The Climate and Energy State of the Union

How about a "balanced approach" to energy and climate policy?

In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama warned that Americans must take steps now to cut "our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet." To justify these efforts, he appealed to the "overwhelming judgment of science," pointing chiefly to recent weather extremes in the United States as evidence for the urgency of action. Skeptics "can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence," Obama announced, but the president clearly does not. "Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods—all are now more frequent and more intense."

Is he right? Let's take a closer look at those trends the president cites. After that, we can assess the he wants to implement as a response.

Heat, Drought, Fires, and Floods

Let's start, as Obama did, with heat waves. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year was the hottest year since 1895 for the contiguous United States, about 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. Globally, 2012 was the tenth warmest year on record, and all 12 years to date in the 21st century rank among the 14 warmest since 1880. On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency's Heat Wave Index from 1895 to 2011 shows that the frequency and breadth of heat waves in the lower 48 states were dramatically more severe in the 1930s than at any other time in the historical record, although there has been an uptick in recent years. A study in the January 2013 issue of Climatic Change, analyzing trends in monthly mean temperatures around the globe since the 1880s, reports that "the number of record-breaking heat extremes has on average increased to roughly 5 times the number expected in a climate with no long-term warming."

With regard to droughts, the Palmer Drought Severity Index for the continental U.S. reveals that the 1930s and 1950s saw the most widespread droughts since the record begins in 1895; the last 50 years have generally been wetter than average. In 1934 about 80 percent of the lower 48 experienced drought. The next worst years were 1954 and 2012, when more than 60 percent of the contiguous U.S. suffered drought. The most recent data show that the drought in the middle section of the country has not yet abated. Interestingly, even as average global temperatures have increased, a study published in Nature in November 2012 argued that the index overestimated the increase in global drought and that "there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years."

Last year was America's third biggest year for wildfires since 1960, with just 2006 and 2007 coming out ahead. Each of those years saw more than 9 million acres burn, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Between 1960 and 2000, an average of about 3.7 million acres of wildlands burned every year. Since 2000, the average has been about 7 million acres. In the 1930s, by contrast, about 40 to 50 million acres of wildlands burned annually, dropping below 10 million acres by the mid-1950s. (It’s hard to get good data on the trends prior to the '30s.) The 52-year average of the NIFC data is 4.5 million acres per year, so the area burned by wildfires each year has declined by more 90 percent since the 1930s. Still, the current trajectory doesn't look good: In December NASA researchers reported that climate models project that "high fire years like 2012 would likely occur two to four times per decade by mid-century, instead of once per decade under current climate conditions."

What about flooding? A 2011 study by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at data from stream gauges collected over the past 127 years in four regions of the U.S. The hydrologists found no "strong statistical evidence for flood magnitudes increasing" with carbon dioxide. The EPA does report that precipitation in the lower 48 is increasing at a rate of 5.9 percent per century. The EPA also notes, drawing on data from 1910 and 2011, that extreme precipitation events (defined as being in the top 10 percent of one-day events) over the conterminous U.S. states are also increasing. Other studies find that the frequency of extreme precipitation events is also increasing globally.

As noted above, Obama also invoked Superstorm Sandy as evidence of dangerous man-made climatic trends. Sandy was especially disastrous because it combined with a snowstorm and came ashore when the local tides were running high. But is Sandy evidence of worsening global hurricane trends? It's worth recalling the reason that Sandy was dubbed a "superstorm": It was no longer a hurricane when it hit the northeastern United States. In his 2011 article for Geophysical Research Letters, "Recent Historically Low Global Tropical Cyclone Activity," the atmospheric scientist Ryan Maue reports that accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) has recently been at a 40-year low.

ACE measures each tropical storm's wind energy. Even though Sandy was a monster storm, the North Atlantic ACE measure for 2012 was the 20th highest out of the last 62 years. Less happily, climate computer models project that future warming will likely cause hurricanes globally to increase in average intensity by between 2 to 11 percent.

On balance, then, currently available scientific evidence indicates that heat waves and wildfires in the U.S. have increased in recent years. On the other hand, there appear to be no strong trends for droughts, floods, and hurricanes in the continental United States. However, most climate computer models suggest that all of these aspects of climate will get worse as the century unfolds.

