The Trouble with Obama’s Clean Power Plan

In unveiling the final details of his Clean Power Plan on Monday, President Barack Obama laid out the three main objectives of this federal action: Mitigate dangerous climate change, protect the public health, and provide international leadership. For good measure, he also threw in a fourth aspiration: Protect the planet for our children.

Unfortunately, upon close inspection, the plan’s actual impact on climate turns out to be largely undetectable and the public health benefits tenuous, at best. It’s tough to leave the world better for future generations by deliberately slowing the rate of human development, which is what this plan unfortunately calls for.

When it comes to future climate change, mainstream scientific projections, which appear to be running to hot, predict about 2.5°C of warming by the end of the century as a result of carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). Nearly 90% of this warming is expected to come from developing nations such as China, India, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the remaining warming, amounting to about 0.3°C, about half will come from U.S. emissions.

Ultimately, and looked at with a critical eye, the Clean Power Plan will be ineffective at mitigating climate change and improving public health.

This means, that if we in the United States were to cease emitting all carbon dioxide from this day forward, future global warming would only be reduced by about 0.15°C by the end of the century. That’s all. This is why incremental actions like the Clean Power plan, which only seeks a 10% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, will have no appreciable impact on the future course of climate, only around 0.02°C. Put simply, when it comes to mitigating climate change, the U.S. has little role to play.

Meanwhile, the human health benefits of the President’s plan do not largely stem from the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. After all, carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is not dangerous to breathe. Instead, they are to come from the “co-benefits” of reducing some forms of air pollution that are emitted when fossil fuels are burned. But these by-product emissions are already subject to existing regulations and are being double-counted by the President. Further, direct health impacts from climate change are difficult to pin down — and ethereal — as adaptive measures can more than erase them.

With a major U.N. climate conference to be held in Paris this December, President Obama is eager to impress upon world leaders that climate change is a serious problem that requires global cooperation to address, and that the U.S. is going to do its part to lead the way. But there are problems.

First, world leaders realize that President Obama is going to have a tough time convincing his own country to go along with his plans. Before the Clean Power Plan was even announced, a coalition of states had sued to stop it. And although a federal court deemed that effort premature, now that the plan has been finalized, other lawsuits are promised, as are Congressional actions and state-level refusals.

But Obama may have an even bigger hurdle to jump internationally. For developing countries, reducing carbon dioxide emissions means reducing economic growth and human progress. Off-the-shelf renewable technologies are grossly insufficient to meet the immediate and growing needs of a world where well over a billion people do not have access to electricity, much less in sufficient quantity and quality. For populations in these parts of the world, limiting carbon dioxide emissions by restricting fossil fuel use may, in fact, prove dangerous — much more so than the threats that a changing climate may bring. Restricting fossil fuel use means restricting transportation, electricity, air conditioning, and other critical technologies. For people that aren’t already living in wealth and abundance, those restrictions can have serious human consequences for health and well-being.

Ultimately, and looked at with a critical eye, the Clean Power Plan will be ineffective at mitigating climate change and improving public health. Worse, it indicates a desire for President Obama to lead the world away from the best path for ensuring human progress and well-being.

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