Exxon CEO Pushes Back Against Environmentalists


RexTillersonAt a recent annual shareholders meeting, Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s longtime Chairman and CEO, did something very unusual for a business executive: he questioned the global warming hysteria.

Tillerson said that models predicting the effects of global warming “just aren’t that good,” and that it would be very difficult for the world to meet aggressive emission-reduction targets. He further noted that technology can help deal with rising sea levels or changing weather patterns “that may or may not be induced by climate change.” Tillerson added, “Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity. I know that is an unsatisfactory answer to a lot of people, but it’s an answer that a scientist and an engineer would give you.”

To compound his sins, Tillerson then rejected calls to invest in faddish renewable energy schemes such wind and solar saying, “We choose not to lose money on purpose.” According to the above article, the audience broke out in applause.

Breaking: Our Government Is Incompetent


shutterstock_163871150Gee, I’m glad these folks now run our health care:

Chinese hackers breached the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management in December, officials said Thursday, and the agency will notify some 4 million current and former federal employees that their personal data may have been compromised.

The hack was the second major intrusion of the agency by China in less than a year.

Bird Seed and the Limits of Do-Gooderism


shutterstock_120591022It’s hardly surprising that well-intended programs — e.g., Head Start — survive despite their enormous budgets and inability to show results. First, it’s satisfying to think that one’s good intentions naturally lead to one’s desired results. Second, everyone likes to think of themselves as the good guy, so the temptation against critical thinking is even stronger when the objective is altruistic. Third, it’s just easier — as in it takes less work — to throw some disposable income at a problem without having to check in on it. Who wants to do all the work of conducting a study, anyway?

Unfortunately, the world is often more complicated than we would like it to be, and good intentions are, sadly, no guarantee of success. This is even more true when talking about government programs where the normal pressures and feedbacks of price and accountability are limited or completely removed.

For a different illustration of the problem. consider the results of a recent study into the effects of bird feeding. Stipulating that this is just one (rather small) study, in one place*, of an understudied and enormous global phenomenon — Americans alone spend something on the order of $3 billion a year in feed, plus another $800 million in feeders, baths, and other accessories — the results were an amazing illustration of the general complexity of life, as well as our inability to think beyond the first-order effects of our actions.

The Population Bomb, Revisited


834px-Paul_R._Ehrlich_2008Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, is completely unrepentant:

After the passage of 47 years, Dr. Ehrlich offers little in the way of a mea culpa. Quite the contrary. Timetables for disaster like those he once offered have no significance, he told Retro Report, because to someone in his field they mean something “very, very different” from what they do to the average person. The end is still nigh, he asserted, and he stood unflinchingly by his 1960s insistence that population control was required, preferably through voluntary methods. But if need be, he said, he would endorse “various forms of coercion” like eliminating “tax benefits for having additional children.” Allowing women to have as many babies as they wanted, he said, is akin to letting everyone “throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.”

After nearly half a century, the arrogance and contempt for human life is palpable. The tone haughty to the point of absurd: No I wasn’t wrong, it’s you common folk who are too stupid to grasp how brilliant I am! Then there is the casual equating of children with garbage. Even in old age, Paul Ehrlich has the capacity to make people shudder in horror.

A Billionaire’s Utopia or How to Run Away From Your Problems


Letting go of a dream:

18m4nob9ni1cijpgTHE SEASTEADING INSTITUTE was the toast of tech entrepreneurs when it received financial backing from venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2008. Its mission was to build a manmade island nation where inventors could work free of heavy-handed government interference. One early rendering shows an island raised on concrete stilts in eerily calm waters. The buildings atop the platform resemble nothing so much as the swanky tech campus of an entrepreneur’s ultimate dream: No sign of land or civilization in sight. The island, despite appearing strapped for square footage, has room for a full-size swimming pool with deck lounges.

Slipping the Surly Bonds


shutterstock_251316592In my lifetime, I believe that the greatest symbol of American exceptionalism has been NASA, the United States space program, and the American flag that waves (in a manner of speaking) over the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. In an age when anti-American, anti-imperialist sentiment was building steam, America may not have been universally loved, but it was universally respected. In a rickety vessel that now seems more primitive than the boats in which Columbus sailed the Atlantic, three Americans blasted off, crossed an empty void, landed on a new world and, just to show off, televised the whole thing. And the reaction of the whole world to this incredible spectacle was: “well, of course it is the Americans.”

You had to think twice before you’d mess with someone who could do that.

It boggles the mind that that first voyage was nearly a half-century ago and it is more astonishing still that, after the Apollo program, the feat has yet to be repeated.

Climate Change and the New Iconoclasts


Clasm_ChludovThe ancient city of Constantinople was heralded as a “new Rome” and quickly replaced the old one in splendor and importance. As the western Roman Empire withered and fell, the eastern Christian empire flourished. But after a few centuries of success, their good fortune ran out.

