Climate of Fear XXI.

If the world does not cut carbon dioxide emission by 45 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050, then we can expect many extreme weather events.  These will include droughts, forest fires, floods, and storms.  Thus says the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[1]  However, experts believe that it will take decades to raise wind and solar energy sources to a level where they can supplant carbon-burning energy sources.

Wind and solar currently provide about 8 percent of America’s energy.  Expanding its infrastructure could encounter difficulties.  For example, in California, the amount of land needed for a solar farm is vast: 450 times the space needed for a nuclear plant.  Yes, but solar and wind infrastructure is cheap!  Well, no.  The infrastructure (cement, wiring, panels) cost about the same to produce about the same amount of electricity.

Germany swore off nuclear power in favor of renewable energy sources.  Today, Germany derives 38 percent of its energy from renewable sources.  Germany switched to burning more carbon during the transition period away from nuclear in order to prevent a huge slump in energy supply and a huge price spike.  As a result, its carbon emissions haven’t fallen and Germany’s electricity prices are higher than any country in Europe.

If you compare the cost in human lives between nuclear power and carbon-burning, you find that no one died from Three Mile Island, one person died from Fukushima, and sixty people died directly from Chernobyl.[2]  In comparison, experts suggest that seven million people die every year as a result of burning carbon.

So, why not use nuclear energy?  Nuclear already provides about 20 percent of American energy.  Today, Sweden gets 40 percent of its energy from nuclear power.  It is a proven technology, while wind and solar face a bunch of problems.  The initial investment is high—about $7 billion—but the subsequent maintenances costs are very low.  It could be rapidly scaled-up by building reactors in Maine.[3]

Nuclear waste constitutes the main road-block to using nuclear power.  Spent fuel rods from reactors can continue to emit dangerous radiation for tens of thousands of years.   The pre-terrorist solution was to cool the rods in water, then to seal them up in concrete lockers.  The current solution is to bury them underground.  However, NIMBY[4] resistance put a stop to the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada States.  Barack Obama needed Nevada’s electoral votes to wind the presidency, so he promised to stall the ball.  Ultimately, he killed it.

Still, America is a country with a relatively stable energy demand.  What about Still-Industrializing Countries (SICs) like China and India?  Nuclear power appears to offer the only alternative to carbon-burning in these countries.  At the same time, the world’s worst nuclear accident—Chernobyl in the Soviet Union—resulted from an Actually-Existing-Third-World-Country betting on nuclear power.  This is a cheap, scary alternative to the “Green New Deal.”

[1] “Nuclear power and climate change,” The Week, 15 March 2019.

[2] Several thousand emergency personnel died from their heroic efforts to contain the disaster.  The heroism of the then-Soviet first-responders needs to be acknowledged.

[3] Hardly anyone lives there; the prevailing winds would carry any accident-produced waste over the Canadian Maritimes and the North Atlantic.  OK, that’s cold on my part.  What’s your solution?  Eastern Montana?

[4] Not In My Back Yard.

Just the facts, Ma’am 1 11 February 2019.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that spending on people aged 65 and older[1] has increased as a share of federal spending from 35 percent (2005) to 40 percent (2018) and is projected to rise to 50 percent (2029).  The federal budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 trillion a year from 2022 to 2029.  Proposals recently offered by Democrats intending to run for President in 2020 or to shape the party’s policy for that race may have an effect on this situation.  None of the proposals claim to aim at deficit reduction.  Instead, they target reducing income inequality and/or financing expanded programs.

First, it is proposed to reform Social Security.[2]  As originally designed, Social Security enhanced private preparation for retirement by adding the resources from a tax on currently working people to individual savings and/or pensions.  Today, however, there appears to be a savings crisis among working people.

