A Real Look at Potential Harm

green-brickToday we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Jackson Cosko.

In his most recent book Hot, Flat, & Crowded New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman details his plan to both save the world from environmental crisis and “renew America” (1).  I found the book overall to be absorbing and thought provoking.  Mr. Friedman presents many ideas with a great deal of merit but, I have many substantial criticisms with the way Friedman wholly misjudges some of the effects some of his proposed ‘solutions’ will have both on the world in regards to climate change, and on the economy both of the United States and the world.

One of the most promising possibilities for increased sustainability which Mr. Friedman brings up is the subject of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED.  My father is a LEED Accredited Professional and works at a construction company that was named the number five green builder in the nation at one point.  Mr. Friedman goes into detail describing the plant for the Texas Instruments Wafer Factory.  This factory earned a LEED rating of silver.  I recently had the opportunity to tour the new Energy and Environment building at Stanford University.  This building is quite a feat to behold.  It did not apply for a LEED rating but would easily achieve a platinum rating.  This building would “reduce construction waste by 80 percent, energy consumption by 57 percent, potable water consumption by more than 30 percent, and landscape potable water consumption by 100 percent”. (2)  Even such an ambitious investment in sustainability would be recouped in saved energy and water costs.  The frontier of sustainable buildings could go a long way towards reducing the emissions of greenhouse gasses.  Buildings which meet the standard for a LEED certification are overall better buildings.  LEED buildings have higher tenant happiness and increased productivity. (3)  Aside from those benefits a paying as little as 2% more in the construction phase of a building can save ten times that amount in energy usage over the buildings lifetime. (4)  Considering these factors Mr. Friedman’s wish if he could “wave a magic wand…would be a law requiring every first-year drafting, engineering, and architectural student to take a course in LEED” (1) seems very tame compared to some of the other things he expresses support for.  Since LEED buildings save money, are of higher quality, and are sustainable the federal government should require every new building after 2015 to be at least LEED certified and provide increased tax incentives to buildings that surpass the requirement and earn silver, gold, or platinum status.  Other proposals in the book would complement a LEED standard well.

National mandates for increased efficiency in appliances and other electronics could greatly reduce energy usage.  A law requiring all new light bulbs sold to be CLF light bulbs which use much less energy and save money.  Similar standards for appliances could not only save energy, but save consumers money.  These types of regulations would go a long way towards reducing energy consumption without the massive costs of many of Mr. Friedman’s proposals.  Instead they would actually save money.  Along with this a national renewable energy standard could increase the usage of clean energy.  A federal commitment to spend $100 billion over the next ten years in groundbreaking research for new technologies instead of subsidizing current renewable technology could be the trigger for the ‘million Noahs and million Arks’ that Mr. Friedman writes will be needed.  It would also ensure that the breakthroughs in clean technology happen in America.

Another smart proposal Mr. Freidman puts forth is an increased tax on gasoline which he labels as a “Patriot Tax”. (1)  The only problem I have with Mr. Friedman’s view of this tax is that it will have no harm.  Nowhere in his book does he state the negative consequences of higher gasoline taxes on the pocketbooks of working Americans.  Nor does Mr. Friedman say that higher taxes on gasoline will drive up costs for transporting many goods around the country.  However Mr. Friedman’s main focus of this tax is to lessen the ‘transfer of wealth’ from the United States to countries such as Venezuela and Iran.  This is indeed smart policy; however I do not believe would not be as easy to pass such a tax in the current political atmosphere as Mr. Friedman expects.  He thinks that any proponent of a gasoline tax could easily counter the charge of being a tax and spend liberal by simply saying ‘I prefer my money to go to the United States instead of Venezuela’.  While this is a good comeback it ignores the fact that most people will respond with a simple ‘no’ to the question “Do you want gas prices to go up?”  A proposal that would be more likely to gain Republican support would be a revenue neutral gasoline tax increase coupled with a decrease in payroll, income, or death taxes.  If that is not enough to entice them then increased domestic drilling for oil offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should draw some Republican support.  In the short term this would not lower gasoline prices and in the long term once these supplies come online they will begin to supplant foreign imports.

