Politics & Policy

Emissions Overreach

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

The Obama administration is expected to announce today new restrictions on U.S. power plants that are, in the words of the New York Times, “the strongest action ever taken in the United States to combat climate change.” In reality, the new regulatory regime is no such thing, a fact that ought to inform the years-long political and legal fight that the president’s unilateral rulemaking inevitably will provoke.

The president will instruct U.S. power plants to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by just under one-third (32 percent). How that is to be achieved and at what cost is . . . not Barack Obama’s problem. States will have until 2018 — comfortably remote from any presidential election — to submit their plans, and until 2030 to implement them.

The president and his partisans insist that these measures are necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming. But global warming is, famously, a global issue, and even steep cuts in one sector of one country’s economy many years in the future will have only a minuscule effect on global atmospheric conditions, especially given the fact that developing nations such as India have made it clear that they will not artificially lower their peoples’ standards of living to satisfy a moral panic in the affluent world. China, for its part, promises that it will freeze its emissions right where they are — someday — in exchange for certain concessions, a promise with about as much credibility as the Iranians’ insistence that they want enriched uranium to supply a new plant powering a national fleet of Chevy Volts because they’re on a jihad to comfort the polar bear.

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That is problematic because the United States already is a relatively clean and efficient producer relative to other big emitters such as China and India. For every ton of carbon dioxide emissions, the United States produces four times the economic output that India does and nearly five-and-a-half times what China does. As a practical matter, any substantial reduction in global emissions would need to come from the low-efficiency/high-volume emitters such as India and China, but these are poor countries that are unlikely to be willing or able to take on such burdens. The most efficient economies tend to be small and highly financial (Switzerland) or desperately poor and undeveloped (Chad, Afghanistan), neither of which is a realistic long-term model for the struggling half of humankind. The more sensible analysis is that long-term adaptation and mitigation is much more likely to be effective and economically feasible than enacting immediate radical restrictions on affluent and developing countries alike.   

Developing nations such as India will not artificially lower their peoples’ standards of living to satisfy a moral panic in the affluent world.

A few things are going on here. One is that the president is positioning himself to ride into Paris on a white charger when world leaders convene there to negotiate a broad emissions treaty — a treaty that the U.S. Senate under Republican control is unlikely to ratify. The ratification of the treaty is not the object; the rejection of the treaty is the object, giving Democrats a low-cost opportunity to engage in moral preening on the environment and to tsk-tsk Republicans and their purportedly anti-science attitudes. The second thing that this accomplishes is that coal companies, business organizations in coal-heavy states, and their political allies — not habitual friends of the progressive wing of the Democratic party — will be obliged to spend millions or billions of dollars and countless man-hours defending themselves against the new mandate, while hedge-funders long on politically connected green-energy companies — prominent sponsors of many Democratic endeavors — will be enriched.

None of this will have any meaningful effect on the planet’s climate.

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Like so many other destructive initiatives, this executive overreach has been enabled by an overly indulgent Supreme Court, which in 2007 put its imprimatur on the preposterous notion that carbon dioxide — the stuff you exhale — can be classified as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, which was designed to help combat things such as smog and to regulate poisonous emissions from industrial facilities.

The president is coming out swinging here, and Republicans ought to swing back twice as hard, for instance by moving to amend the Clean Air Act, stripping the president and his EPA minions of their ability to engage in this mischief. Indeed, the Clean Air Act is very much in need of reform: Despite the fact that many of the law’s goals have been met and exceeded — on ozone, on particulates, etc. — the rules promulgated under the act get ever-tighter and more expensive to comply with rather than the other way around.

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The Supreme Court has ruled that EPA regulations can be thrown out if the agency fails to properly account for their cost, and Republicans should insist on a robust, detailed accounting in this matter. The costs of reducing emissions by one-third will be enormous, and the benefits will be negligible, assuming that there are any benefits at all, which is unknown and, practically speaking, unknowable.

#related#The states that already are lined up to fight these regulations, and the congressional resistance being organized by Mitch McConnell and others, are doing the right thing, though they are in for a long, expensive, and thankless battle. But beyond the immediate questions of economic cost and environmental value, the president’s maneuver here points to a deeper, more troubling question: How did we arrive at a point at which the president of the United States believes himself to be empowered to simply hand down statements from on high about how the day-to-day operations of any American business are conducted? We believe him to be exceeding his proper legal authority, but his proper legal authority is a problem as well, having grown immense through the steady transference of the lawmaking power from the elected legislature to the executive bureaucracies. The result is a presidency imperial in its assumptions about the limits, or lack of limits, of economic intervention.

Which is to say, the economic costs would not be the only costs of letting this stand. 

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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