The Best Thing for the Environment is for the Government to Stop Controlling It

Gina Luttrell

4/14/2014 12:01:00 AM - Gina Luttrell

In early April, the United Nations released a startling report that concludes that “world leaders” only have a few years to drastically curb carbon emissions, else the world will face debilitating warming, which would lead to a rise in sea level that would dramatically change human life and natural habitats. The report also argues that the world is already beginning to see the effects of climate change: a higher level of disease spread in Africa, an increase in the number and severity of wildfires in North America, and the decrease of food production in South America.

According to Kelly Levin, a climate change scientist from the World Resources institute, "Today's choices are going to significantly affect the risk that climate change will pose for the rest of the century."

Levin is, of course, correct, but perhaps not in the way she means. The United Nations and others involved in averting climate change have all emphasized the importance of the actions of world leaders in the coming years, from preparedness to last-ditch attempts to keep the world cool. But what “world leaders” really need to do is to drastically decrease their “defense” spending, stop propping up oil industries with counter-productive subsidies, and reduce or eliminate the regulatory burden on entrepreneurs so that they can innovate with new energy methods.

Consider the irony: the United Nations calls upon governments to enact emergency policies to mitigate climate change, yet those selfsame governments are actually the biggest hindrances to environmental cleanup efforts.

First, governments are often the largest polluters on the planet, not private entities. For instance, in the United States alone, the Pentagon is actually America’s biggest polluter. The Department of Defense pumps out more than 750,000 tons of hazardous material every year—that’s more than the top three chemical companies combined. How are they getting away with this? Congress passed an explicit provision exempting the military from any energy reduction efforts. The first thing that the U.S. “world leader” should do is to cut its own environmental impact.

Second, the United States government—like many world governments—heavily subsidizes the carbon-based energy industries while simultaneously passing “environmental regulations” that make a microscopic dent in carbon consumption. According to Price of Oil, the U.S. government spends between $14 and $52 billion in subsidies for the gas, coal, or oil industries, yet any attempt to reduce this number is thwarted in Congress. This keeps the price of carbon-based energies artificially low, interfering with the market process that occurs when goods are scarce.

In the meantime, the federal government and local governments impose carbon taxes onto their citizens, creating a perverse double standard. They attempt to keep people from using carbon-based products through tax policies while encouraging people to use them by driving down their prices. Carbon taxes aren’t the only ridiculous burden governments are placing on citizens to make them pay for their mistakes: plastic bag taxes, incandescent light bulb bans, the Clean Air Act, etc.

The list, tragically, is endless, though I would be remiss to not also mention that the U.S. government hand-crafted the conditions for the BP oil spill.

Despite all of this, entrepreneurs and innovators are still trying to come up with ways to save people money and energy by creating new products for them to try—only for government to get in the way when they do. For instance, many of the financial regulations after the bank meltdown have been biased against green companies and technologies and thus prevent investors from providing much-needed capital for these ideas to come to fruition.

Even if you still believe that governments have some role to play, deregulating markets is still the best way to go to make sure those policies are effective. According to a 2012 study, “renewable energy policies are significantly more effective in fostering green innovation in countries with deregulated energy markets.” Better still, “public support for renewable energy is crucial only in the generation of high-quality green patents, whereas competition enhances the generation of green patents irrespective of their quality.”

In short, the UN is correct to call upon “world leaders” to mitigate climate change. But the “action” that must be taken is to deregulate markets, get out of the way of innovators, and stop maintaining duplicitous policies. And if governments really feel like they must “do” something, they can reduce their own carbon emissions by cutting on so-called “defense” spending—with the bonus of making the world a bit more peaceful.