Getting Climate Priorities Right

Published October 14, 2016

Professor Bjorn Lomborg discusses in a recent Washington Post editorial what the next president should know and do about climate change. Some of what he says I agree with, on other points we diverge. I agree with Lomborg that climate change is occurring, that it has the potential to cause some problems, and that we are not properly addressing it. Lomborg and I agree investing in wind and solar will do little or nothing to prevent climate change – an impossible goal in my opinion – or, more importantly, to prevent any harms future climate change might impose. The $90 billion the world is spending on wind and solar subsidies each year is a waste of scarce resources better invested elsewhere.

Unlike Lomborg, my research has led me to believe climate change now, as always, is not something to be “fixed” as much as adapted to in order to take best advantage of the benefits flowing from any changes while minimizing any resulting harms. I applaud Bill Gates and other private actors’ investments in finding the next great energy breakthrough, as I think the profit motive is most likely to secure reliable, affordable energy over the long term. But I hardly think the world needs an “energy miracle.” While Lomborg thinks governments should invest more than $100 billion a year in research and development of green energy technologies, I don’t think world leaders have the individual or collective wisdom to know what types of investments, whether in energy or elsewhere, would benefit the world most.

As Hayek, von Mises, and other Austrian economist have persuasively argued for years – following Adam Smith before them – what benefits society as a whole is best determined not by conscious decisions made by a few self-appointed elite, but through a process of discovery and exchange in both the marketplace of ideas and science and in the literal commercial marketplace. If we truly need an energy miracle, it is more likely to be discovered as prices for energy rise and people and businesses seek out substitutes or alternatives in response, than by governments determining the world needs a new energy system in response to a hypothetical, very unlikely crisis.

Where I agree with Lomborg most strongly is his recognition there are much more important issues for governments and people to address than climate change. There are problems causing premature, avoidable death, disease, and poverty today, as opposed to the possible harms that might result from climate change 50 or 100 years from now. The world’s leaders should focus on the most immediate, direct, persistent, large-scale threats to human health, life, and well-being. These threats include energy poverty, lack of access to adequate supplies of nutritious food and safe drinking water, limited or no access to basic, modern health care, and government actions that restrict free choice and economic opportunities, limiting economic growth and market-discovered breakthroughs in each of these areas and others. Reducing any or all of these problems would do far more to advance human well-being than government-directed programs aimed at controlling the weather.

On this point Lomborg’s piece is powerful:

We often hear [climate change] is the defining issue of our time, but it is no such thing.

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change since the 1970s causes about 140,000 additional deaths each year, and toward the middle of the century will kill 250,000 people annually, mostly in poor countries. This pales in comparison with much deadlier environmental problems such as indoor air pollution, claiming 4.3 million lives annually, outdoor air pollution killing 3.7 million and lack of water and sanitation killing 760,000. Outside of environment, the problems are even bigger: Poverty arguably kills 18 million each year.

Every dollar spent on climate change could instead help save many more people from these more tractable problems.

The next president must focus on the smartest solutions for all the world’s many ills, not just those that get the most attention.

— H. Sterling Burnett

SOURCE: Washington Post


Paris climate agreement: No impact on climateTribe: Clean Power Plan is unconstitutionalGermany pushes non-electric car ban for climatePM: Wind threatens Australia’s energy security


With India and China ratifying the Paris climate agreement, and the Obama administration signing the agreement (though refusing to send it to the Senate for ratification), the United Nations appears poised to claim the agreement will come into force four days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For all the headlines and public praise heaped upon those signing the agreement, it accomplishes little if anything for the climate, as science writer Jo Nova notes. India is doubling its coal use by 2020 and tripling its emissions by 2030. It was easy for China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter, and India, the third largest emitter, to ratify the agreement since neither is actually required to cut its emissions. Rather, India has simply promised to “try to ‘cut emissions intensity,'” while China says it expects greenhouse gas emissions to peak in or about 2030 – no promises, just an expectation. Nova describes China’s and India’s calculations thusly:

How can we hobble competitors, get their factories, and help sell more goods?; how can we collect more of pointless guilt payments (carbon credits etc)?; as a bonus we like to get thanked and look like heroes. The Paris agreement is a Grand Theater designed to convince western taxpayers to cough up more money. China and India are part of the show, putting on their best environmental faces while they do nothing green, or even less.



