Friday, November 6, 2015

Political Climate

On the same day that President Obama finally made a decision about the Keystone Pipeline (he killed it) we learn that the New York State Attorney General is launching an investigation targeting Exxon, on the theory that the oil company lied to its investors about the risks of climate change.  Both stories should chill the hearts of anyone who believes that economic policies should be made for economic reasons and that science requires that scientific theories be open to challenge. 
After seven years of dithering, including a State Department approval of the project, the President decided to nix the Keystone approval on political grounds.  From the New York Times:
Mr. Obama said that the pipeline has occupied what he called “an overinflated role in our political discourse.”
“It has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”
Yes, the pipeline would not have been a “silver bullet.”  It would just have been the most efficient and safest means of moving the oil from the tar sands where it was extracted.  Those are economic reasons for approving the pipeline.  It would not have been, as the President admits, “the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”  Why not? 
Environmentalists had sought to block construction of the pipeline because it would have provided a conduit for petroleum extracted from the Canadian oil sands. The process of extracting that oil produces about 17 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than the process of extracting conventional oil.
But numerous State Department reviews concluded that construction of the pipeline would have little impact on whether that type of oil was burned, because it was already being extracted and moving to market via rail and existing pipelines. 
So approving Keystone would have been economically indicated and denying it would have paid no environmental dividends.  The only difference is now we are moving it by rail through urban centers where an unfortunate event would kill lots of people. 
So why did the President kill it?  Poetry. 
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
The move was made ahead of a major United Nations summit meeting on climate change to be held in Paris in December, when Mr. Obama hopes to help broker a historic agreement committing the world’s nations to enacting new policies to counter global warming. While the rejection of the pipeline is largely symbolic, Mr. Obama has sought to telegraph to other world leaders that the United States is serious about acting on climate change.
Mr. Obama wants to “telegraph” world leaders that we are serious about acting on climate change.  The rejection of the pipeline is not “largely” symbolic.  It is altogether symbolic. 
Politics trumping economic policy is a dog bites man story.  Politics attempting to strangle science is a different kettle of canines.  Again from the Times:
The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.
The notion that Exxon could know how future climate change might hurt the oil business is utterly ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to predict the oil business a year in advance.  The best climate science can only give you a range of possibilities (1.4 degree to 4 degrees by the end of this century).  Is it really possible that Exxon lied about what this will to do to their portfolios eight-five years from now?  No.
What this is really about is that Exxon funded both “good” climate research (i.e., that supported the climate change alarmist agenda) and groups that criticized the alarmist view.  The purpose of the investigation is to punish Exxon for funding the heretics and thus starve the latter.

Good science need critics.  Environmental policy needs real solutions, not symbolic ones.  Precisely if you believe that climate change is a real danger, you should welcome challenges to your view.  If you are right, your view will be confirmed.  That means, however, that you have to be open to the possibility that your view is wrong.  Neither the President nor the Attorney General of New York are interested in that. c 

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