Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has found another disguise for lining the pockets of “alternative energy” producers with consumers’ dollars directed there not by rational economic choices but by government mandate.
Once a supporter of cap and trade, Graham now supports a “Clean Energy Standard” that would require utilities to generate increasingly high percentages of electricity from “renewable” sources like wind, solar, and biofuels, from nuclear, and from coal using “carbon capture and sequestration”—catching the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when coal burns and forcing it, under pressure, into deep geological formations for long-term storage to keep it out of the atmosphere.
A variation on that theme suggested by Entergy Corp. head Wayne Leonard in the Wall Street Journal suggests that we begin with the seemingly innocuous step of increasing U.S. production and use of natural gas for electricity generation, and continue by converting hundreds of coal-fired plants to natural gas, which has lower CO2 emissions than coal.
With or without Leonard’s variation, the “Clean Energy Standard” is a bad solution to a non-problem.
The Dangerous Non-Problem
While die-hard Chicken Littles continue to insist that “settled” science has proven that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel use have caused most global warming since 1850 and will, if not severely curtailed, cause catastrophic warming over the next century, real science has, in the wake of Climategate and the exposure of multiple major errors of fact and procedure in the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report, left that meme behind.
Increasingly recognizing the alarmists’ self-professed practice of “post-normal science” as the Orwellian non-science it really is, more and more practitioners of real science—hypotheses tested by empirical observation, not models (which are just hypotheses formalized); public sharing of data; avoidance of confirmation fallacy (paying attention only to data consistent with the hypothesis) by doggedly searching for data contrary to the hypothesis and rejoicing, not weeping, when it’s found; and welcoming rather than suppressing critique by scientists who disagree with them—are speaking out loudly and clearly against that “settled” “science.” Marc Morano of ClimateDepot.com lately listed more than 1,000, complete with damning quotes about the scandal of what has passed for “climate science” for the past twenty years.
Back to the Science
The fundamental problem with the alarmists’ hypothesis? It thoroughly misunderstands climate feedbacks—the weather processes (evaporation, precipitation, clouds, winds, changes in plant growth, aborption or emission of gases from land and water, and many more) that respond to each other in intricate, interlocking ways. The alarmists’ hypothesis, represented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that overall feedbacks are strongly positive, that is, that they magnify, indeed, multiply, the slight warming effect of increased greenhouse gases—from the 2.16° Fahrenheit (1.2° C) of doubled CO2 before feedbacks to 5.4° (3.0° C) after them, an increase of 150 percent.
For three reasons that hypothesis should be rejected.
First, it assumes a fundamentally chaotic, unstable climate system in which a tiny change (in this case, CO2 rising from 27 to 54 thousandths of a percent of the atmosphere) will set off a positive feedback loop that leads inevitably to catastrophe. If that were the case, we would expect to see many examples of just that in geologic history. We don’t.
Second, the hypothesis is dead-on opposite to what we already know about greenhouse warming. With no greenhouse gases in its atmosphere, Earth’s average surface temperature would be about 0° (-0.18° C); with roughly its present greenhouse gas concentrations but no feedbacks, it would be about 140° (60° C); but with the feedbacks, it’s actually about 59° (15° C). That means overall feedbacks, rather than multiplying greenhouse warming, eliminate about 58 percent of it. There’s no reason to think feedbacks would operate differently on new greenhouse warming from how they do on old greenhouse warming. Consequently, no matter what debate continues about the precise contribution of this or that individual feedback, what we already know of combined feedbacks tells us the 2.16° (1.2° C) pre-feedbacks warming yielded by doubled CO2 would be reduced by about 58%, to about 0.91° (0.505° C), not multiplied to 5.4° (3.0° C).
Third, recent studies of two particularly important feedbacks indicate that the modelers have had them wrong, thinking one was positive when it’s strongly negative and the other more strongly positive than it actually is.
For nearly a decade research has been building showing that the first of these feedbacks, clouds, responds to surface warming by letting more heat escape to space, and to surface cooling by holding more heat in—exactly opposite what alarmists’ models assume. Leaders in this research have included MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen, Brookhaven National Laboratory atmospheric scientist Stephen E. Schwartz, and University of Alabama climatologists Roy W. Spencer and John Christy. Their research indicates that the negative cloud feedback reduces greenhouse gas warming from the 2.16° (1.2° C) pre-feedback level to about 0.9° (0.5° C)—nearly identical to the 0.91° (0.505° C) calculated above.
Just this month, new research was published on the second of these feedbacks—changes in evapotranspiration (emission or retention of water through plant pores) brought about by increased atmospheric CO2 concentration. NASA researchers Lahouari Bounoua and colleagues published in Geophysical Research Letters a study showing that, all by itself, adjusting for the weaker positive effect of this feedback could reduce the 5.4° (3.0° C) of warming from doubled CO2 after feedbacks claimed by the IPCC by about 45 percent, to about 2.95° (1.64° C).
These three considerations, then, falsify the case for dangerous warming from CO2 emissions. Indeed, they support the view of many ecologists and economists that the moderate warming manmade CO2 emissions would cause would be beneficial, not harmful, because of improved plant growth from enhanced CO2, milder winters, and longer growing seasons. And that, in turn, eliminates that rationale for transitioning from fossil fuels to more expensive, less reliable wind, solar, and biofuels.
Graham’s Big-Government Energy
It isn’t in post-graduate economics that students learn that only economic losers need government mandates or subsidies to compete. It’s in Econ 101.
A widget that gives consumers a better price/value ratio than alternatives doesn’t need mandates and subsidies. And when government mandates or subsidizes alternatives, it impoverishes consumers by forcing them to spend more, leaving them less money available to pay for other things they might have bought with the difference. That, in turn, impoverishes producers of those other things, whose market shrinks. The result? The vast majority loses. Only the tiny minority that produces the mandated or subsidized alternatives gain.
If a million consumers are forced to buy electricity produced from natural gas at, e.g., 1.4 times the cost of electricity produced from coal (a typical ratio), then for every $100 million they’d spend for the latter, they’d spend $140 million instead for the former—leaving $40 million less to spend on other items employing more workers. Everybody’s left poorer. For wind, the ratio’s more like 2 to 1, and for solar, about 5 to 1, and carbon capture and sequestration roughly doubles the cost per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired electricity generation. (Nuclear would need no such mandate. Electricity from coal typically costs about 1.25 times as much.)
Just such switches—from less expensive to more expensive electricity sources—are what would be mandated under Graham’s “Clean Energy Standard.” The result will be poorer consumers, reduced employment, and no environmental benefit.
Why would Entergy’s Leonard favor a mandate for more natural gas use? Easy. Entergy’s deeply invested in natural gas, the price of which, in response to vast new finds, has plummeted from the highs following Gulf of Mexico hurricanes in 2005 and 2006. His advocacy of mandated increases in gas use is classic rent seeking.
Why would Graham favor a “Clean Energy Standard”? Perhaps to make peace with energy companies like Duke Energy, Exelon, Progress Energy, and others that are heavily invested in “renewable” fuels. When he abandoned cap and trade last year, he jilted those major donors to his campaign. The “Clean Energy Standard” would give them the same government-driven boosts in competitiveness, but with a different rationale.
Politicians’ decisions about what goods, services, and technologies to promote through mandates and subsidies are never driven by pure cost/benefit analysis. If they were, they wouldn’t be needed. Instead, they’re driven by the desire to get re-elected—which means satisfying big donors who can’t win in price/value competition and so turn to Big Brother for advantage.
It’s time to just say no.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a coalition of clergy, scientists, and economists promoting Biblically grounded Earth stewardship and economic development.