09.30.2022

The Dangers Of Climate Policy

by Bruce Everett

The fear of catastrophic climate change is everywhere today, including on the Cape. Well-intentioned people are working tirelessly in our schools, local governments and non-profits to promote clean energy and save the planet. What could be wrong with that? Quite a lot, actually.

Let’s start with the science. Carbon dioxide (CO2), erroneously called “pollution” by many, is a benign gas necessary for life on Earth. CO2 promotes plant growth and drought-resistance and has contributed to improved crop yields in poor countries desperate for food. CO2 has indeed warmed the atmosphere, but only slightly — nothing like the sensational images promoted by the media. Precipitation, droughts, storms, and wildfires are all within the historical range of variability. The apocalyptic scenarios we see in the press every day are artifacts of computer models which are unable to make useful predictions.

To produce the STEM-educated innovators on whom our future depends, we must educate our children in the scientific method of testing ideas against real-world evidence. The Massachusetts science standards, however, present students with a set of climate “facts” determined by government experts. Instead of thinking critically about climate, students are told to accept the material they are given and to “use this information to draft a letter to a local official advocating for action.” Our students will suffer when they enter a world where reasoning skills matter more than slogans.

The fossil fuels which emit CO2 are the lifeblood of our economy, critical to our industrial, transportation and residential systems and to the electric power supply we all rely on.

Climate activists argue that Americans must reduce our “carbon footprint” to avoid disaster. Unlike local air pollution, however, CO2 mixes evenly in the global atmosphere. In 2021, the US accounted for less than 14 percent of global emissions, while China and India, home to about a third of the world’s population, accounted for nearly 40 percent. US and European politicians have obsessed over climate, but the developing world cares much more about bringing their people out of poverty and is using increasing amounts of fossil fuels to do it. In the year 2000, China and India together produced 1.7 billion tons of coal. Last year, they mined almost five billion tons, and they’re not stopping there.

Even though the impact of CO2 on the climate is unclear and the US is not its main source, we are nonetheless pursuing expensive “climate policies” which harm our economy with little impact on atmospheric CO2.  The climate provisions of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act would spend $369 billion on climate-related activities over the next 10 years, costing the average American household about $3,000 while reducing global CO2 emissions by an estimated 3 percent — essentially a rounding error.

Our drive to replace fossil fuels with renewables threatens the stability, reliability, and cost of our electric power system. Despite what children are often told, wind and solar are not “free,” since the equipment required to convert this energy into useful electricity is expensive to build, maintain and recycle. Furthermore, renewables are intermittent, providing power only when nature sees fit, and not when it’s needed. As a result, our electric grid requires a large component of natural gas, coal or nuclear to make the system work.

Germany, long admired by climate activists, should serve as a warning. The Germans have made huge investments in renewable power, which now accounts for almost two-thirds of their electrical generating capacity, while shutting down most of their oil, nuclear and coal plants. Germans have recently learned, however, that when the weather is uncooperative, their expensive renewable electricity grid can become unstable and unreliable. They have relied on imported Russian gas to keep their power grid running, and Germans now face a difficult winter. In addition to worrying about power outages, German families are now paying three times more for electricity than US families do, and more price increases are on the way.

Cape homeowners may be in for a rude shock this winter when they see their electricity and natural gas bills. Massachusetts natural gas prices have risen over 50 percent in the last year, and the cold weather hasn’t hit us yet.

The US could easily avoid this problem, since we have enormous reserves of low-cost oil, natural gas, and coal to draw on, as well as 93 operating nuclear power plants. Yet the anti-fossil fuel movement has impeded development of the infrastructure needed to produce and move energy to where it’s needed and continues to press for the early closure of nuclear facilities. Renewables cannot make up the difference.

Buying a handful of electric cars for town employees may make us feel good, but what we really need is an open debate about the true costs and benefits of our energy options. There’s a lot at stake.

This commentary was first published at The Cape Cod Chronicle, September 29, 2022, and can be accessed here.

CO2 Coalition Director Bruce Everett of North Chatham is a retired ExxonMobil executive who taught energy economics for 17 years at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and for 10 years at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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