I betray no secret when I note that Donald Trump is not a man of policy sophistication. It is obvious that he is uninterested even in details that are crucial; instead, he goes with his “gut,” that is, his instincts, which often are sound but sometimes are dreadful. And despite, or perhaps due to, almost five decades in the Beltway, Joe Biden is not a man driven by central principles; instead, it is reasonable to hypothesize that he believes whatever he has heard from whomever he has spoken with last.
Nonetheless, the second presidential debate revealed sharp differences on a wide range of topics, climate and energy policies prominent among them. Herewith, comments on the candidates’ central assertions on those topics, driven by the moderator’s initial question: “For each of you, how would you both combat climate change and support job growth at the same time?”
Trump: “We have the trillion trees program...”
Comment: The “trillion trees” idea was one of the central components of the House Republicans’ climate policy agenda proposed last February. It is part of a hypothetical international effort based upon the absorption effect of trees on carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The U.S. component of any such effort has never been specified, but 60 billion additional trees planted in America over the next two decades would require about 330 million acres of land, an area well over three times the land area of California. That would have a near-zero effect---a bit less than 0.01 degrees C---on temperatures by the year 2100, applying the climate model used by the Environmental Protection Agency.
At the international level, a similar ineffectiveness would result, because forest canopies are dark as a crude generalization. That means that expansion of forests would be likely to reduce global “albedo” (reflective) effects on solar radiation; the scientific literature suggests a net warming effect for most regions. Even ignoring the albedo issue, the costs of this effort would be very large; it could not satisfy any plausible benefit/cost test in terms of its stated objectives. Because Trump has little interest in policy details, he has been led to employ such nostrums as the “trillion trees” silliness as a response to such questions. It would be far better for him to emphasize (1) the trivial effects of any plausible climate policy (see below); (2) the absence of evidence of a climate “crisis”; and (3) a defense of watchful waiting and adaptation over time as the only policy approach that makes any sense at all.
Trump’s inattention to details---even central ones---has served him badly, as it would be very easy to force Biden onto the defensive by pointing out the essentially fraudulent nature of climate policies in terms of their prospective climate effects. Full implementation of the Obama administration climate action plan would reduce temperatures in 2100 by 0.015 degrees C. The same effect would obtain for the most prominent recent proposals for a U.S. carbon tax. The entire Paris agreement, if implemented immediately and enforced strictly: 0.17 degrees C. Net zero U.S. GHG emissions by 2050: 0.104 degrees C. The electricity component of the Green New Deal: 0.028 degrees C. A net reduction of GHG emissions to zero by the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: 0.35 degrees C. An impossible 30 percent reduction by the entire world: about 0.6 degrees C. Is it too much to ask Trump to remember just one of these numbers?
Biden: “…global warming is an existential threat to humanity.”
Comment: There is no evidence in support of that assertion, however often it is repeated. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are having effects that are detectable---anthropogenic global warming is not a hoax---but that does not tell us the magnitude of the observable impacts on climate phenomena. Temperatures are rising, but as the Little Ice Age ended around 1850, it is not easy to separate natural from anthropogenic effects on temperatures and other climate phenomena. The latest research in the peer-reviewed literature suggests that mankind is responsible for about half a degree of the global temperature increase of about 1.5 degrees C since 1850.
There is little trend in the number of “hot” days for 1895–2017; 11 of the 12 years with the highest number of such days occurred before 1960. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has maintained since 2005 the US Climate Reference Network, comprising 114 meticulously maintained temperature stations spaced more or less uniformly across the lower 48 states, 21 stations in Alaska, and two stations in Hawaii. The reported data show no trend over the available 2005–20 reporting period. Areconstruction of global temperatures over the past one million years, using data from ice sheet formations, shows that there is nothing unusual about the current warm period.
Global mean sea level has been increasing for thousands of years at about 3.3 mm per year; it may or may not be accelerating, and any such acceleration might be the result of anthropogenic or natural causes. The Northern and Southern Hemisphere sea ice changes tell different stories. US tornado activity shows either no trend or a downward trend since 1954. Tropical storms, hurricanes, and accumulated cyclone energy show little trend since satellite measurements began in the early 1970s. The number of US wildfiresshows no trend since 1985, and global acreage burned has declined over past decades. The Palmer Drought Severity index shows no trend since 1895. U.S. flooding over the past century is uncorrelated with increasing GHG concentrations. The available data do not support the ubiquitous assertions about the dire impacts of declining pH levels in the oceans. Global food availability and production have increased more or less monotonically over the past two decades on a per capita basis. And the IPCC itself in the Fifth Assessment Report was deeply dubious (page 12-78) about the various severe effects often asserted to be looming as impacts of anthropogenic warming.
Biden: “… my climate plan … will create millions of new good paying jobs.”
Comment: It is incontrovertible that “climate” policy in its essentials is an effort to increase the cost of conventional energy. The basic underlying “green jobs” assumption is that we can destroy a substantial part of the economic value of the energy-producing and -using capital stock without impoverishing tens of millions of households and destroying employment opportunity on a massive scale. That is a delusion: More expensive energy means less employment, in that the causal relationships among energy costs, economic growth, and employment are strong.
