For people who use the word "science" as a bludgeon and trumpet their strict commitment to fact and reason, the Obama administration and its supporters are strangely incapable of rational analysis of new climate-change regulations.
President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency released draft rules last week to create a vast new regulatory apparatus with no input from Congress — in other words, to govern in its accustomed high-handed, undemocratic manner. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, in particular coal-fired plants, to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The rhetoric around the rules has involved self-congratulation about how they are the inexorable result of taking climate science and the reality of dangerous global warming seriously. "Science is science," President Obama said in an open-and-shut tautology about global warming during an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. By the same token, math is math, and the new regulations make no sense.
While the regulations are stringent enough to impose real economic costs — especially in states that produce coal or heavily use coal power, or whose economies have grown relatively robustly since 2005 — they have almost no upside in fighting global warming. That’s because the U.S. is only part of the global carbon-emissions picture, and a diminishing one at that.
We account for roughly a sixth of global emissions, and our emissions have fallen the past few years more than those of any other major country. In fact, we’ve already achieved about half of the administration’s 30 percent goal, in part through the boom in natural gas, which produces half the carbon emissions of coal.
The regulations aim to cut carbon emissions by 700 million tons by 2030. That sounds like a formidable number only if it is abstracted from the context of the rest of the world. As Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute notes, carbon emissions increased worldwide by about 700 million tons in 2011 alone. China increased its emissions by 3 billion tons from 2006 to 2012.
In D-Day terms, the regulations are like trying to roll back the Nazis by sending two landing craft to Normandy and doing some TV interviews. Even accepting the assumptions of the so-called global-warming consensus, the regulations will have an imperceptible effect on global temperature by 2100.
The regulatory fight against global warming runs up against this reality: Anything we do on our own short of returning to a subsistence economy is largely meaningless, while we can’t force other countries to kneecap their economies based on a fashionable cause with no immediate bearing on the well-being of their often desperately impoverished citizens.
In an attempt to square this circle, supporters of the new EPA rules say they are an exercise of American leadership that will encourage other countries to crimp their economies, especially the world’s biggest emitter, China.
How has the power of example worked so far? We are a liberal democracy. We allow a robustly free press. We don’t imprison dissenters. We don’t steal the industrial secrets of other countries and give them to companies owned by government insiders. In all these things, we provide a model for Beijing, and have done so for a long time. Yet the Chinese Politburo stubbornly pursues what it believes is in its best interest.
Why will China be shamed by our pointlessly self-flagellating new policy on power plants into adopting economically harmful regulations of its own based on speculative models showing a far-off threat of higher temperatures?
The best policy for the U.S. is not command-and-control regulation, as economics writer Jim Manzi points out, but maintaining an environment favorable to technological innovation. No one would have predicted the fracking revolution of the past few years that has both displaced coal and benefited the broader economy. But the self-declared adherents of "science" prefer the satisfaction of pointlessly self-defeating gestures.
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