On Friday, barely noted by the media amid all the hubbub about the death of Michael Jackson, the U.S. House of Representatives passed sweeping “cap and trade” legislation that, over the next forty years, will slowly but profoundly change our way of life in America.
The main goal of the legislation is to address global climate change by reducing CO2 (and other “greenhouse gas”) emissions by 83% from 1997 levels by the year 2050. It establishes an all-encompassing energy policy and, though not stated in the legislation, also offers the added benefit of dramatically reducing our dependence on foreign oil (or so I had hoped). The top link provided above will take you to a summary of this 1200 page bill. (Just enter “H.R.2454” in the search window to get to the bill. The 2nd link will take you to a Reuters article reporting on the passage of this legislation by the House.)
I applaud the administration for tackling this urgent issue. But, based upon my reading of the summary, I have two major concerns. First, upon hearing that the major goal of the legislation was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83%, I jumped to the conclusion that this would translate into an 83% reduction in our use of fossil fuels – eliminating our dependence on foreign oil and, with it, a big percentage of the trade deficit that has driven us to the brink of financial ruin. But that’s not the case. Since the law would only require that 20% of our electricity come from renewable sources by the year 2039, it’s clear that the bulk of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved by capture and underground sequestration. That is, the CO2 will be removed from the by-products of combustion of fossil fuels, stored and then eventually be pumped underground.
In fact, the legislation calls for programs to incentivize the development of the technology and even a corporation for the management of the underground storage facilities. In other words, our strategy is to continue extracting fossil fuels from the ground, filling the voids with CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and hoping to God that it never leaks. This is the same strategy for dealing with waste from nuclear power plants that has been such a source of concern that it has prevented any such new plants from being built in the U.S. in decades. I think that most people, when they come to understand the strategy, will be very disappointed in this legislation.
But secondly, my bigger concern is that, as far-reaching and sweeping as this legislation is, it has a hole big enough to sail a super-tanker through it. That is, it does absolutely nothing to address the government’s plans to increase our population by 50% by the year 2050 and indefinitely beyond. The bill addresses total emissions but, since that’s simply a function of only two variables – per capita emissions and population – it means that if we allow the size of our population to drift higher by 50%, then per capita emissions will have to be cut not by 83% by 2050, but by 92%. And the underground gas bubble, just waiting to explode to the surface following an unexpected catastrophe or good old corporate mismanagement, will be 50% bigger than it needs to be.
Opponents of this legislation warn that it could dramatically lower our standard of living, cut consumption and lead to staggering job losses. They may very well be right. (Although the alternative of extinguishing life as we know it doesn’t seem a viable alternative.) It doesn’t have to be this way. By 2050 we could make dramatic progress toward cutting our population in half. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 50% – without spending a single dime, without creating massive new government agencies requiring more taxes to fund them. The remaining 33% reduction in emissions could easily be achieved through the conversion to renewable energy.
Obviously, Obama’s economic advisors – avid followers of primitive, 18th century economics that relies upon population growth as an engine for economic growth – had a heavy hand in crafting this legislation. Even when population growth has brought us to this – relying upon the creation of giant, high-pressure, underground CO2 gas bubbles to avoid cooking ourselves in our own atmosphere, they cling desperately to the mantra of economics that mankind is smart enough to overcome any obstacle to growth.
This isn’t responsible leadership, it’s creating the illusion of action while actually kicking the can down the road, transforming today’s obstacle to further growth – global warming – into a different obstacle to further growth to be dealt with by future generations and their economists – how to deal with the threat from the rapidly growing, high-pressure, underground CO2 gas bubble. I suspect that, if they had the opportunity to question their ancestors, they’d grab them by the throats and, barely containing their anger, would shout “What in the hell were you thinking?!?!?”
Waving a wand and crossing our fingers, hoping that future generations can come through with technologies to comply with mandates, isn’t the kind of serious, sober handling of issues that we expected from Obama and his administration. Is this what they teach at Harvard, that the earth beneath us is an infinite trash can into which we can just dump our problems – out of sight, out of mind? Come on, President Obama, get real. We want real, permanent solutions, not dodges.