One of the most frustrating sections of the book is when Mr. Friedman Begins pointing out the catastrophic consequences of climate change.  He uses many anecdotal events evidence.  Mr. Friedman suggests that hurricane Katrina may have been caused by man.  This insinuation is at odds with the stated consensus of the World Meteorological Association which states “No individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change”. (5)  Local climate anomalies such as a warm day during winter in Washington D.C. of less snowfall in Montana should not be used as evidence for global climate change.  Similarly inconsistencies such as record Antarctic sea ice, or negligible warming since 1998 are not evidence against global warming.

Also Mr. Friedman takes for granted that many of the worst predictions of the IPCC will come true while making only a passing statement to possibly the most important factor in how much the climate will warm, negative feedbacks.  I do not deny that global warming is happening, or that there will be serious consequences resulting from it.  There already are.  However many peer-reviewed scientific studies have cast doubt on how much warming CO2 can actually cause.  It has been calculated that doubling CO2 alone, without any feedbacks, would only warm the earth 1° Celsius. (6)  The reason scientists predict higher temperature increases is that they make assumptions about positive feedbacks such as differences in ice albedo, melting permafrost releasing methane, and increased water vapor.  While the IPCC predicts positive feedbacks that will be twice as much as warming from CO2 it is entirely possible that there are negative feedbacks.  If every feedback drove the temperature higher and higher in an endless cycle then the earth’s climate would be inherently unstable.  Mr. Friedman makes only brief note to the possibility of negative feedbacks.  One possible negative feedback is the Iris Hypothesis proposed by MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen.  He put forward the idea that the earth might have an “adaptive infrared iris” and that changes in low and high cloud cover could help cool the earth substantially. (7)  Recently scientists from the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the same Livermore laboratory where Nobel Prize winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu worked have found evidence that could possibly support this theory. (8)  Former NASA scientist Roy Spencer said “To give an idea of how strong this enhanced cooling mechanism is, if it was operating on global warming, it would reduce estimates of future warming by over 75 percent” (9).   Many other studies have also cast doubt on how much warming would result from a doubling of CO2.  Dr. Lindzen authored a paper this July which found a climate sensitivity of .5° Celsius. (10)  Several other studies put climate sensitivity at .8°, 1.3°, and 1.9° Celsius. (11)(12)(13)  These estimates are very underwhelming when the fact that around .8° of the warming has occurred already.  Compared to other forecasts they may cause some to moderate their doomsday talk.  However despite these studies the majority of scientific opinion, as Mr. Friedman correctly points out, is towards a higher forecasted rise in temperatures.  This rise in temperatures will be accompanied by many difficulties which Mr. Friedman Explains.

Mr. Friedman expresses support for a cap-and-trade system if it could make it through congress without being “watered down” as a price signal for carbon emissions. (1)  A bill such as the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security act would meet his criteria.  A bill of this type is possibly the most inefficient way to try and address the problems posed by climate change.  The economic costs of this bill would be massive while any good done would be negligible.

Many in the Congress make extraordinary claims about how a cap-and-trade system would jump start our economy and provide ‘green jobs’ which cannot be outsourced.  Both of these claims are very misleading as a cap-and-trade system would stifle economic growth for years to come and would result in a massive loss.  Such a program comes with massive drawbacks.  In testimony before the House Ways and Means committee a Congressional Budget Office stated “CBO estimates that the price increases resulting from a 15 percent cut in CO2 emissions could cost the average household roughly $1,600” (14)  That is only when CO2 has been cut 15%.  As the program would tighten the noose around the neck of the economy the costs would increase.  A Heritage Foundation analysis found that by 2035 the costs to a family of four would be nearly $4,600 a year in higher taxes, energy prices and other costs.  It also found that GDP will be $9.4 trillion dollars lower with a cap-and-trade system than without one.  This is only in 2035.  Costs will continue to grow as the constriction of the emissions targets tighten around the economy through 2050.  Despite the fairy tale claims of ‘green jobs’ the analysis also estimates nearly 2.5 million jobs lost because of this legislation even taking in to account green job creation. (15) Countries such as Spain which have gone down a similar path have ended up losing 2.2 jobs for every ‘green job’ created. (16)  However many of these jobs will not be totally lost.  They will simply be shipped to other countries without carbon taxes.  Cap-and-trade would increase the already staggering national debt because the money made from the sale of carbon permits will not go towards balancing the budget but will lower GDP meaning less income for the federal government.  The cap-and-trade system would make America less competitive in many industries compared to countries like China and India which have both come out strongly against a cap on CO2.

