Archive | Environmental Politics

Is Climate Change Likely to Increase Conflict?

Likely not, according to Nils Petter Gledditsch, in the introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research on this topic. Research to date shows little evidence for systematic relationship between increased global warming, water shortages etc and violent conflict.

Climate change is the world’s first truly global manmade environmental problem and a firm warning that human activities can influence our physical environment on a global scale. The range of possible consequences of climate change is so wide, even for the limited temperature changes foreseen in the IPCC scenarios, that it is difficult to sort out the main priorities. Obviously, if a reversal of the trend towards a more peaceful world was one of these consequences, it should have a prominent place on the policy agenda. Based on the research reported here, such a pessimistic view may not be warranted in the short to medium run.

In other words – there are a large number of unhappy consequences that may flow from continued global warming. But what evidence we have to date (which is admittedly based either on spotty data, or studies over the shorter term) gives us no very strong reason to argue that an increase in violent conflict is among them.

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Climate Negotiations in Durban: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full, and Does It Really Matter?

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post from Johannes Urpelainen, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, on the recent climate negotiations in Durban. Johannes is a very prolific scholar who writes on issues of international institutions and the environment. He also writes a blog on climate politics.

In recent years, United Nations negotiations on climate change have begun to resemble wars of attrition. During the official negotiation period, the major players – China, India, the United States, and the European Union – seem unable to agree on anything. The talks are further complicated by emotional calls for action by small island nations whose very survival is threatened by climate change and bold announcements of exit by opponents of the Kyoto Protocol.

During overtime, a modest but confusing compromise is achieved. Negotiators and their supporters celebrate their ability to save the multilateral process, detractors complain that the compromise does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and opponents of climate cooperation celebrate yet another victory.

In Durban, the modest but confusing “Durban Platform” had three key elements. The first is a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. However, it remains unclear how long this commitment period will be. It also seems that the European Union is the only party to the Kyoto Protocol willing to accept new commitments. The second is an institutional framework for the Green Climate Fund, which would allow wealthy countries to fund adaptation to climate change in poor countries. However, nothing was said about the sources of this funding. The third is a “roadmap” for future negotiations on a global “agreed outcome with legal force.” It is to be negotiated by 2015 and to enter into force no later than in 2020. However, it remains unclear what an “agreed outcome with legal force” is.

Is the glass half empty or half full? It depends. If one expected Durban to provide a clear pathway to a legally binding and global treaty, the glass is almost empty. After 17 years, countries of the world agreed to continue the negotiations. If one expected Durban to cause the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations climate negotiations, the glass is half empty for those who believe the Kyoto Protocol is flawed and half full for those who believe the Kyoto Protocol is a useful first step.

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Possible resolution of the Freakonomics albedo mystery

Like me, you might have been curious as to how the high-profile discussion of climate change in the Freakonomics sequel got tied into a silly claim (see here for discussion) about the reflectivity of solar panels.

I think I’ve discovered the answer, from the unlikely source of a review of a cookbook. Details here.

P.S. To clarify the title above: the “albedo mystery” is not about the reflectivity of solar panels or even the relevance of this reflectivity to energy policy. Rather, the mystery is why the Freakonomics expert wanted to discuss the reflectivity of solar panels in the first place.

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Atmospheric politics

To provide a slightly different twist on John’s post below, one useful way to think about the relationship between violent rhetoric and violent action is to borrow from arguments about climate change. Very often, people engaged in debate over climate change either argue that a specific event (e.g. a cold winter) disproves or demonstrates the reality of climate change. But this is to misunderstand the debate. As I (as a non climate scientist) understand it, the scientific consensus about climate change suggests changes to average temperatures (and changes to the associated likelihood of certain weather events), but it is usually going to be next to impossible to tell whether any given event is ‘caused’ by climate change (it may simply be the result of random fluctuation). Testing arguments about climate change involves multiple data points and the usual problems of statistical inference etc.

