House Select Committee Climate Report A Pre-COVID-19 Time Capsule

Capitol south view GettyImages-1093476456

On June 30, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its long awaited report, Solving The Climate Crisis—The Congressional Action Plan For A Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America. There is little original in the report. Most of its sweeping and costly climate policy recommendations have been around for decades and are very similar to the provisions in last year’s Green New Deal. But one thing is novel, and that is how rapidly the report is becoming outdated in light of COVID-19.

Among the provisions most quickly failing the test of time are those favoring public transit. The report buys into the religious-like zeal for public transportation, calling for a doubling of already-high federal expenditures in order to create a “massive expansion” of it. At the same time, the report’s recommended crackdown on internal combustion engine vehicles and fuels—the goal is 100 percent zero-emissions vehicles by 2035—would likely raise costs enough to force millions to give up their own cars and become reliant on public transit.

Public transit has never been as popular as climate policy makers want, and that was true long before COVID-19. But now the thought of being packed in on a bus or train is infinitely less desirable. And for very good reason. Preliminary studies attempting to learn why minorities contract the virus at higher rates than the general public have concluded that disproportionate dependence on public transit is the leading cause. Ironically, the report has plenty of “environmental justice” provisions based on the premise that climate change hurts minorities the most, but in the case of public transit, it’s the climate change policy prescriptions that would be unjust.

The report is also filled with recommendations for improving energy efficiency in homes and public buildings. Notwithstanding questions about the merits of such federal efficiency measures, the report’s definition of efficiency is problematic. It equates energy efficiency with using less energy (one subheading reads “Reduce Energy Use in New and Existing Buildings”). However, the use-less-energy mantra can be an impediment to improved indoor virus protection.

Air conditioning can help protect against the spread of coronavirus, provided it does two things well—ventilation and filtration. Increasing both requires more energy. Bringing in 90 degree outside air to cool is going to take more energy than cooling an equivalent amount of recirculated indoor air. Improved filtration may require additional equipment and thus increased energy use. Post-coronavirus, most sensible people would consider any such additional energy use well worth it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually recommends bypassing or disabling certain devices that improve air conditioner efficiency by reducing ventilation rates. CDC also recommends measures to improve filtration. But these kinds of steps are at odds with the report’s energy-diet dogma. Inducing property owners to use less energy may make sense from the narrow standpoint of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but not as a way to fight the spread of the virus.

The Select Committee report also calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the refrigerants used in most air conditioners on the grounds that they contribute to climate change. It also faults the Trump administration for failing to submit a similar United Nations treaty provision, the Kigali Amendment, to the Senate for the required ratification vote. These measures would add significantly to the cost of air conditioning without doing anything to improve its virus protection. Who really wants that now?

Beyond specific report recommendations that may conflict with fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there is the overall cost of such measures. Credible estimates of comparable provisions in the Green New Deal put the price tag at trillions of dollars annually. And every trillion spent on climate change is a trillion that can’t be used to address coronavirus or anything else.

Even the wealthiest nation on Earth doesn’t have unlimited resources. We should prioritize addressing a real and immediate crisis like the coronavirus pandemic over a largely speculative and future concern like climate change. This is something the House Select Committee doesn’t get, and the result is a myopic report that was obsolete the day it came out.