August 1, 2014 9:38AM

Should the U.S. Take the Lead on Climate Change Policies?

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


With its 2007 ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. But to meet the Supremes' criteria for regulation, EPA first had to find that the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were an “endangerment” to public health and welfare. While the sitting Bush administration was reluctant to do this, President Obama’s EPA made the “preliminary” finding of endangerment a mere 94 days after his inauguration.

The “final” Endangerment Finding came on December 7, 2009, just in time to provide the United States credibility at the then-starting Copenhagen Conference, a United Nations affair at which a replacement to the failed Kyoto Protocol was to be enshrined. The meeting was the most disastrous yet for global warming hawks, but President Obama quickly declared victory and rushed off on Air Force-1, in order to beat what was to be the first of three bona fide blizzards in Washington that winter. He lost that race, too.

A torrent of regulations followed, “culminating” in EPA’s recent proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power plants. That controversial proposal, announced in early June, followed on the heels of EPA’s January proposal of regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

If adopted (and they will be), these proposed regulations will be the biggest diktats yet originating from Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Administration officials are already celebrating the salvation of mankind, even before the regulations are finalized.

The administration is holding “hearings” around the country so it can take your input to improve these already near-perfect rules. To help guide us, the White House just released a new report describing how the costs of climate change will skyrocket the longer we delay taking action to stop it.

According to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the collection of administration actions on climate change is “changing the tone” in talks with foreign nations. No doubt encouraged by this “changing tone,” President Obama is scheduled to attend a UN climate “summit” in New York this September.

To what end? What benefit will “taking the lead” on climate change actually provide the United States?

It turns out to be very little. In fact, it will probably cost us.

The United States is not at great risk from climate change. The Obama administration’s Interagency Working Group tasked with establishing the social cost of carbon (SCC) determined that the SCC for the United States was only a few dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emitted—and that was calculated using overheated climate models. Taking into account new research that finds that the earth’s climate is less sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions, and the humongous body of literature demonstrating that enhanced carbon dioxide levels raise crop yields, the “social cost of carbon” in the United States becomes close to zero (or perhaps even negative, i.e., carbon emissions may actually provide a net benefit to the economy).

But that information is carefully concealed in Obama administration reports, such as the one that the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) issued this week. Instead of focusing on the domestic cost of climate change—those affecting the United States—the reports discuss the global cost for carbon emissions (using a rather squirrely technique that is readily manipulated to provide any answer you want—so it’s ironic that EPA’s model to estimate temperature impacts is acronymed MAGICC).

It is a head scratcher as why U.S. policy to restrict carbon emissions (i.e., fossil fuel use)—which the administration’s own Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says will result in higher energy costs to U.S. consumers—is justified by benefits that it says will largely accrue outside our borders.

The new CEA report clarifies:

Climate change is a global problem, and it will require strong international leadership to secure cooperation among both developed and developing countries to solve it. America must help forge a truly global solution to this global challenge by galvanizing international action to significantly reduce emissions.

Hence McCarthy’s enthusiasm.

If McCarthy is to be believed and administration actions have led to a change in the “tone” of communications, then it probably sounds a lot like lip service.

Two big reasons for this stand out:

The first is that, in the developed world, putting in mandatory emissions caps and carbon taxes are good ways to lose your next election.

Analyses show that Congress's 2009 vote for cap-and-trade cost the Democrats control of the House of Representatives in the succeeding 2010 election. Less than two months after it passed, the Liberal Party in Australia voted out its leader, Malcolm Turnbull, for his support of a similar scheme. The next year, Australian Labour Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd resigned his portfolio over the scheme. Then, exactly four years after our House passed cap-and trade, Rudd's successor, Julia Gillard, was voted out over her carbon tax. (The Australian Parliament repealed the tax on July 17 of this year.)

The second reason is that current-generation renewable energy technologies are simply incapable of meeting the enormous energy needs of developing countries like China and India. If “climate change” ranks low among priorities in the United States, imagine how popular carbon reduction policies will be in countries with large populations with little to no access to electricity at all.

So, even if there is sincerity behind the changed “tone” in international discourse, any resulting agreements to mitigate climate will undoubtedly be unsuccessful, both politically and technologically.

That leaves us “leading” on an issue that science says is overblown, and one that the big, developing nations surely will not adopt (or, at least, achieve).

To this, we say “no thanks.”