Climate Change Laws Hurt The Poor And Benefit No One: Why Are Political Elites Pushing So Hard?
I was eighteen years old in 1966 when my plane circled the tiny airport in Ontario, California. I was traveling from the Bay Area to Claremont to begin my freshman year in college. Looking down from my window seat, the overcast cloud cover prevented me from seeing the freeways and buildings on the ground. When we landed, however, I looked up and saw a hazy blue sky. Then I realized that I was looking up through the cloud cover that I had observed from above. To my horror, what I had seen below me from the sky was not cloud cover at all; it was thick, brown smog, and I was breathing it.
That was the day I became an environmentalist. Although I have a libertarian’s skepticism of government, many times I have supported government programs to clean up the air, water, forests and beaches. In this way, I am like other Californians. Because all of us love and defend the natural resources of our state, the brand “environmentalist” is almost as popular as Santa Claus.
George Orwell warned, however, “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” California’s climate change laws have nothing to do with removing smog or keeping California’s beaches clean. They hurt the poor and benefit no one. Yet a political elite has managed to impose its will on the California economy without having to explain why it has chosen to hurt the poor for no benefit to the public largely because they use the label “environmentalist”. It is time to hold them accountable.
Orwell’s warning also applies to the substance of the climate change conversation. The climate change elites do not discuss climate change issues in the manner of scientists; they collapse multiple distinct issues into demonizing rhetoric: “The science is settled,” they say in response to every argument that is made; this means that the opponent is a “science denier”. Seldom is this rhetoric even arguably responsive. While science is one of the principal subjects of the discussion about predicting earth’s climate future through scientific computer modeling, it is no more than political rhetoric to argue that one scientist is so completely wrong in his opinion, and the other so clearly correct, that the first is “denying” the very principles of science. And this is not even the main point of this essay…
Opponents who have other reasons for their opposition to climate change laws usually do not challenge the science. Assuming the climate change outcomes have been predicted accurately by proponents, for example, opponents nevertheless contend that enforcement of climate change laws will not eliminate or delay the predicted harmful effects of climate change because reductions in GHG emissions required by California (or EPA) are more than offset by increased emissions from new power generation plants in China and India. Opponents who make this point do not deny the science; they embrace it. The climate change elites do not respond to this point as a distinct argument for which they are accountable; at most, they pretend that the issue does not exist, a slick move worthy of Orwell’s admonition about “political speech”.
California has the most aggressive climate change laws of any state in the nation and is the only state imposing a cap and trade protocol on emitters. It requires that GHG emissions be reduced to 1990 levels no later than 2020. This year, new laws have been proposed to tighten that standard, requiring that 2020 emissions be reduced to 80% below 1990 levels. Other restrictions include specific requirements that specified minimum levels of wind and solar power be included in the mix of power sources. All of this makes power in California the most expensive in the nation.
According to the Manhattan Institute, “California’s renewable energy mandates and climate change policies . . . are having a disproportionate economic impact on the poor.” The report found that “in 2012, about 1 million California households were living in energy poverty, a term that applies to households that spend 10 percent, or more, of their income on household energy costs.” There is a considerable disparity between wealthy areas, such as Mill Valley in Marin County, whose monthly energy costs were only $200 per home because of mild weather conditions, and middle-income areas, such as the town of Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley, where harsher average weather leads to average monthly energy costs of about $500 per home.
Why don’t California’s disadvantaged communities recognize that
extremists in Sacramento are devastating their household budgets?
The climate change elite is leaving the poor and middle class behind in other ways too. The Manhattan Institute study found that because of the high cost of compliance (estimated $115 billion to meet renewable requirements alone), California’s climate change laws are forcing businesses out of the state, resulting in job losses. There are also collateral effects from the general hostility of climate change elites to any business involved with fossil fuels. Take fracking, for example. Two years ago, Californians were excited about the potential for thousands of jobs when we learned that California’s shale formations are even richer than those in boom states like North Dakota. A USC study predicted that fossil fuels from shale would provide “up to 2.8 million jobs, increasing the state’s total economic output by up to 14.3 percent . . . boosting personal income by up to 10 percent.” Due to actions in Sacramento, nothing has happened. Why not? A public official who wants to help the poor and middle class close the economic gap has enough information to allow fracking to proceed, but for now, the political elites prefer to keep fossil fuels right where they are, embedded deep in California’s shale.
