Start Survey Survey

RFF on the Issues: The US National Climate Assessment

RFF researchers on emissions, sea level, ecosystems, water, adaptation, and poverty 

Last week, the US Global Change Research Program released the National Climate Assessment, which concluded “that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that the impacts are increasing across the country.” In a statement about the assessment, RFF Vice President for Research Molly Macauley said, “The good news is that there are a lot of sensible strategies available. Many are economically beneficial on their own terms and these might be the ones for highest priority to enable this country to prepare effectively for an uncertain future.”

RFF researchers have proposed such strategies for addressing various issues highlighted in the National Climate Assessment.

On reducing fossil fuel emissions:

On sea-level rise:

  • Carolyn Kousky describes a three-part strategy for managing shoreline retreat, noting: “Property owners accepting the notion that their right to a property is not indefinite in the face of sea-level rise is a necessary, and difficult, first step.”

On protecting ecosystems:

On managing water resources:

On planning for adaptation:

  • Daniel Morris, Molly Macauley, Ray Kopp, and Richard Morgenstern write: “The design of national adaptation policy must . . . be resilient against failure in the face of extreme climate-related scenarios and . . . flexible enough that it can meet the needs of local actors across the country in a timely manner and allow for major directional shifts as needed if existing policy proves insufficient.”

On climate change and poverty:

  • Joseph Stiglitz notes the connection between environmental policies and inequality in societies, explaining that “small interventions can have very big effects . . . . An example on a national scale that is relevant in many developing countries is the adoption of more efficient cook stoves.”

Should Coastal Communities Consider Transfers of Development Rights?

photo: clarkmaxwell/flickr

photo: clarkmaxwell/flickr

My colleague, Carolyn Kousky, recently wrote a post about “managed retreat” from the riskiest areas along our nation’s coastline—areas facing sea-level rise, as well as worsening storms and hurricanes. Her recommended three-part strategy includes limiting development in high-risk areas, adopting policies for “orderly” retreat as inundation occurs, and allowing for retreat after a disaster. All of these involve changes in land use in coastal areas. And these changes in land use will come at a cost. In a world with private property rights, restricting development options through zoning and other regulations reduces property values and can involve costly “takings” legal battles. Property buyouts or purchases of easements, which incentivize property owners to voluntarily move or allow development restrictions to be placed on their lands, can be costly. Where will this money come from?

An option that many local communities should be considering is transfer of development rights (TDRs). TDRs allow development rights on one property to be “lifted” and sold for use on another property. Communities often identify areas they would like to protect from development and designate them as TDR “sending” areas. Landowners in these areas are permitted to sell their development rights and if they do, a permanent easement is usually placed on their land. Buyers of development rights are typically developers who use the rights to build more densely in designated “receiving” areas.

Read More

Managing Shoreline Retreat in the United States: A Three-Part Strategy

Source: usfwsnortheast / flickr

Source: usfwsnortheast / flickr

Sea-level rise will increasingly threaten coastal communities. Responses to the issue have generally been grouped into three broad categories: protect, accommodate, and retreat. All three of these strategies will be needed and deployed to varying degrees around the United States. Highly developed areas—think New York City—will require some structural protection. Certain facilities that need to locate on the water may be able to accommodate the rising sea, by being elevated, for example. But in some places around the country, retreating from the shore will be preferred on economic or political grounds.

In a new paper in Climatic Change (note: requires subscription), I explore how shoreline retreat could be managed. Retreat could be left to the market, but there are three reasons this may lead to suboptimal outcomes: (1) unilateral investments in shoreline armoring can harm neighboring properties, (2) coastal ecosystems provide public goods that will be underprovided in the market, and (3) private property owners may not optimally invest and divest in coastal areas because they may not have full information, do not bear the full costs of disasters or inundation, and/or may not accurately perceive risks.

In the paper, I propose a three-part strategy for managed retreat: (1) limit development in the highest risk areas, (2) adopt policies to allow for orderly retreat as inundation occurs, and (3) allow for retreat post-disaster. The nuances and challenges of this three-part approach are discussed in detail in the paper. This post gives a brief overview. Read More

Emissions Trading Isn’t Dead, But It’s Not Out of the Hospital Either

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in EPA v. EME Homer City was a big victory for the agency, substantially (though not completely and finally) clearing the way for  cap-and-trade programs that had been in legal limbo for the better part of a decade.  The DC Circuit decision in the case that SCOTUS overturned prompted me to declare the effective end of emissions trading under this part of the Clean Air Act (Section 110, which deals with “conventional” or “criteria” pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides). Last week’s decision breathes new life into those flexible programs.

Dan Farber (whose coverage of the case has been extremely useful) writes today that the decision is also cause for optimism about flexibility (read: trading) under other parts of the Act, most importantly Section 111(d), which will soon be used to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants (and about which we’ve written extensively at RFF). While the recent decision certainly doesn’t hurt (and while I’m broadly optimistic that ESPS can be flexibile), unlike Dan Farber I don’t think it tells us much about how SCOTUS would rule on inevitable challenges to the ESPS.