Similarly, it is probably a bad idea to attribute any particular violent action to an overall climate of violent rhetoric without some strong evidence of a direct causal relationship. E.g., if the assassin had quoted some of the violent rhetoric that has been widely criticized as an inspiration, had listened to Michael Savage’s radio shows several hours a day or whatever, one would not be able to prove a causal relationship, but it would not be an unreasonable inference. There does not seem to be evidence of that sort in this case. John points to some evidence that is suggestive of a broader statistical relationship between violent rhetoric and attitudes towards violence. This is obviously much weaker than the kind of evidence that climate scientists have gathered pointing to global warming. But, to the extent that it does point to a possible relationship between violent rhetoric and violent action, it is to a probabilistic relationship. One can say that there is (moderate) evidence supporting the argument that violent rhetoric makes violent action more likely. But this does not and cannot show, in the absence of other evidence, that any particular violent action is the product of a general atmosphere of violent rhetoric.

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Does Recession Crowd out Concerns about Global Warming?

A new paper by economists Matthew Kahn and Matthew Kotchen uses google search data to investigate whether people show less interest in environmental issues as they become more concerned about unemployment.

We find that higher unemployment rates within a state decrease internet search activity for global warming, but increase search activity for unemployment. Based on this revealed preference for interest in global warming, therefore, it appears that recessions crowd out concern for the environment, while not surprisingly increasing concern about unemployment. Interestingly, the magnitudes of the two effects are very similar despite having opposite signs, which is at least consistent with the notion that one crowds out the other.

The decline is larger in Democratic leaning states, perhaps because people in these states have initially higher interest in global warming. The authors also find that increases in a state’s unemployment rate are correlated with increased beliefs that global warming is a hoax.

The authors argue that this supports the notion that environmental concerns are a luxury good, in the sense that these concerns seem to rise to the front when economic times are good and recede when times are bad. In political science and sociology we would call this a post-materialist concern. This characterization is quite old (although not entirely uncontroversial) but the use of internet search data is novel and interesting. All of this does of course not mean that recession is bad for global warming (at least in the short -term): it is hard to think of any policy initiative that would reduce CO2 emissions more than a good old fashioned economic downturn.

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Another (unintended) Consequence of BP’s Oil Spill

From Kobi Abayomi, Dexin Luo, and Valerie Thomas:

We develop a statistical method to evaluate the effect of biofuels on other uses of crops or land. The uses of land or of an agricultural crop are constrained: total crop use or land use is always the sum of the constituents. For this reason, determination of the influence of the use of biomass for energy on other crop uses or other land uses cannot be evaluated with standard statistical correlation methods. We develop a general method for these compositional distributions, and apply this method to determine competition between biomass used for energy and other uses of the same biomass feedstock. In a case study of U.S. corn production, we find evidence of competition among uses of corn, particularly with respect to ethanol production. In contrast, we find no evidence of competition with respect to use of corn for food and industrial use.

Here’s the background. Kobi writes:

British Petroleum’s recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to cause both immediate and prolonged environmental disaster as well as long-term economic distress in the Gulf region.

In the urgent short run: the corruption of beaches, the despoiling of fisheries and the pollution of wetlands demand concentrated and immediate attention.

The protracted effects of the spill, however, may be as diffuse and indefinite as the plume itself.

In a recent paper with Georgia Tech Industrial Engineering graduate student Dexin Luo and Professor Valerie Thomas, we found strong evidence of competition between the constituents of corn yield – corn for food, feed stocks, and export – and the production of corn based ethanol for fuel.[i]

This competition between corn yield for fuel and other uses has greatly strengthened – even as the overall corn harvest has increased over the past thirty years.

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 mandated an increase in ethanol production to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.[ii] In 2009, the United States produced about 11 billion gallons of ethanol fuel – an increase of more than 6000 percent since 1980.

At the same time, the total U.S. corn production has (only) doubled. The environmental impacts of this mandate (net energy budget, effect on corn based commodities, greenhouse emissions, etc.) are unresolved, significant, and addressed (better) elsewhere.[iii]

This was the landscape prior to the Gulf disaster.

