By William O’Keefe
Washington D.C. attracts a seemingly infinite number of special interests and advocacy groups lobbying for federal policies crafted to enrich them. Many of these groups have names that ring of high principle and social responsibility, regardless of the merit of their actual goals. And this month one more entered the scene: the National Climate Ethics Campaign.
The new group, according to its inaugural press release, aims to get “U.S. leadership [to] recognize their moral and ethical obligation to aggressively respond to climate change,” particularly safeguarding “the poor and most vulnerable communities from harm they did not create.” The organization’s proposals, however, would exacerbating the living standards and general welfare of this very demographic.
Two headlines at the NCEC kick-off event, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Henry Waxman, exemplify this contradiction. Both served as main proponent’s of the now notorious 2009 cap and trade legislation. Though the European Union’s experience with its carbon trading scheme had already demonstrated the program was economically, technologically, and environmentally counterproductive—imposing high costs to deliver minor, if any, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions—Boxer and Waxman fought to turn the proposal into law.
Their seemingly noble yet deleterious idea would have raised energy costs, slowed technological advances, and expanded subsidies to politically popular, “green” firms. Cap-and-trade was set to usher in a parade of Solyndras and a growing inventory of Chevy Volts for GM to repurchase.
These kinds of “benefits” don’t come cheap. One study found cap-and-trade would have saddled a U.S. household of four with $3,000 in additional costs annually from 2012 to 2035. Moreover, these costs would have hit low income families the hardest.
How’s that for moral and ethical?
There are currently between 20 and 25 million unemployed and underemployed Americans who are victims of the greatest recession in our lifetime. Policies advocated by rent-seeking special interests and big government elites would only exacerbate our current economic situation while impeding the development of new technologies. And those technologies carry big implications for our environmental welfare. As a result our energy use continues to become cleaner.
Carbon intensity—the measure of carbon emissions per unit of GDP—keeps declining. Since 1970, we’ve cut it by more than half. Going back even further, Jesse Ausubel—a senior program director at Rockefeller University—documents that the carbon intensity of the global economy has been declining since the time of Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln without an explicit policy to pursue that objective. Our growing prosperity and the resulting natural demand for advances in technology has driven more efficient energy use.
That phenomenon has implications beyond America. Outside of the U.S., almost 2 billion people live at levels of poverty that even the poorest U.S. citizen doesn’t experience and can’t imagine. They do not have access to commercial power or potable water, and they suffer high disease and mortality rates. Their plight is one that we know how to solve but choose to give mostly lip service.
Policies that encourage robust economic growth and real democratic processes in developing parts of the world will also lead to better stewardship of the environment in these regions.
Absolute reduction in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is an illusion, at least for decades to come. Reductions in carbon intensity will come from greater prosperity and resulting advances in energy efficient technologies. The true moral imperative is achieving greater abundance from rising standards of living, promoting personal freedom and property rights, and encouraging greater political transparency and honesty.
There may be an axiom with such groups that the more principled their name, the less principled their agenda. To quote H.L. Mencken, “In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.”
William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.