Category: International Issues

Government environmental efforts backfire, hurting the environment and human health

There is a great piece of bumper sticker humor: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  Unless one has been living under a rock, this statement is widely recognized as an ironic warning of sorts – if you hear these words, count your money, lock up your kids and pray for your property, business and/or job. A funny way of saying when the government tries to solve a problem, things often go from bad to worse.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that the same is true for government environmental efforts as well.

I, among others, have shown that government plans for energy, species, and land management (including public lands, farms and wetlands) have reaped a host of environmental and economic ills.

Recently, more evidence, both from Europe, and here in the U.S., of the disconnect between government’s good intentions and its flawed results have come to light.   For instance, in the U.S., which has yet to sign on to an international treaty or domestic legislation to strictly limit greenhouse gas emissions, such emission have fallen by 450 million tons as the shale gas revolution has taken hold (despite environmentalists ongoing efforts to shut it down).  Market incentives to increase efficiency are leading the U.S. to use the least expensive resource for energy production – all absent government mandates or intervention – and the environment is benefitting.  By contrast, in Europe, which has pledged to cut emissions, environmentalists have torqued the government into closing down the cleanest form of reliable energy, nuclear power, are preventing them from developing the 2nd greenest reliable energy source, natural gas, with the result that Germany is switching to coal – the fuel environmentalist fear the most.

And China, cashing in on the Western demands for inefficient, expensive so called “green” energy technologies (while developing its own energy resources as fast as it can) is ripping up grasslands and draining water to mine coal and produce associated germanium.  Couldn’t get away with it without central government control or backing.

And closer to home, in the U.S., the federal government punishes ranchers who fight wildfires on public land in an attempt to halt it before it gets out of control.  In addition, the government, in mandating the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), put public health at risk from ultraviolet rays (not emitted, by the way, by good old incandescent bulbs) which could damage skin cells and cause eye damage.  Use the new government required bulbs and get skin cancer – isn’t that special.


Preserving the Ideal of a Property Owning Democracy: The 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey




Rating Housing Affordability

The 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey covers 325 metropolitan markets in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey employs the “Median Multiple” (median house price divided by gross [before tax] annual median household income) to rate housing affordability (Table ES-1). The Median Multiple is widely used for evaluating urban markets, and has been recommended by the World Bank and the United Nations and is used by the Harvard University Joint Center on Housing.


More elaborate indicators, which mix housing affordability and mortgage affordability can mask the structural elements of house pricing are often not well understood outside the financial sector. Moreover, they provide only a “snapshot,” because interest rates can vary over the term of a mortgage; however the price paid for the house does not. The reality is that, if house prices double or triple relative to incomes, as has occurred in many severely unaffordable markets, mortgage payments will also be double or triple, whatever the interest rate.

Historically, the Median Multiple has been remarkably similar in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, with median house prices having generally been from 2.0 to 3.0 times median household incomes (historical data has not been identified for Hong Kong), with 3.0 being the outer bound of affordability. This affordability relationship continues in many housing markets of the United States and Canada. However, the Median Multiple has escalated sharply in the past decade in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and in some markets of Canada and the United States.

The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey is produced to contrast the deterioration in housing affordability in some metropolitan markets with the preservation of affordability in other metropolitan areas. It is dedicated to younger generations who have right to expect they will live as well or better than their parents, but may not, in large part due to the higher cost of housing.

Housing Affordability in 2011

Housing affordability was little changed in 2011, with the most affordable markets being in the United States, Canada and Ireland. The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand continue to experience pervasive unaffordability.

Major Metropolitan Markets: The 325 markets include 81 major metropolitan markets (those with more than 1,000,000 population).

Among these major metropolitan markets, there were 24 affordable major markets, 20 moderately unaffordable major markets, 13 seriously unaffordable major markets and 24 severely unaffordable major markets. All of the affordable major markets were in the United States while three of the moderately unaffordable markets were in Canada and one in Ireland with the other 16 in the United States. The severely unaffordable major markets were principally in the United Kingdom (8), the United States (6), and Australia (5). Hong Kong was severely unaffordable and there were three severely unaffordable major markets in Canada and one in New Zealand (Table ES-2).


The most affordable major market was Detroit, with a Median Multiple of 1.4, below the historic range of 2.0 to 3.0. Atlanta had a Median Multiple of 1.9. The other 22 affordable major markets had Median Multiples of from 2.0 to 3.0, with the most affordable being Phoenix, Rochester, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Las Vegas. The strong growth markets of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Orlando, Jacksonville, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Indianapolis also achieved affordable ratings.

All major markets in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Hong Kong were severely unaffordable. Hong Kong was the least affordable major market (ranked 81st), with a median multiple of 12.6. Vancouver was second most unaffordable, at a Median Multiple of 10.6 (ranked 80th), which is even more severely unaffordable than last year. Sydney was the third most unaffordable, at 9.2 (ranked 79th). Melbourne and Plymouth & Devon all had Median Multiples of more than 7.0.

