Riffing on Jonah

I testified yesterday at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on “global warming issues and the power plant sector.” Both my written and oral remarks began with a riff on Jonah Goldberg’s NRO column, “Global Cooling Costs Too Much.”

Here’s what I told the assembled saviors of the planet:

Thank you, Chairman Boxer and members of this committee for inviting me to testify today.

Jonah Goldberg, the columnist, notes that Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century while global GDP increased by some 1,800 percent. For the sake of argument, says Goldberg, let’s agree that all of the warming was anthropogenic—the result of economic activity. And let’s further stipulate that the warming produced no benefits, only harms. “That’s still an amazing bargain,” he remarks.

Average life expectancies doubled in the 20th century. The human population nearly quadrupled yet per capita food supply increased. Literacy, medicine, leisure and even in many respects the environment hugely improved, at least in the prosperous West.

This suggests a thought experiment. Suppose you had the power to travel back in time and impose carbon caps on previous generations. How much growth would you be willing to sacrifice to avoid how many tenths of a degree of warming? Would humanity be better off today if the 20th century had half as much warming—but also a half or a third or even a quarter less growth? I doubt anyone on this committee would say “yes.” A poorer planet would also be a hungrier, sicker planet. Many of us might not even be alive.

How much future growth are you willing to sacrifice to mitigate global warming? That is not an idle question. Some people believe we’re now smart enough to measurably cool the planet without chilling the economy. But Europe is having a tough time meeting its Kyoto commitments, and Kyoto would have no detectable impact on global temperatures.

Three of the main climate bills introduced in the Senate this year would require CO2 emission cuts of about 60 percent by 2050. Yet the EIA projects that in 2030, U.S. emissions will be about 33 percent above year 2000 levels. Nobody knows how to meet the targets in those bills without severe cuts in either economic growth or population growth.

But won’t the bills’ carbon penalties make deep emission reductions achievable by spurring technological change? I doubt it.

Europe has been taxing gasoline for decades at rates that translate into carbon penalties of $200 to $300 per ton of CO2. Where in Europe is the miracle fuel to replace petroleum? Where are all the zero emission vehicles? EU transport sector CO2 emissions in 2004 were 26 percent higher than in 1990.

The Energy Information Administration analyzed the market impacts of the relatively modest—$7 per ton—CO2 emission cap in the Bingaman-Specter legislation. The proposed cap decrease projected investment in coal generation by more than half. However, it does not make carbon capture and storage economical. Would a bigger regulatory hammer do the trick? No, it would just drive more investment out of coal generation.

Regulatory climate strategies put the policy cart before the technology horse. Not until markets are capable of producing vast quantities of affordable energy without emissions would it be reasonable for Congress to consider mandatory emission cuts.

Policymakers concerned about global warming should do three things. First, encourage worldwide R&D investment in non-carbon-emitting energy technologies. This should be the focus of post-Kyoto diplomacy. Second, eliminate tax and other political barriers to innovation and capital stock turnover. Third, for a fraction of Kyoto’s cost, target international assistance on those threats to human health and welfare where we know how to do a lot of good for each dollar invested. This would not only save millions of lives today, it would also help developing countries become wealthier and less vulnerable to climate-related risk.

Thank you again for the opportunity to present my views. I would be happy to try and answer your questions.

And thank you, Jonah, for framing the issues so clearly!