The Next Climate Debate

In his second inaugural address, President Obama promised to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The crowd roared. “Environmentalists Hail Obama Climate Change Focus,” proclaimed an Associated Press headline.

Three weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the president highlighted his efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions, called for cap-and-trade legislation, and committed to taking executive action aimed at further reducing emissions. The “centerpiece” of this agenda, according to the New York Times, will be “action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants.” But of the 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide emitted around the world this year, U.S. coal plants will account for only two. Even if the EPA were to shut down those plants instantly, global emissions would still be much higher this year than they were the year President Obama took office.

As members of the movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament did in the past, climate-change activists have clothed plainly ineffectual policies in the language of moral necessity. Disarmament was rejected across the political spectrum and never achieved credibility. But equally unserious emissions-reduction schemes have become decidedly mainstream, thanks in part to conservatives’ focus on questioning the science of climate change rather than the policy prescriptions that have been offered to address it. The time has long since passed for them to accept climate science and focus on the policy response — terrain on which they have a decisive political advantage and on which U.S. action can be steered more constructively.

The math of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions is straightforward: We are responsible for less than six of those 35 global gigatons, and our emissions are expected to remain relatively flat for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, worldwide emissions are increasing rapidly, thanks to 10 percent annual increases in countries such as India and China, and will surpass 50 gigatons by 2050. Over the past decade, China alone has added new annual emissions equivalent to the total annual emissions in the U.S., and it will do so again in the coming years. Even the complete elimination of U.S. emissions would be quickly offset by increases elsewhere.

Furthermore, the threat of climate change is based on a “stock,” not a “flow.” Because carbon remains in the atmosphere for a long time, what matters is not the amount emitted in a given year but the total amount that has built up. Lower U.S. emissions do not ultimately reduce the threat of climate change; they simply postpone some portion of it. If the U.S. completely eliminated its emissions, reducing long-run global emissions by 10 percent, the result would not be a 10 percent reduction in climate change; rather, it would take 10 percent longer to end up with virtually the same amount of carbon in the atmosphere. What would formerly have happened in 50 years would now take 55 instead.

In the face of this reality, activists (including the ironically named “Do the Math” movement) make the same arguments that supporters of unilateral disarmament made in the past. If the U.S. shows leadership, other nations will follow. We have a moral obligation to act. Even if we can’t solve the problem, we have to do what we can. From there it is only a short and illogical stumble to the ad hominem conclusion: Anyone who does not support our approach must be too stupid to understand the problem or too rich/insensitive/reckless to care about it.

Unfortunately, U.S. “leadership” is of little value when other nations have strong incentives to pursue a different course. The developing world has billions of people to lift out of a poverty whose depth we can barely imagine; if ameliorating poverty through economic growth creates a risk of catastrophic climate change, that is a risk they will take. And if we choose to drive up our own energy costs in order to cut our emissions, they will gladly take our manufacturing jobs, too.

As with an American decision to unilaterally disarm, unilateral reductions in U.S. emissions would sacrifice our best bargaining chip in exchange for nothing. A reduced or eliminated U.S. nuclear arsenal might well have triggered greater proliferation around the world and increased the likelihood of conflict with the Soviet Union. Likewise, U.S. emissions cuts achieved by increasing U.S. energy costs will likely drive energy-intensive industrial activity and the associated emissions to less energy-efficient economies.

Still, somehow, this obsession with reducing U.S. carbon emissions is at the heart of the environmental movement and the top of the self-congratulatory liberal agenda. Solemn pronouncements on the issue guarantee fawning media coverage and are the height of fashion on college campuses.

The president has touted a range of ineffectual policies whose impact on U.S. emissions would be so small as almost to defy measurement. His Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the auto industry mandate a doubling of average fuel efficiency by 2025. The resulting total reduction in carbon emissions, according to the government’s own analysis, will be 4.7 gigatons. Not annual; total. The atmospheric carbon concentrations anticipated for January 2040 will be postponed until . . . February 2040.

Other measures will achieve even less. The Utility MACT, an EPA regulation aimed at shutting down old coal-burning power plants, is projected to reduce emissions by 0.015 gigatons per year — less than three one-thousandths of total U.S. emissions. An EPA regulation aimed at preventing the construction of new coal plants is expected to reduce emissions by exactly zero.