All Markets: Among all 325 markets surveyed, there were 128 affordable markets, 117 in the United States, 9 in Canada and 2 in Ireland. There were 87 moderately unaffordable markets, 64 in the United States, 19 in Canada, 3 in Ireland and 1 in the United Kingdom. There were 39 seriously unaffordable markets and 71 severely unaffordable markets. Australia had 25 severely unaffordable markets, followed by the United Kingdom with 20 and the United States with 14. Canada had 6 severely unaffordable markets, while New Zealand had 5. China’s one included market, Hong Kong, was also severely unaffordable (Table ES-3). Honolulu and Bournemouth & Dorsett were the most unaffordable markets outside the major metropolitan markets, with a Median Multiple of 8.7.

Housing Affordability: Incompatible with Restrictive Regulation

The deterioration of housing affordability in many of the markets rated in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey is unprecedented based upon the available historical data. Australia and New Zealand, for example, which had legendary housing affordability from after World War II to the 1980s and 1990s have seen house prices reach levels that are nearly double even nearly triple their historic ratio to household incomes.

The economic evidence indicates that this trend is strongly related to the implementation of more restrictive land use regulations, especially measures that create scarcity in land for housing. In creating scarcity, more restrictive land regulation increases land prices, which increases house prices. In considering this process, economist Anthony Downs, of The Brookings Institution in Washington. D.C., has indicated the importance of maintaining the “principle of competitive land supply.” This is particularly important because one of the most favored more restrictive land use policies is the “urban growth boundary,” which prohibits development on considerable amounts of land that would otherwise be developable, resulting in artificial and unnecessary scarcity values. The escalation of house prices relative to incomes, from Sydney and Vancouver to London and across California testify to the failure of planning to maintain a competitive land supply. The record shows that smart growth (urban consolidation and compact cities policies) is incompatible with housing affordability.

More restrictive regulation has led to situations where “across the road” values per hectare of raw, developable land vary by more than 10 times in Auckland and Portland, based upon whether they are inside or outside the urban growth boundary. And these “urban echo values” at these locations (pricing in anticipation of future urban zoning) are generally substantially higher than the true rural values, further out from the urban growth boundary. Even larger differences have been documented in the United Kingdom’s Barker Report and researchers at the London School of Economics.

Further, economic analyses have indicated that metropolitan areas with more restrictive land use regulation tend to perform less well economically than would have been otherwise expected.

Preserving the “Ideal of a Property Owning Democracy”

One of the principal accomplishments of high-income world societies has been the expansion of property ownership and home ownership to the majority of the population. At the same time, there are dark economic clouds on the horizon. Governments in high income nations are faced with some of the most challenging times in their history. In this environment, the property owning middle-class seems likely to have to face significant challenges in the longer run. Housing represents the largest share of household budgets and thus, housing affordability is a major determinant of both the cost of living and the standard of living.

There are important positive signs. The state of Florida repealed its more restrictive regulations (“smart growth” law) in 2011. A major report released in December 2011 in New Zealand documented the importance of a competitive land supply in restoring housing affordability to that nation.

These are important first steps. There are serious social risks to more restrictive regulation and unnecessarily denying households the opportunity to own their own homes. In writing on the issue 40 years ago, urbanologist Peter Hall expressed concern about the effect of such policies on the “ideal of a property owning democracy.”

New Labour’s Opinion of Big Green

In the introduction to his book “The Green Wave” about the fundraising prowess of the environmental community, Bonner Cohen notes that as environmental groups become more powerful, they often forget their original goal of helping the environment. He notes that even lifelong environmental activist like Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus lament the fact that even while these groups now “boast large professional staffs and receive tens of millions of dollars in donations every year from foundations and individuals,” in many ways “the environmental movement’s fundamental concepts … are outmoded.” They are focusing more on fundraising and their organization than improving environmental sustainability.

Now another committed environmental believer has added his voice to this chorus of concern: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In his memoirs released last year, Blair expresses his frustration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially environmental groups. Discussing the climate change negotiations at the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, he writes:

Over time, I’m afraid I came to dislike part of the NGO culture, especially the Green groups. NGOs do a great job, don’t misunderstand me; but the trouble with some of them is that while they are treated by the media as concerned citizens, which of course they are, they are also organizations, raising money, marketing themselves and competing with other NGOs in a similar field. Because their entire raison d’ etre is to get policy changed, they can hardly say yes, we’ve done it, without putting themselves out of business. And they’ve learned to play the modern media game perfectly. As it’s all about impact, they shout louder and louder to get heard. Balance is not in the vocabulary. It’s all “outrage,” “betrayal,” “crisis.”

