The complexities and difficult realities facing U. S. policymakers in regard to global climate change are being exacerbated, not improved, by Al Gore's bold (and unrealistic) calls for drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Gore's proposal that the United States produce the entirety of its electricity from renewable sources within ten years will have serious and destructive consequences on the American economy, especially given the cost of renewables and the value of the existing national energy infrastructure. The United States would do better to seek out a policy that achieves efficient and effective emissions reductions in the long-term.
Mr. Gore's activism on the science of climate change has earned him the attention of the world; when he speaks, everyone listens. But what they hear from him on climate policy is sheer nonsense. Worse, it is dangerous nonsense; Gore deliberately obscures the critical questions that need to be carefully considered when crafting climate policy. Gore's proposal to produce 100 percent of American electricity from renewable sources within a decade should be rejected--indeed, ridiculed--even by those who share Gore's goal of combating climate change.
Almost no one believes Gore's proposal is even technically feasible, much less economically realistic. This is the sort of goal that a politician plucks out of thin air just because it sounds bold; it has no bearing on reality whatsoever. Renewables produce roughly 2.3 percent of our power today; it may be possible to increase that number significantly, but the idea of generating all of America's electricity with renewables within a decade is simply laughable. Underscoring the absurdity of this agenda is Gore's silence on the one source of energy that realistically could quickly produce significant amounts of reliable, affordable, zero-emissions energy: nuclear.
Caught between Gore's obfuscations and Bush's inarticulate inaction, it is no wonder that Americans are confused about what a realistic climate policy might involve.
Gore's sympathizers might naturally argue that it makes sense to look at climate policy questions from the perspective of this idealistic goal--in other words, we need an absurdly ambitious goal in order to prompt more modest action. That is a charitable interpretation of Gore's strategy--and unfortunately, one without foundation. Gore is not clarifying the choices we must make in crafting a realistic climate policy, he is obscuring them. Caught between Gore's obfuscations and Bush's inarticulate inaction, it is no wonder that Americans are confused about what a realistic climate policy might involve.
Gore claims that "the real solutions to the climate crisis are the very same measures needed to renew our economy and escape the trap of ever-rising energy prices." Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth, and lying about it to the American people is no way to advance the public's understanding of this difficult issue.
Here is a simple truth that everyone who actually cares about climate change should understand: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions costs money. Reducing them a lot will cost a lot of money. Drastically reducing them very quickly will cost vast amounts of money. And, no matter what we do, cutting them enough to stop warming without the cooperation of major developing economies such as China and India will be impossible. These facts do not mean that we should do nothing to cut emissions, by any means--but understanding these inconvenient truths must be the first step towards crafting a realistic climate policy.
Yes, there are opportunities for businesses and consumers to conserve energy or produce more of it from zero- or low-emission sources. Many creative people are pursuing these ideas, and as the cost of oil rises, more alternatives have become cost-effective. America, the world's climate pariah, is actually doing quite well at finding these opportunities to cost-effectively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions--far better than the European countries that ratified Kyoto. Sensible government policies can certainly accelerate this process.
But the real challenge of climate change lies in the scale of the problem. It is relatively easy to make very modest reductions in emissions; in the short term, it is virtually impossible to cut them deeply enough and quickly enough to actually stop warming. We can save money and cut emissions by picking the low-hanging fruit--taking advantage of opportunities to eliminate waste and conserve energy. That is happening, and it will continue. But when that's done, we will still need to climb the biggest tree imaginable and pick it clean if we want to curtail warming--and that is not going to be an economical proposition in the immediate future, no matter what Gore tells you. No government policy could make it so. Honesty about these costs is a prerequisite to any serious conversation about whether they are justified.
Gore promises that switching to renewable energy sources will save us from high energy prices--conveniently ignoring that renewables cost more than the high-carbon content fuels that Gore wants to eliminate. You don't make energy cheaper by eliminating the most abundant and affordable sources of it. It is not possible to cut the cost of energy by shutting down every power plant in the country that runs on the cheapest, most abundant, domestically available fuel--coal (which generates 49 percent of our electric power)--as well as the second largest source of the same, natural gas (20 percent). Prematurely retiring more than $500 billion worth of energy infrastructure is not the key to renewed economic growth, to say the least. It couldn't be done, but if it were attempted, it would cause economic ruin. If America thinks that this is really what climate policy demands--and what it promises--it may well decide it prefers the Bush approach after all. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what happened the last time that Gore controlled climate policy.
Democratically elected governments tend to focus on policies that provide short-term, tangible rewards. They are notoriously poor at confronting long-term problems such as the Social Security deficit. Drastic, rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will impose significant costs while producing no tangible rewards in the short term. To be effective, these policies must be maintained for many years. Voters may well elect representatives who will enact costly measures to cut emissions--but the chances of maintaining those policies for long in the face of rapidly escalating costs are virtually nonexistent. Even if Congress enacted Gore's agenda, when the bills came due in a few years--at a time when China's emissions will be experiencing double-digit annual growth with no end in sight--the backlash from voters would set the green movement back decades.
If we are to have any hope at all of crafting sensible climate policy in the coming years, we must at least learn from our worst mistakes, and have a healthy respect for the risks that poor policy may entail. An important new book from one of the nation's foremost environmental economists, William Nordhaus, makes this abundantly clear. If we do nothing to halt it, global warming is likely to cause $23 trillion in damages by the end of the century. Sound policies to address it would be highly beneficial--generating as much as $3 trillion in net benefits--but poorly designed climate policies could be nearly as damaging as warming itself. Gore's proposal to cut U.S. emissions by 90 percent by 2050, Nordhaus calculates, would have a net social cost of $21 trillion--the equivalent of taking $63,000 from every person in America. The danger that climate change poses is twofold, therefore: the risk of environmental damage, and the risk of economic disaster arising from poorly designed climate policies.
We hear frequently from environmental advocates that only greedy oil companies and cowardly politicians stand between us and a sound climate policy. That is a convenient story line--but it is far from true. Arguably, the single biggest obstacle to sound climate policy today is the nonsense that we hear from naïve advocates like Gore who refuse to even acknowledge the real-world complexities of the issue. The world has essentially wasted the last fifteen years pursuing Kyoto; we have almost nothing to show for it, and Gore to thank for that. Now, Gore asks Americans to believe that we can eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions virtually overnight and get rich at the same time. (Strangely enough, he asserts this while ignoring the fact that his own carbon footprint has been growing, not shrinking, despite his enormous wealth.) An honest environmental advocate would admit that rapid, large-scale emissions reductions will be very expensive; if we could agree on that basic fact, we could begin to analyze what approach to achieving those reductions might be most efficient and effective in the long run. That is a complicated and important question that serious scholars are working hard to answer. Wouldn't it be nice to have an honest national conversation about it? It's a shame Gore won't be part of it.
Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at AEI, director of the AEI Press, and codirector of AEI's geoengineering project.