And then there are the president’s ongoing efforts to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental activists oppose the pipeline because it would bring oil from Canadian sands to the U.S. market, and this oil would result in slightly higher carbon emissions than oil from other sources. In August 2011, after more than three years of study, the State Department concluded that the project would have no influence on global carbon emissions because Canada will develop the oil sands regardless of whether the pipeline is built. The report also looked specifically at U.S. emissions and concluded that use of oil from the Canadian sands would increase annual carbon emissions in the U.S. by 0.003 to 0.021 gigatons as a result of the higher-carbon Canadian oil’s supplanting oil imported from other nations.

Despite the report’s finding that the pipeline would have virtually no climate impact, thousands of protesters encircled the White House to oppose its construction, and President Obama postponed its approval. A final decision has subsequently been postponed, and postponed again. In late January, the State Department announced that it would miss yet another deadline and would reach a decision in April at the earliest. In February, thousands of protesters gathered again in Washington, D.C. Sometime soon, carbon emissions from the protests may actually exceed those that would result from construction of the pipeline.

In defense of an incrementalist approach to reducing emissions, the administration has attempted to put a value on the prevention of a ton of carbon emissions. Perhaps reductions in U.S. emissions will not solve the global problem, the argument goes, but surely they will have some benefit. However, valuing carbon ton by ton makes as little sense as valuing nuclear stockpiles warhead by warhead because, in each case, the dangers are extremely non-linear. In theory, every reduction in the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons would offer some mitigation of risk. In practice, no one much cares about the damage done by the 400th weapon launched, let alone the 4,000th. So it is with climate change. Every reduction in U.S. emissions does technically mean less carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. But no plausible U.S. action changes the overall trajectory of emissions and warming or the nature of the potential impact. This is doubly true given the stock-not-flow dynamic at work. Activists who in one breath promise the collapse of civilization absent dramatic worldwide emissions reductions insist in the next that minor actions will make an important difference. Both claims cannot be true.

Unfortunately, economists take this approach to carbon emissions very seriously. They argue that the damage from carbon emissions represents a “negative externality” and that efficient policy would therefore put a “price” on it, ideally through a carbon tax or at least a cap-and-trade system. While this makes perfect sense on a chalk-drawn supply-and-demand chart, it breaks down upon contact with the real world. As with unilateral regulatory efforts, reducing emissions by charging a higher price for each gallon of gas or kilowatt-hour of coal-generated electricity here in the United States makes no significant dent in the trajectory of the atmospheric carbon concentration. If emissions are still rising, and the threat remains as large as ever, there is no “efficiency” to be gained by imposing a higher price on them. Individual Americans get taxed, but society sees no benefit.

There is one legitimate rationale for unilateral U.S. action on climate change: innovation. The U.S. cannot force the rest of the world to reduce its carbon emissions, but if it develops breakthrough technologies that are more economically attractive than conventional fossil fuels, the rest of the world will presumably adopt them by choice. Here the disarmament analogy breaks down, and unilateral action has value.

But the debate has too often conflated the objectives of technological innovation with those of emissions reductions, treating them as somehow interchangeable or additive when they are not. CAFE standards offer a helpful illustration. The fuel-economy requirements they establish, while aggressive relative to the current performance of automobiles in the U.S., are not much higher than standards in Europe and Japan today. In other words, the standards are not actually aimed at developing new technology at all; they are aimed at imposing a particular (expensive) lifestyle on American consumers that is already available to those who want it. Other policies commonly characterized as promoting a “clean-energy future” turn out upon careful scrutiny to have similarly tenuous links to promoting innovation. Blocking the Keystone pipeline, for instance, does nothing but redirect U.S. consumption to other sources of oil.

How then should we evaluate the carbon tax as a method for spurring innovation in alternative-energy industries? Once the goal of correcting for a negative externality and reducing consumption is stripped away, the “value” of a reduced ton of emissions no longer offers a guide for setting the price. The tax would presumably have to be massive. After decades of huge subsidies to the wind and solar industries for the purpose of producing economically viable alternatives to fossil fuels, even the industries themselves insist that the subsidies remain necessary. If a subsidy worth half the wholesale price of electricity has not succeeded in making the industry competitive, how high would a tax have to be to create a sufficient market distortion?

