Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fact-checking Paris: The Washington Post drives into a ditch

By Benjamin Zycher of AEI.
"Now, this is entertainment. “This” is The Washington Post’s Fact Checker “analysis” posted online less than four hours after President Trump ended his speech announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. It appeared in the print edition the next morning, on the front page and above the fold: “Explanation for Paris exit is based on spurious claims.”

It has to be read to be believed. Or, actually, not believed, as the bylined authors, Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, demonstrate themselves to be true modern-day journalists who must believe that “research” is a quick glance at Wikipedia. And that is where the entertainment dimension inserts itself; their arguments are so devoid of analytic content and so factually incorrect as to raise the question of whether there still exists an editorial process at The Washington Post. To wit:

“[Mr. Trump] often ignored the benefits that could come from tackling climate change, including potential green jobs.” Kessler and Lee are not economists, obviously, so they do not understand that “jobs” — the use of labor resources — are a cost rather than a benefit for the economy as a whole. If climate policy yields an employment shift into “green” sectors — as an aside, there is nothing “green” about them — that would be great for the workers hired. But for the economy in the aggregate, using labor resources automatically means that they cannot be used elsewhere, the classic definition of an (opportunity) cost.
If Kessler and Lee really believe that “green jobs” are a benefit of climate policy, they should advocate a proscription on the use of heavy equipment for construction projects, forcing the workers to use shovels and thus increasing the amount of labor required. Or, as Milton Friedman once commented: Let’s force the workers to use spoons. Do Kessler and Lee understand this? Obviously not. As an aside, see my colleague Mark Perry’s revealing computation of the relative labor needs for solar and coal-fired electricity.

With respect to the more general “benefits that could come from tackling climate change,” the Paris emissions cuts, if achieved by 2030 and maintained fully on an international basis through 2100, would reduce temperatures by that year by 0.17 degrees, using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate model under a set of assumptions that strongly exaggerate the effectiveness of international emissions reductions. That dubious “benefit” would come at a cost of at least 1 percent of global GDP, or roughly $600 billion to $750 billion or more per year, inflicted disproportionately upon the world’s poor. Would Kessler and Lee please describe a rational benefit/cost test that would justify this policy?

“… each of the nations signing the agreement agreed to help lower emissions, based on plans they submitted.” Well, no they did not. The plans are incorporated in “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which, obviously, neither Kessler nor Lee have read. Most of the INDCs promise cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to a “business as usual” baseline, that is, relative to a future emissions path, unconstrained by any policies at all. Because emissions are closely correlated with economic growth, a nation can “achieve” its promise by overestimating future economic growth slightly; when future growth proves lower than projected, the same will be true for GHG emissions. Thus, the “commitments” will be met without any actual change in underlying emissions behavior at all. INDCs fulfilled!

The Chinese commitment is particularly amusing. They promise that their GHG emissions will peak “around 2030.” How high will that peak be? No one knows. What will their emissions be after the peak? No one knows. The Kessler-Lee argument that the signatories have agreed to “lower emissions” is false.
“[Trump] could unilaterally change the commitments offered by President Barack Obama, which is technically allowed under the Accord.” Nope. The agreement reads: “A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition” (emphasis added). Translation: Under the Paris Agreement, only tightening of the ratchet is allowed. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s announcement, the proponents of the Paris Agreement attempted to argue that signatories are free to change their commitments up or down, but that is not what they were saying in late 2015 when the agreement was signed and the deafening self-applause of the climate industry erupted.

It is “false” for Trump to say that China and India will be allowed to build substantially more coal-fired power plants while the US would be prevented from doing so under the agreement. Actually, that is not false. The US commitment is a reduction in GHG emissions of 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Even ignoring competition from natural gas, achievement of that promise would require a substantial reduction in coal use. US emissions in 2015 were 6,587 million metric tons (mmt), about 10 percent lower than the 7,313 mmt emitted in 2005. A 26 percent reduction by 2025 would allow emissions of only 5,412 mmt, which will not be achievable with an increase in coal use. China, as noted above, makes no commitment whatever to reduce GHG emissions, as the “peak” “around 2030” is undefined; the commitment from India is even murkier, as emissions in 2005 and 2030 are not quantified in the India INDC, and the only verifiable commitment is for an increase in its forest cover. Indeed: The India commitment is wholly consistent with GHG emissions in 2030 higher than those already predicted.

An analysis of the US employment effects of the Paris agreement cited by Trump “was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capital Formation, foes of the Paris Accord . . . so the figures must be viewed with a jaundiced eye.” The funding source for the analysis is irrelevant, having nothing to do with the substance of the issue or the analytic strength of the study. Have Kessler or Lee examined that work to see what actual errors might invalidate its findings?

Obviously not, and it is difficult to believe that they have the expertise to do so. Do Kessler and Lee view figures or arguments promoted by supporters of Paris as worthy of such skepticism? Do they view studies funded by government similarly? Again: obviously not. Accordingly, Kessler and Lee, without doing any actual thinking, apparently believe that the environmental lobby is objective and that the government bureaucracy is merely a disinterested group of truth seekers devoid of any agenda of its own. Please.
“Trump also cited . . . [by 2040] a ‘cost to the economy’ of nearly $3 trillion in lost gross domestic product . . . [that would be] over more than two decades . . . a reduction of 6 percent.” The Kessler-Lee arithmetic is murky, as US GDP now is about $19 trillion, so that 20 years of output (ignoring growth) would be $380 trillion, of which $3 trillion is less than 1 percent.

But . . . never mind. Precisely what are Kessler and Lee arguing? That 1 percent or 6 percent is too little to worry about? That depends on what that forgone GDP buys, that is, the temperature reduction attendant upon the Paris Agreement. The whole agreement, as noted above, would yield a temperature reduction in 2100 of 0.17 degrees, an effect that would be barely measureable. Is it obvious that this passes a benefit/cost test?

