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Alternative Energy for Conservatives

Conservation is conservative, but so are market solutions.

On February 7, 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) released the Green New Deal, a resolution calling for social, economic, and environmental reforms aimed at income and healthcare disparities, and climate change. The proposal appropriates the name and spirit of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and hails “… [a] new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II …” 

Unlike FDR’s program, however, the Green New Deal (GND) aims to completely retool the U.S. economy by phasing out fossil fuel-based energy production in favor of renewable energy over the next 30 years, and provide healthcare, housing, and economic security for “all people of the United States.” The center-right American Action Forum estimated the GND would cost $51-$93 trillion over the next decade. Although the resolution has strong support among Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said “there’s no way to pay for it,” and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) called the plan a “dream,” that “would hurt regions dependent on reliable energy.” Republicans ridiculed the GND and called for an early vote in the Senate. The resolution failed 0-57, with most Democrats voting “present” in protest.

Sensible environmental reform will require the kind of populist pressure that convinced Richard Nixon to hold his nose and support the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970. Nixon was no environmentalist, but voters supported the Act and the 1972 presidential election loomed.

Successful environmental policy will stress practicality over doctrinal purity. Market-based solutions are to be preferred over regulations. However, there should be no ideological test to assure that a measure is perfectly consistent with free market principles. Our air and water are much cleaner today than in 1968 thanks to regulations passed with bipartisan support in the 1970s. Several species, including the bald eagle and brown pelican, have recovered from the brink of extinction because of protections imposed through the Endangered Species Act.

A responsible environmental program will be more incremental than will suit progressives. Better steady progress through the hard work of compromise than high-minded impasse. I don’t intend to draft a “Conservative Green New Deal” or an “Environmental Contract with America.” Nor will I refute the Green New Deal point by point. Rather, I hope to start a productive conversation among conservatives who agree with Russell Kirk: “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”

The Green New Deal opens with the assertion that “human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century, and that climate change is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, drought, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure.”

We should take the claims seriously, as they are based on the October 2018 “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the November 2018 “Fourth National Assessment Report.” IPCC reports represent a consensus of scores of climate scientists and are among the most scrutinized documents in the world.

Certainly, climate models are imperfect, and formidable contrarian voices have been marginalized by the climate establishment. Progressives use climate change as an indictment of capitalism and justification for redistributive policies they favor in any case. Still, to dismiss climate change as a hoax, cult, or simple alarmism is to insist that annual release of billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can be ignored.

The Green New Deal further states that global warming of 2˚C or more will [emphasis mine] cause mass migration due to sea level rise and desertification, $500 trillion in lost annual economic output by the end of this century, a 100 percent increase in wildfire damage, more than 350 million people exposed to deadly heat stress, and $1 trillion in damage to U.S. infrastructure and coastal real estate. To avoid these impacts, Global Mean Temperature (GMT) must be kept below 1.5˚C above preindustrial temperature. To meet this goal, the GND calls for a 40 to 60 percent reduction from 2010 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

“Believe Science,” we’re forever told. Well, what does Science say?

The IPCC Special Report presents findings and forecasts with caution appropriate to scientific publication, assigning qualifications of likely, medium confidence, high confidence, and very high confidence. From the “Summary for Lawmakers,” section:

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0˚C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8˚C to 1.2˚C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5˚C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence).

“Reflecting the long-term warming trend since pre-industrial times, observed global mean surface temperature (GMST) for the decade 2006-2015 was 0.8˚C (likely between 0.75˚C and 0.99˚C) higher than the average over the 1850-1900 period (very high confidence). Estimated anthropogenic global warming matches the level of observed warming to within ± 20% (likely range). Estimated anthropogenic global warming is currently increasing at 0.2˚C (likely between 0.1˚C and 0.3˚C) per decade due to past and ongoing emissions (high confidence).”

So, there has been a long-term warming trend since before the industrial era—as climate skeptics always point out—but human activity alone has likely added about 1˚C to the global mean surface temperature. If this increase continues apace due to natural and anthropogenic causes, it could reach 1.5˚C between 2030 and 2050. That the measured GMST increase matches the calculated increase over the period 1850-2015 to ±20 percent should inspire at least a modicum of confidence in climate models.