Carbon Rationing and a Slew of Subsidies

After Obama gestured toward the evidence for man-made global warming, he declared, "The good news is we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth." In a nod towards climate change bipartisanship, the president mentioned the "market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago." That bill was a cap-and-trade scheme that aimed to push carbon dioxide emissions to sixty percent below the 1990 level by 2050. 

On Thursday, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels at the wellhead and mine-head. The idea is the by boosting the price of fossil fuels, consumers and inventors will be incentivized to seek out and develop low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources. Boxer and Sanders are proposing that three-fifths of the $1.2 trillion collected over the next ten years would be rebated annually to every legal resident and the rest would be funneled toward "investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass."

If Congress doesn't adopt some kind of carbon rationing scheme, the president intends to impose one through administrative fiat. ("If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he promised.) The president is probably thinking of something along the lines of a plan to cap power company carbon dioxide emissions outlined in December by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Under that proposal, the EPA would set emissions standards for each state based on their mix of power plants and then require them to meet various caps. The NRDC claims that its proposal could cut carbon dioxide emissions from America's power plants by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, all at a hypothetical cost of a mere $4 billion.

The president was gung-ho about the country's natural gas boom, noting correctly that it "has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence." He then claimed, "Much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together," and promised "my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits." Oddly, the president seems not to be in any hurry to cut the red tape that is halting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport nearly 1 million barrels of crude per day from Canada's oilsands to refineries in the U.S. In any case, very little of the "newfound energy" in the form of oil is drawn from federal lands. Since 2007, 96 percent of the increase in oil production has occurred on private and state-owned lands, not federal lands. On that account, the administration still has a considerable way to go to fulfill the president's promise to speed production by cutting red tape.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • T o n y||

    Round up any denier with a microphone and shoot him. Then declare a state of emergency, have Obama crowed god-emperor for life, at which point he can personally eliminate polluting industries by fiat and direct as many resources as necessary to develop clean energy tech and convert energy production and consumption to it nationally.

    That would be a moderate, balanced approach compared to "drill baby drill" or maintaining the status quo, which will have more harmful consequences by any measure.

  • mgd||

    Come and get me, bitch.

  • Jordan||

    No wonder you don't trust anyone to own guns. Behold the mind of a totalitarian zealot.

  • ||

    The consensus is settled!

    I'm totally cereal guys.

  • grey||

    I said this elsewhere, socialists have violent and oppressive tendencies consistently superimpose these tendencies on others; and this is why they fear those that can defend themselves. They fear their own dark selves. The way cheaters are the most jealous.

    Socialist equivalency of argument:

    Fascist Ruler Murdering Non-Compliant Citizens = People wishing to take continued advantage of safe and plentiful natural resources

    Someone please explain to me the difference between a modern US liberal and the fascist oppressors mankind has encountered all through history?

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Someone please explain to me the difference between a modern US liberal and the fascist oppressors mankind has encountered all through history?

    *crickets*

  • ||

    The historical ones are dead. Ours arent. Yet.
    And we have to stop calling them liberals.

  • grey||

    Fascist, socialist, leftist, communist, statist, what's the best descriptor? I'd just call them douches, but only here would everyone know instantly who I meant.

  • Bill||

    "Progressives" But you have to include the quotes to highlight how stupid it sounds.

  • marshaul||

    Seriously. Even if the term "liberal" is totally destroyed, they don't deserve to wear it.

  • ||

    "War! What is it good for? Squandering wealth and oppressing your fellow man. Say it again!"

    -Tony

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    You know, I really do try to give humanity the benefit of the doubt. And then people like you show up and wipe out any faith I once had. Sad thing is, I can't tell whether you're just confrontational for the sake of confrontation or you REALLY REALLY are this stupid.

  • Tman||

    He really is this stupid.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Dear god, no. So you're telling me it IS possible for IQ to dip into the negatives?

  • Tman||

    They have a Kelvin-type scale for the Tony levels of stupid.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    I'm fairly certain he'd still be in the single digits on that scale. Maybe 1 or 2 degrees above Absolute Derp. (gotta give him at least 1 point. He does manage to use a computer and form words)

  • Tman||

    You are quite generous. I always thought he had the pool boy do the typing and surfing and what not.

  • grey||

    Tony may be simply the next new generation of socialist random word generator (a more advanced version of the cyborg like Rosie O'Donnell version who unfortunately ate all the other cyborg models of that generation). It takes in all the words from each evenings MSNBC broadcast, shuffles them like a deck of cards, then randomly reassigns verbs, nouns, pronouns, and the other necessary components into the fallacy structures of liberal arguments, and viola, you have a perfectly coherent (by liberal standards) spokesperson to troll the net. No reasoning skills or ethics necessary - only the raw talking points of liberalism. Since one incoherency is the same as the next, the organization of the words and ideas on any given topic is not important.

