Public Knowledge, Projections, and Memory

In 1978, the U. S. Congress enacted energy legislation that outlawed the use of Natural Gas to generate electricity.  “knowledgeable Experts” were projecting that we would be out of natural gas by 1985.  Thus the popular opinion was we were facing a serious crises. The government and many of the rest of us thought that natural gas use priority should be to provide heat for homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, and if enough – office buildings.  At the time the majority of electric generation was done with coal, and their were some advantages to coal for base load electrical generation and  coal and oil would be difficult and expensive to use for home heat and hospitals since most were set up for gas.  At the time there was about 25% of electrical power generated by natural gas.  Some say that there was evidence when the law was passed in 1978,  but certainly by 1980, it was apparent that there would be enough natural gas to last a great deal longer than 1685.  But by 1985, with the law was still in place, there was O% of power generation with natural gas.  But the 1978 ban was not rescinded until 1989 – more than 10 years after it became apparent that the law wasn’t needed.  Those of us who may have disagreed with the “knowledgable Experts” opinion had some knowledge of what we thought would happen, but we did not know with certainty.  So if the media reporter had asked “do we agree with the experts?” the correct answer would be “I don’t know”.

By the late 1990’s the global average temperatures had gone up fairly steadily since 1980.  The projection by “Knowledgeable Experts” was that it would continue and it was primarily driven by people’s use of fossil fuels – of which coal is the worst and natural gas is the best from a CO2 release standpoint.  Probably not everyone involved in atmospheric projections agreed with the “knowledgeable Experts”,  that the warming trend would continue indefinitely, but – like the folks that were involved in the oil industry in the 1970’s, they could not be sure – so the correct answer was “I don’t know”.  An “I don’t know answer is treated by a lot of people – including many in the media – as a passive, non-committal, abstention  vote. So it’s reported that the vast majority of “Knowledgeable Experts” agree on the projections.  As a result our government is attempting to limit the use of coal as a fuel for any use including Power generation.

But in the first decade of this century, the average temperatures did not continue to rise significantly.  And in the second decade it is not rising as rapidly either, although the weather has gotten more strange.  It seems that the 1980 world average temperature was at or below the below the median of the cycles that the world has been through – it was called by some “the beginning or the new ice age”.   The up cycle has never been higher than the temperature cycles in the history of the earth either, although some were projected by one of the “experts” using what was later determined by professional statisticians as not valid statistical analysis.  But there seemed to be a correlation in the 1990’s between the temperature rise and the increase in man generated CO2.  Could the average temperature rise in the 1980’s been a return to normal? and the increase in CO2 generation been a result of the elimination of gas in electric generation because natural gas was eliminated in power generation and replaced by coal and heavy oil ?   I’ve heard the scientific explanation of why CO2 causes global warning and it sounds reasonable.  So do I believe that CO2 can cause global warming?  – yes.  So do I believe that man generated global CO2 is causing irreversible global warming?  I think maybe not, but the honest answer is “I don’t know”.  So the honest answer might be to not disagree with the folks saying “yes” absolutely.  Those holding reservations and thinking “we are not sure” are the answers would not say “maybe, but we’re not sure”.   So since no one is saying “absolutely not”, the media is reporting that all “experts” agree that man-generated CO2 is causing global warming and that it won’t be reversed except by a reduction in man-made CO2.  Is that correct or does it depend on how the questions are asked and the answers are interpreted?  The statistics have shown a correlation between the warming temperatures and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. So our government and other governments in the world have reacted to that by steps to minimize Man-made CO2 generation.

But the temperatures are not rising the way they were.  In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal,  Paul Tice reported that in 2007 the UN’s intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study was the basis for the US. Government’s EPA labeling CO2 as a pollutant.  But the study  “was already outdated by that time”, but the EPA reacted in 2009.  He reports that in 2013 the IPCC issued a more “circumspect report which noted a hiatus in global warming since 1998 and a break down in the correlation between the world’s average surface temperature and the atmospheric CO2 levels.  In the meantime, our governments action has cost the government $20 to 25 billion per year.  However, since we did not run out of natural gas, since the early 1990’s, the power companies have built almost all new generation plants on natural gas in the 1990’s because it’s cheaper and more convenient.  A lot of the coal plants are old and probably need to be replaced on the future, but the urgency has no doubt caused all our power costs to go up as well.  It was an urgency that cost us money and probably wasn’t necessary.

Our environmental exercise sounds a lot like the natural gas exercise of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Both caused some pain and agony and cost us money and probably were not necessary. There have been articles written suggesting that coal jobs will not necessarily come back as a result of Trump’s canceling Obama”s EPA emphasis on not using coal to generated electricity.  Coal has been losing out to natural gas for several decades (except in the 80’s) because natural gas is cheaper, and easier.  We would probably be father along today if natural gas had not been outlawed for electricity.

There have been other similar things that I remember as well.  Why do we do this?  The first problem is that people have a tendency to project things into the future the way they have been headed in the fairly recent past.  That’s happened with natural gas and it may have happened again with global warming.  Secondly, most of our issues today are scientific or economic.  Most people don’t have much education in either including news reporters and lawyers ( and in case you haven’t noticed most of our politicians ar lawyers.) There were correlations with the environment and directions in gas usage that could be used to “prove” points that people wanted to make.  Correlation does not prove “cause and effect”.  Probability and statistics is may be the least intuitive and trickiest math discipline, and the weather people misused it in projecting an increasing world temperature.   There are lots of variables that effect things, but we tend to oversimplify.  Some variables may not be recognized and some of the relevant data may not be available.   But those who have data to “prove” their assertions have an advantage over those who don’t agree with them for reasons that may be valid, but are not supportable by data or precise theory.  And “I don’t know for sure” answers get disregarded by reporters. “If it bleeds it leads” so stuff that appears to be a problem is reported first.  Fixes and corrections, if they are noted at all are usually not on the front page.  ( In the early 1990’s the organization where I worked, got some complaints  from our employees about the styrofoam cups in the coffee rooms because they believed styrofoam had environmental problems because of CFC’s. (a chemical that had been used in its production and had been declared a hazard in the 1970’s,)  But it turns out that in the early 1990’s when we were getting these complaints, styrofoam had not been manufactured with CFC’s by anyone in at least 10 years.  Freedom is great and a free market economy has been mostly good news over a lot of years even though there has been an “invisible hand” that has helped make it so.  The Law of Unintended Consequences is not dead, but the unintended consequences are not always bad.  If we producers and consumers are free to decide what people want, invent new stuff and take responsiblity for ourselves, and believe in helping our fellow citizens, we make many fewer mistakes than a few politicians in Washington D.C.


About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
This entry was posted in Business, Education, Management, Political Systems, Social Problems, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Public Knowledge, Projections, and Memory

  1. Bob Garner says:

    This is a good one. I believe you nailed it!

    Bob Garner


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