Improving the Interior Department’s Science and Policies
Climate Change Weekly #303
The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) is taking a page out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) playbook, to improve the transparency behind the science used to develop regulations on the millions of acres of public lands it controls, and the legal actions it takes in response to lawsuits filed against it.
On September 11, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a Secretarial Order promoting transparency and accountability in consent decrees and settlement agreements, aimed at ending secret “sue and settle” deals with activist plaintiffs.
Zinke’s order comes almost a year after the EPA issued rules ending such agreements at the agency.
DOI reports from January 1, 2012 through January 19, 2017, Interior entered into more than 460 settlement agreements and consent decrees, resulting in the payment of more than $4.4 billion to plaintiffs, while keeping key provisions of these agreements secret. In President Barack Obama’s last year in office, Interior entered into 96 such agreements or decrees, costing taxpayers more than $1.7 billion.
Although consent decrees and settlements may sometimes be a prudent way to avoid costly litigation in cases DOI is likely to lose, Zinke notes, “concerns have been raised” DOI has used secret settlement agreements to undermine the safeguards Congress established to ensure public input into policymaking.
Order 3368 requires DOI to file public notice of all litigation, proposed settlement agreements, and consent decrees in the Federal Register. Another provision establishes a process for public input before Interior can approve a settlement with significant policy implications or large payouts.
The order requires DOI to establish a publicly accessible “Litigation” webpage linked in the federal Office of the Solicitor’s homepage. Entries on this page must include the names of the parties involved in litigation, the case number, the date filed, the court where the complaint was filed, and the statutory or regulatory provisions at issue in the complaint. By December 11, 2018, the Solicitor’s office must begin compiling, and the Chief Information Officer to begin posting, a searchable list of final judicial and administrative consent decrees and settlement agreements governing DOI’s actions. The summaries must include a brief description of each decree or agreement, details of any attorney fees or costs paid, and a link to the text of the decree or agreement.
Also, within 15 days of receiving service of a complaint or petition for review of a law or regulation, the Solicitor must notify any state or tribe possibly affected by a pending complaint or petition, except when the state or tribe is a party to the petition.
An example of how this may work comes from EPA’s website, which now includes a page titled “Notices of Intent to Sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” providing details of nearly 300 notices of intent to sue, mostly from citizen groups plus a few from state and local governments, with a separate table listing about 380 active environmental cases, and a third table providing details of 15 finalized consent decrees and settlement agreements.
In another pro-transparency, pro-accountability move, in the last week of September, DOI followed EPA’s lead once again, implementing a new policy intended to improve the transparency, integrity, and quality of the science its agencies use to make decisions. Going forward, officials may use only scientific studies or findings the underlying data for which are publicly available and reproducible, with few exceptions. EPA proposed a similar policy earlier in 2018.
DOI’s policy covers the science used by the wide variety of bureaus under its jurisdiction, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey, affecting the science used to shape policies ranging from endangered species determinations and protections—such as the decision to list polar bear populations as endangered based on speculative future risks from climate change even while their numbers are increasing—to decisions about grazing, hunting, mining, and oil and gas production on public lands and offshore. Under the new policy, the climate science used to justify any future actions by DOI to close public lands or offshore areas to oil and gas development, or impose more stringent limits on greenhouse gas emissions from those operations, would now be open to review by the public, including outside scientific auditors.
Announcing the policy, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said the order is intended to ensure Interior “bases its decisions on the best available science and provide[s] the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions.”
People have a right to know what their government is up to, yet under previous presidents the science used to justify regulations and policies and the terms of settlement agreements at DOI often blindsided local, state, and tribal governments, industries, public land lessors, and private land owners adjacent to public properties, imposing huge costs on them with little or no notice, based on science hidden from public view. This was unfair, amounting to regulation behind closed doors.
These orders should improve the transparency and soundness of DOI’s policies by giving the general public, we who pay DOI’s bills and for whom they are supposed to work, some input into its decisions.
Trump’s DOI is giving the government back to the people, or at least ensuring we have oversight of and influence on it. Only environmentalists and crony capitalists who historically, in secrecy, have wielded inordinate power over government policy could be opposed to that. Every other department and agency should adopt similar policies.
- H. Sterling Burnett
IN THIS ISSUE …
A new study in the scientific journal Review of Environmental Economics and Policy examines myriad reasons climate models should not be used to make public policies. The author, Robert S. Pindyck, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes integrated assessment models (IAMs)—models that consider the interaction of physics, demographics, and political and economic actions and responses that affect greenhouse gas emission scenarios in addition to the physical climate system—“have crucial flaws that make them close to useless as tools for policy analysis. IAM-based analyses of climate policy create a perception of knowledge and precision that is illusory and can fool policymakers into thinking that the forecasts the models generate have some kind of scientific legitimacy.”