  • T o n y||

    Liberalism is a comprehensive and realistic political worldview, talking points or no. Libertarianism is slogans as philosophy.

  • ||

    Liberalism = libertarianism. Thanks for shitting on it.

  • Calidissident||

    Modern liberalism is an incoherent mess. As is conservatism for that matter. There's no underlying logic behind why they have the beliefs they do on different topics. They just do. I don't know why a coherent worldview with a guiding principle is so worthy of scorn

  • ||

    Because if they can't have a coherent worldview based in things like principles, then obviously nobody else really does either.

  • T o n y||

    Principles are one thing. Dogma is another.

  • Sevo||

    T o n y| 2.16.13 @ 12:45AM |#
    "Principles are one thing. Dogma is another."

    Turing test fail, scheisse kopf.

  • Rabban||

    Conservatives would argue that they prefer and advocate traditional approaches that have been vindicated by history. Progs will declare that only they don't hate women, children and minorities. All of whom are seen as too helpless to survive sans government charity.

  • Bill||

    You are a progressive. Look up classical liberal.

  • Hopfiend||

    Now that IS funny. Liberalism is a comprehensive collection of action/unintended consequence/action to fix unintended consequence ad infinitum.

  • Oso Politico||

    I think Obama has already been 'crowed'.

  • John C. Randolph||

    You know Tony, none of us would need guns at all if it weren't for people like you.

    -jcr

  • Marie487897||

    like Herbert replied I'm alarmed that people able to profit $5735 in a few weeks on the computer. have you seen this site link... www.snag4.com

  • T o n y||

    Woooosh.

  • grey||

    It was not fed enough words from last nights broadcast.

  • Stacy56||

    If you think Edna`s story is cool..., last pay-cheque my sister's best friend basically also recieved a check for $5865 working a seventeen hour week from there apartment and their best friend's mom`s neighbour done this for 9-months and got over $5865 parttime from a labtop. follow the instructions on this address, http://www.FLY38.COM

  • TheZeitgeist||

    I thought Reason put in the registration (and thirty billion analytic trackers) of users to eliminate shit like this. Fail.

  • T o n y||

    Endorsing the status quo is the most radical of the available options.

  • Rick Santorum||

    Endorsing the status quo is the most radical of the available options.

    Lol, trying to backpeddle, shithead.

  • T o n y||

    Just trying to make the point in plain English because the more illustrative method apparently completely confused you idiots.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Anyone who's still an Obama-fluffer is on very thin ice when they call anyone else stupid.

    -jcr

  • Hopfiend||

    stupid person comes in, calls other people stupid...

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    I find all supposed consequences of global warming acceptable if the occurrence of an ice age gets prolonged.

  • Libertarius||

    I've got it.

    All the libtards can join obozo's civilian army of social justice lolzozlzolz and all the Tonys of the world can go valiantly tell the Chinese they have to stop polluting, what the fuck these retards act like America is the only country that uses oil lolzozlzolzolz

  • Russell||

    Seriously underwhelming, Ron. With 32,000 Oregon Petition signatories to choose from, why pick Pat Michael's understudy iof ten years in a political closed shop devoted to denying global temperature trends?

  • ||

    This Obama is such a pioneer and innovator. I mean, no president ever tried to "reduce oil imports" or "promote alternative energy" or "reduce emissions" ever before, did they?

  • ||

    Aren't we on track to being the number one exporter?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Climate model. Climate model. Climate MODEL. Let's talk about facts. The fact is that global temps as measured by RSS, UAH, and HadCRUT show no statistically significant warming for over a decade which is in direct contradiction to the modeled predictions. Without the silly positive feedback and amplification from water vapor assumed in the now falsified models global temps are expected to rise ~1C for every doubling of CO2, not the 3C fear mongering from the IPCC. Furthermore, it's hardly clear that a slightly warmer Earth would even be a bad thing. Certainly human history has been far more dismal when it has been cold (dark ages, Little Ice Age) than when it was warm (Minoan, Roman, and Medieval Warm periods).

  • grey||

    Truth nerd.

  • mgd||

    Are you really going to let facts get in the way of ceding more control to The State?

