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The Green Fatal Conceit: Why Physical Science Can’t Tell Us Proper Policy Goals

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The Committee on Energy and Commerce recently released more details of the so-called CLEAN Future Act, which “formally adopts the goal of achieving of a 100 percent clean economy by 2050.” Besides the manipulative name, the proposal (a) doesn’t even bother trying to justify its central goal and (b) includes a grab bag of proposals that progressive Democrats have always favored, regardless of climate change concerns, and many of which are very blunt instruments to reduce emissions even if the central goal did make sense. When a small group of officials declares what “the science” dictates in terms of government measures, the public should be very wary.

An Act by Any Other Name Would Be Less Loaded

Before moving on to more substantive matters, I do want to reiterate how absurd it is for the ostensible opponents of human-caused climate change to embrace the label “clean” for their proposals.

In the first place, carbon dioxide is not “dirty” or a “pollutant” in any normal sense of those terms. It is colorless and odorless, and plants breathe it. Nobody walks into a commercial greenhouse—which might maintain CO2 levels that are triple the current atmospheric concentration—starts coughing, and exclaims, “Ugh, the air is so dirty in here, what’s with all the pollution?”

Indeed, even when websites caution parents about elevated CO2 levels in tightly insulated classrooms (which might crowd out oxygen and lead to fatigue or headaches), it reminds them, “As a colorless and odorless gas, indoor carbon dioxide is impossible to track on your own.” In contrast, if you visit Beijing you are well aware of the actual pollution and dirty air (though it’s gotten much better in the last twenty years). You don’t need a special monitor.

It’s not just that the so-called CLEAN Future Act has a loaded title; it’s the opposite of what it claims. In general, rapid economic growth is the key to rising living standards, which allows us the ability to afford continued environmental improvements. In the United States, the transition from horses to automobiles as the chief means of transportation certainly made our cities “cleaner”—no more manure in the streets. And in the developing world, the electrification of homes that currently rely on burning wood or dung is obviously a boon to air quality and health, even if the electricity is produced in a coal-fired power plant.

Physical Science Can’t Tell Us Proper Policy Goals

The official framework for the CLEAN Future Act repeatedly alludes to “the scientific consensus that all countries must shift to net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change,” and it cites the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (​IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C as the source for this claim. As this statement is the bedrock upon which the entire CLEAN Future Act rests, it’s worth analyzing.

In the first place, even on its own terms, and even if there were nothing misleading about it, the statement does not justify a policy of moving to net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Don’t believe me? Consider this analogous claim: “The medical consensus is that Americans must stop driving motorcycles to avoid the most devastating consequences of traffic accidents.”

If we play with definitions, this claim about motorcycles is true. After all, “the most devastating consequences” of traffic accidents are that people die, and apparently you are thirty-seven times more likely to die in a motorcycle accident than a car accident. So QED, we should ban motorcycles, right?

Most readers will probably disagree, or at the very least will understand that a mere statement about the downside of an activity—in my example motorcycle riding—is not proof that it should be eliminated.

The same principle holds with respect to human-caused climate change. Even if we disregard the overstated confidence in modeling projections (which I documented in a three-part series), and took everything the UN’s IPCC said about emissions and climate change at face value, it still would remain an open question what we should do about it. After all, there’s a reason that humans rely so heavily on fossil fuels to produce electricity and move their vehicles. Switching to energy sources with lower carbon intensity will necessarily make energy and transportation more expensive and less convenient than they otherwise would be.

So it’s not enough to merely state that moving to net zero GHG emissions by 2050 would “avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change.” To repeat, even if that were true, the advocates of this policy would still need to demonstrate that the costs of such a policy wouldn’t be even higher than the benefits.

The CLEAN Future Act versus Nobel Laureate and the Obama EPA

I am not merely being pedantic by contrasting the physical science with policy goals. As I have mentioned repeatedly on these pages, on the very same weekend when the UN’s Special Report was released, the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics was awarded to William Nordhaus for his pioneering work on the economics of climate change. And irony of ironies, in Nordhaus’s model the “optimal carbon tax” slightly reduces human-caused climate change but still allows for 3.5 degrees (!) of total warming by the year 2100. Furthermore, according to Nordhaus’s model the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is so incredibly harmful to the economy that it would reduce human welfare more than if governments did nothing to combat climate change.

