Why Cap-and-Trade Won’t Backfire

There was a great study done some years back involving daycares in Israel that introduced a modest financial penalty for kids over-staying their welcome. Once parents were being fined for it, tardy pick-ups increased.

This editorial from Justin Danhof published by the Christian Science Monitor falsely compares this policy to a cap-and-trade system of regulating carbon emissions. It’s a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. The study became well-known when it was cited in the New York Times Bestseller Freakonomics, and deservedly so. However, the study is not proof that pecuniary incentives always backfire, if that were true the entire world would grind to a halt: Fines would encourage motorists to park in handicapped spots. Higher wages would make people work less. Chaos would engulf the Earth.

All that the study showed was that a weak financial incentive is less powerful than the strong sense of embarrassment people feel when inconveniencing their child’s care professionals, people who are ‘practically family’. The opinion piece’s claim that greenhouse gas emissions would rise is ludricous. It is after all a ‘cap’-and-trade system. The cap is set at whatever level desired, and producers buy the pollution rights. If you set the cap above the current level, then pollution might rise, but obviously capping emissions below the present level is not going to raise emissions.

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Public Transit Update

CNN has some good news about the habits of Americans. They have actually begun to change in a meaningful way. As the article cites, there were an additional 85 billion public transportation trips taken in the first 3 months of this year compared to last, not world saving numbers but an impressive increase, nearly 3.5%. Americans have also driven fewer highway miles for 6 consecutive months relative to last year. Effective public transit not only cuts the energy usage of its riders, but also reduces congestion, reducing congestion for those who insist on driving. Continue reading

HHO Gas Magic — What a hydrogen car isn’t

In researching another post, I stumbled upon a site advertising so-called HHO gas engine modification technique (HHO gas is the term they use for a 2:1 mixture of elemental hydrogen and oxygen). Usually, such snake oil would not even be worth addressing. The idea itself is that water can be used to supplement gas in fueling an automobile, thereby getting additional travel distance at no extra cost. Some readers probably notice that this would violate the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. According to sites like this, the reason why this design is not being used already is that automobile companies are conspiring to hide it from the general public to keep us dependent on oil. The site makes use of the common grifting fiction that the people peddling this manual are crusaders here to rescue us from corporate insiders in smoke-filled rooms.

The reason this is relevant, and the reason that some people might fall for it and buy the kit, is the exaggerated hype surrounding actual hydrogen vehicles. Be it the fuel-cell design, or combustion of hydrogen, there is this perception that hydrogen is the source of power. The element of hydrogen is also closely associated with water, contributing to the mythology of cars that run on water.The catch is that hydrogen is just a medium for energy transfer, not an energy source. Continue reading

E.P.A. official: White House staffers censored global warming report

The Bush administration’s environmental policy reputation has suffered yet another blow, after a former E.P.A. advisor accused the office of the Vice President of altering prepared testimony by the head of the CDC. The advisor, Jason K. Burnett, alleged that Cheney’s office removed parts of the testimony related to the health risks associated with global warming: Continue reading

Gas Tourism and the Failure of Subsidies

The New York Times published this piece on the so-called “gas tourism” happening at the Mexican border. Gas tourism is the practice of actually driving somewhere to buy gas. Gasoline and diesel are much cheaper in Mexico then in America, and some living in border communities feel that provides enough incentive to brave traffic and drive out of their way. The existence of this practice should be both surprising and disheartening, but the cause is obvious.

Crude oil is a commodity, its price is set on the worldwide open market. Some reasons for why the prices differ so much are that Mexican gasoline is of poorer quality, and some American stations alledge that there is foulplay at work, such as diluting the fuel or speeding up the pump’s measuring. A large part of the reason though, is that while the American gas carries a tax to (partially) offset infrastructure and environmental damage, in Mexico gas is actually subsidized. Needless to say, if not for this market distortion (and for the lower quality of Mexican gas) it would not be possible to save money by burning gas in order to buy gas. Continue reading

Journalists Shouldn’t Do Science

Time Magazine last month provided a textbook example of why one should take the journalistic hype about any scientific study with a grain of salt. For years we’ve seen stories extolling the benefits of sleeping eight to ten hours, including this one from Time itself that is dripping with doom-and-gloom about the epidemic of sleeplessness and America. The article warns that after prolonged sleep deprivation, humans are incapable even of pressing a button in response to a stimulus, as though this is a common problem. A quoted expert puts it bluntly: “‘The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day]'”

Now Time published this story, worded to imply that sleeping 8 or more hours a night shortens lifespan. The story procedes as though this refutes all the previous studies of sleep, and chalks it up to the negative returns of increasing sleep behind a certain point. Both reflect the typical trigger-happy science reporting that permeates the media today. Everything is either an epidemic or a miracle cure. Of course, a scientist should take one look and sense that the difference might be due to selection effects. Rich executives with good healthcare probably do not sleep very much. Obesity which is tied to morbidity increases fatigue and can cause higher amounts of sleeping.

It’s All Speculation?

From BusinessWeek comes the delightfully simplistic and delightfully wrong story entitled “High Oil Prices: It’s All Speculation”.

The article begins with a straw man argument invoking the California Energy Crisis of 2001. Ed Wallace juxtaposes a quote by Vice President Cheney suggesting that the California Energy Crisis had resulted from poorly planned deregulation (which, in large part it did) with one from Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman that suggested oil prices are a result of supply and demand (shocking, I know).

The sleaziness of comparing the current situation to an unrelated, emotional charged event is not unusual for the world of print editorials. Continue reading