There is also a financing crisis for Social Security.  The actuaries at the Social Security Administration report that outlays (payments) will soon exceed income (withholding tax revenues).  Thereafter the payments will be paid from an accumulated surplus held in the form of U.S. treasury bonds.  When that trust fund is exhausted by 2034, benefits will have to be reduced.  Currently, about 63 million people receive Social Security benefits.  The number is expected to rise to 89 million by 2030.  The total current cost is about $1 trillion.  The maximum amount of income subject to Social Security tax is $132,900; the current withholding tax on payrolls is 12.4 percent.

Democrats propose to increase the minimum benefit to help lower-income people who have saved less than have higher income people; increase benefits by an average of about two percent; raise the annual cost-of-living adjustment to payments to respond to the reality that retirees consume goods and services in a different pattern than do still-working people; cut the tax on benefits for middle-income recipients while increasing them on upper-income recipients; and increase the payroll tax rate from the current to 14.8 percent by 2040, and the payroll tax would be imposed on incomes above $400,000 a year, while incomes between $132,900 a year and $400,000 a year would not be subject to taxation.

This proposal would permanently fix the financing problem.  It would also increase benefits paid out to some Social Security recipients.  An estimated three-quarters of the extra income would go to covering the looming deficit; the rest would go to increased benefits for lower-income recipients.

[1] Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

[2] Robert Pear, “Democrats Push First Major Social Security Expansion Since 1972,” NYT, 4 February 2019.

Climate of Fear XXI.

Used to be, presidential candidates could just say “I stand for the principles of the Whig Party” and let it go at that.[1]  Now, a presidential election campaign requires candidates to lay out their plans for examination by voters.[2]

Hillary Clinton has begun to do so.  One key area is climate change.  Here she seeks to reach beyond the goals set by the Obama administration.  President Obama believed that emissions had to be reduced, so he ordered the EPA to use the Clean Air Act to issue regulations that would compel vehicles and power plants to cut emissions by 25-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025, and by 80 percent by 2050.

According to many economists, a carbon tax would be highly effective in reducing emissions.  Indeed, the goals for 2050 and perhaps even those for 2025 can’t be reached without a carbon tax.  It would drive up the price of carbon fuels above the price of alternative fuels, creating a market demand for those alternative fuels.  This, in turn, would shift the terms for solar and wind energy while stimulating a demand for mass transportation.

However, it would hit hard on ordinary consumers by raising gas and electricity prices.  So, Ford F-150s, “Mommy vans,” and air conditioning would all become prohibitively expensive.[3]  Such voters would become angry, angry hippos and—in an act of false consciousness[4]—vote Republican.  Clinton has rigorously avoided proposing a carbon tax.

Conceding that the Democrats are unlikely to win control of both houses of Congress (perhaps not even one), she envisions acting on climate change without legislation.  Clinton believes that “meeting the climate challenge is too important to wait for climate deniers in Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation.”[5]  She would use the Clean Air Act to issue regulations that would reduce emissions by airlines, oil refineries, gas wells, and cement plants.

What might such action accomplish?  She hopes to raise the number of solar panels from about 70,000 today to 500 million by 2020.  She wants to spend $60 billion on mass-transit and energy-efficient buildings.  Experts believe that the Obama Administration already has done just about everything that administrative regulations can achieve, even if the courts allow all of them to remain in effect.  Taken all together, her energy proposals will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of the 2005 level by 2050.  That is, the same mark as that set by the Obama administration.  Furthermore, a Clinton administration would need to get at least $60 billion in appropriations through Congress.  This seems equally unlikely to be achieved.

Nevertheless, Clinton has won some support from the environmental community, which sees the danger of climate change as more pressing than any other danger.  “We know that [a carbon tax] is not politically realistic.  And we need to be realistic about what we can get,” said Scott Hennessey, vice president of the solar power company SolarCity.[6]

The real issue is the American unwillingness to be taxed, rather than “climate deniers.”

[1] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAjwAuHHQJs

[2] Voters in long-established democracies realize that their own candidates are just writing a wish list, but they believe that the other candidate means to try for integral fulfillment of his/her agenda.