The first recorded bubonic plague killed more than a third of Constantinople’s inhabitants. Then in a series of bloody, expensive wars with the Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Persians, the city finally stabilized their empire only to see the majority of it swallowed by Muslim conquerors. Add in the coups, civil wars, and a spectacular volcanic eruption off the island of Santorini, and Christians wondered what they did to lose the favor of God.

Fearful citizens allegedly convinced Emperor Leo III that the city’s celebrated icons were to blame; the Lord was punishing Constantinople for the sin of idolatry. Leo and the iconoclasts removed and destroyed images bearing the likeness of Christ and other religious figures to purify the empire and appease an angry God. Other powerful leaders and priests opposed the desecration and pointed to other possible reasons for God’s disfavor.

Learning the Basics and Things that Matter


shutterstock_209972047To the sadness of all, anonymous has decided to end his amazing Saturday Night Science series (though he’s still writing for Ricochet on similar topics). Out of a sense of both depression and a desire to turn that feeling into something constructive I have decided to write a primer on something which I have found to be important in my life. I want to start out with describing a small toolbox of ideas that is taught to engineers and scientists as a means of looking at the world.

Of course, there is a lot of confusion about what it is that engineers do. The truth of the matter is that there isn’t just one thing that engineers do; our professional lives are so varied and specialized that the term “Engineer” even with modifiers such as “Chemical,” “Civil,” “Mechanical,” or “Electrical” cannot capture the breadth of depth of what people do in the various disciplines. However, there are typically a few core courses which bind all of the branches of engineering together at the root of their undergraduate training. One of the most important courses which all well-trained engineers take is Thermodynamics.

Thermo gets a bad rap from the outside world. Its very name is scary, foreign, and oftentimes associated with the incomprehensible. So what is thermodynamics if it isn’t a totally baffling subject best left to boffins?

Do We Still Need Aircraft Carriers?


08_uss_nimitz_cvn_68Have you seen Mr. Jerry Hendrix’s writing against aircraft carriers in National Review? I’m a sucker for speeches against the sophisticated, so I took the time to read the 2,700-word piece. Then I found this reply by Mr. Seth Cropsey, whose work I read as often as I can, and Mr. Hendrix’s rejoinder.

These capable, honored men are quarrelling about the status of the aircraft carrier in American strategy. World War II, the Cold War, and the coming Chinese war are the past and imagined political conflicts in which the aircraft carrier features prominently.

The argument against the dominance of the aircraft carrier among American arms is this: The technology is becoming outdated; the use of the weapon is thus reduced; and it is politically compromised–Americans could not deal with the news that one or two were sunk with some ten thousand men returning in ten thousand coffins decorated with flags. War around China makes carriers next to useless, in short. Taiwan is lost.

Focus on the People, Not the Numbers


Conservatives and libertarians face a common problem: our principles. Once you catch the passion for liberty and understand how the freedom of billions of humans can coalesce to make a world undreamable by any individual person, it is increasingly difficult to take seriously complicated schemes of regulation and legislation that purport to know better than the market. But why is this really a problem?

I have long been searching for a way to reframe libertarian issues as human interest stories for two reasons:  1) that’s what they are; 2) that’s what people really care about and connect with. To that end, I have been thinking about Jim Pethoukoukis’s “Generation Katniss” post, which walks through exactly the problem i’ve been trying to sort out.  I think a lot of the comments on that post missed the point. It is not that libertarian-conservatives need to change what they talk about, it is that we need to change how we talk about it.

Trust 2.0


shutterstock_225204676On Monday, I ordered lunch from the Japanese take-out I frequent. At the register, I realized that I’d forgotten my wallet back at my desk. Sheepishly, I offered to run back and get it, but the owner handed me my food, smiled, and told me not to worry, just pay next time I come in. This was smart on a number of levels: it was good customer service, and — given how often I come in — he was all-but-guaranteed payment within 24 hours (unwilling to to jeopardize my future access to chicken katsu or udon soup over a measly eight bucks, I was back within the hour). But he was only able to do this because he knew me well enough to trust me.

Trust, however, often takes some work to build and can be difficult between strangers (though our ability to so at all is among the things that distinguish humans from the rest of nature). Remember when eBay started, and the idea of sending some random schmuck your money in exchange for a promise that they’d send you an item — as-described and in a timely manner! — seemed crazy? Turns out that worked rather well, with those who attempted to game the system getting punished for it.

But it’s one thing to fork over money for a product and quite another to (potentially) put yourself at risk of physical harm. Only a few years ago, very few people were willing to let perfect strangers into their car, let alone their spare bedroom: too darn risky. But thanks to services like Uber and AirBNB, putting that kind of trust in someone from out of town whom neither you nor anyone else you know have ever met, and who you’re unlikely to ever see again, is now a perfectly rational, relatively safe thing to do.

