The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050. I have not mentioned my principles for pragmatic environmentalism in quite a while. This post explains how the Climate Act relates to them.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. I have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to that risk because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability, impact affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, and will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. New York’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global GHG emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year. Moreover, the reductions cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act establishes a “Net Zero” target by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that will “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda”. They were assisted by Advisory Panels who developed and presented strategies to the meet the goals to the Council. Those strategies were used to develop the integration analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants that quantified the impact of the strategies. That analysis was used to develop the Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment on December 30, 2021. Comments on the draft can be submitted until June 10, 2022.
Pragmatic Environmentalist Principles
I put together my principles for pragmatic environmentalism to describe a pragmatic approach to environmental issues. So far, I have listed 13 principles that exemplify pragmatic environmentalism. Five of these principles are my own but the rest have been developed by others. I am going to describe four principles that directly relate to climate change and four that indirectly affect Climate Act implementation in this post. This post will also be used to support an upcoming post on my pragmatic recommendations for the Climate Act.
All four of the relevant principles that directly relate to climate change have been developed by others. The Climate Act does not correctly differentiate between weather and climate. Frequently events that are simply extreme examples of normal weather variation to climate change are used as “proof” that climate change effects are apparent now. The first principle addresses this issue. Dr, Cliff Mass’s Golden Rule of Climate Extremes states that the more extreme a climate or weather record is, the greater the contribution of natural variability. Dr. Mass explained why this happens in a series of posts on the Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021. He concluded in his analyses that global warming was responsible for only 1 to 2o F of the observed 30 – 40o F anomaly above normal.
There are two principles related to climate change economics. Gresham’s Law of Green Energy is named after Sir Thomas Gresham, a 16th-century British financier who observed that “bad money drives out the good.” Jonathan Lesser has coined “Gresham’s Law of Green Energy” to describe the green economy. The transition to a zero-emissions energy system relies on green energy subsidies that transfers wealth and does not create wealth. The subsidies or “bad” money take money out of the system that was “good” inasmuch as it was being used productively. In particular, Lesser argues that “subsidized renewable resources will drive out competitive generators, lead to higher electric prices, and reduce economic growth”. The second economic principle, Ridley’s Paradox, states that economic damage from man-made ‘climate change’ is illusory whereas damage from man-made ‘policies’ to fight the said change is real. Both principles suggest that issues lie ahead for the Climate Act net-zero transition.
Roger Pielke, Jr’s Iron law of climate simply states that while people are often willing to pay some price for achieving environmental objectives, that willingness has its limits. The Climate Act requires the Climate Action Council to “[e]valuate, using the best available economic models, emission estimation techniques and other scientific methods, the total potential costs and potential economic and non-economic benefits of the plan for reducing greenhouse gases, and make such evaluation publicly available” in the Scoping Plan. However, at this time this requirement is not being met. There is insufficient information to determine how much New Yorkers will have to pay for achieving the net-zero targets. Consequently, we will have to wait to see how his principle plays out.
I authored one of the four principles that indirectly relate to the Climate Act. It is pretty obvious in industry but I haven’t found anyone who has made the Air Pollution Control Costs point that as air pollution control efficiency increases the control cost per ton goes up exponentially. If we were only trying to reduce our GHG emissions by 50% the costs would be much less than the net-zero 85% reduction combined with 15% sequestration target.
That principle is related to the Pareto Principle or 80-20 rule that states that 20% of efforts or inputs can yield 80% of results or outputs. If the Climate Act did not mandate net-zero, then we could get most of the benefits for the “easy” emission reductions. Accepting that outcome removes most of the affordability and reliability risks associated with the radical transformation of the energy system needed to meet Climate Act targets.
The resources necessary to implement the Climate Act are rationalized as necessary to fight climate change. However, the necessary actions are not considered relative to other environmental and social issues. For example, there are water infrastructure issues across New York that must be addressed before systems break down completely. There are disadvantaged communities that have lead pipes and lead paint in their homes. Advocates have not considered that in order to implement Climate Act initiatives these other environmental issues may not be addressed simply because the resources available are finite per the principle: We can do almost anything we want, but we can’t do everything:
A glittering generality is an emotionally appealing phrase so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that it carries conviction without supporting information or reason. The climate change is an “existential” threat narrative and the idea that power will be cheap because the sun and wind are free are both Glittering Generalities that do not represent Pragmatic Environmentalism. In “A ‘Plan B’ for addressing climate change and the energy transition” Judith Curry sums up the problem with the glittering generalities in all net-zero energy transition programs:
“In a nutshell, we’ve vastly oversimplified both the problem of climate change and its solutions. The complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of the existing knowledge about climate change is being kept away from the policy and public debates. The dangers of manmade climate change have been confounded with natural weather and climate variability. The solutions that have been proposed for rapidly eliminating fossil fuels are technologically and politically infeasible on a global scale.”
There are very few aspects of the Climate Act that represent a pragmatic approach to climate change mitigation. The rationale for the Climate Act frequently refers to extreme weather events that are more likely due to natural variability than climate change. The Draft Scoping Plan is littered with glittering generalities that carry conviction without supporting information or reason.
The economics in the Draft Scoping Plan are not pragmatic. The reliance on subsidized renewable resources will drive out competitive generators, lead to higher electric prices, and reduce economic growth. The economic damage from man-made ‘climate change’ in New York is illusory whereas damage from the Climate Act ‘policies’ to fight the said change is real. When the costs are finally publicized to the general public, we will see how much New Yorkers are willing to pay for achieving greenhouse gas emission reduction objectives and whether that willingness has limits.
Given that air pollution control efficiency increases the control cost per ton goes up exponentially and that 20% of efforts or inputs can yield 80% of the results or outputs, a more pragmatic approach would be to determine some lower level of “good enough” that will achieve emissions reductions without risking current standards of reliability and affordability. Ultimately, we can do almost anything we want, but we can’t do everything so the enormous commitment to the Climate Act net-zero targets has to be considered relative to other pressing environmental and social problems.