There’s another way to illustrate just how “unscientific” the CLEAN Future Act is. Remember that it cites the UN’s Special Report as its authority for why we should adopt net zero emissions by 2050 as our goal. But as I explain in detail in this essay, the Special Report explicitly admits that it will not try to justify its temperature goals; it simply takes them as given and then gives policymakers recommendations on the best way to achieve them.

When you actually translate the Special Report’s targets into the implied “shadow price” of carbon dioxide emissions, you end up with ranges from $135 to $5,500 per ton for the year 2030, according to a (sympathetic) analysis from Resources for the Future. Yet when the Obama administration convened an interagency working group to use the “latest science” to estimate the “social cost of carbon,” it reported (for the standard 3 percent discount rate) a value of $50/ton for the year 2030.

To sum up: during the Obama administration, they convened a special group to use the latest published research in order to estimate the cost to society of emitting carbon dioxide, and they came up with a number. Now the sponsors of the CLEAN Future Act are recommending policies that implicitly assume the true damage from carbon dioxide is anywhere from triple to 110 times the amount reported by the Obama EPA.

At the very least, this episode should confirm for skeptical onlookers that this whole procedure of “estimating the social cost of carbon” was a farce. As I pointed out in my testimony to a Senate committee, the whole process gave the public a false sense of precision and “science,” as if guys in white lab coats were measuring the charge of an electron. In reality, assumptions about discount rates drove the analysis, allowing the analyst to generate just about any “social cost of carbon” outcome he wanted, and—as the CLEAN Future Act now reveals—nobody listens to the numbers anyway.

It’s Lonely at the Top

Before leaving this subject, let me mention one final consideration: although the framework says that “the CLEAN Future Act directs the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) to study how EPA should evaluate progress towards the net-zero emissions target,” there don’t seem to be any clauses dealing with the issue of whether the rest of the world is making progress toward a net zero emission goal by 2050.

And yet, the rest of the world’s behavior is critical. As I show in this article, under standard assumptions the US is projected to produce about 11 percent of total emissions through 2100, while China alone will emit 33 percent and India 13 percent. So even if the US slams the brakes on emissions, this by itself won’t spare everyone “the most devastating consequences of climate change” (the language in the CLEAN Future Act) unless all of the other major emitters do likewise.

Even though this is a huge issue, the words “China” and “India” do not appear in the CLEAN Future write-up.

Power Sector

If the United States is to rapidly move to net zero emissions from its power sector while attempting to mitigate the blow to Americans’ standard of living, then clearly a piece of low-hanging fruit would be to green-light the construction of new nuclear power plants.

But alas, out of fifteen pages, the framework only has two sentences containing the word “nuclear,” regarding “a PPA [power purchase agreement] pilot program for advanced nuclear technology.” This statement occurs paragraphs after mentioning how the CLEAN Future Act “promotes the use of ‘non-wires solutions’” and ‘reauthorizes and increases funding for Department of Energy (DOE) programs to assist Native American tribes.” Call me cynical, but I don’t believe that the authors of this bill actually believe that the fate of humanity is at stake.

Building Efficiency

There is an entire section devoted to the various measures by which the CLEAN Future Act will incentivize and/or mandate buildings and appliances to become more energy efficient.

But why is this necessary? If the CLEAN Future Act moves the US towards “clean” energy by 2050, then at that point it doesn’t matter whether buildings retain heat or refrigerators squander power: all of the energy being “wasted” comes from green sources anyway.

It is these types of basic contradictions that indicate that this isn’t really a policy designed to address the ostensible problem of climate change at the lowest possible cost to Americans. No, this is a bunch of enormous spending projects being sold in the name of saving the planet.


The so-called CLEAN Future Act is as poorly designed as its acronym. Like the Green New Deal, it consists of radical new spending proposals that the bill’s supporters would have liked for other reasons, and which aren’t even compatible. The overarching target of net zero emissions by 2050 is simply taken as a given, even though it violates the findings of a Nobel laureate as well as the Obama administration’s estimates of the social cost of carbon. And finally, even if this climate goal did make sense, the Act hardly takes the steps needed to achieve it, and it doesn’t discuss ways of checking to see if other countries are following suit.

Originally published at the Institute for Energy Research.

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