Politics & Policy

The Break-Up

Time for a green divorce.

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, environmental groups saw an opening. They realized that national-security hawks would be open to proposals to replace Middle Eastern oil, which they believed was financing terrorism, with alternative energy sources. Overtures were made. Then, slowly but surely, “bipartisan” coalitions began to produce reports aimed at killing two birds with one stone — the flow of dollars to terrorists and the risks of global warming. The proposals may sound compelling, but they will do nothing to strengthen America, and would weaken it instead.

#ad#For example, the self-styled National Commission on Energy Policy — which includes former CIA Director James Woolsey, Bush 41 EPA Administrator William Reilly, and Ralph Cavanaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council — endorses reducing oil use by increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards while combating global warming through targets for greenhouse-gas-emissions reductions.

These policy packages may appear to focus on security, but they are designed to promote the environmentalists’ goals first and foremost. A genuine national-security energy policy would look for ways to reduce oil imports from terrorist-supporting states without comprehensively altering the American way of life or reducing our economic competitiveness with our rivals. The NCEP plan purports to do this, but does not.

Take, for instance, auto corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards. Increasing these is a terribly inefficient way of reducing fuel use. By spreading the efficiency standard across an automaker’s entire fleet, CAFE has a downsizing effect on smaller cars, which compromises passenger safety. Moreover, increased fuel economy, by lowering the fuel cost of travel per mile, actually encourages people to drive more, thus negating any overall fuel savings. CAFE is a bad — and dangerous — deal for drivers.

Meanwhile, environmental activists get a new set of institutions to manipulate. The NCEP’s allegedly modest proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are a smokescreen for promoting the institutional framework the greens want.

Here’s how this ruse would work. The debate to date has focused on whether to restrict the use of carbon-based energy. Enacting a cap on carbon emissions, however modest, would short-circuit that debate. Once a system to ration energy by constricting supplies and raising prices is enacted into law, it will be extremely difficult to undo, because it will create a constituency of special interests that benefit from it. Congress would henceforth debate not whether, but how much more and how much faster to reduce hydrocarbon energy use. Once its nose is under the tent, the rest of the camel will follow.

 

And it would be all pain for no gain. The federal Energy Information Administration estimates the total cost of the NCEP’s cap-and-trade proposal at $331 billion between 2010 and 2025. According to a 1998 estimate published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, this would avert an increase in the global mean temperature of 0.008° Celsius. That’s a lot of money for such a microscopic result. Yet the environmentalists won’t be satisfied with this — they will require deeper and quicker cuts in emissions, and the new framework will make this much easier. The principle has been established; everything else is just haggling over price.

Those deeper and quicker emissions cuts won’t be cheap. America will pay through the nose to get the sort of cuts that will significantly affect global temperature. Every dollar that goes out of the economy to pay for emissions cuts weakens the nation.

Meanwhile, America’s rivals will be celebrating this self-inflicted wound. The Chinese, for instance, would love for the U.S. to sign up to mandatory emissions cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, while refusing to undertake mandatory cuts themselves, since those would weaken their own economy. As European Union Vice President Margot Wallstrom said in 2001, Kyoto “is not a simple environmental issue…This is about international relations, this is about economy, about trying to create a level playing field for big businesses throughout the world.” [Emphasis added]

Why are national-security conservatives signing up to such suicidal — homicidal, in the case of CAFE — policies? I like to believe that the main reason is technological optimism, the uniquely American belief that we have the wit and fervor to find new solutions to new problems. Indeed we do, but historically, it is individuals acting in a free market who have found those solutions, not government, as these new energy plans envision. We are already seeing how bad government is at the game of choosing technologies to throw money at in the problems surrounding the ethanol mandate — higher food prices due to government-inflated corn demand.

Meanwhile, as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute have shown repeatedly, there is no correlation between the price of oil and the level of terrorism worldwide. If reducing reliance on oil does not decrease terrorism, while cutting emissions would weaken America, it is hard to see any good reason for national-security conservatives to continue their marriage of convenience to the greens. It is time for a divorce; perhaps it should be an acrimonious one.

— Iain Murray is senior fellow in energy, science, and technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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