Most troubling is that the goals of climate change laws are not achieved even when they are strictly enforced. For example, the EPA is pressuring American utilities to stop using coal because it generates more GHGs than other fuel sources. India and China, however, both build coal-fired power plants faster than the United States can remove its own. Eric Roston, writing for Bloomberg Business, observes “’The U.S. is dropping coal plants at an unprecedented rate, but still nowhere as quickly as India is adding them,” and “By 2020 India may have built about 2.5 times as much capacity as the U.S. is about to lose.”
China, “the world’s biggest coal addict by far,” has a plan to build hundreds of coal plants, which negates the efficacy of emissions limits imposed by political elites in this country. Eric Lawson of Princeton University, known for his strong stance in favor of the science of climate change, is quoted by Stephen Moore in Investors Business Daily: “From 2010 through 2013, (China) added half the coal generation of the entire U.S. At the peak, from 2005 through 2011, China added roughly two 600-megawatt coal plants a week for seven straight years. And according to U.S. government projections, China will add yet another U.S. worth of coal plants over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years.”
California’s climate change laws are particularly vulnerable to the criticism that they will not change the predicted outcome of man-made warming because, according to the Manhattan Institute study, all of California’s emissions are only 1% of GHG emissions worldwide and 6% of total U.S. emissions. There are no climate models that support the idea that reduction of some or all of those amounts will affect global climate change given increases of emissions in China and India.
Instead of responding directly to these criticisms, some have argued that China and India will change; if the U.S. sticks with its stringent emission reduction policies, they contend, our example will encourage them to reverse the increases in emissions that represent their recent history and turn those into reductions in emissions. This is pure Utopian fantasy.
About 900 coal plants are currently planned in China and India. Where is the evidence that India or China have made any plans to change these to lower-emission energy plants? What plans have been made to tear down the existing coal plants and replace them? Absent concrete plans, the follow-my-lead theory is far-fetched.
There is no precedent to suggest that follow-my-lead will succeed. There is, however, precedent suggesting it will not succeed. In California, proponents of AB32 sold the most aggressive state law on climate change in America partly on the follow-my-lead theory. They told Californians that when AB32 was enacted, other states would follow California’s example by adopting statutes similar to AB32. This effort failed; not one state has adopted a climate change law like California’s. Since it should have been easier to convince another state, like Oregon, to join California on climate change law than to convince a sovereign nation like China, California’s experience disproves the follow-my-lead theory.
Proponents of climate change laws point to the “Joint Announcement” on climate change dated November 12, 2014 signed during President Obama’s visit to China as supposed proof that China is willing to reconsider its policy of increasing emissions. The Joint Agreement, however, confirms that China will continue to increase its emissions through at least 2030. Much false information has been implied about this nonbinding statement. But it is available on line, and its meaning is pretty clear. China does not commit anywhere in the document to reduce its emissions; it only states, without agreeing, that it might reach a peak in its increases by 2030. By signing the Joint Agreement, President Obama effectively acknowledges that current conditions will not change before 2030 at the earliest. This means that the heavy burdens created by California’s emissions limits cannot achieve the intended benefits until sometime after that date.
These critical problems with climate change laws have been known for a long time. Yet climate change elites do not respond to them, making it clear that they have no response that makes sense. This does not mean that nothing should be done about climate change. But it does mean we need to change the laws that are hurting the poor and middle class, examine what is possible in the area of adaptation, and hold the political elites accountable. The future of California depends on it.
Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.
(1) “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell, 1946
(2) “Renewable Energy Mandates Same As A Tax On The Poor,” by Robert Bryce, Manhattan Institute, 7/26/2015
(3) “Fixing California: Will Fracking Bonanza Be Allowed?,” Chris Reed, CPC Prosperity Forum, 9/30/2013
(4) “The Monterey Shale & California’s Economic Future,” USC Price School of Public Policy, March 2013
(5) “World Falls In Love With Coal That Obama Is Waging War On,” Stephen Moore Investor’s Business Daily, 8/7/2015
(6) “The Grim Promise of India’s Coal-Powered Future,” Eric Roston, Bloomberg Business, 5/21/2015
(7) “World Falls In Love With Coal That Obama Is Waging War On,” Stephen Moore Investor’s Business Daily, 8/7/2015
(8) U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, 11/12/2014