IAM’s critical weaknesses include:
- Critical inputs and foundational values are essentially arbitrary, assigned solely at the discretion of the modeler, yet these inputs or assumptions have huge effects on model projections. Among these arbitrary, but critical, inputs is the discount rate used to produce social costs of carbon projections.
- We know very little about climate sensitivity. Projections of future temperatures and climate projections are based on assumptions concerning the strength and response of various feedback mechanisms, assumptions that have not been proven or verified. Recent research indicates uncertainty about climate sensitivity has increased over the past decade, writes Pindyck.
- IAMs cannot account for “‘tail risk,’ i.e., the likelihood or possible impact of a catastrophic climate outcome, such as a temperature increase above 5 degrees Celsius, that has a very large impact on GDP. And yet it is the possibility of a climate catastrophe that is (or should be) the main driving force behind a stringent abatement policy,” Pindyck writes.
- Those who use IAMs to push policy prescriptions hide or are not forthcoming about these flaws or weaknesses, misleading policymakers and the general public into believing projections produced by IAMs have a scientifically verified basis and thus can be relied upon to predict climate harms and costs and the results of various policy responses to climate change.
These are just a few of the critical flaws and weaknesses inherent to IAMs that Pindyck discusses. Ultimately, Pindyck writes, “Models sometimes convey the impression that we know much more than we really do. They create a veneer of scientific legitimacy that can be used to bolster the argument for a particular policy” when, in fact, confidence in IAM projections is not warranted.
The United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) published a new study in which it acknowledges, for the first time, wind turbines are harming human health. WHO’s report examines the effect of noise on human health in Europe. The most persistent source of noise-related health problems stems from traffic, but WHO also addresses harms caused by wind turbines located too closely to homes, businesses, and population centers.
As governments have required and/or encouraged with subsidies increasing amounts of wind power be added to countries’ electric grids, complaints about the health impacts of wind turbines have become more widespread. WHO found these complaints have merit.
“Noise pollution in our towns and cities is increasing, blighting the lives of many European citizens,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO’s regional director for Europe, discussing the study’s findings. “More than a nuisance, excessive noise is a health risk—contributing to cardiovascular diseases, for example.”
WHO’s research is relevant to any region with similar sources of noise.
To minimize wind farm related health effects, WHO suggests countries sharply limit the level of noise wind turbines produce and that they implement policies to reduce the population exposed to noise from wind turbines, which may require limiting how closely wind turbines can be sited to permanent structures and restricting their hours of operation.
At its base, the purported climate crisis is a population crisis, with too many people using too many resources, according to alarmists ranging from Al Gore to Bill McKibben. Writing in the Financial Post, Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, authors of the book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change, discuss population-bomb/climate-disaster myths promoted by climate alarmists.
Desrochers and Szurmak show climate alarmists follow in the footsteps—in fact, missteps—of Thomas Malthus and twentieth century popularizers such as Paul and Anne Ehrlich, linking population growth with environmental collapse. “Feminist icon Gloria Steinem put it best: ‘What causes climate deprivation is population,’” write Desrochers and Szurmak.
For centuries, Malthusians have predicted imminent environmental collapse due to population growth. Since the latter half of the twentieth century they’ve claimed population-driven climate change is causing environmental collapse. What they’ve failed to recognize is fossil fuel use has helped societies overcome climate limitations, bringing billions of people out of poverty and hunger while greening and cleaning the planet.
Debunking the neo-Malthusians, Desrochers and Szurmak show the earth is not a finite system with a fixed carrying capacity. Instead, as the (relatively) free market economic system has developed and grown, information and knowledge have increased, producing previously unimaginable prosperity while decreasing people’s impact on the environment. Desrochers and Szurmak see no natural limits to growth. Instead, as prices signal scarcity relative to desires, markets adjust to develop different technologies and resources or use the same resources more efficiently. It is this development of knowledge and technology that Malthusians fail to account for.
Desrochers and Szurmak conclude, “Far from being the catastrophe … the Ehrlichs and other pessimists would have us believe, population growth and carbon fuel-based development in the context of human creativity and free enterprise are the best means to lift people out of poverty, to build resilience against any climate damage that increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions might have, and to make possible a sustained reduction of humanity’s impact on the biosphere.”
SOURCE: Financial Post