Climate Wars Heat-up Again


j9CmoiHJ_400x400The American Physical Society (APS) — of which I am a member — is looking to revise its Climate Change Statement. Many scientific societies have decided to issue statements about global warming/climate change. Don’t ask me why they feel the need to do this.

The last statement issued by the APS in 2007 was such a disaster that they had to backpedal in 2010 with a convoluted explanation of why it didn’t say what everyone thought it said. This time around, they convened a panel of experts headed up by Steve Koonin, formerly of Caltech and recently an undersecretary in the Dept. of Energy in the Obama administration. Koonin held a workshop last year to try work out the text of the new statement. Subsequently, Koonin quit the panel responsible for the new statement (Panel on Public Affairs – POPA) and published the opinion piece “Climate Science Is Not Settled” in the Wall Street Journal. Judging by that op-ed, things didn’t work out as he hoped.

Now APS is asking for comments about the new proposed statement. It’s unlikely that member comments made to APS directly will be made public, so Judy Curry — Georgia Tech climatologist and now-famous global warming apostate — is collecting comments from APS members in her blog. Mostly skeptics and contrarians are posting. The comments make for amusing reading.

Leave the Environment to the States


shutterstock_124385440Unless you were hiding under a rock this Earth Day, you probably heard the familiar tale of how America (ca. 1970) was on the brink of turning into one vast toxic waste dump until the federal government swooped in to save us all with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and so on.

According to the conventional history, the Clean Water Act rescued America from the brink of environmental apocalypse. Before the federal government acted, according the New York Times, “the nation’s waters were in terrible shape … Lake Erie on its deathbed, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River bursting into flames.” In reality, the states were actively working to protect the environment well before the federal government got involved. By 1966 — six years before the federal Clean Water Act — every state had enacted water pollution legislation and had empowered one or more state agencies to enforce environmental standards.

In Cleveland, the citizens knew about pollution on the Cuyahoga long before Washington took notice. In 1968, the city’s voters had approved a $100 million bond issue to finance river cleanup, whereas Congress allocated nothing to Cleveland. As for Lake Erie, if it was on its “deathbed,” as the New York Times says, it was partly due to the fact that the federal government (the Army Corps of Engineers) was busy dumping over a million cubic yards of contaminated material into the lake each year in the late 1960s.

13 Most Ridiculous Predictions Made on Earth Day, 1970


shutterstock_115509832Today is Earth Day — an annual event first launched on April 22, 1970. The inaugural festivities (organized in part by then hippie and now convicted murderer Ira Einhorn) predicted death, destruction and disease unless we did exactly as progressives commanded. Sound familiar? Behold the coming apocalypse, as predicted on and around Earth Day, 1970:

  1. “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” — Harvard biologist George Wald
  2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Washington University biologist Barry Commoner
  3. “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”New York Times editorial
  4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich
  5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich
  6. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
  7. “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter
  8. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine
  9. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  10. “Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich
  11. “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  12. “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”Newsweek magazine
  13. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt

A version of this article was posted last year.

Taking The Chance Out of Insurance


shutterstock_151145456People buy insurance — well, used to, at any rate — to mitigate the costs and impact of unpredictable and expensive future events, and to share the risk of being that one-in-a-million unlucky person. Sure, paying monthly premiums is no fun, but it beats getting an unexpected $200,000 bill for life-sustaining surgery.

Of course, insurance is not just a way to pre-pay for services: insurers are smart and — entirely appropriately — try to hedge their bets by estimating the likelihood that they’ll have to pay out and charging appropriately. This requires them to get information about their customers, such as their driving habits, age, family history, educational attainment, credit scores, and whether (and how much) they drink and/or smoke. At least in theory, this allows insurers to charge high-risk people a steeper rate, while offering low-risk clients more competitive prices. And while the predictive quality of this information isn’t good enough to say much about any given individual, it’s more than adequate to work in the aggregate.

Neither the insurers’ desire for information about their customers nor their customers’ general reluctance to share it are new. What is new, however, is the increasing ease and affordability of new streams of data available to insurers that could help them make much more accurate and personalized predictions. As member Merina Smith points out, genetics — including in-utero testing — is one such stream of information:

The Libertarian Warmist Brigade


shutterstock_170221427Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Professor Jonathan Adler, a scholar with “strong libertarian leanings” urges conservatives to accept man-made global warming, even though it is not “ideologically convenient.” Although I doubt whether his embrace of anthropogenic global warming (AGM) is all that inconvenient — a surefire way for any conservative to gain mainstream credibility is to take up some liberal cause, and lately that means either climate change or same-sex marriage — Adler does, I think, make two important points: 1) one’s ideology should not influence one’s conclusion about climate change (or lack thereof), and; 2) belief in man-made global warming does not necessarily mean that you endorse loony left solutions to climate change.