[3] Actually, they already are in environmental terms.  It’s just that on one wants to tell people the truth.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_consciousness

[5] Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, quoted in Coral Davenport, “Clinton’s Climate Change Plan Avoids Mention of a Carbon Tax,” NYT, 3 July 2016.

[6] Which spent a measly $200,000 on the Podesta Group lobbying firm in 2015.  See: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/firmsum.php?id=D000022193&year=2014%20Campaign%20Contributions  This was not mentioned in the NYT article.  See n. 5 above.

More Young People.

If we look at the history of the last quarter century, we see two dominant and inter-related trends.  Radical Islam isn’t one of them.  First, the collapse of Soviet Communism inspired other followers to abandon the controlled economy for participation in the world market.  Second, information technology destroyed many old barriers.  Upheaval and opportunity resulted.   Currently, about a quarter of all the people in the world are aged 10 to 24.[1]  That is, they were born between 1992 and 2006.  The world in which they have grown up is that same world that older people have often found so disorienting.   Now young people face their own problems.

Those billions of young people are not equally distributed around the world.  They account for only 17 percent of the population in economically developed countries; for 29 percent in less-developed countries, and 32 percent in the least developed countries.  In the United States, the median age is 37; in Russia, 39; in Germany, 46.  In Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, the median age is 18.  China offers a particularly interesting case of a transition.  Faced with a swiftly rising population, China declared a one-child policy for married couples.  It worked so well that the youth base of the population narrowed to a frightening degree.  A shortage of workers to replace those who are approaching retirement loomed.  At the same time, young couples found themselves providing care for up to four aging parents, while trying to work and raise their own child.  Recently, the government ended to one-child policy.

A disproportionate share of young people lives in the countries least well able to provide them with either an adequate education or a decent standard of living.  Take the example of India.  There are more than 420 million Indians between the ages of 15 and 34.  The median age is 27.  Desperate measures to expand primary education have had mixed results.  Although almost all Indian children now attend primary school, half of fifth graders can neither read at a second grade level nor do subtraction.[2]

Then, India needs to create 12-17 million new jobs every year to absorb the population growth.  In India and in other countries in similar dire straits, young people are forced into spotty, badly-paid just to get any jobs at all.  India’s reluctance to end the carbon-burning that drives economic growth in that country is easier to understand in light of that imperative.  The here and now weighs more heavily in the balance of decision-makers than does the future.[3]

Migration from “young” countries to “aging” countries might offer a solution.  However, there are several big barriers here.  First, even in the developed countries there is a problem of youth unemployment: in the United States, almost 17 percent of people between 16 and 29 are not in school and not working; in the European Union the youth unemployment rate averages 25 percent.[4]  It will be difficult to make the case for expanded immigration of young people when a country cannot even provide work for its own young people.  Second, the poor quality of education in many developing countries means that only some people will be viable migrants.

Even so, migration from the Lands of Inopportunity to the Lands of Opportunity may be inevitable.  There are 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.  The current refugee crisis in Europe shows just how difficult it can be to keep out hordes of determined people.

[1] Somini Sengupta, “The World’s Big Problem: Young People,” NYT, 6 March 2016.

[2] The wretched state of education can be glimpsed in Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008), and Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013).

[3] A third problem is anti-female sex selection.  There are 17 million more Indian males than females aged 10 to 24.

[4] Sengupta argues that the high European rate results from a combination of a slow economy and the absence of economically valuable skills.  The same may be true in the United States, although some economists would argue that the skills-deficit argument is false.

Climate of Fear XX.

The global temperature has risen by 1 degree over the pre-industrial level (c. 1750). As a result, glaciers and sea ice are melting and weather patterns are changing. What will happen if the globe’s temperature rises by more than 2 degrees Celsius/3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the pre-industrial level? The sea-level will rise by at least two feet as polar ice melts. In addition, climate scientists predict record high heat, drought, and famine.[1]

Is there a way to prevent these misfortunes? Yes/No. Global warming is caused by the emission of the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide as the result of burning carbon for energy. Currently, the world is headed toward emitting 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. This would push global temperatures over the 2 degrees Celsius mark, probably to 4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. Climate scientists and the government officials whom they have persuaded of the danger hope that an international agreement will reduce emissions to 40 billion tons per year by 2030. That is a one-third reduction in emissions over the next fifteen years. However, that probably would hold the temperature rise to a 2.7-3.5 degrees Celsius rise above the pre-industrial mark. In short, well beyond the tipping-point.

