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Does Climate Science Dictate Energy Policy?
Desert wildflowers bloom on March 12, 2005 in Death Valley National Park, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Does Climate Science Dictate Energy Policy?

In recent remarks, while avoiding disputes about climate science, House Speaker John Boehner has denounced the high costs of President Barack Obama’s climate and energy policies. Obama has responded by insisting that his own energy policies are based purely on science. He maintains, as well, that concerns that environmental controls will curtail economic growth reflect only the false claims of special interests.

Despite the president’s words, his deeds show that when the findings of science clash with his own political goals, he is quite willing to flout science. Nor is it true that his environmental policies will be costless. Indeed, the president often chooses high cost means of pursuing his goals when lower cost options are available.

Obama’s policies are at odds with the basic scientific fact that greenhouse gases have the same effect on climate whatever their origin. U.S. emissions are down slightly, but that does not matter much in light of the brisk growth in global emissions caused by rising fossil fuel use in China and other developing countries.

Yet the president asserts that the United States must lead on climate. And on this issue, it seems, he does not mean that it should lead from behind. Despite his aspirations, the countries where emissions are growing fastest, mindful of their need for fossil fuels to support their economic growth, have already shown that they have no intention of following Obama down the path to greenhouse gas abatement. Thus, Obama may imagine that he has the power of the Pied Piper but all of the countries that count are simply ignoring his tune.

This is just the pattern that led to the president’s diplomatic humiliation by China at the 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen. In clinging to these same already dashed hopes, the president seems unable to learn from his own bitter experience.

Nor is global greenhouse gas control the only place where his policies ignore the facts of climate science. Consider the case of the Keystone XL pipeline. The project would deliver petroleum from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. To go forward, it needs a sign-off from the State Department.

The department has now conducted two exhaustive studies of the proposed pipeline’s environmental impacts. Both studies concluded that the decision to build the pipeline would determine where the oil would be refined, but, the oil itself would be produced, refined, and consumed somewhere, with Keystone XL or without it. The studies also found that compared to the alternatives, the pipeline would lower energy costs and safety risks. However, Obama’s environmentalist allies have made Keystone XL into a symbol, and he clearly fears their wrath – even though the pipeline enjoys exactly the sort of expert scientific support on which he claims to base his policy. The president, rather than heeding the science, has simply refused to decide.

Finally, there is Obama’s frequent boasts about rising output from renewable energy. He has lavished large subsidies on renewable power. Much of this money is being spent, not on R&D, but on deploying current wind and solar power technologies. But wind and solar generate power only when the wind blows or the sun shines; meanwhile, the fall of natural gas prices has greatly lowered the costs of gas-fired power plants.

Hence, a new study by Brookings Institution scholar Charles Frank concludes that “wind and solar power are very costly from a social perspective.” Compared to natural gas, wind and solar produce less power per dollar of invested capital, and the power that they do produce is less valuable because it is often not on line when it is needed most.

Indeed, the Frank study finds that as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas-fired power plants are far more cost-effective than wind and solar. It is not science that impels Obama to subsidize wind and solar when less costly alternatives are available. It is ideology. And the implied economic waste does not jibe with claims that climate policies will be good for economic growth.

Republicans have long struggled with Obama’s policies on climate change. In doing so, they have sometimes felt compelled to disparage mainstream climate science. That approach allows Democrats to paint them as anti-science.

It might be more politically fruitful for Republicans to point out that the president is wrong when he asserts that mainstream climate science dictates support for his policies. It would certainly be more conducive to an intelligent national debate on energy policy.

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