A recent Slate column illustrates how the oil spill offers an especially advantageous occasion for ethanol producers to position ethanol fuel as a desirable, “clean” alternative.[iv]

President Obama himself, in a recent speech at an ethanol plant, called for a tripling of U.S. biofuel production over the next 12 years.[v]

We might have expected losses of oil output from the recent disaster in the Gulf – direct losses from production and indirect increased costs – to place additional pressures upon the fuel supply. We would then expect, in ordinary political terrain, for these pressures to further exacerbate competition among corn for feed stocks, exports and food and corn to ethanol.

The current and future mise en scène, a direct result of the spectacle of BP’s oil spill, may foster a growth in ethanol production far beyond previous expectation.

It is debatable whether it is a good idea to treat fuel as fungible and to increase the replacement of oil with ethanol. This is a debate that must be engaged, especially in view of the spectre of the oil spill.

The effects of increased ethanol production – on the energy budget, on the production of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, on land use change – have not been fully accounted for.

These inadequately measured, and higher order, effects are another (unintended) consequence of BP’s oil spill.

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The Political Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill

Major disasters, like Katrina, often have broad political effects. Columbia political scientist Johannes Urpelainen analyzes on his new blog how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to affect clean energy politics. Among the interesting points he raises is that it may spoil climate change legislation as offshore drilling rights were a carrot that could be offered to Republican opponents. Go check out his new blog Climate Politics and welcome Johannes to the political science blogosphere.

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Everything You Knew about Congressional Earmarks is Wrong


Well, okay, maybe you—being a “Monkey Cage” reader and therefore an intelligent and well informed person—knew better, but not most people. Here’s what they think:

Earmarks are the motor driving large budget deficits.
Using omnibus legislation instead of regular orders is the real culprit.
“Airdropped” earmarks (those added at the conference stage) are a major problem.

Those are among the three most common bits of conventional wisdom concerning earmarks (though the first one has probably gotten less conventional since Barack Obama so frequently disputed it during his campaign debates with John McCain.) According to Michael H. Crespin, Charles J. Finocchiaro, and Emily O. Wanless, all three of these widely held beliefs are wrong. In the just-released issue of the Berkeley Electronic Press’ Forum, they argue that:

1. Pork barrel spending is a drop in the budgetary bucket. Using data assembled by Citizens Against Government Waste, they show that total federal spending in 2008 due to earmarks was $17.2 billion, compared with discretionary spending (set annually by Congress) of approximately $1.1 trillion, entitlement spending (required by law) of more than $1.5 trillion, and spending on interest of more than $240 billion. Since 2000, pork spending has remained fairly even, while spending in other categories (e.g., defense, medicare/social security) has risen appreciably. Thus, “while increasing levels of pork may be symptomatic of a larger government spending problem, they are not the underlying cause.”

2. Although it just makes sense to blame omnibus appropriations bills for pork (because legislators can hide favored projects and secure approval from others who are doing the same thing, and they don’t have to worry much about getting overridden at higher levels), when all appropriations bills, bill-by-bill and over time, 1997-2008, are examined it turns out that the amount of earmarked money depends very little on whether the bill was part of an omnibus package or not.

3. Although last-second, secretive air-drops are supposed to be a big problem (because they happen behind the scenes without public scrutiny or legislative hearings and add so much to the total bill), the data don’t provide much support for this idea. On average, just 16% of total pork spending has been added at the conference stage. “However reckless the practice, our results suggest it is misguided to blame conference committees for the amount of pork barrel spending – the individual committees in the respective chambers are responsible for the bulk of the earmarks.”

Many earmarks are easy targets of criticism, e.g., the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” or a $3 million appropriation for a study of bear DNA, as is the entire practice of earmarking, irrespective of the quality (or lack thereof) of the projects that are funding. In reality, though, earmarks are no more than a minor sideshow operating on the fringes of the enormous carnival of the appropriations process. There is considerable irony, then, in watching many of the same members of Congress who posture most vehemently against the rampant waste of earmarks scramble to assert their support for big-bucks defense projects that the Department of Defense itself opposes – projects that in many cases would pour federal dollars into (quelle surprise!) the states they themselves represent. Sounds kinda like pork barrel, doesn’t it?

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