The Special Report goes on to say that warming caused by anthropogenic emissions will persist for centuries, but that emissions from the preindustrial era to 2018 are unlikely to cause a rise in GMT of 1.5˚C over the next few decades (high confidence) or century (medium confidence). As for the “extreme events” such as drought, wildfires, and storms predicted by the GND, the Special Report notes (medium confidence) that, given a 0.5˚C increase since 1950, “some climate and weather extremes have been detected.”

Not surprisingly, risks are higher with 1.5˚C than at present and even greater with a 2˚C increase (high confidence). These risks further depend on the rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development, and adaptation (high confidence). In other words, poor countries with limited ability to adapt are at greater risk than wealthier nations. As for geography, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and Bedouin herdsman might disagree as to what constitutes unacceptable warming.

As for mass extinctions, the IPCC projects that with a 2˚C increase in GMST, 18 percent of insects, 16 percent of plants, and 8 percent of vertebrates, could lose over half of their climatically determined range (medium confidence). About 13 percent of terrestrial land could change from one ecosystem to another (medium confidence).

These are concerning projections, but hardly the apocalyptic scenario presented by the GND. Per the IPCC, a 45 percent decrease in global net anthropogenic emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 with net zero emissions achieved by 2050 will limit the GMST increase to 1.5˚C. 

Yet, the United States has little control over the emissions of other nations. China is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide with about 30 percent of the global total. India currently produces about 7 percent, but, without clean, cheap energy technology, its emissions will increase along with its growing economy. Poor, underdeveloped nations have every right to alleviate poverty through industrialization, hence, the pass on emissions targets given them by the various climate treaties. While the U.S. generates about 15 percent of global carbon dioxide, the country’s emissions decreased 15 percent between 2005 and 2018, thanks to advances in clean technology and, unfortunately, loss of manufacturing capacity to developing nations. In order to allow for a return of U.S. manufacturing while still decreasing emissions overall, clean energy and pollution reduction technology must continue to advance. 

I agree with the GND that “[the U.S.] … has a high technological capacity, [and] must take a leading role in reducing carbon emissions …” But the devil and disagreement lie in the details.

Leftists claim that the U.S. bears a disproportionate responsibility for climate change and therefore must curb economic growth or even shrink its economy to allow for increased emissions by developing nations. Yet, notwithstanding certain Arctic hunting cultures and island populations, economic calamity poses a more immediate threat to vulnerable populations than does climate change. Wealth must exist before it can be brought to bear on the most pressing problems. Therefore, any conservative approach to climate change must take into account potential economic effects. If currently poor nations are to develop healthy economies, they must have access to abundant, cheap, clean technologies. An economically healthy U.S. is best positioned to provide technological leadership.

Although wind, solar, and other renewable technologies will likely produce an increasing share of U.S. electricity, fossil fuels will continue to be the most important energy source for years to come. The GND correctly states that the global poor are most vulnerable to climate change. Yet, the poorest currently suffer far more from disease, filthy drinking water, and woodsmoke inhalation than from global warming. The resources, technology, infrastructure, and services most needed by the desperately poor would not exist without fossil fuel use. One crucial short-term task, then, is to exploit petroleum, natural gas, and coal with ever cleaner, more efficient technology. 

Nothing spurs innovation like market pressure. Consumer demand provides negative feedback needed to optimize price and production. Likewise, carbon taxation applied at the point of emission will internalize the cost of future cleanup. The slight cost increase encourages energy conservation, while resulting lower demand provides corrective feedback that spurs producers to lower carbon emissions through innovation. Carbon tax revenue could fund development of clean energy production, geoengineering, and other adaptive technologies. While a Pigovian model, which taxes destructive activity to fund positive activity, can be problematic in that it encourages dependency on destructive activity, a carbon taxation approach that raises money to be returned to taxpayers invites pilfering by a government running a high deficit. Yet, conservatives, of all people, should understand that there are no perfect answers. 