Any such tax would be extraordinarily regressive, with higher energy prices disproportionately affecting lower-income families and blue-collar professions. It would send a signal to heavy industry to locate elsewhere. And as politicians attempted to remedy these flaws through increasingly complicated regulatory and redistributive schemes, the supposedly “efficient” and “market-based” approach would quickly become a big-government labyrinth of new agencies, rules, and handouts. If a tax on carbon is truly the best way to promote innovation, its proponents have a long way to go in making the case.

President Obama has not even attempted to make it, and has instead ignored the goal of technological innovation in favor of a purely economic claim that his climate-change policies will produce the “green jobs” of the future. In congressional testimony supporting the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation, for instance, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged that “U.S. action alone will not impact world CO2 levels” but then asserted that the proposal was “a jobs bill.” Perhaps a massive, economy-wide regulatory scheme designed to drive up energy prices is the right way to create jobs, perhaps not; an intriguing debate, to be sure. Regardless, claims about tackling climate change had mysteriously vanished from the conversation.

Chastising the president for this bait-and-switch, the editors of MIT Technology Review rejected his administration’s line of reasoning and asserted that “we must [adopt non-fossil fuels] to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and begin stabilizing our climate. It’s time to acknowledge that green jobs were always just political cover for that motive.” Except that reducing U.S. emissions will not even begin to stabilize the climate. And around and around the policy rationales go.

Unilateral nuclear disarmament never gained traction. Even radical student groups hesitated to call for much beyond preliminary steps. Britain’s Labour party did incorporate unilateral disarmament (for Britain) into its platform during the 1980s, but abandoned it after the party’s leadership concluded that the position was blocking its path to power. In U.S. politics, unilateral disarmament was so clearly out of the mainstream that George McGovern took pains to explicitly disavow the position in announcing his run for the presidency in 1984. During their 1980 debate, Ronald Reagan criticized President Carter for making unilateral concessions in negotiations with the Soviets. Carter’s response, citing his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, and addressing the issue in moralizing terms that ignored the actual policy options, is considered one of the worst answers in the history of presidential debates. Americans had no difficulty understanding both that nuclear weapons were a grave threat and that unilateral U.S. efforts to eliminate that threat would be fruitless.

Yet equally flimsy arguments for emissions reductions have become mainstream because they stand unopposed. Conservatives have allowed the debate to be framed as a binary choice between “climate activism” and “climate skepticism,” and they have associated themselves with the latter — a position that becomes less and less tenable as more and more scientific evidence accumulates. This has been a serious mistake.

In fact, the climate debate encompasses a broad range of questions. On some of these the science has produced a consensus deserving of respect, on some the science continues to evolve, and on some the science has little to offer. Starting at the start: Is the atmospheric carbon concentration increasing? Everyone seems to agree that it is. Is there a “greenhouse effect” through which increased carbon concentrations lead to a warmer climate? Here, too, there is an overwhelming consensus that the answer is yes. That is the view of, among others, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences.

While there is always the possibility that a scientific consensus will turn out to be wrong, on no issue besides climate change do conservatives allow a lack of absolute certainty to stand in the way of making the best decisions possible in response to the risks as they are currently understood. Unless the scientific community is perpetrating an unprecedented hoax, the existence of such a widespread consensus indicates at least a significant likelihood of a real danger, which presents policymakers with an actual risk deserving of serious consideration.

Accepting the science does not, however, require one to accept the liberal policy prescriptions. Science is only an input to any policy discussion, and nowhere is this truer than in the case of climate change, where the scientific consensus resolves remarkably little. More carbon in the atmosphere leads to warming, but how much warming? Scientists speak in terms of “climate sensitivity” — how sensitive is the climate to some increase in carbon dioxide? Here there is very little agreement. For instance, the models run by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its landmark 2007 report produced ranges of predicted future warming whose high estimates were nearly three times their low estimates. The best case showed warming by 2100 of anywhere from 1.1°C to 2.9°C. The worst case showed a range from 2.4°C to 6.4°C. More recent research suggests that climate sensitivity is likely toward the lower end of previously estimated ranges.

