A Solution Worse than the Problem

In introducing his Clean Power Plan on Monday, President Barack Obama used inspirational language to describe the impacts of limiting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-powered electric generating facilities. From mitigating climate change, to improving public health, from increasing jobs to lowering electric bills, from ensuring national security to leading to way into the future, the benefits seemed endless.

If this government program sounds too good to be true, it is. To say Obama oversold his plan is putting it gently.

When it comes to climate change, the Clean Power Plan is a non-starter. Climate change in the 21st century is going to be driven by carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s developing nations as they strive to meet the basic energy demands of their current and future populations — 1.3 billion of whom have no access to electricity at all, much less an adequate supply. In already developed nations, like the U.S. and Western Europe, where energy needs have largely been met, future projections don’t foresee significant emissions increases. Consequently, when it comes to future climate change, the contribution from developing nations will outweigh that from developed nations by about 10 to 1.

Even if we implement the Clean Power Plan to perfection, the amount of climate change averted over the course of this century amounts to about 0.02 C. This is so small as to be scientifically undetectable and environmentally insignificant. The plan will have little impact on warming, no impact on the future character of extreme weather events, and will it certainly do nothing on national security.

Creating jobs and stimulating economic activity by breaking windows is a readily falsifiable economic premise.

What about public health? Obama claimed this plan would drastically reduce “nationwide asthma rates,” among other impressive health benefits. In fact, the vast majority of the public health benefits touted by Obama are not a direct result of carbon dioxide emissions, but rather “co-benefits” from reductions of other substances that are emitted when fossil fuels are burned. And here’s the kicker: These pollutants are already being covered by existing Environmental Protection Agency regulations and so their control is not dependent on the Clean Power Plan. Essentially, the president is double-counting these benefits to make the Clean Power Plan seem better than it is.

If there are little no climate change benefits, then the president is effectively throwing a wrench in the nation’s current energy workings for no good reason. This forced retooling favors more expensive and less reliable renewables like wind and solar over cheap and abundant fossil fuels. It will be costly, both from an energy generating standpoint as well as from a grid restructuring standpoint. Creating jobs and stimulating economic activity by breaking windows is a readily falsifiable economic premise.

After stripping the layers of ineffectiveness from the Clean Power Plan, all that remains is Obama’s desire for his legacy to be defined by “doing something” about global warming. The president wants to show his resolve on the issue and lead the way during this December’s U.N. climate conference aimed at producing an international agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, thereby mitigating climate change.

But the outlook for such an agreement, or rather the likelihood that it comes to fruition, is dim. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that the Earth’s climate is less sensitive to carbon dioxide increases than the models used to project the future account for, meaning the urgency and effectiveness carbon dioxide restrictions is diminished. So what’s left in store is increased energy prices in developed countries and prolonged the economic misery in developed ones. A lose-lose for everybody and a solution that proves worse than the problem itself.

Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger is the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.