  • grey||

    51% of voters had no problem doing so, the mandate has spoken.

  • Jayburd||

    hide da decline

  • Wind Rider||

    Good god, Ron. Take a year long break from the innertoobs, and come back to find you writing things that pretty much summarize down to "I SURRENDER!" or "No, no, do it to her, put the rat on her!"

    And the rest just sounds like carping over the amount of sand imbedded in the lubricant (applied just to hold the sand on) for the royal shafting we're all likely to experience from the totally moronic policies the political classes of all stripes are insisting upon inflicting upon us.

    All over a hysterical chicken little dance by insignificant fleas on the ass of a chihuahua.

  • Rabban||

    As a child you never realized that Chicken Little was out to cost you your quality of life.

  • Tobias4||

    just as Alfred replied I am surprised that a mother can make $4084 in four weeks on the computer. did you see this page http://www.FLY38.COM

  • mtrueman||

    ¨in exchange for a revenue-neutral, fully rebated carbon tax. Deal?¨

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but Mother Nature doesn´t do deals. We´re not going to be able to finesse our way out of this predicament. Physics is physics and we´re stuck with it.

  • Redmanfms||

    Physics is physics and we´re stuck with it.

    When the doomsayers come up with a model that is successfully predictive, then we'll talk, until then physics isn't on your side of the debate shitheel.

  • mtrueman||

    We´ll talk when there is a model that can demonstrably predict, say 50 years into the future? You mean no talking until at least 50 years from now?

    Why calling me shitheel? Where is this hostility coming from? You are angrier than a black police supervisor in a Hollywood action pic. Please try to calm yourself before responding to me. You are clearly not thinking this climate modelling predicament through either.

  • grey||

    ^^This^^ Needs repeated more often.

  • grey||

    "When the doomsayers come up with a model that is successfully predictive, then we'll talk, until then physics isn't on your side of the debate shitheel."

    Comment fell out of line, ^^This^^ needs repeated more often.

  • mtrueman||

    No science, on anyone´s side, is going to tell us the climate some 50 years hence. That´s not the way science rolls.
    We can hypothesize about the future climate, but that´s as far as we go. If you want to take things further, you´ll just have to wait until the future actually arrives.

    Modelling, though it uses the tools of science, is more of an interpretive art. To suggest that we should take no action or even discuss the issue until the models are predictive is to completely misconstrue the nature of what we´re facing. Think this through a moment. If we are not going to take any action for 50 years because our modelling may be faulty, and we will simply see for ourselves how the climate will be in 50 years by waiting 50 years, then why insist on modelling in the first place?

  • JayDick||

    Yes, let's discuss the issue. The problem so far has been that warming alarmists have done their best to silence skeptics' voices.

    As for the "consensus" the only consensus I see is among recipients of government money, who hope to get more of it by issuing reports that please the bureaucrats.

    Is the climate warming? Probably. It's been warming since the little ice age ended. However the system for measuring ground temperatures is not very reliable, so we can't get precise information from it.

    Why the warming? Most likely it's just the normal warming and cooling cycles that have been occurring for millions (billions?) of years. To accept any other conclusion, we need very reliable data and analysis. Instead, we have mathematical models of a system not thoroughly understood that include all kinds of assumptions that have no empirical basis. Based on this shaky foundation, we're supposed to spend trillions of dollars trying to affect the climate?

    Moreover, even if all the warming alarmists' conclusions are accurate, it would require worldwide cooperation to reduce atmospheric CO2 even a little. How likely is that? We're just tilting at windmills, very expensive windmills.

  • mtrueman||

    ¨To accept any other conclusion, we need very reliable data and analysis.¨

    We have a pretty sound theory on the heat trapping properties of gases like CO2. It´s been borne out by 150 years of empirical analysis and experimentation. It´s not ¨mathematical models¨ as you say.

    ¨it would require worldwide cooperation¨

    The easiest way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce economic growth. That´s pretty clear. No worldwide cooperation required, other than a handful of ideologically inclined wreckers and saboteurs. Welcome to the 21st century!

  • grey||

    I recall a true consensus and wide public acceptance of the dangers of fluorocarbons and the ozone. Why the difference with fluorocarbons and climate change? My advice to those that believe we are facing a problem, allow dissenting voices, and keep working.

