and hinder the nation’s manufacturing comeback.
The study found that a stricter new ozone regulation could:
Reduce U.S. GDP by $270 billion per year and $3.4 trillion from 2017 to 2040;
Result in 2.9 million fewer job equivalents per year on average through 2040;
Cost the average U.S. household $1,570 per year in the form of lost consumption; and
Increase natural gas and electricity costs for manufacturers and households across the country.
In brief, such a rule could place tremendous cost and compliance burdens on states and their resources. The study also found that the EPA has yet to adequately address two critical issues related to revising the existing ozone standard:
There are major gaps in data on compliance technologies and their costs in the EPA’s most recent analysis. Only about one-third of the emissions reductions necessary to get to the low end of the standards the EPA is contemplating can be achieved with known controls.
This means that the agency has yet to identify what, if any, controls are available to achieve the majority of the necessary emissions reductions and adequately address what those controls might cost.
New oil and natural gas production could be significantly restricted in parts of the country classified as “nonattainment” areas, limiting supplies of critical energy resources and potentially driving up costs for manufacturers and households. The EPA has yet to address the potential impacts tighter ozone standards could have on energy production and costs.
The study considered the potential implications of energy curtailment by estimating the economic impacts if limits to new natural gas development were added to compliance costs. The study found that restrictions to new natural gas production from tighter ozone regulations, in combination with the costs to reduce emissions, could:
Reduce the present value of GDP by nearly $4.5 trillion through 2040, result in a loss of 4.3 million job equivalents per year and cost households $2,040 annually; and Increase industrial natural gas costs by an average of 52 percent and electricity costs by an average of 23 percent over what they would be if the ozone standard was unchanged.
Such cost impacts could crush the manufacturing comeback by removing our nation’s energy advantage. The NAM urges the EPA and the Obama Administration to abandon plans to revise and tighten the NAAQS for ground-level ozone. The current standard of 75 ppb the most stringent standard ever has not even been implemented yet, while emissions are as low as they have been in decades, and air quality continues to improve.
The NAM makes this statement based on compliance costs measured by NERA Economic Consulting and White House Office of Management and Budget reports to Congress assessing the costs of regulations back to 1988.