A conference on climate change is scheduled for Paris in December 2015. In the run-up to the conference, the United Nations asked all 195 countries to submit a specific target for their reduction in emissions by 2030. The United States has committed to cut emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025 through shifting energy production from coal to solar and wind, and by increasing the fuel-efficiency of vehicles. China has committed to reaching peak carbon-burning and drawing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. In addition, 148 other countries have submitted targets for reducing emissions.

Fine, that’s the good news. What’s the bad news? There’s plenty.

First, the Obama Administration doesn’t want the agreement reached in Paris to be a “treaty” that would be legally binding on its signers. Treaties have to be approved by the Senate. President Obama knows that he couldn’t get such a treaty through the Republican-dominated Senate.[2] However, that would leave the application of the agreement to whoever wins the election in 2016. In short, it would be no commitment at all. For that matter, the US reductions themselves are to be implemented by executive orders and regulatory changes, not legislation.

Second, India will not play ball. All it has is coal and 1.3 billion people (most of them very poor) who want a better life. Although it is already the third-biggest coal burner, India plans to double its coal production by 2020.

Third, very recently, China was “shocked, shocked to discover” that it has been burning far more coal than it had told the world. Hence, it’s commitment to reach peak carbon burning by 2030 is starting from a much higher base than had been supposed and the peak will be correspondingly higher still.

In sum, whatever agreement is reached at Paris in time for Christmas, isn’t likely to hold the line against climate change. Either an even more serious and costly effort will have to be made in the future or we’re just going to adapt to a changed environment.

The Woodrow Wilson-Barack Obama and the Versailles Treaty-Paris Climate Accord analogies will soon be flying like snow-flakes. Well, they would be if global warming hadn’t messed up the weather.

[1] “A crucial climate summit,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 13.

[2] For one thing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is incensed by President Obama’s plan to wreck the major industry in his state.

Climate of Fear XIX.

Once Mao had died and his myrmidons had been shoved aside, Deng Xiaoping launched China on a drive for industrialization and integration into the world economy. Over the last twenty years, that effort has born remarkable fruit: China has the second largest economy in the world; millions of people have been dragged out of dire poverty and living standards have risen for all Chinese.[1]

However, all progress comes at a cost. Some 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal-fired generators. China’s energy consumption rose by 50 percent just between 2008 and 2013. In 2014, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 passed those of the European Union. Twenty years of industrialization have turned the air over Chinese cities into thick dark clouds of smog.

The health effects have been devastating, with half a million people a year dying of pollution-related causes. There may be economic effects as well. It is getting more difficult to move people out of the comparatively healthy countryside to work in industrial cities that are themselves “dark, Satanic mills.” Perhaps most serious, from the point of view of China’s Communist leadership anyway, is that the pollution is stirring low-level political unrest. There have been an estimated 50,000 environmental protests a year in recent years. Many are of the “Not in My Back Yard” variety, protesting the actions of local factories or generating plants. However, these have the potential to grow, to coalesce, and to turn into a more general criticism of the Party’s leadership.

The convergence of these forces is driving China to limit carbon emissions. In 2009 China committed to reducing the role of carbon emissions in its energy production by 45 percent by 2020; China has invested $90 billion in renewable energy in 2015 alone[2]; China has announced the implementation of a cap-and-trade policy for emissions by 2017; and China has agreed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030.[3]

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems to be solved. One problem is how to connect the “green” generating sources with the consumers of energy. Most of the non-carbon generating capacity is located in remote areas, distant from the main industrial cities. As the crow flies, it is 1,200 miles from the southern edge of the Gobi Desert to Shanghai, and almost 1,400 miles to Guangzhou. Power lines aren’t going to run as the crow flies. So, there is a big engineering project there. Another problem is how to match generated energy with timely use. That’s a storage problem. The Chinese haven’t been any better—so far—than have Western countries at developing reliable storage batteries.

