Climate Change: Another Option
Real Clear Markets
December 10, 2009
by Diana Furchtgott-Roth
As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss reducing greenhouse gas emissions, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has positioned herself, with President Obama's approval, to make an end run around Congress and impose regulatory limits on greenhouse gases, including the best known: carbon dioxide.
On Monday Ms. Jackson published a regulatory finding that greenhouse gases pose a danger to Americans' health and need to be controlled. She said that the finding was a required precondition to the agency's imposing caps on emissions of carbon dioxide and five other gases: methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
The announcement by Ms. Jackson was laden with symbolic significance. It was Mr. Obama's signal to world leaders, whom he will join in Copenhagen later this month, that Washington is determined to take actions to reduce America's greenhouse emissions.
It was also a prod to Congress to pass legislation that would curtail those emissions. The administration -- and some Democrats in Congress -- would prefer a legislative approach because it would enable them to shape the law, and it might be less susceptible to challenge in the courts.
The House has passed its climate change bill, but in the Senate a measure sponsored by two Democratic committee heads, Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, has stalled.
This posturing diverts the public's attention from a larger truth: The Democrats' approach of slapping limits on emissions by power plants, factories, refineries, and motor vehicles, is fundamentally flawed, whether by statute or regulation.
The approach would raise energy prices and costs of production, suppress wage and employment growth, and drive up prices of houses, home heating and cooling, cars, and other manufactured goods by raising production costs. It is a recipe for economic drag.
The bill would require greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 to be no more than 17% of 2005 emissions. The target for the year 2050, four decades into the future, cannot be achieved with today's technology -- and illustrates the hubris of those who think they can fine-tune the American economy far beyond anyone's capacity to foresee events.
Whether from recognizing hubris or from sheer exhaustion, the Senate has failed to pass its bill. Republicans boycotted the committee vote to send it to the floor. No wonder. With unemployment at 10% and over 15 million Americans out of work, there is little public support for legislation to harm the economy.
Furthermore, with the revelation that scientists at the University of East Anglia in Britain destroyed original temperature data rather than turn it over to other scientists for examination, the science of global warming has acquired a tarnished reputation.
Enter Ms. Jackson. As EPA administrator, she claims the power to regulate greenhouse gases under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. In 2007 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that greenhouse gases were pollutants, thus giving EPA the power to regulate them if the administrator found them harmful to human health. And so she did.
The EPA administrator may have the power to regulate, but she does not have to pay the resulting economic costs, nor even weigh costs against possible benefits. Costs could reach trillions of dollars, to be paid by ordinary Americans through more expensive products and lost jobs.
To many environmental activists at Copenhagen, regulation of greenhouse gases is worth any cost. The usual approach is to set tight limits on carbon emissions, but taking that approach in isolation, as the pending congressional bills and Copenhagen summit would do, would do substantial damage to the U.S. and global economies, especially since substitutes for fossil fuels will be expensive and limited for a number of years.
Let's suppose we all want to cool the earth. Some scientists, including Dutch Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, advise that altering features of the earth's environment, such as seeding clouds, would be far more effective against global warming, faster, and less costly. This is called "geoengineering."
Geoengineering techniques include injecting fine sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to slow down the warming process from the sun, and spraying clouds with salt water to make them reflect more solar radiation away from earth. Similar cooling effects -- as well as some adverse consequences -- have been observed after volcanic eruptions.
Successful geoengineering would permit earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still slow or reverse global warming, but at a vastly lower cost. Just as critically, it would also buy time until more information is known about the process of global warming. No responsible response to global warming should fail to consider geoengineering, and a 40-year plan needs decades to ramp up. Just ask Moses.
Further, if India and China don't also sign up to cut their carbon emissions -- and they haven't committed yet to approving reductions at Copenhagen -- cuts in American carbon emissions alone would not solve the problems of climate change. American emissions would likely be replaced by emissions from newly-industrialized countries.
Geoengineering needs to be considered both in Congress and in Copenhagen. Even if other countries did nothing, successful geoengineering could have global benefits at relatively low cost while postponing the burden of enforcing compliance with emissions limits until alternative technologies are discovered.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute from 2005 to 2011.
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