Laurence Tribe, a prominent professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School who supports action to fight climate change, nevertheless contends President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is unconstitutional, arguing before the federal court of appeals that has stayed the plan, “burning the Constitution must not become part of our national energy policy.”

Tribe concludes CPP is unconstitutional for a number of reasons. He says CPP raises Fifth Amendment property and due process issues, noting EPA’s CPP mandates for coal-fired power plants are an illegal form of bait-and-switch unless compensation is paid.

Tribe notes EPA required coal-fired power plants to install very costly “maximum control technology” under the Clean Air Act’s Section 112, yet now the agency is requiring states to take actions forcing those very same power sources to shut down or significantly curtail their operations, essentially stranding the billions of dollars EPA required them to invest. Citing Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto (1984) Tribe writes, “When EPA initially promised confidential treatment to pesticide makers who submitted proprietary data in their registration applications and then reversed course and publicly disclosed the data, the Supreme Court had no trouble concluding that the manufacturers could sue for a compensable taking.”

Tribe notes carbon dioxide is not like other conventional “pollutants that are harmful in themselves and that government has every right to regulate even to the point of driving some emitters of such pollutants out of business, atmospheric carbon dioxide is not such a pollutant.” Carbon dioxide is not toxic or dangerous in and of itself and we all emit it. CPP targets a narrow set of carbon dioxide emitters, imposing costs on them that rightfully ought to be borne equitably by everyone after requiring those same companies to invest massive amounts of money in reducing their traditional pollutants.

According to Tribe, the principles underlying the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process and Takings Clauses support a duty to compensate the industry or companies singled out by the rule. Since compensation would have to come from taxpayers, only Congress, which alone possesses the power of the purse, may authorize such a course of action. As a result, Tribe argues, “Absent clear congressional authorization, such action violates the Constitution because it would indirectly trigger either ‘taxation without representation’ or confiscation without compensation.”

SOURCE: Harvard Law


Germany, the country where the modern internal combustion engine was born and the country with the fourth largest auto industry in the world, may soon ban non-electric vehicles as part of its effort to meet its Paris climate agreement commitments.

The Bundesrat, the legislative body representing Germany’s 16 federal states at the national level, passed a resolution on October 8 to ban the sale of non-electric vehicles beginning in 2030. More steps remain before the resolution becomes law. Germany is pushing for a similar law to be considered for the entire European Union (EU), and it has some support: The Dutch and Norwegian governments are considering banning non-electric car sales by 2025, and other EU members are considering imposing significant taxes on fossil fuel-powered car sales to encourage a switch to electric vehicles. The October 8 resolution also says Germany may raise taxes on traditional vehicles in order to encourage manufacturers to transition to electric cars and trucks early.

Even if the ban becomes law in Germany and across the EU, because many cars with internal combustion engines will be sold right up to the deadline, it could be another 20 years before those cars are off the road.

SOURCES: I-Tech and Gizmodo


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Labor Party-run state governments, in an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and thus fight climate change, have put too much emphasis on wind-generated electricity, putting Australia’s energy security at risk. The Liberal Party-led National government called a meeting of state energy ministers in early October after fierce storms in the last week of September knocked down transmission towers in South Australia, causing blackouts in a state that gets 41 percent of its power from renewables. Concerning the blackouts, Turnbull told a radio show, “This has been very much a Labor obsession, to set these heroic renewable energy targets. They assume that they can change the composition of the energy mix and that energy security will always be there and the lights will stay on, and that has been brought into question.”

Former Labor Party Resources Minister Martin Ferguson shared Turnbull’s concern, telling Bloomberg squabbling over energy policies was hurting consumers. “We need to stop political grandstanding that ‘my renewable target is bigger than yours and I don’t give a damn about consumers.'”

SOURCE: Bloomberg

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