Unfortunately, U.S. “leadership” is of little value when other nations have strong incentives to pursue a different course. The developing world has billions of people to lift out of a poverty whose depth we can barely imagine; if ameliorating poverty through economic growth creates a risk of catastrophic climate change, that is a risk they will take. And if we choose to drive up our own energy costs in order to cut our emissions, they will gladly take our manufacturing jobs, too.
As with an American decision to unilaterally disarm, unilateral reductions in U.S. emissions would sacrifice our best bargaining chip in exchange for nothing. A reduced or eliminated U.S. nuclear arsenal might well have triggered greater proliferation around the world and increased the likelihood of conflict with the Soviet Union. Likewise, U.S. emissions cuts achieved by increasing U.S. energy costs will likely drive energy-intensive industrial activity and the associated emissions to less energy-efficient economies.
Still, somehow, this obsession with reducing U.S. carbon emissions is at the heart of the environmental movement and the top of the self-congratulatory liberal agenda. Solemn pronouncements on the issue guarantee fawning media coverage and are the height of fashion on college campuses. And where there is self-congratulation, fawning media, and campus fashion, President Obama is never far away.
The president has touted a range of ineffectual policies whose impact on U.S. emissions would be so small as almost to defy measurement. His Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the auto industry mandate a doubling of average fuel efficiency by 2025. The resulting total reduction in carbon emissions, according to the government’s own analysis, will be 4.7 gigatons. Not annual; total. The atmospheric carbon concentrations anticipated for January 2040 will be postponed until . . . February 2040.
Other measures will achieve even less. The Utility MACT, an EPA regulation aimed at shutting down old coal-burning power plants, is projected to reduce emissions by 0.015 gigatons per year — less than three one-thousandths of total U.S. emissions. An EPA regulation aimed at preventing the construction of new coal plants is expected to reduce emissions by exactly zero.
And then there are the president’s ongoing efforts to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental activists oppose the pipeline because it would bring oil from Canadian sands to the U.S. market, and this oil would result in slightly higher carbon emissions than oil from other sources. In August 2011, after more than three years of study, the State Department concluded that the project would have no influence on global carbon emissions because Canada will develop the oil sands regardless of whether the pipeline is built. The report also looked specifically at U.S. emissions and concluded that use of oil from the Canadian sands would increase annual carbon emissions in the U.S. by 0.003 to 0.021 gigatons as a result of the higher-carbon Canadian oil’s supplanting oil imported from other nations.
Despite the report’s finding that the pipeline would have virtually no climate impact, thousands of protesters encircled the White House to oppose its construction, and President Obama postponed its approval. A final decision has subsequently been postponed, and postponed again. In late January, the State Department announced that it would miss yet another deadline and would reach a decision in April at the earliest. In February, thousands of protesters gathered again in Washington, D.C. Sometime soon, carbon emissions from the protests may actually exceed those that would result from construction of the pipeline.