Presently, we can’t accurately price carbon emission because we can’t predict future economic impacts. Still, prudence requires that we do our best and adjust as we learn. Otherwise, our economy has no corrective feedback between greenhouse gas output and price. Literally, we’re running open-loop, pushing costs off on future generations. 

In mid-September, the Business Roundtable, a non-profit organization of chief executive officers of large U.S. corporations, released a statement in support of placing a price on carbon, saying that such a measure “would provide an effective incentive to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate climate change.” Business leaders understand that climate action is inevitable and would much prefer market-friendly approaches. 

Policies that remove all tax burden from income earned by zero-emission energy producers would encourage innovation, but we shouldn’t ignore carbon emissions until clean technologies meet most or all of our energy needs.

Furthermore, we face the question of whether renewable energy technology—wind, solar, tidal—can or even should power the global economy. In “Let’s keep the Green New Deal grounded in science,” a January 2019 article in MIT Technology Review, senior editor James Temple wrote, “Everything we know from recent research indicates that nuclear, carbon capture, and hydropower are essential, and that carbon pricing could be the most powerful tool for driving the transformation.

As of 2019, wind energy accounted for about 7 percent of power generation in the U.S. About half of all of U.S. wind-generated electricity comes from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa, windy states with hundreds of millions of acres of rural land. Here in Texas, wind accounts for about 20 percent of the state’s power generation. Early on, the wind industry focused on agricultural lands on the southern Great Plains, but increasing demand and billions in federal and state subsidies are luring developers into the wildlife-rich ranchlands of south and west Texas. 

Neal Wilkins is president and CEO of the East Foundation, a large non-profit focused on wildlife and rangeland research on 217,000 acres in deep South Texas. “Habitat and wildlife account for much of the value in these rangelands,” he said. “Yes, wind turbines kill bats and birds, but these direct losses pale in comparison to the long-term damage done to the land. It’s not just the installation of the turbines, but the dense network of roads, underground excavation, concrete foundations, and the heavy traffic of service vehicles and large equipment.”

Wind farms also reduce property value—as much as 50 percent, according to Wilkins. “The impacts also extend to adjacent land,” he said. “Landowners who wouldn’t otherwise accept wind farms do so to recoup part of the loss of their property value. Our natural capital is being destroyed to supply so-called clean electricity to Austin and Dallas, and rural Americans are bearing the brunt.”

In Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, Michael Shellenberger draws a distinction between “energy dense” and “energy dilute” technologies. Unfortunately, pure renewables fit in the latter category. Shellenberger, a longtime environmental activist, IPCC expert reviewer, and founder and president of Environmental Progress in Berkley, California, spent the first 20 years of his career advocating renewable energy technology. Toward the end of the Obama administration, during which the U.S. invested $150 billion in renewables, Shellenberger began to see serious limitations in wind and solar technologies. 

In addition to daunting engineering problems associated with intermittent wind and sunlight levels, wind turbines have proven deadly to large raptors. Solar farms require vast areas over which to convert sunlight into electricity—land that might otherwise be inhabited by wildlife. “Energy sprawl” is arguably more destructive of beauty and wildness than is suburban sprawl. Furthermore, even “clean” energy requires affordable supplies of copper, aluminum, iron ore, and other minerals.

According to Shellenberger, a solar farm in California requires 450 times more land than a nuclear plant producing the same amount of power, and 17 times more materials such as cement, concrete, steel, and glass. Then, what becomes of thousands of acres of solar panels at the end of their 25-year lifespan? 

Nuclear technology provides by far the most power with the least environmental impact. It produces no emissions and small amounts of easily containable waste. Yes, Chernobyl and Fukushima loom large in the imagination, but nuclear power has been used safely and extensively in Europe for decades. How can we take seriously activists who claim that climate change poses an existential threat but who claim our cleanest, most energy-dense technology is too dangerous?

Humanity will not achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 without carbon pricing and significant reliance on nuclear power. Renewables alone won’t get us there.

Nor will the Green New Deal. It’s time for conservatives to lead with measures that protect our environment and our economy.  

Henry Chappell’s latest novel is Silent We Stood. He lives in Parker, Texas.