Given his commitment to negotiate an agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol, one can hardly question Blair’s sympathy for the greens. Yet, even he recognizes that environmental groups have strayed from their original intent, confusing power with movement toward the goal they claim to care about.

One way to turn your economy around: Slash solar subsidies.

They weren’t the only cause of Spain’s economic doldrums, but lavish Spanish solar-energy subsidies were certainly one of the reasons. We’ve known this, and apparently Spain wised up a bit. Late last month, the Spanish government acted to atone for its solar-subsidizing sins, choosing to slash solar handouts by 30%. A good start, for sure, but given Spain’s economic woes and the fact that their subsidies have led to a solar-construction frenzy that has produced more than 6 times the solar-power capacity than the government planned for the end of 2010, Spain shouldn’t stop there.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Spain is one of a number of cash-strapped European countries that have been forced to review their generous system of subsidies for renewable energy, in order to lower electricity bills for consumers struggling under austerity measures and public spending cuts.

Like Germany, Spain has long had feed-in tariffs, which guarantee prices for low-carbon electricity and so assure renewables companies a higher return than they could expect from the free market. They were seen as crucial if European countries were to meet tough targets for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

In Spain, solar-PV plants connected to the grid by September 2008 receive a feed-in tariff of €450 ($589) per megawatt hour of electricity for 25 years—roughly 10 times the price utilities pay for power produced from conventional sources such as gas and coal.

Small investors poured in to take advantage of the incentives, building huge installations of photovoltaic panels across Spain. The country now has 3,200 megawatts of solar capacity, more than six times what the government expected to have by the end of 2010. Last year alone it handed out €2.6 billion in subsidies for solar power.

2.6 billion Euro. That’s almost 3.4 billion dollars, if my online currency converter is correct. And for what? For the energy resource that is arguably the worst bang for your buck, on the basis of how often the resource produces power (a.k.a capacity factor). Last I checked, there weren’t any ticker-tape parades celebrating the U.S. economy, yet we’re still propping up small-potatoes renewables with taxpayer dollars. Throw in the fact that our economy is about to take a big one on the chin from the EPA’s new carbon-cutting measures, and I’d say that, for once, it might not be a bad idea to take a cue from the Spanish government and slash spendthrift solar subsidies.

U.S. Press AWOL on Climate Skepticism

I’ve noticed something curious, not a new revelation, because I’ve thought about it for a while, but phenomena which I haven’t heard anyone really talking about – and that’s part of the curiosity. 

Recently, various public opinion polls show that climate skepticism is growing among the general public.  By climate skepticism I mean to varying degrees people reject or question the truth of one or more of four different but related ideas that make up climate orthodoxy: that the earth is unequivocally warming, that this warming is due primarily or wholly due to human activities, and that such warming will cause apocalypse type disasters, and that we should take drastic action to prevent warming from continuing (even if it hurts the economy). 

Skepticism has regularly been higher among the U.S. public than in Europe but even in Europe skepticism about one or more of the above tenets or climate change faith has grown in the past two years. 

This is not the curious part.  Indeed, it would be curious if the general public hadn’t grown more jaded with the climate dogma in the aftermath of the various climate imbroglios that have been exposed in the last year.  From “Climategate,” to the IPCC disaster claims that were exposed as lacking any evidence whatsoever for their accuracy, one domino after another has fallen exposing the climate emperors as having no clothes (or at least going around threadbare). 

The curious part is this, in the U.S., while the general public has remained much more skeptical of climate alarmism than their European brethren, the American press has drunk the whole plastic jug of climate kool-aid.  By contrast, while Europeans have by and large bought into the climate disaster hype, the European press has maintained its valued, traditional role of skeptic and public scold, challenging orthodoxy coming from on high. 

This was brought home to me once again last week when noted physicist, Harold Lewis, very publicly resigned from the American Physical Society, a group of which he had been a member of and served in various capacities for 67 years. He resigned over the APS’s official statements concerning climate change and the fact that it refused to take the significant proportion of its members who are climate skeptics concerns more seriously, especially in the light of the numerous problems that have come to light with “mainstream” climate science over the past year.  Lewis’s letter merits quoting at length since I can’t state his concerns better myself:

“. . . For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.

It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.