Fair enough, but Adler himself does not summon any evidence in favor of human-caused warming.  Instead he cites an article in Reason by libertarian science writer Ronald Bailey, who makes the case for AGM. But none of Bailey’s evidence proves any link between human activity and climate change. Indeed, I don’t think he even presents evidence of a long-term warming trend: he cites no data earlier than the 1950s, and much of his data is from the last couple decades — surely a mere blip in climate terms.  Bailey concedes that scientists can only speculate as to the reason for the 17-year hiatus in global warming, and he declares that the growing extent of Antarctic sea ice is “a climate change conundrum.” Other than that, it’s a slam dunk case for AGM.

Ricochetti: is this the best evidence there is for AGM?  I’m not convinced, but if you are, come out and make the case.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of – with Adler and Bailey, you’re in very respectable company.

The Fatal Conceit of the FCC


Reason ran an article today about the ongoing Title II-based regulation of the Internet by the FCC. If you haven’t followed the issue, the FCC voted in February to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, a move which puts high technology companies on par with Ma Bell, circa 1950. Among other things, this accession to power grants the FCC the ability to regulate rates and the so-called “paid prioritization” of bandwidth.

The authors of the Reason article note the strange tension in allowing the FCC to solve a problem that, apparently, was founded on anti-competition grounds:

A Welcome Extinction


imageAmerica’s 39th president doesn’t not come in for much praise here on Ricochet but the excellent — and nearly complete — work his foundation has been doing to eradicate the guinea worm in Africa deserves some attention. I dare say, the world owes Jimmy Carter a round of applause.

The guinea worm is a nasty piece of work. Like many other parasites, it infects different species at different stages of its lifecycle, culminating in humans in its adult stage. I’ll spare you the details, suffice to say that it emerges from a blister in leg or foot and the only thing to do is to pull the cursed thing — all three feet (~90 cm) of it — out of the skin inch-by-inch, lest it break and become infected inside someone’s leg or foot. Washing the wound in water apparently eases the pain, but is also exactly what the worm wants, as it allows it to release its back eggs into the water supply and start the process over.

Fortunately, the worm has two weaknesses: the copepods it infects immediately before getting into humans are big enough to be caught by inexpensive water filters, and keeping those who are infected away from standing water robs it of an opportunity to find copepods. The results of the Carter Center’s education, filtration, and health programs: last year, there were 126 documented cases, down from 148 in 2013, and 542 in 2012. As recently as the mid 1980s, there were more than three million cases annually. CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks covered the matter in detail on their most recent episode.

Climate Change Apocalypse


You can’t make this stuff up. Hillary’s revelation that during her tenure as Secretary of State she ran the department as though it were an appendage of the Clinton Foundation; Republicans doing their best impression of a Common Core civics lesson to instruct the Iranian leader, when their letter should have been addressed to America’s leader; Democrats, at least many of their multicultural, morally relativistic, blame-America-first acolytes of Jeremiah Wright’s “G. D. America” diatribe, accusing Republicans of treason; and current Secretary of State, John Kerry, trying to get a deal with the Iranians to change their nuclear program timetable from apocalypse now to apocalypse later; the list goes on. The real question is, which among these events should be considered the single most important crisis facing this generation of decision makers?

The answer is, none of the above. In fact, the correct answer is not found on this list, but rather in a speech made by Secretary Kerry to the Atlantic Council on March 12, in between executive denunciations of the leader of our most important ally in the region and negotiations with the world’s most nefarious supporter of terrorism. It’s climate change; specifically, the 97-percent-of-scientists-agree variety of climate change. Indeed, in his words, if we (the world, but mostly the American government) do nothing, “future generations will judge our effort, not just as a policy failure, but as a collective, moral failure of historic consequence. And they will want to know how world leaders could possibly have been so blind, or so ignorant, or so ideological, or so dysfunctional, and, frankly, so stubborn that we failed to act on knowledge that was confirmed by so many studies over such a long period of time and documented by so much evidence.”

Do You Even Science, Bro?


As religious belief loses steam in the western world, people must look elsewhere for ways to flex their moral superiority muscles. After all, without a core belief to espouse, you look rather silly while standing on a soap box. Sure, your primary reasons for occupying the pedestal are to feel good about yourself while simultaneously letting those around you know how awesome you are, but pretext can be important for one’s self-image.

An unfortunate side effect of this impulse has been the politicization of the sciences.  Rather than treating human knowledge as incomplete and ever evolving, many have chosen to treat scientists as a priestly cast, from which all decisions in life should be primarily informed. Many scientists balk at this role, while others embrace it. The Union of Concerned Scientists wants to know if you’ve got Science, and they provide a handy quiz in order to be sure. As a fun exercise, I thought we might take this as a group.