I blog on pragmatic environmentalism because I am convinced that it is necessary to balance environmental impacts and public policy. This means that evidence-based environmental risks and benefits (both environmental and otherwise) of issues need to be considered. I have developed a set of principles that under lie my concerns. New York’s Climate and Community Protection Act exemplifies the opposite of a pragmatic approach to the problem of climate change. This post references my pragmatic environmentalist principles to explain my concerns.
In the 2019-2020 regular legislative sessions the New York State (NYS) legislature is debating the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA). The fundamental problem with this legislation is that it calls for a statewide greenhouse gas emissions limit of 0% of 1990 emissions in 2050.
One of my biggest problems with the CCPA is that the legislation sets its goal before it requires a scoping plan explaining how this will be done and how much it will cost. In almost all environmental issues there are two sides. Pragmatic environmentalism is all about balancing the risks and benefits of the two sides of the issue. In order to do that you have to show your work before you implement the policy and clearly this is not the case with the CCPA.
The rationale for the CCPA trots out many extreme weather events attributed to climate change. These brief sound bite descriptions only tell one side of the story. As a result they frequently are misleading, are not nuanced, or flat out wrong. The level of effort necessary to respond to them is large. As Alberto Brandolini put it: “The amount of energy necessary to refute BS is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” In addition, the more extreme a climate or weather record is, the greater the contribution of natural variability, which is known as the Cliff Mass Golden Rule of Climate Extremes.
Ultimately advocates for this legislation ignore economic realities. Roger Pielke, Jr says the “iron law” simply states that while people are often willing to pay some price for achieving environmental objectives, that willingness has its limits. There is no question in my mind that this legislation will test that willingness. Furthermore, Gresham’s Law of Green Energy observes that “bad money drives out the good.” The green energy subsidies necessary to implement the CCPA transfer wealth and do not create wealth. The subsidies or “bad” money take money out of the system that was “good” inasmuch as it was being used productively. Subsidized renewable resources will drive out competitive generators, lead to higher electric prices, and reduce economic growth.
Whatever the supporters say about costs the fact is that they will be significant. This legislation is presented as necessary but does not does not consider that in order to implement the initiatives tradeoffs are required simply because the resources available are finite. We can do almost anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Building resiliency to historical weather extremes seems to me to be a much better expenditure of resources.
The economics issues are particularly relevant because of the ambitious goal. One of my principles states that: as the pollution control efficiency increases the control cost per ton reduced increases exponentially. This is particularly true for electrical system fossil emissions reductions. In New York the electrical generating plants reduced CO2 emissions 27% by switching from coal and oil to natural gas at essentially no cost because natural gas was cheaper than coal. Replacing natural gas generation to renewables is going to cost more because natural gas is cheaper. (If natural gas was not cheaper then no renewable subsidies would be necessary). Because the renewables are diffuse the transmission grid must be maintained but renewables do not support the grid so at some point that support must be added to the cost of displacing fossil fuels. Because renewables are intermittent at some point energy storage has to be added to the cost further adding to the cost of every incremental displacement. The final displacement to complete elimination of fossil fuel necessarily must expand the need for storage and grid support for the peak periods which are inherently the most difficult.
The final relevant principle is Ridley’s Paradox: Economic damage from man-made ‘climate change’ is illusory whereas damage from man-made ‘policies’ to fight the said change is real. Advocates for climate change action insinuate that all the extreme weather listed in the CCPA cause economic damage but are noticeably short on documenting how much the legislation will affect that weather. No one has ever claimed that hurricanes will not exist when we reduce CO2 emissions so the reality is that climate change might tweak a storm a little stronger. How much does that incremental change influence cost impacts and how much can we affect that change? In the absence of quantitative estimates this economic damage is an illusion. On the other hand, when we, for example, use food for fuel (ethanol subsidies) and drive up energy costs there are real tangible impacts to those least able to pay.
In conclusion my opinion on the legislation is uniformly negative because it has no plan and violates so may pragmatic environmental principles.