So what has the APS, as an organization, done in the face of this challenge? It has accepted the corruption as the norm, and gone along with it. For example:

1. About a year ago a few of us sent an e-mail on the subject to a fraction of the membership. APS ignored the issues, but the then President immediately launched a hostile investigation of where we got the e-mail addresses. In its better days, APS used to encourage discussion of important issues, and indeed the Constitution cites that as its principal purpose. No more. Everything that has been done in the last year has been designed to silence debate

2. The appallingly tendentious APS statement on Climate Change was apparently written in a hurry by a few people over lunch, and is certainly not representative of the talents of APS members as I have long known them. So a few of us petitioned the Council to reconsider it. One of the outstanding marks of (in)distinction in the Statement was the poison word incontrovertible, which describes few items in physics, certainly not this one. In response APS appointed a secret committee that never met, never troubled to speak to any skeptics, yet endorsed the Statement in its entirety. (They did admit that the tone was a bit strong, but amazingly kept the poison word incontrovertible to describe the evidence, a position supported by no one.) In the end, the Council kept the original statement, word for word, but approved a far longer “explanatory” screed, admitting that there were uncertainties, but brushing them aside to give blanket approval to the original. The original Statement, which still stands as the APS position, also contains what I consider pompous and asinine advice to all world governments, as if the APS were master of the universe. It is not, and I am embarrassed that our leaders seem to think it is. This is not fun and games, these are serious matters involving vast fractions of our national substance, and the reputation of the Society as a scientific society is at stake.

3. In the interim the ClimateGate scandal broke into the news, and the machinations of the principal alarmists were revealed to the world. It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity. Effect on the APS position: none. None at all. This is not science; other forces are at work.

4. So a few of us tried to bring science into the act (that is, after all, the alleged and historic purpose of APS), and collected the necessary 200+ signatures to bring to the Council a proposal for a Topical Group on Climate Science, thinking that open discussion of the scientific issues, in the best tradition of physics, would be beneficial to all, and also a contribution to the nation. I might note that it was not easy to collect the signatures, since you denied us the use of the APS membership list. We conformed in every way with the requirements of the APS Constitution, and described in great detail what we had in mind—simply to bring the subject into the open.<

5. To our amazement, Constitution be damned, you declined to accept our petition, but instead used your own control of the mailing list to run a poll on the members’ interest in a TG on Climate and the Environment. You did ask the members if they would sign a petition to form a TG on your yet-to-be-defined subject, but provided no petition, and got lots of affirmative responses. (If you had asked about sex you would have gotten more expressions of interest.) There was of course no such petition or proposal, and you have now dropped the Environment part, so the whole matter is moot. (Any lawyer will tell you that you cannot collect signatures on a vague petition, and then fill in whatever you like.) The entire purpose of this exercise was to avoid your constitutional responsibility to take our petition to the Council.

6. As of now you have formed still another secret and stacked committee to organize your own TG, simply ignoring our lawful petition.

APS management has gamed the problem from the beginning, to suppress serious conversation about the merits of the climate change claims. Do you wonder that I have lost confidence in the organization?

I do feel the need to add one note, and this is conjecture, since it is always risky to discuss other people’s motives. This scheming at APS HQ is so bizarre that there cannot be a simple explanation for it. Some have held that the physicists of today are not as smart as they used to be, but I don’t think that is an issue. I think it is the money, exactly what Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago. There are indeed trillions of dollars involved, to say nothing of the fame and glory (and frequent trips to exotic islands) that go with being a member of the club. Your own Physics Department (of which you are chairman) would lose millions a year if the global warming bubble burst. When Penn State absolved Mike Mann of wrongdoing, and the University of East Anglia did the same for Phil Jones, they cannot have been unaware of the financial penalty for doing otherwise. As the old saying goes, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. Since I am no philosopher, I’m not going to explore at just which point enlightened self-interest crosses the line into corruption, but a careful reading of the ClimateGate releases makes it clear that this is not an academic question.

I want no part of it, so please accept my resignation. APS no longer represents me, but I hope we are still friends.

Professor Lewis is not the first noted scientist who felt he had to take such dramatic action to make his point concerning the “global warming scam.”  Indeed, in recent years noted scientists including Claude Allegre, Freeman Dyson and Christopher Landsea have all made public their disputes with what is passing as mainstream climate science; with Landsea offering a public letter resigning from the IPCC over its unsubstantiated claims concerning the threat of more and more powerful hurricanes – a field in which he has particular expertise. 

In the U.S. Lewis’s resignation didn’t even merit a mention in most of the mainstream media, rather it was relegated to the blogsphere to highlight and publicize this important schism within the scientific community.  By contrast, Europe’s papers picked up on this story almost immediately, set in the proper context and gave it the importance it deserved. 

When and if a prominent skeptic had switched sides or at least appeared to (see Bjorn Lomborg), the mainstream media is all over it with newspapers across the U.S. trumpeting the decision.  So much for the press’s objectivity.  Whence its commitment to informing and educating the public, to providing fair, balanced, accurate coverage of the important affairs of the day and it role in a free  society is to hold the powers-that-be accountable.

The public’s waning faith in the truthfulness of the media and the trust it places in journalists may be a reflection of the decline in journalists adherence to the ideal espoused by Dragnet’s Joe Friday: “Just the facts, only the facts.”  And one might add, “all the facts no matter how inconvenient they may be.”