China’s drive is easing co-operation with President Barack Obama’s push for an international agreement to curb climate change. China’s agreement to limit carbon emissions breaks from its refusal to do so that torpedoed American ratification of the 1991 Kyoto Protocol.

Two worries remain. First, can China’s leaders solve the technical problems of storage and transmission? Second, can China expand green energy in pace with the demand for rising living standards from it citizens?

[1] “China’s green revolution,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 11.

[2] China has built solar farms in the Gobi Desert. This year alone it has increased the generating capacity of these farms by 18 gigawatts. That’s equal to total US solar generating capacity. China already leads the world in wind power generation, but plans to double the generating capacity by 2020. Half of the world’s hydro-electric dams are in China, but the Chinese are still building at a rapid clip. .

[3] The efforts now under way make it likely that China will be able to reach peak carbon emissions by 2025.

Climate of Fear XVIII.

Environmental record-keeping is really pretty new. It’s a function of the rise of both Science and the State during the 19th Century. In the case of California, systematic record-keeping only began in 1895. Beyond the formal records, policy-makers are forced to rely upon scientific studies and interpretations. Some geological studies indicate that “megadroughts” lasting a decade or more occur in the Western United States every 400 to 600 years.[1] We may be at the beginning of such a megadrought. It may last thirty years or more.

Since 2000, the whole of the West has been suffering from drought. This has created many different kinds of problems from crop failures to massive wildfires.[2] California offers a study of a particularly acute case. During the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, a large high pressure area prevented winter storms in the Pacific from blowing in-land to the great Sierra Nevada mountains along California’s eastern edge.[3] Three-quarters of California’s water comes from the snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. Come Spring each year, the snow melts and runs down streams and rivers into the rest of the state. Much of the water also seeps down into the aquifer of the great Central Valley. The high-pressure area cut rainfall in California to 42 to 75 percent of normal.[4] In addition, the absence of the cooling effect of on-shore breezes and storms helped bake California. That evaporated much of the water that did reach the ground.

By September 2014, 82 percent of California had been designated as either in an “extreme” or an “exceptional” drought. How to respond? Well, California is both a cluster of major cities and suburbs and a major agricultural state: it produces about 70 percent of the top 25 fruits, nuts, and vegetables. So, 80 percent of California’s water is used for irrigation of its farmers’ crops. To cut water to farmers is to cut the legs off a major industry. Instead of hitting agriculture, governments tried to limit non-agricultural water use. To begin with, the California Water Resources Control Board began fining people who watered their lawns or washed their cars without using a water-saving nozzle on the hose; Los Angeles—harking back to the oil shock of 1973—limited people to watering their yards on alternate days. That didn’t have much effect. Huge numbers of urban consumers pushed back against such restrictions.

Faced with limits on taking water from rivers, farmers turned to drilling into the aquifer. That’s a short-term—and destructive—response. There is a limited amount of water in the aquifer. A “water rush” equivalent to the Oklahoma “land rush” will privilege those with the most money for drilling operations and force smaller farmers to the wall.

In 2014 the state legislature passed a bill to regulate the use of groundwater (i.e. the drilling). This enraged farmers, who saw the groundwater as their own property. The basic question is whether a lot of people who use relatively little water (at most 20 percent of the total) should suffer hardships for the sake of relatively few people who use relatively a lot of water in order to produce valuable products. What if it was a question of electricity use, where urban areas consume far more than do rural areas? These questions aren’t just about California. They go to how we think about the environment and the economy in general.

[1] This cuts across the argument of supporters of androgenic climate change, without invalidating their arguments.

[2] Disclaimer: my son is a National Forest Service wildlands fire fighter. Actually, it isn’t a disclaimer. I just want everyone to know that I’m proud of my boy for doing a hard, demanding, and dangerous job when most kids want careers with Wall Street or Disney World or the US Gummint.