Mr. Friedman states “it would not take long for Congress to impose a “carbon tariff” on Chinese exports made with dirty fuels” (1)  This is a surprising change of opinion from someone who has been called the “High Priest” of free trade in the San Francisco Chronicle where he stated “I wrote a column supporting CAFTA.  I didn’t even know what was in it.  I just knew two words: Free Trade” (17)  Many countries such as China, India, and Germany have come out strongly against a carbon tariff with Germany calling it “a form of “eco-imperialism” and a direct violation of WTO rules”. (18)  Such a proposal has the possibility of provoking a trade war which would harm the entire world economy. A carbon tariff would raise the prices of many goods in the United States and affect the ability of other countries to lift their people out of poverty by continuing economic growth.

Any attempt to try and coerce developing countries into costly CO2 cuts is indeed a form of eco-imperialism.  It is the equivalent of asking them to take the stairs when we took the elevator.  In his book Mr. Friedman points out that it is the poor of the world who will suffer the brunt of the problems caused by climate change.  This is true however it is also the poor who have the most to gain by using the cheapest electricity possible.  The problem of energy poverty would be best dealt with by providing electricity to as many people as possible.  When Mr. Friedman gives us the example of an African school getting solar panels as its first electricity he misses the point.  The good that is being done here is that the school was getting electricity which will change the way the students learn for the better, not that it was a solar panel.  It is likely that for the cost of that solar panel electricity could have been provided to two or more schools using cheaper energy sources.  If developing countries are bullied into using anything other than the most economical sources available then progress on energy poverty would not be made as much as it would otherwise.

Aside from the obvious benefits from using the cheapest supplies of energy possible and extreme costs of a cap-and-trade scheme is what effects such a system would have.  The American Clean Energy and Security act would do a negligible amount of good for an extremely high cost to the American people.  Mr. Friedman presents the many consequences of climate change including increased drought, stronger hurricanes, water scarcity, increased range of disease spreading mosquitoes, and sea level rise among others.  He then presents his solution in a way that makes it seem as if it is implemented not only would if be beneficial to the U.S. economy but would also avert the coming effects of climate change.  In reality even with the heavy costs there is no real good done by a cap-and-trade system.  Such a system will have very little impact.  If the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation were to become law, by 2100 global temperatures would be lowered by only .2° Celsius.  Any effort by the government should make people the priority.  The goal should not be to reduce climate change but to increase the standard of living across the world and reduce human suffering.  The ACES act would do neither.  Limiting CO2 emissions would only lessen the harm done, not do any good.  If a certain number of people in the world today don’t have access to clean water, food, are at risk from diseases such as malaria, would be affected by rising sea levels, live in areas with a high risk of hurricane or other environmental problem, the Waxman-Markey bill would not lessen the impact of these problems.  It would only limit the growth of them associated with climate change by a very small amount for an astronomically unworthy cost.  Many of these problems could be addressed today for a fraction of the costs with much greater affects on human suffering.  Trying to cool down the entire ocean to avoid the next Katrina will not avoid it; it will simply make it a small amount less devastating.  A better approach would be to ensure that communities at risk from such natural disasters are prepared to deal with them.  Likewise trying to cool the entire earth to limit the range of malaria carrying mosquitoes is the most inefficacious method of trying to save lives.  The earth will still warm, just a small amount less.  This means mosquitoes will still spread and a growth in malaria cases will likely follow.  Instead of trying to limit the growth of malaria cases by a small amount we could actually reduce the number today for a portion of the cost by increasing the use of DDT within a limited scope, and distribution of mosquito nets in at risk areas.  This approach to problems posed by climate change would actually do some good as opposed to lowering the harm done by a small amount while costing an inordinate amount of money.