Read More

RFF ON THE ISSUES: Looking ahead with Exelon; CSAPR authority upheld

Looking Ahead with Exelon

Energy provider Exelon has announced its purchase of Washington-based Pepco, forming a “large electric and gas utility in the Mid-Atlantic region” to service about 10 million customers. On Tuesday, May 13, Exelon CEO and President Chris Crane will join RFF President Phil Sharp for an RFF Policy Leadership Forum to discuss shifting energy trends and landscapes facing today’s utility providers. Tune in for a live webcast of the eventand tweet questions using the hashtag #AskRFF.

CSAPR Authority Upheld

In a 6–2 decision, the Supreme Court has upheld the US Environmental Protection Agency’s authority, under the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), to regulate air pollution from power plants that affects downwind states. The rule was previously struck down by a lower court after litigation was brought by opponents who call the regulation “costly to the economy.”

Research on CSAPR by RFF’s Dallas BurtrawKaren PalmerAnthony Paul, and Matt Woerman reveals that “changes in natural gas supply and electricity demand overwhelm the effects associated with these environmental regulations. . . . Industry, policymakers, and the public will want to carefully separate the effects of these changes when evaluating the economic consequences of pending environmental regulations.” They conclude that CSAPR can be implemented “apparently with little disruption to the sector, especially in comparison with the normal disruptions associated with a changing world.”

Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up

This post originally appeared on Robert Stavins’s blog, An Economic View of the Environment.

A week ago, I wrote at this blog about my recent frustrations with the government approval process of one part of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Working Group III (WG3) report, namely the section in the Summary for Policymakers (SPM.5.2) on “International Cooperation,” for which I had major responsibility.

In that post, I described how the government approval process, which took place in Berlin in early April, had led to the deletion of a significant fraction of the text of SPM.5.2, not because governments questioned its scientific validity, but because they found various passages to be inconsistent with their respective positions and national interests within the ongoing international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  (That post took the form of a letter to the co-chairs of WG3 – Ottmar Edenhofer, Ramon Pichs-Madruga, and Youba Sokona.  They have since sent a thoughtful response and agreed for me to provide a link to their letter here.)

Why a Follow-Up Post?

My first post has been widely reported in the press.  Some of this coverage was accurate and reasonable.  Pilita Clark of the Financial Times, in particular, wrote an excellent article that accurately presented my views and conveyed some additional useful insights.  Other press coverage, however, inaccurately stated or suggested that my critique of the IPCC process was much broader than it was.  This was despite my very careful caveats in the first blog post, in which I tried hard to communicate clearly the limited focus of my critique, namely the effects of the government approval process on one section (SPM.5.2) of the Summary for Policymakers.

Read More

This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, we review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted at the “indispensable” RFF Library Blog, curated by RFF Librarian Chris Clotworthy. Check out this week’s highlights below:


Annual Energy Outlook Projections and the Future of Solar PV Electricity
The Economist recently declared that due to technological advancements in solar photovoltaic (PV) energy, soon “alternative energy will no longer be alternative.” But this transition to a solar energy future in the United States is rife with uncertainty. Will costs continue to fall at their recent pace? Can solar compete everywhere, or only when and where the sun shines brightest? — via New York University

The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions
Once ice-bound, difficult to access, and largely ignored by the rest of the world, the Arctic is now front and center in the midst of many important questions facing the world today. Our daily weather, what we eat, and coastal flooding are all interconnected with the future of the Arctic. The year 2012 was an astounding year for Arctic change. The summer sea ice volume smashed previous records, losing approximately 75 percent of its value since 1980 and half of its areal coverage. Multiple records were also broken when 97 percent of Greenland’s surface… — via National Research Council

Efficiency Concerns Top Two New Energy Polls
Four out of five American consumers and energy professionals view energy efficiency as a personal priority and at least two out of three believe it could significantly reduce overall energy use if not for political squabbling, two new surveys show…Findings from the separate surveys, conducted this spring by The University of Texas at Austin and the nonprofit OurEnergyPolicy.org, were released Wednesday morning during an event at the National Press Club… — via University of Texas

Read More

Resources Magazine: Groundwater Markets – Managing a Critical, Hidden Resource

Nearly all our usable freshwater comes from groundwater, so why is it mostly unregulated in the United States? Yusuke Kuwayama describes a market-based solution to better manage our nation’s depleted aquifers.


As California’s three-year drought rages on, some communities are on the verge of running out of water. Ranchers are being forced to sell off cattle in fire sales, and the governor has urged residents to cut their water use by 20 percent. The California State Water Project—which has been pumping water from northern California to the arid southern end of the state since the 1960s—announced that for the first time, it would provide no supplemental water to the 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland it normally serves. Instead, these customers will have to rely solely on local sources of water. The situation presents a catch-22 for the state and its residents: water shortages will increase reliance on declining groundwater supplies, but the unsustainable use of this resource has contributed to the severity of the drought.