[3] “California’s epic drought,” The Week, 26 September 2014, p. 9.

[4] Apparently, no one attributes the high-pressure ridge to global warming. Inevitably, people make do with claims that “global warming” is intensifying the effects of the drought. Arguably, this is what climate-change denial on one side elicits from the other side: potential overstatement.

Climate of Fear XVII.

In 2006, a Pew poll reported that 79 percent of Americans saw global warming as a serious problem; in 2010 the number fell to 63 percent; and a recent poll reported that the number has risen to 69 percent. Similarly, in 2009, 57 percent of Americans accepted that there was “solid evidence of [global] warming”; in 2015, 68 percent agree.[1]

How do we explain the fluctuations? There are a number of possible answers. First, people trade off fears about climate change with fears about economic growth. When the economy tanks, people worry that environmental regulations will cripple recovery; when the economy recovers, people start to worry about the environment.

Second, the deep polarization of American politics causes the party out of power to swing against whatever the party in power proposes. In a classic example of this, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Recently, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Now, only 28 percent of Republicans support automatic registration of all eligible voters.[2] Many Republicans responded to the push by the Democrats for major climate legislation in 2009-2010 by clinging to their skepticism about climate change. Still, this hardly tells all of the story. For one thing, apparently, male Democrats are slightly less interested in the issue of climate change than are female Democrats, and the Democrats couldn’t get their climate change bill through Congress when they controlled both houses in 2010.[3] For another thing, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Republicans now are the “party in power” in both houses of Congress. If parties become more intensely opposed to the position of the party in power, then perhaps the spike in climate change belief really reflects a knee-jerk response among Democrats.

The economy always fluctuates, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of short-term concerns into the response to long-term problems. Parties alternate in power, sometimes every two years, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of irrationality and passion into politics. Americans have no monopoly on this trait, as the bitter Greek debt negotiations show.

[1] David Leonhardt, “Americans’ Concern Over Climate Change Is Again on the Rise,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15.

[3] I know, I know: “super-majority,” “filibuster,” “gerrymandering,” and “the Koch Brothers.” However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not even muster the support of all the Democrats. See: Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn, “Democrats Call Off Climate Bill Effort,” NYT, 22 July 2010.

Recent American Public Opinion.

Iran. In March 2015, 68 percent of Americans approved of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Broadly, we can see the effects of the Iraq war on the public mind. Most people favored negotiations over the risk of war. What is remarkable is the degree to which the words and actions of leaders have had a disruptive effect in spite of this broad consensus.

First, Americans seem to have arrived at an “a plague on both your houses” attitude to the Obama-Netanyahu conflict. In March 2015, only 38 percent had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while 27 had an unfavorable view of the Israeli prime minister. In April 2015, only 37 percent approved of the Prime Minister’s handling of relations with the United States. However, only 38 percent approved of President Obama’s handling of relations with Israel.[1] In many eyes, it has begun to look like a personal dispute, rather than an affair of state.

Second, a sharp partisan division had begun to manifest itself in attitudes toward Netanyahu. In the March 2015 poll, 53 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while only 28 percent of Democrats had a favorable view. Doubtless, this division of views reflected the invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress that had been schemed-up by the Republican leadership and the Israeli ambassador, the former-American and former- Republican activist Ron Dermer. That isn’t the same as saying that American attitudes toward Israel itself have shifted dramatically. Yet.