In his book Mr. Friedman poses the question “If those of us who have become concerned about climate change turn out to be wrong- but we refocus America anyway on producing clean electrons and the most energy-efficient vehicles, appliances, and buildings in the world, and we make America the global leader in aiding the protection of tropical forests and natural habitats, what is the worst that will happen?”  Mr. Friedman’s answer to this question is that there is nothing negative that would result.  He even believes that it would result in lower energy bills and “the respect and gratitude of more people around the world than ever” (1).  The answer to this question depends on how we go about doing this.  One approach would have the United States forced into a chokehold of a cap-and-trade system such as the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security act which Mr. Friedman advocates.  While this approach would indeed refocus America on clean electrons and energy efficiency it is hard to answer the question and come to the same conclusions as he does.  Energy bills for American households would increase dramatically, GDP growth would be stunted, the deficit would be driven even higher, and millions of jobs would be lost.  And the damage done from climate change would only be minimally reduced.  Mr. Friedman writes that if we do not adopt his plan the world will have a future of “droughts, floods, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, resource conflicts, massive disruptions along coastal areas all over the world”.  However even if a cap-and-trade program were implemented this would still be the case because such a program would not lower global temperatures, it would simply limit the rise by a fraction.  It is hard to imagine a farmer affected by drought, or the victim of a powerful hurricane in a developing country in the future saying “Gee, I sure am grateful that my problems are very slightly better than they would be if America had not adopted a cap-and-trade program.  I certainly respect the U.S. more since it could have been a little worse”.  A better approach than a cap-and-trade system would be a combination of different things.  Increased efficiency standards such as mandating that all new buildings be LEED certified, requiring all new light bulbs to be CFL, renewable energy requirements for utilities, and increased investment in new technologies rather than subsidies to existing ones.  The main component however should be foreign aid.  Arguably one of the most successful programs in the history of United States foreign aid has been The Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR.  This program initiated by President George W. Bush has committed nearly $50 billion dollars for AIDS relief in countries severely affect by AIDS.  This program has already saved over one million lives by providing anti-retroviral treatment and prevented many infections. (19)  As much as the elites of Europe may regard the U.S. with disdain; those who owe their lives, that of a family member, or see the good that has been done in countless communities around the world are the ones who have gratitude towards the United States.  This is the best way to earn the respect of people around the world; however that should not be the reason we do it.  Similar to how reducing climate change for the sake of it is not as worthy a goal, neither is currying for favor among other countries.  The main objective should be helping people.  Whereas costly legislation would not do anything to reduce human suffering, simple measures can be taken to actually decrease the effects of climate change instead of limiting them.  Funding for malaria prevention, access to clean water, protective measures from natural disasters and food can do a great deal of good in the world for only a fraction of the cost of a costly new carbon tax.  If we adopt a cap-and-trade system the world in 2100 will be a worse place in regards to the effects of global climate change.  The United States should adopt a plan of increased efficiency, an increase in federal spending on new R&D, and foreign aid aimed at decreasing human suffering associated with climate change.  If that is the path we as a country decide to take then we may be able to answer Mr. Friedman’s question in the optimistic way he does.

Works cited

  1. Friedman, Thomas. Hot, Flat, & Crowded. New York City: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008. Print.
  2. http://www.hdcco.com/Projects/ByType.aspx?ptid=12&ptind=10
  3. http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CategoryID=19
  4. http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/greenbuilding/Design/CostBenefit/Report.pdf
  5. http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/arep/tmrp/documents/iwtc_summary.pdf
  6. http://www.pik-potsdam.de/~stefan/Publications/Book_chapters/Rahmstorf_Zedillo_2008.pdf
  7. http://eaps.mit.edu/faculty/lindzen/adinfriris.pdf
  8. http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2007/2007GL029698.shtml
  9. http://www.uah.edu/News/newsread.php?newsID=875
  10. http://www.leif.org/EOS/2009GL039628-pip.pdf
  11. http://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/200807/monckton.cfm
  12. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-bib_query?bibcode=2005JGRA..11008105S&db_key=AST&data_type=HTML&format=&high=404820cd9319944
  13. http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2008/2008JD009872.shtml
  14. http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/100xx/doc10018/03-12-ClimateChange_Testimony.1.1.shtml
  15. http://www.heritage.org/Research/EnergyandEnvironment/cda0904.cfm
  16. http://www.juandemariana.org/pdf/090327-employment-public-aid-renewable.pdf
  17. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/08/11/EDGOBIQ0QU1.DTL
  18. http://www.reuters.com/article/internal_ReutersNewsRoom_BehindTheScenes_MOLT/idUSTRE56N1RJ20090724
  19. http://storybank.stanford.edu/stories/stanford-study-first-ever-show-us-aids-relief-saved-1-million-lives
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