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.

Public Opinion in the Addams Administration 1.

It has become an age of bitter political polarization.  Everyone says so.  To take one small example, in January 2017, 16 percent of Democrats believed that Donald Trump was following ethics laws; 79 percent of Republican believed that Trump was complying with the laws.[1]  A month later, almost half (46 percent) of Americans wanted Donald Trump impeached.[2]

If the conventional wisdom is true, what is to be made of the areas of broad consensus in the American public?  Take four examples: allegations about the election of November 2016; climate change; health care, and abortion.

Almost three-quarters (70 percent) believe that President Barack Obama did not have Donald Trump’s communications tapped.  Fewer than one in five (19 percent) of Americans believe that President Obama had intelligence agencies wire-tap Trump.[3]  That leaves 11 percent “not sure.”  Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans saw Russia’s intervention in the presidential election as a “serious” issue.  Well over half (58 percent) of Americans believed that the allegations should be investigated by an independent prosecutor, while more than a third (35 percent) opposed an independent investigation.[4]

In 2015, only 27 percent of Americans described themselves as “believers” in climate change.  By early 2017, 50 percent described themselves as “believers.”  Another 31 percent believe in climate change, but think that it has been exaggerated by environmentalists and the media.[5]  Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans support the development of alternative energy sources, while just over a quarter (27 percent) support the development of fossil fuels.[6]

In 2016, 51 percent of Americans believed that the government should ensure that all Americans have health-care.  By early 2017, 60 percent believed this, while 38 percent believed that it is not the government’s job.[7]  As the Republican “repeal and replace” of Obamacare got moving, virtually all (96 percent) of Americans believed that it was either “somewhat” or “very” important that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance.  This included virtually all (91 percent) Republicans.  Almost as large numbers (84 percent) believed that the Affordable Care Act should not be repealed until a suitable replacement was ready.[8]

Finally, over half (54 percent) of Americans want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade, while less than a third (30 percent) want it overturned.[9]

So, if you leave it to ordinary Americans, women would retain their right to choose whether to bring a child into the world.  If you leave it to the Supreme Court, that may not be the case.  Of course, the Court might take the position that it does respect for the law in general no good if the courts drive huge numbers of people into disobeying a particular law.

The ground has shifted under the feet of the Trump administration (and the Republican Party) on climate change and health-care.  Their best course may be to pursue market-based policies to address both issues.  That is, declare “victory” and get out.

Democrats and Independents, if not every Republican, can smell a rat.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 January 2017, p. 17.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 17.  They probably expected him to be replaced by Hillary Clinton.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 7 April 2017, p. 17.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 March 2017, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 7 April 2017, p. 17.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 17.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 January 2017, p. 17.

[8] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 10 February 2017, p. 17.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 17.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 14.

The historian Fernand Braudel distinguished between long term trends and the “mere history of events.”  It’s a useful concept to bear in mind when analyzing political developments.  However, Braudel would be the first to admit that events can illustrate trends.

As early as the 1950s, Democrats turned to seeking changes in the law through the courts when they could not obtain them through the legislature.  Two can play at this game.  Both parties have spent a great deal of effort getting “their” judges on the bench while blocking the other guys’ judges from getting on the bench.  Polarization has only made the problem more obvious.  In 2013, when last in the majority, Senate Democrats chose to get rid of the filibuster for all judicial appointments below the level of the Supreme Court.  When Justice Antonin Scalia died, President Obama nominated a highly qualified Democratic replacement; Senate Republicans refused to even hold hearings on the nominee.  Now in the minority, Senate Democrats chose to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and Republicans chose to do away with the filibuster.[1]  This unhappy event is merely the most recent phase in the politicization of the judiciary.  The mind reels at possible future developments.

Human-caused climate change is a reality.  So, too, is the halting effort by industrial countries to limit the further emission of pollutants that cause that climate change.  So, too, are the social and economic costs of fighting climate change in industrial societies.  When interest groups resist the threats to their immediate well-being, governments can either bend before the resistance, or seek to off-set those costs, or seek to circumvent the resistance by other means.  Thus, President Barack Obama insisted that the Paris climate agreement to which his administration adhered not be a treaty.[2]  He knew he could never get such a treaty through the Senate, as required by the Constitution.  Nor could he get the policies needed to implement the Paris agreement through Congress.  So, he resorted to a “Clean Power Plan” issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The Trump administration ordered a re-write of the Plan and “requested” that the EPA lighten up on other regulations.[3]  Most observers found this to be ridiculous pandering to his core voters.[4]  In this view, coal is a dying industry, climate change has to be resisted with energy,[5] and renewable energy is a key technology of the future economy.

American social values and the deficiencies of the American education system have challenged the growth of the high-tech industries for many years.[6]  In brief compass, America doesn’t produce enough techies to meet the needs of growing industries.  The solution appeared in the hiring of many (85,000 new people a year) from foreign countries.  The granting of H-1B visas plays a key role in this process.  Now the Trump administration has issued orders intended to hinder the issuing of such visas.[7]  The empty spots aren’t likely to be filled by displaced coal miners.

[1] “Senate showdown over Gorsuch nomination,” The Week, 14 April 2017, p. 5.

[2] “Climate change: Can Trump revive coal?” The Week, 14 April 2017, p. 17.

[3] Relax the rules on emissions by power plants to be constructed in the future; allow new coal mining on public lands; and ease restrictions on the emission of methane in the course of “fracking.”

[4] As an employer, the whole of the coal industry ranks behind some fast-food chains.  Coal mine employment has fallen by almost 50 percent since 1990, long before the Clean Power Plan was even a twinkle in Barack Obama’s eye.  “The bottom line,” The Week, 14 April 2017, p. 35.

[5] HA!  Is joke.

[6] See Bruce Cannon Gibney, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (2017).

[7] “Tech: More scrutiny for skilled-worker visas,” The Week, 14 April 2017, p. 35.

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.

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 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.