Politics & Policy

Act Locally, Wish Globally

Proposed carbon-emission cuts would hobble the U.S. economy but do nothing for global levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency has won a victory at the Supreme Court, with a solid majority of the justices, including Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, signing off on its regulation of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants and other entities already subject to its permitting process. In a separate ruling, the Court forbade the EPA from extending its scope to entities not currently under its jurisdiction based solely on expected greenhouse-gas emissions. President Barack Obama’s plan to issue a presidential fiat requiring that states reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent will not affected by the rulings. Justice Scalia warned the EPA not to get ahead of itself: “Our decision should not be taken as an endorsement of all aspects of EPA’s current approach,” he wrote, “nor as a free rein for any future regulatory application” of the so-called Best Available Control Technology (BACT) rules. Instead, “our narrow holding is that nothing in the statute categorically prohibits EPA” from implementing its contemplated greenhouse-gas controls.

So, a limited victory, but a victory nonetheless on the fundamental matter of using the Clean Air Act — a piece of legislation intended to fight air pollution in the form of ground-level ozone, sulfur, lead, particulate matter, and the like — to empower the agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on the theory that doing so will help prevent or reduce global warming, an issue that is separate from the questions of smog and industrial toxins that the Clean Air Act was written to address.

When the administration’s emissions-reduction rules were announced, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy described the issue in the habitual progressive language of crusade: “We have a moral obligation to act,” she said.

Do we?

Global warming, or global climate change, if you prefer, is, as the name indicates, a global phenomenon. The United States is, according to the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, responsible for about 14 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions, not bad for a country that produces 22 percent of the world’s economic output. The generation of electricity, according to the EPA, is the source of just under one-third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions — 32 percent, to be precise. Given the trends in the rest of the world, especially in China and India, this reduction, if achieved, would be minuscule by global standards, 30 percent of 32 percent of 14 percent of global emissions, or about 1.3 percent.

It would not result, or come close to resulting, in an overall reduction in global emissions of carbon dioxide specifically or of greenhouse gases as a group, because it will be more than offset by increased consumption of fossil fuels in the rest of the world. The proposed reduction amounts to less than the year-to-year variations associated with economic trends, and adds up to a fraction of the emissions associated with, e.g., the cement industry — the product of which is consumed primarily in the developing world, whose leaders have made it abundantly clear that they are not going to let their very poor citizens be made hungrier and colder and more ill-housed than they have to be, as they are not in the service of a Western environmental crusade.

In this, the leaders of the developing world are behaving more rationally than their rich-world counterparts. The forecast offered by the UN climate-change panel, generally considered authoritative by global-warming crusaders, estimates that the costs of adapting to global warming would add up to something between 0.2 percent and 2 percent of global economic output — at the end of the 21st century, when the global economy is expected to be much larger than it is today. The same agency estimates that preventing global warming would require not the picayune cuts demanded by the Obama administration but radical cuts, as much as 70 percent of global emissions, not a century from now but beginning almost immediately. That would require an economic retrenchment and a severe lowering of real standards of living worldwide, at a far greater real cost than the long-term costs of adapting.

Again, this is entirely discounting the arguments and counterclaims of global-warming skeptics. It also ignores the fact that fossil fuels are a mobile commodity; cut coal consumption in the United States, with its relatively clean-burning power plants, and you are very likely only subsidizing coal consumption in other parts of the world with dirtier plants. There is no getting around the economic and political realities of the issue. You can give your heart to Gaia, but your butt still belongs to supply and demand.


What we have here is, then, yet another exercise in magical thinking from our regulators. As with his case for raising tax rates on the wealthy even if doing so would have no effect on revenue, President Obama remains concerned about policy inputs rather than policy outcomes, believing that this is the right thing to do regardless of whether it has any effect on global warming — which it almost certainly will not. If we really believe the EPA administrator’s rhetoric — that we have a “moral obligation” to prevent global warming — then we should be asking ourselves some very difficult questions: How big of a permanent reduction in the U.S. standard of living are we prepared to accept? Mexico levels? Uganda levels? How many poor people in Asia and Africa, rounded to the nearest 10 million, are we willing to see starve to death in this crusade? (Agriculture and the transportation, processing, and refrigeration of food are significant sources of greenhouse-gas emissions.) If we are not willing to contemplate those questions, then we must ask another: What national economic price are we willing to pay for cuts that are negligible from the relevant global point of view, cuts that will have no meaningful effect on anything except the self-satisfaction of those who see global warming as a moral question rather than a scientific and economic question?

The president and the EPA need to reread their Kant: Ought implies can. Bearing in mind that the global metric is the only relevant one, can the U.S. executive branch, acting unilaterally, with negligible support and considerable opposition from the people’s elected representatives in Congress, achieve a meaningful reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions? Almost certainly not, because there is no politically plausible program under which the United States will enact emissions cuts that are significant on the global scale. Our own people would not support the necessary reduction in our standard of living, and the rest of the world will not forgo economic growth and development. The Supreme Court may very well be correct that there is nothing in the statute that prevents the EPA from proceeding on its chosen course, but a decent regard for reality counsels strongly against it. If the president wants to make a hollow symbolic gesture, he should choose a less expensive one: Jimmy Carter’s dopey sweater speech was a bargain by comparison.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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