    I had no ethical issue with the successful fight against fluorocarbons in aerosol, why? Because HARM, clear and present. Libtards have adopted climate change as a part of their socialist coalition, they are drawn to the widespread growth in government powers associated with the issue. Once again, facts are disregarded and replaced with bold faced lies to the sole effect of growing government.

  • mtrueman||

    ¨Why the difference with fluorocarbons and climate change?¨

    Good question. Off the top of my hand I would say that substitutes for fluorocarbons are readily available, so even if the sensible people disagree with the libtards in principle, that something should be done, doing something, ie switching to a libtard acceptable alternative is possible and relative easy to swallow. There´s even money to be made.

    With climate change, no alternative is feasible. A kilogramme of gas contains about 13,000 watt hours of energy. Electrical batteries today store at best 300 watt hours of energy. They are no substitute for fossil fuels. Banning fossil fuels would lead to extreme economic disruption. This is not about a ¨scientific consensus¨ or lack thereof. Science is not a democracy and never has been. The difficulty addressing the climate issue is social and economic. If libtards are capable of recognizing this, there is no reason why sensible people shouldn´t as well.

  • grey||

    I'm convinced socialists are not capable of understanding the dependency on fossil fuels or the related economic issue. I don't agree there is a consensus, MSNBC and the President can keep repeating it, but I've read volumes in scientific magazines and across the internet. There is conflicting data and we do not know what, if any, climate change is occurring. When I was a child we were speeding up the next ice age, then it became global warming, then they started calling it 'climate change' - this was perfect: an indisputable catch all since the climate has been changing the moment the Earth formed.

    Climate change activists (I can't with a straight face associate them environmentalists any more) need to get focused on real science and communicating facts. You can't say a hurricane, earth quake, or asteroid was caused by climate change and then expect me to take you seriously.

    Batteries is a key issue to alternative energy forms being more competitive, and they will continue to improve. Fossil fuels have high mining, transportation, storage, and processing costs. I have no doubt it will be usurped eventually. The only environmentalist I can take seriously is one that believes in the free market. If you free the energy markets and the capitalist markets then less polluting and more localized energy sources will replace fossil fuels much faster than a centralized solution.

  • marshaul||

    Welcome to the 21st century, where that will never happen?

  • marshaul||

    In response to mtrueman's remark about ideologically motivated saboteurs or somesuch.

  • Tristan34||

    uptil I saw the bank draft which had said $4886, I did not believe that my mom in-law realy taking home money in there spare time on their apple labtop.. there neighbour started doing this for less than seventeen months and by now repaid the debts on their place and purchased a great new Saab 99 Turbo. I went here, http://WWW.FLY38.COM

  • Bill||

    Ron,

    Have you seen Pielke Jr.'s recent piece? http://www.thegwpf.org/trust/

    And he refers to an IPCC document. Not sure if this is part of the 5th report draft or
    not but that draft seems to say that even some of what you stated above is not
    quite correct. (i.e. not as much evidence for increase in some of the things you mentioned)

    http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/

  • Udolf41||

    until I saw the check 4 $6936, I didn't believe that my father in law was realie earning money part-time on their computer.. there aunt had bean doing this less than eighteen months and at present repaid the depts on there mini mansion and got a great Infiniti. this is where I went, http://tiny.cc/uqtnsw

  • Vernon||

    uptil I saw the draft of $9973, I did not believe ...that...my father in law could trully receiving money part time at their computer.. there aunts neighbour has done this 4 only about eleven months and at present paid for the mortgage on there place and got a gorgeous Chrysler. we looked here, http://www.fb26.com

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  • Art On Web||

    The climate change are one of important things that we must to do everything positive for our families.

  • buybuydandavis||

    ' Americans must take steps now to cut "our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet." '

    How about they pressure the government to get out of the way of fracking, the single most powerful factor in our reduced CO2 emissions?

  • Libertarius||

    Looting and mooching, is the way
    Hear what Capitan Obozo, has to say!!!

    GOOOOO PLAN IT!!!

  • Kroneborge||

    "Remove all regulations on carbon dioxide emissions and eliminate all energy subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for a revenue-neutral, fully rebated carbon tax. Deal?"

    I'd take that deal

  • ygsrf||

    Kickoff to you with the online store 2013

  • Jayburd||

    HIDE THE DECLINE!!!!!!

  • jecobjesan||

    like Patricia said I didnt even know that anyone can profit $6401 in 1 month on the internet. did you look at this site www.WOW92.com

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