WASHINGTON – Most Americans do not know that much about global warming. Likewise, most Americans do not have clear opinions as to whether global warming is man-made, what problems it has caused and will cause, and what should be done about it.
Indeed, several opinion polls reveal that global warming and climate change are way down the list of issues that people in America are concerned about.
In the light of this public opinion context, President Obama’s June 2 policy initiative to cut down CO2 emissions by regulatory fiat, as opposed to introducing legislation aimed at achieving this goal, looks like a daring move.
Coal will be penalized
Without getting into the many technical details, the upshot is quite simple. Whatever the benefits down the line, in the short and medium term, regulations will hurt some energy sector, coal first and foremost. This means that jobs will be lost in the coal mining industry, (very significant in some states such as West Virginia and Montana), the closing down of older, high emissions coal-fired power plants, and a lot more. Do consider that America still gets about 40% of all its electricity from coal.
Apart from the direct hit on the coal sector, it is also obvious that the regulatory obligations to switch to cleaner, (and still more expensive), technologies for electric power generation will translate at least in some regions into higher electricity prices, that will be viewed by most opponents as a “global warming tax”.
Pay more? For what?
And here is the political rub. As indicated, most Americans do not feel strongly about global warming. Therefore the idea that they will have to pay for the cost of stopping it or reversing it may not look very appealing. In fact it will be strongly opposed. We see already the arguments: “Obama’s crazy policies will kill jobs while they will impose an unnecessary economic burden on businesses and consumers”.
No global warming benefits
That said, it gets worse. By its own calculations, the US Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), the federal body put in charge of regulating emission, has estimated that all these new policies, curbs and de facto taxes on coal, will change almost nothing when it comes to global emissions. Therefore, the impact of this new US policy on the larger goal of stopping global warming is practically zero.
It is indeed clear that, unless China, India and other emerging economies adopt stringent standards, global emissions will continue to grow, and therefore the goal of stopping, let alone reversing, global warming will not be achieved, whatever America decides to do today.
Regulations will be challenged
So, here is the situation. Using unprecedented regulatory prerogatives that –rest assured– will be challenged in courts throughout the 50 states, the Obama administration says it wants to impose costly burdens on several economic sectors, with the goal of stopping global warming. And yet, the EPA, its chief enforcer, admits that the impact of this policy on global warming will be almost zero.
This does not look like a political winner.
Sure enough, Obama’s initiative will please the small but well-organized and well-funded US eco-lobby. There will be millions of Americans who will be enormously pleased. They view carbon based energy as evil. Therefore, anything aimed at reducing its use is most welcome. And it is also true that this minority has the support of the liberal media establishment, most opinion leaders and a slew of experts and academics. And all this matters politically.
And, of course, in combination with other Democrats, these groups create political majorities in traditionally left-leaning states on both coasts: California, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, etc.
But, even if we grant that in many politically relevant states there is genuine political support for curbing carbon emissions, these new regulations will be strongly opposed in many states.
And this is largely because the administration is unable to make a credible case for what it wants to do. Indeed, as powerful and vocal as the anti-carbon coalitions are in several key states, they do not constitute a national majority. Not even close.
Some opinion leaders have argued that, by enacting CO2 restrictions, America “will set a good example”, that will force China and India to follow suit. Really? And so we create a de facto carbon tax in the hope that this will inspire others? This is silly.
Focus on public health benefits
In my view the only way in which the Obama administration may be able to create a broader coalition of clean energy supporters is by dropping the dubious anti-global warming goal of these regulations, while enhancing the public health benefits.
Yes, noxious emissions may or may not increase global warming. However they do have a demonstrable and mostly negative impact on the health, well-being, and life expectancy of those who are directly exposed to them.
Emissions make you sick
Here the science and therefore the policy argument in favor of reduction is a lot stronger, and therefore a lot more cogent. Indeed, if we look at China and India, we can see the dreadful impact of unregulated power generation. These countries have horrible rates of respiratory problems affecting mostly children and old people. They have high incidence of asthma and various forms of cancer.
Now, this is an argument that most Americans can understand. “Do you still want cheap power generated by dirty coal, even though this means that you will die younger because of the emissions?”
Higher electricity costs are OK, if this means improved health
Again, I am no expert on how this information can be presented in an accurate and understandable way to the general public. But in my judgement it will be a lot easier to find allies for a lower carbon economy by showing the public health advantages of clean energy.
All considered, higher electrical bills are a small price to pay if the alternative is having lower utility costs but also having your children sick with chronic respiratory diseases –children who may die younger as a result of the noxious emissions generated by coal-fired power plants.