A further question is, For a given level of warming, what damage will result? How much will the sea level rise? How much will weather patterns shift? If storms become both stronger and less frequent, what will the net impact be? Again, the projections vary widely.

Only after the full range of scientific predictions is taken into account does the policy discussion even begin. The world in 2100 will have a level of wealth and technology that we can predict no better than the drivers of the first Model Ts could predict the world of today. How capable of adaptation will such a world be, and how much should we spend today to reduce damage then? Finally, for each specific proposal, what are the actual costs and anticipated benefits?

These are the questions on which conservatives should focus. And it is on this playing field, not in a fight over the basis of the science, that they will prevail. Of course, where dangers are exaggerated or distorted in pursuit of a political agenda those excesses must be confronted. But ultimately, the Left’s policy ideas for unilaterally reducing U.S. carbon emissions are not bad ones because there is no potential threat; they are bad ones because they are unresponsive to the potential threat. By accepting the credibility and good faith of the underlying science, conservatives can ask of every policy proponent: Have you run your idea through the climate models, and are any risks averted or materially reduced? The answer to the latter question in every case will be no.

Reagan did not question whether Soviet nuclear weapons were capable of causing explosions. To the contrary, he declared in his second inaugural address that “we seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” And then he eviscerated those who wished to leap from that goal to absurd and self-defeating policy responses.

The difficulty of precisely quantifying the climate-change threat does not offer an excuse for doing nothing. Indeed, the risks of climate change look in many ways like those of nuclear proliferation: a likelihood of significant damage somewhere in the world with fallout that might make some regions unlivable, a fear of potential devastation to an American city, and even some possibility of civilizational disaster. Regardless of how probable any of these scenarios is, the elimination of each risk should at least in principle be a goal.

But in each case we should dispassionately consider what can and cannot be achieved, add up the potential costs and benefits, and chart a pragmatic course forward. This means unreservedly acknowledging the threat and the challenge, while aggressively rejecting self-righteous preening and opposing the pretextual pursuit of ineffectual policies that oh-so-conveniently align with liberal priorities. It also means offering a substantive agenda focused on supporting research and innovation, the only tools with the potential to solve the problem.

Funding for basic and applied research in energy technologies should be the top priority. Government has shown that it can effectively address a real market failure at the pre-commercial stage. Some mechanism for subsidization should be up for discussion. There is value in supporting promising alternatives to fossil fuels at the cusp of commercialization. An ideal subsidy would be technology-neutral (i.e., available to any approach that met broadly defined criteria), tied to production rather than investment, and time-limited. Climate research should also be generously funded, not mocked, so that the many uncertainties become less uncertain over time. Adaptation measures should be developed and tested. And we should investigate various geoengineering strategies instead of reflexively shunning them.

Nuclear power should be part of every conversation. The technology that environmentalists have for decades opposed more aggressively than any other is, ironically, the only one that has displayed any potential to produce carbon-free energy at the price and scale we need. A permanent waste repository should be established. Immediate reforms to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should aim to accelerate the nuclear-permitting process and encourage new approaches to plant design. Broader regulatory reform should aim to ensure that technologies of all kinds can reach the market as smoothly as possible.

Finally, we should take a new approach to international engagement. Global climate conferences that emphasize posturing over action have earned the scorn they receive. Hard-headed, bilateral discussion between the U.S. and China, by contrast, would at least establish clear markers for where the sides stand and why. It might even identify areas for mutually beneficial cooperation, starting with technology, as U.S.-Soviet negotiations on arms control did once upon a time. Instead of today’s strategy of giving away every bargaining chip we can think of, we should exploit every leverage point we might have.

This agenda offers no guarantee of success. But the question is whether it has greater potential to spur breakthrough innovation and eventually achieve global emissions reductions than the Left’s potpourri of taxes, regulations, subsidies, handouts, conferences, and protests. It is a question conservatives should welcome.

Oren Cass was the domestic-policy director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. This was originally published in the National Review in March 2013 and is republished here with permission from the author.

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