August 11 2008
Saving the planet while letting children starve
A certain moral vanity infuses the environmental movement. It demands drastic action to prevent possible warming a century away, but offers little or no hope to those starving or dying of AIDS today.
Protecting the planet is important. However, we must never forget that humankind is at the center of God's creation.
Climate change is horribly complicated. There has been warming over the last century, but not the last decade. New studies suggest that temperatures may actually cool through 2015. Knowledgeable scientists disagree over how much warming is due to human action and how much is due to natural factors.
Most important, we really don't know how much warming is likely to occur in the future. Imagine trying in 1900 to predict the world of 2000. We can do no better today looking ahead to 2100. Even small changes in assumptions could invalidate predictions of warming in coming years, let alone decades.
If it were easy to do, then we could dramatically cut CO2 emissions just to be sure. But carbon-based fuels - coal, natural gas, and oil - make up 85 percent of America's energy supplies.
Never mind years of research and billions spent on alternative fuels. Renewable sources of energy accounted for just 7 percent of America's total energy consumption last year. The share due to wind, solar and geothermal power barely registers. That's not going to change anytime soon.
Energy is what makes our economy run. It's how we fuel our cars and planes, heat and cool our homes, run our factories and produce the goods and services that turned a life of misery into one of plenty. Slashing CO2 emissions means slashing energy use, and slashing energy use means slashing economic growth.
One of the so-called "cap and trade" measures recently advanced in the Senate called for a 70 percent cut in emissions by 2050. The result of this sort of legislation would be dramatically higher energy prices. Forget $4 per gallon gasoline. Think twice that and more.
Looking at it another way, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that this approach could raise an average household's annual energy costs by $1,300. That's the same as the government imposing a $1 trillion tax on the economy.
The economic consequences of such a price shock would be huge. Manufacturing would be hurt the most. Analysts predict job losses in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.
Today's gross domestic product runs about $14 trillion, but the Environmental Protection Agency figures the legislation debated by the Senate could cut our economy's output up to $1 trillion in 2030 and $2.8 trillion in 2050. The accumulated losses would be staggering.
Incurring this kind of cost could be justified if it was the only means to save the Earth from disaster. But estimates suggest these economy-wrecking efforts would ultimately only prevent .013 degrees (Celsius) in warming. In other words, it would have no meaningful effect on our climate.
The poor would suffer the most. If we drain trillions of dollars out of the economy, it is the poor who find it hard, if not impossible, to buy a home, educate their kids, buy gas, put food on the table, get needed health care and more. Any money spent to try to prevent temperatures from rising generates an "opportunity cost," that is, we are missing out on putting that money to another use.
Think of America's great needs. Poverty still exists, even amid plenty. Our educational system is abysmal, failing to educate many children morally to be good citizens and economically to participate in the global economy. There is infrastructure to be built and investment to be made.
Every dollar spent to preclude a temperature increase that might never occur is a dollar not available to help a needy person today. And opportunity costs run global.
Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg organized the Copenhagen Consensus, which brought together experts to debate how best to spend $75 billion to help the world's poor. Top of the list were vitamin supplements for children. Second was freer trade. Third were mineral supplements for kids. Fourth was expanded immunization for the young.
And so it went - food and education aid, women's programs and health care. The first global warming initiative checked in at only number 14: Research and development spending on low-carbon energy technologies. Mitigation, that is, cutting energy use to reduce temperatures, came in at 29 (when supplemented with R&D) and 30 (when considered alone).
That is, there are 13 better ways to save lives and improve people's standard of living than to do anything about global warming. The latter might be a problem, but it isn't the most important problem facing us. It isn't even among the top dozen.
Of course, if temperatures rise significantly, there will be consequences, but the most cost-effective way of dealing with them will be to adapt. That's what we did in past centuries as the Earth warmed and cooled. It's what we should do in the future in similar circumstances.
The Nobel laureate Milton Friedman told us there is no such thing as a free lunch; he was right. Politics is about trade-offs, and spending ourselves poor in an attempt to deal with uncertain climate problems in the future will cost our society, and particularly its most vulnerable members, far too much today. Protecting the environment requires that we first protect the people in it.
Michelle D. Bernard is author of "Women's Progress, How Women are Wealthier, Healthier, and More Independent Than Ever Before," president and chief executive officer of the Independent Women's Forum and Independent Women's Voice and an MSNBC political analyst.