Third, in March 2015, the Republicans pushed their luck by meddling with the negotiations with Iran.[2] Forty-seven Republican Senators sent a letter to the Iranians warning that an agreement that was only an “executive agreement” could be undone by a subsequent administration. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) disapproved of this action. The hyperventilation on the left about “treason” (cue Ricky Perry) was silly. However, a lot of Americans seem to take the same view as did Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”

Energy. In March 2015, Pew Research surveyed Americans on their attitude toward energy and climate issues.[3] At this point, 81 percent favored government-imposed higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and 64 percent favored tighter emissions limits on power plants. However, 59 percent favored building the Keystone XL pipeline. On the other hand, 31 percent opposed building the pipeline and 31 percent opposed tighter controls on emissions from power plants. On the subject of ranking the means to develop America’s energy resources, 60 percent assigned priority to alternative energy sources (wind, solar, hydrogen) and 30 percent assigned priority to exploring for and developing carbon sources (coal, oil, natural gas). At the same time, 56 percent favored more off-shore drilling for gas and oil, while 40 percent opposed it.

There is a lot of incoherence here. How to sort it out?

First, the opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and the opponents of controls on power plant emissions represent the very large numbers of crazy people in American politics. Together they total 62 percent. Either the middle ground learns how to make deals or we’ve got problems.

Second, more carbon energy means more oil and gas, not more coal. The “war on coal” has already been won. Mitch McConnell just doesn’t know it.

Third, the President is pandering to his base in vetoing the Keystone pipeline.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 13 March 2015, p. 17; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 15. In the March poll a lucky 23 percent had never heard of the Israeli leader.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 17.

[3] “Voice of the People,” WSJ, 31 March 2015.

Climate of Fear XVI.

Coal is an important source of fuel: 38.7 percent of America’s electricity comes from 600 coal-fired generators.[1]

The trouble is that coal is bad for you and other living things. Coal burning for power generation in the United States gives off about 1.575 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That feeds the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Burning coal is worse than burning other fossil fuels. All the gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States give off about a billion tons. Burning natural gas gives off about half the carbon-dioxide as does burning coal.

No one is talking about having passed “peak coal”: there is a lot of coal still in the ground. People concerned about global warming want it to stay there. As the former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu memorably phrased it “there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

However, the coal industry looked to be in decline for the same reason that gasoline prices have fallen recently. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has succeeded. Natural gas prices have fallen by 74 percent over the last ten years. Natural gas, emitting half the carbon dioxide as coal, is now price competitive with coal. Thus, a shift from coal to natural gas would achieve a substantial reduction in emissions without harming anyone—except the coal producers of course. The economics certainly tilt in that direction: 150 of the less efficient coal-fired generation plants have shut down already.

For these reasons, it may have looked like an opportune time to push for a reduction in coal-burning. The Obama Administration is pushing hard to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from the 2005 level by 2030. In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a Clean Power Plan to limit coal burning in the United States. Each state would be required to reduce its carbon emissions. The logical thing to do would be to switch to other forms of energy generation ranging from nuclear to natural gas to “renewables” (solar, wind).

The EPA plan has elicited hard push-back from coal-mining states. The efficiency of coal-mining techniques has increased with the introduction of “open cast” mining (knock off the top of a mountain and excavate the coal with machinery). Coal miners will be thrown out of work[2] and coal mine owners will see their investments destroyed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has denounced the president’s “War on Coal.”[3] A dozen states have sued the EPA, claiming that it has exceeded its authority.

One way to smooth the path from coal would be to invest more in research into “clean coal” technology. So far, research has shown the process to be expensive and difficult. An experimental “clean coal” plant in Kemper, Mississippi, cost five billion dollars. However, it could both pacify the coal interest and find an international market.

The industrialization of countries like India and China are powered by coal. An estimated 82 percent of global coal reserves are still in the ground. China, which recently promised to reach peak carbon-burning by 2029, plans to build 363 new coal-fired plants before then. India is planning to build more than 450 coal-fired generating plants in years to come. The carbon dioxide emissions from these plants will overwhelm any reductions in the United States. Finding a way to “clean coal” might be one way to avert disaster.

[1] “The end of coal?” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 11.

[2] Although employment in coal mining in Kentucky has fallen from 38,000 in 1983 to 17,000 in 2012.

[3] Bearing mind the importance of both tobacco and coal for the state’s economy, maybe they could find a new slogan for Kentucky license plates: “Kentucky is for Respirators.”