While extreme, the current drought in California demonstrates the importance of effective water resource management, including the prudent use of critical groundwater resources. Groundwater use is typically unmonitored and unregulated in the United States. Many states allow anyone to drill a new groundwater well, while a few western states have a priority system that ranks pumpers based on when they started pumping from the aquifer. In Texas, the law governing groundwater use is known as the “rule of capture,” which allows a person the right to pump whatever groundwater is available. California follows the “reasonable use doctrine,” which allows a user to pump an infinite quantity of water as long as the water is put to a “beneficial use.” While this prevents many wasteful uses of groundwater, it allows continued pumping even if water tables decline in the underlying aquifer or if flows are reduced in connected streams and rivers.

The Consequences of Unregulated Pumping

On one hand, the lack of attention from policymakers and the general public is not surprising. Groundwater is located beneath the earth’s surface in gaps between particles and chunks of soil, as well as spaces in the fractures of rock formations, so it’s not immediately visible to us on a daily basis. On the other hand, groundwater is our most important freshwater resource, accounting for 95 percent of our usable freshwater, compared to 3.5 percent contained in lakes, swamps, reservoirs, and rivers.

Substantial pumping has resulted in large water table declines and the depletion of water stored in aquifers, requiring users to deepen their wells to reach increasingly scarce supplies or even shut down productive activities that rely on groundwater. In the Ogallala aquifer underneath the Great Plains, for example, pumping for irrigation since the 1940s has led to declines so large that the aquifer no longer supports irrigated agriculture in vast stretches of Texas and Kansas. According to a 2013 US Geological Survey study, about 32 percent of the depletion of this aquifer since the start of the twentieth century took place between 2001 and 2008.

Read the rest of this article.

Deep and Shallow Uncertainty in Messaging Climate Change

This post draws on a recent RFF discussion paper by RFF Senior Fellow Roger Cooke, where he explores these topics in greater detail. Cooke is the Chauncey Starr Chair in Risk Analysis at RFF and lead author for Risk and Uncertainty in the recently released IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.

Present State of the Uncertainty Narrative

In 2010, the US National Research Council (NRC) illustrated reasoning under uncertainty about climate change using the calibrated uncertainty language of the 2005 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. The NRC report bases its first summary conclusion on “high confidence” (at least 8 out of 10) or “very high confidence” (at least 9 out of 10) in six (paraphrased) statements:

  1. Earth is warming.
  2. Most of the warming over the last several decades can be attributed to human activities.
  3. Natural climate variability … cannot explain or offset the long-term warming trend.
  4. Global warming is closely associated with a broad spectrum of other changes.
  5. Human-induced climate change and its impacts will continue for many decades.
  6. The ultimate magnitude of climate change and the severity of its impacts depend strongly on the actions that human societies take to respond to these risks.

What is the confidence that all these statements hold? In the non-formalized natural language it is not even clear whether “all statements have a 0.8 chance of being true” means “each statement has a 0.8 chance of being true” or “there is a 0.8 chance that all statements are true.”  Consider the second statement. Are the authors highly confident that “the earth is warming AND humans are responsible”, or are they highly confident that “GIVEN that the earth is warming, humans are responsible”? These are very different statements. Since the Earth’s warming is asserted in the first statement, perhaps the second statement is meant. In that case, the likelihood of both statements holding is the product of their individual likelihoods. If the first two statements enjoy “high confidence”, then both can hold with only “medium confidence”.

Suppose the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed nuclear reactors based on the finding that each reactor’s safety each year was “virtually certain” (99–100 percent probability). With 100 commercial nuclear reactors, each with a probability of 0.01 per year of a meltdown . . . well, do the math. That is the point: To reason under uncertainty you may have to do math. You can’t do it by the seat of the pants. I am very highly confident that all above statements hold, but I am 100 percent certain that this way of messaging uncertainty in climate change won’t help us get the uncertainty narrative right.

Read More

This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, we review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted at the “indispensable” RFF Library Blog, curated by RFF Librarian Chris Clotworthy. Check out this week’s highlights below:


The 2014 Fuels America Economic Impact Study: Methodology
A new industry report released today shows how the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is creating jobs and significant economic impact. The Fuels America coalition released an economic impact study by John Dunham & Associates showing that the industry supports more than 850,000 American jobs and drives $184.5 billion of economic output. — via John Dunham & Assoc. for Fuels America

Hydraulic Fracturing: Meeting the Nation’s Energy Needs While Protecting Groundwater Resources
In the NGWA’s position paper, Hydraulic Fracturing: Meeting the Nation’s Energy Needs While Protecting Groundwater Resources, the Association discusses that poor water quality may not be a direct result from fracking. The study shows that water contamination and other drinking water and/or groundwater issues are instead the result of faulty casing installations, unsealed wells, poor management, accidents, and other instances where unsatisfactory practices or processes take place. — via National Groundwater Association

Draft California Communities Environmental Screening Tool v2.0 (CalEnviroScreen 2.0)
…The screening tool, called CalEnviroScreen, was developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, a branch of Cal/EPA, to pinpoint the communities with the highest exposure and vulnerability to multiple environmental hazards, including polluted air and water, waste facilities and contaminated soil… — via California Environmental Protection Agency

Read More