The inconvenient truth President Obama denies about climate change is that China’s refusal to cooperate in international efforts to address the problem makes U.S. efforts to slow its pace futile. Moreover, his policies severely handicap America’s ability to mitigate its consequences.
The global climate has gone through profound cycles of cooling and warming since long before humans walked the Earth. While public figures and some scientists may disagree, the majority of researchers have concluded that human activities – in particular, greenhouse gas emissions – are now a significant cause of global warming, and they are urging concerted international action.
Carbon dioxide composes 80 percent of harmful emissions. Having failed to win congressional approval for a system of permits to reduce emissions, the president has unilaterally targeted coal-fired electric utilities and fuel used in transportation to reduce U.S. emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels.
Those actions are unnecessary and harmful.
In recent years, more abundant and cheaper natural gas has motivated electric utilities to switch from coal, and energy intensive manufacturers in metals, chemicals and the like have made remarkable, cost-saving progress to reduce energy use.
Responding to consumer preferences, automakers were making more fuel-efficient vehicles before the president imposed more stringent mileage standards. The high cost and stress of commuting are encouraging many young people to live closer to their jobs. Competition from rail is pressuring trucking companies to purchase more fuel-efficient rigs.
Together, those free-market decisions have reduced CO2 emissions by more than 9 percent from 2005 levels.
Now the EPA and other federal agencies want to micro-manage those choices by imposing inflexible standards on electric utilities and other manufacturers. Progressives would happily force as many Americans as they can onto mass transit, imposing a terrible drain on state transportation and local government operating budgets.
Those initiatives would not do much to arrest global warming, but by increasing taxes and production costs, they would send more jobs to China.
With an economy about half the size, China already emits almost twice as much CO2 as either the United States or Europe. Every 18 months, its emissions grow enough to replace the emissions savings the United States will accomplish by hitting the president’s 15-year target.
Other developing countries, like India, are similarly adding to the problem; however, China accounts for about 85 percent of the annual increase in global CO2 emissions.
When jobs are outsourced to China, global emissions go up, because China uses energy less efficiently and relies more heavily on coal than the United States, and the growth of manufacturing encourages migration to cities where folks use more electricity and automotive fuel.
Simply, without China’s cooperation, U.S. efforts are futile.
Progressives propose to bring China and other nations along through diplomacy, but despite considerable effort, the president has not been able to obtain Beijing’s cooperation on climate change, its undervalued currency, or just about anything else that would constrain the Middle Kingdom’s growth.
Put bluntly, if man-made emissions are the culprit, then by China’s actions alone global warming is going to happen with the force and fury many fear. The United States can do little to stop it, and efforts to do so will only reduce U.S. resources available to mitigate its consequences.
U.S. economic growth has fallen from 3.4 percent during the Reagan-Clinton years to 1.7 percent since the beginning of this century. This slowdown was caused by U.S currency and trade policies toward China that disadvantage U.S. manufacturers, restrictions on offshore oil and gas development that keep America dependent on imports, and costly and ineffective regulations on banking, health care and other industries.
Millions of Americans are without decent jobs, and governments at all levels are severely challenged. Those will get worse if the nation continues on its current path.
Rising temperatures will confront federal and state agencies with unparalleled challenges, as droughts dislocate cattle ranchers in the Southwest, insects threaten forests, arable regions shift north, rising seas flood coastal cities and new diseases attack humans, plants and animals.
Moving populations and economic activities will cost trillions of dollars, and an economy impoverished by mindless micro-management from Washington simply won’t be able to generate the tax dollars to foot the bill.
Americans will be forced to abandon farms and cities – simply, fend for themselves – as Washington will not be able to sustain the essential elements of civilization.
Peter Morici served as Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission from 1993 to 1995. He is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.