Biden and his allies on this policy question argue that we can subsidize and otherwise mandate the creation of millions of replacement “green jobs,” a stance driven by ignorance about the very nature of central planning. It is no accident that electricity prices in California are the highest in the lower forty-eight states. So much for the argument that wind and solar costs now are competitive, a preposterous assertion that shunts aside the costs of their inherent unreliability and the massive subsidies and guaranteed market shares bestowed upon them. And this outcome has obtained despite the fact that various federal tax credits and other policies allow California to shift a substantial part of the costs of its electricity policies onto taxpayers in other states, a dynamic that will not be available were such policies to be imposed upon the nation as a whole.
Biden: “… we’re going to take 4 million existing buildings and 2 million existing homes and retrofit them so they don’t leak as much energy…. creating [a] significant number of jobs.”
Comment: This is a pipe dream; the explicit costs would be enormous, and the same is true for the adverse hidden effects of the disruptions attendant upon major contractor work efforts on structures. And if such energy “efficiency” investments were worthwhile, why has the private sector failed to implement them? The answer cannot be market blindness to a GHG externality, because, again, the climate effects of climate policies would be effectively zero.
Biden: “Wall Street firms indicated that my plan … [will] create $1 trillion more in economic growth than his proposal does.”
Comment: This is a classic example of the broken windows fallacy: A broken window makes the economy larger by providing employment for the glass repair sector. What’s missing: How those resources would have been used had the window not been broken in the first place. Again: It is a delusion to believe that a policy that massively destroys economic value can make the economy bigger.
Biden: “[S]olar energy and wind [are] cleaner.”
Comment: This is true only if we are willing to ignore the large adverse environmental effects of wind and solar power. There is the heavy-metal pollution created by the production process for wind turbines. There are the noise and flicker effects of wind turbines. There are the large problems of solar panel waste and toxic metals. There is the wildlife destruction caused by the production of renewable power. And above all: There is the likely increase in emissions of conventional pollutants and GHG caused by the need to cycle backup conventional generating units up and down so as to avoid constant blackouts, a real problem because of the unreliability of wind and solar power and because those power sources cannot synchronizethe generators in a grid (at 60 hertz). The ubiquitous “clean energy” description of wind and solar power is illusory.
Trump: “We are energy independent for first time. We don’t need all of these countries that we had to fight war[s] over because we needed their energy.”
Comment: Energy “independence”---the proportion of energy (for the most part petroleum) imported---is irrelevant. Because there can be only one price in the world oil market (abstracting from differential transport costs, exchange rate fluctuations, and other minor factors), changes in the world market price of oil have the same impacts on petroleum prices in different economies. This is true regardless of the degree of “independence”: Japan and the UK, respectively wholly dependent and wholly independent upon imports, face the same prices and price changes whether caused by supply disruptions, demand changes, or anything else.
There is widespread misunderstanding of this elementary truth, perhaps driven by myths surrounding the 1973 “embargo” imposed by Arab OPEC against the U.S. and a few others. Three conditions obtained in 1973: the production cut by the Middle East producers attendant upon the Yom Kippur War, the “embargo,” which had no effect at all, and the U.S. implementation of price and allocation controls, which created the queues and market dislocations. There was no embargo in 1979, but there was a production cutback in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and there were queues and market dislocations caused by the reimposition of effective price and allocation controls.
Biden (at different points during the debate): “I never said I oppose fracking. I said no fracking and/or oil on federal land. What I will do with fracking over time is make sure that we can capture the emissions from the fracking, capture the emissions from gas.”
Comment: Put aside Biden’s past statements on fracking. His position in its essentials is that we can have some use of fossil fuels, presumably for some limited period of time, if we implement carbon capture and sequestration technologies. CCS has never been shown as a technology to be workable, it is extremely expensive, and it is very far from clear that the new pipeline capacity needed to move carbon dioxide to storage sites will (or can be) emerge on a timely basis, particularly given the certain legal challenges that would have to be overcome.
In the larger context, Biden’s position is incoherent. Why a ban only on federal land? If oil and gas production using hydraulic fracturing (and horizontal drilling) somehow is highly adverse from an environmental standpoint---a premise for which there is no evidence, in particular given the adverse environmental effects of the alternatives---then why not a ban everywhere? Biden’s subsequent comment that he would promote “a transition from the oil industry” is revealing.
Biden: “I’m going to rejoin Paris Accord and make China abide by what they agreed to.”
Comment: As noted above, the Paris agreement would reduce global temperatures by 0.17 degrees C by 2100, at a cost of something on the order of 2 percent of global GDP. (That is why the less-developed economies have insisted upon a “green climate fund.) And the Chinese commitment is a “peak” in their GHG emissions by 2030. How high will that peak be? No one knows. What will their GHG emissions be after the peak? No one knows. Does Biden really believe that this is serious?
In the context of climate and energy policies, both Biden and Trump are making some elementary errors. But Trump’s instincts on these matters are far sounder, a central truth not to be ignored.