Kessler and Lee then try to disparage Trump’s assertion that the Paris Agreement “would only produce a two-tenths of one degree . . . Celsius reduction in global temperatures by the year 2100.” Because: “Trump is referring to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a 2015 report. . . . John Reilly, lead author of the report, said he ‘disagrees completely’ with Trump’s characterization that the 0.2 degree cut is a ‘tiny, tiny’ amount that is not worth pursuing.”

So Kessler and Lee do not dispute the 0.2 degrees figure; they argue instead, using the quote from the lead author, that this predicted effect is meaningful, or, implicitly, that it is worth what it costs. Do Kessler and Lee understand the difference between a value (or policy) judgment and a “fact”? Apparently not. Note that the 0.17 degrees (rounded to 0.2 degrees) figure comes from the peer-reviewed literature, based upon the EPA’s own climate model.

Kessler and Lee then quote Trump on the Green Climate Fund, the obvious purpose of which is to offset the higher energy costs attendant upon the Paris promises by putting the less-developed world on welfare rather than the road toward free markets: “…The United States has already handed over $1 billion. Nobody else is even close. Most of them haven’t even paid anything — including funds raided out of America’s budget for the war against terrorism. That’s where they came.”

Kessler and Lee: “In fact . . . 43 governments have pledged . . . $10.13 billion collectively, and the U.S. share is $3 billion. . . . Trump implies that the money was taken out of U.S. defense monies. But the U.S. contributions were paid out of the State Department’s Economic Support Fund, one of the foreign assistance programs to promote economic or political stability based on U.S. strategic interests. Republican lawmakers have criticized the use of this fund, saying Congress designated the money to prioritize security, human rights and other efforts unrelated to climate change. However, the payments were made with congressional notification and meetings with congressional staff.”

Where to begin? What does “pledged” mean? It seems not to mean “paid” or “deposited” in an actual Green Climate Fund account; the official reporting notes that “as of June 2017, the Green Climate Fund has raised USD 10.3 billion equivalent in pledges from 43 state governments. The objective is for all pledges to be converted into contribution agreements within one year from the time at which they are made.” Indeed, the official reporting makes liberal use of such terms as “announced,” “signed,” and “pledged,” but nowhere do we find something that means “paid.”
And do Kessler and Lee know of a provision in the Constitution that empowers the executive branch to ignore Article I, section 9? It states, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” That the Obama $1 billion payment to the Green Climate Fund was “made with congressional notification and meetings with congressional staff” is irrelevant, because Congress never authorized those payments or appropriated the funds for that purpose.

That appears to be a fact unworthy of attention in the Kessler-Lee universe. Here is another: If the $1 billion came “out of the State Department’s Economic Support Fund” intended “to promote economic or political stability based on U.S. strategic interests,” then Trump’s claim that the “funds [were] raided out of America’s budget for the war against terrorism” might be absolutely correct depending on the definition of “strategic interests.” It certainly is not an error of “fact,” notwithstanding the Kessler-Lee distortions.

Kessler and Lee then offer an utter falsehood of their own: “Trump also claimed . . . that the Green Climate Fund ‘calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries.’ But, as we noted, it’s actually $10 billion.”

No, it’s actually $100 billion per year: “Responding to the climate challenge requires collective action from all countries, cities, businesses, and private citizens. Among these concerted efforts, advanced economies have formally agreed to jointly mobilize USD 100 billion per year by 2020, from a variety of sources, to address the pressing mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries.”

Kessler and Lee then quote Trump on China: “China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years, 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years.” Their critique: “China, in its Paris Accord commitment, said that, compared to 2005 levels, it would seek to cut its carbon emissions by 60 to 65 percent per unit of GDP by 2030.”

So Kessler and Lee are arguing — remember, this is a “fact check” — that “emissions” is the same as “emissions . . . per unit of GDP.” Is it possible that they actually suffer from this much confusion?
Kessler and Lee then argue — seriously — that a legal argument by White House counsel Don McGahn that “staying in the Paris agreement would bolster legal arguments of climate advocates challenging Trump’s decision to roll back the Clean Power Plan” must be incorrect. Why? Because “McGahn’s comments shocked State Department lawyers, who strongly reject . . . those contentions.” Well, all right then!

The reductio ad absurdum of the Kessler-Lee fact-check “analysis” is their award of “Four Pinocchios to [Trump’s] claim that he is a ‘very big person when it comes to the environment.’”
Their rebuttal, again made seriously: “Environmentalists have criticized many of Trump’s projects, particularly for his plans to build a golf course on protected sand dunes and chopping down hundreds of trees for a golf course renovation.”

Translation: Environmental leftists who dislike development generally, and who prefer more broadly that they be allowed to dictate the use of other people’s property, dispute Trump’s characterization of himself as an environmentalist. That, in the view of Kessler and Lee, is a refutation! And about those trees: Were none chopped down to make way for the housing in which Kessler and Lee live, for the roads they travel, for the businesses they patronize, and — wait for it — for the paper on which The Washington Post is printed? Or do they receive four Pinocchios as well?
One would think that Kessler and Lee would have a sense of their own lack of expertise, and thus would have asked some specialists to review their work before rushing it into publication only a few hours after Trump’s speech. One would think that they would recognize the added importance of this imperative given their obvious biases in favor of climate policy generally and the Paris Agreement in particular, a lack of objectivity that any adult knows creates a huge potential for fundamental error. One would think as well that The Washington Post as an institution would have enough self-respect to be wary of the biased preconceptions of its writers, and their lack of expertise, and thus might ask its editors to perform the serious role of intellectual policemen. And one would be wrong."

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