Omnipotence at Home, Impotence Abroad

Published September 27, 2013

This essay is based on remarks delivered on September 27 at CPAC-St. Louis.

The Heartland Institute addresses a wide range of topics, everything from school reform and health care to legal reform and telecommunications. So we’ve watched the parade of scandals involving the Obama administration from seats on the front row: Benghazi, Fast and Furious, IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, Obamacare, and more.

The scandal I want to focus on here is global warming, or what progressives now call “climate change.” It’s a perfect example of “omnipotence at home, impotence abroad.”

Aaron Wildavsky called the theory of man-made dangerous global warming “the mother of all environmental scares.” If true, human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing floods and droughts, rising sea level, species extinction, hurricanes and other extreme weather, and even obesity, broken marriages, and homosexual fish.

If true, to stop global warming we would need to cut our carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent, and not only our own emissions but the entire world’s emissions. India, China, and other fast-growing developing countries would have to stop growing their economies, stop lifting their citizens out of poverty. How likely is that to happen?

Omnipotence at Home

Energy, in the words of Julian Simon, is “the master resource,” used to create or use virtually all other goods and services. Restrict its availability and you restrict the supply of other goods; increase its cost, and you raise the prices of other goods and services.

Jobs depend on reliable and affordable energy. Raise the price of energy and watch the number of jobs decline. Some of them go to countries where energy costs less, but many just never get created as the economy slows and people make do with less.

Reducing total greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by 80 percent would require drastically restricting or even banning single-family homes, retail businesses, coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, and most factories. You can forget about owning your own car or truck. The taxes, permits, fees, and enforcement measures necessary to accomplish this feat would be unprecedented in the U.S.

The only governments that have ever possessed the authority required to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent have been totalitarian regimes. In recent history, only the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes could do what progressives want the U.S. government to do. Progressives know but won’t say that giving government the power to “stop” global warming would make it omnipotent at home and lead to the destruction of personal freedom, property rights, and prosperity.

Impotence Abroad

The global warming scare also illustrates the Obama administration’s impotence abroad.

Even if the U.S. reduced its emissions by 80 percent, rising emissions by other countries would cause the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to continue to rise. We could shut down every factory, hospital, store, and power plant in the U.S. and ban the use of cars and trucks and the environmental apocalypse environmentalists tell us is about to occur would still occur, only a few (very few) years later.

The U.S. never signed the international climate treaty called the Kyoto Protocol, which expired at the end of 2012, for good reason. The treaty was “all pain and no gain” for the U.S. The emission reduction targets were chosen carefully to make them more difficult for the U.S. to attain and the mechanisms that would have been necessary to achieve them were designed primarily to hobble U.S. manufacturers and transfer billions or even trillions of dollars of wealth from U.S. consumers to third-world dictators.

European countries, under the sway of their Green and socialist political parties, signed the Kyoto Protocol and spent the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars on schemes to subsidize solar and wind power at home and to pay for credits supposedly earned by energy efficiency and carbon sequestration projects in developing countries. Much of that investment was pure waste, lost to skillful rent-seekers and subsidy farmers or to outright fraud.

The United Nations, itself a corrupt and dysfunctional organization, cannot possibly oversee a successful program to reduce global greenhouse emissions. The U.S. has little leverage over the U.N. to make it less corrupt or more efficient, and no leverage at all over countries like China and India to make them lower their emissions by keeping their populations poor and hungry.

“Impotence” is the perfect word to describe the U.S. position in the global debate over how to respond to climate change.

No Scientific Basis

I began by describing what the theory of man-made dangerous global warming would mean if it were true. Thankfully, it is not.

The Heartland Institute started looking under the hood at the environmental movement’s scare campaigns some 20 years ago. The pattern was easy to discern: Pick some byproduct of modern living, “discover” it is an invisible poison that threatens public health or wildlife, hype the risk in order to scare the bejeezus out of the public, raise millions or even billions of dollars by flooding people’s mailboxes with scaremail, and get laws passed that advance the left’s statist and anti-technology agenda. Then pick another target and start over again.

That pattern is just what we found when we studied the global warming scare. Carbon dioxide, the villain in the environmentalists’ global warming tale, is an invisible, odorless, and harmless gas. The vast majority of it in the atmosphere comes from natural, not human, sources. Its role in influencing the global climate is so small that three decades of research costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars has not found real evidence of a measurable effect on global temperatures or weather.

We now know why progressives picked carbon dioxide as the latest invisible threat, how they used pseudo-science to make it seem as though real science supported their campaign, and how the laws they advocated have done nothing to save the planet.

Sound science points to the path we should follow: Repeal renewable energy mandates and subsidies, rein in the Environmental Protection Agency, repeal the land-use restrictions and lifestyle regulations of the U.N.’s Agenda 21 program, and defund the U.N.’s Intergovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.

We don’t need governments to protect us from an exaggerated and hypothetical risk. It’s time to stop the global warming scandal.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute.