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Curbing Carbon Vs. Rationalizing Recklessness

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Rousing the public to do something about the growing federal debt is not easy. The dangers it poses are distant and vague. The immediate effects are not apparent. Any measure to cut deficits looks trivial next to the scale of the problem. Doing nothing is the easiest option.

But responsible adults understand the need to stanch the red ink. It can't be a good thing to run up debt year after year instead of living within our means.

Bringing spending into line with revenue is a matter of sound government policy because it forces voters to pay for their choices. It's a matter of morality because our children and grandchildren shouldn't have to suffer from our myopic self-indulgence. Ignoring the problem is no solution.

The same dilemma arises with our production of greenhouse gases. Climate change may not be disastrous, and it may not be clearly noticeable soon. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions has an upfront cost with an uncertain payoff. Even ambitious steps won't make a huge difference. Doing nothing is the easiest option.

So when the Environmental Protection Agency came out with a new regulatory program to reduce carbon emissions, there were plenty of arguments for inaction. It would destroy coal-mining jobs, raise electricity rates and hobble the economy, without making any real difference in the fate of the planet.

But all this amounts to rationalizing recklessness. The global warming skeptics offer a parade of excuses for complacency: Climate change isn't happening. If it's happening, it's not because of human activity. If it's because of human activity, it's a good thing. If it's not a good thing, the remedy is too expensive. If it's not too expensive, it's too modest to matter, or it's so radical it will reduce us all to bondage.

Their approach is not to look at the facts and draw conclusions from them. It's to start with a conclusion and find ways to justify it.

But the evidence of the reality and risks of climate change grows every day. The administration's plan to reduce carbon emissions is an attempt to curb those dangers, primarily by discouraging the use of coal for generating electricity.

That should not be terribly hard, since the fracking revolution has made cleaner-burning natural gas cheap and abundant. Michael Lynch, president of the consulting firm Strategic Energy and Economic Research, told The New York Times, "It's not Obama's war on coal. It's reality's war on coal. Natural gas turns out to be better than coal in the marketplace."

As for the alleged destruction of jobs in the coal industry, there aren't that many jobs there. Since 1980, coal-mining employment has plunged by 60 percent -- with most of the decline coming under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But the number of jobs in oil and gas drilling has grown rapidly and will continue to grow.

The apocalyptic predictions have been made before, without coming true. In 1990, when Congress approved new measures to reduce acid rain, critics said they would cause electricity rates to climb without doing any environmental good. (I was one of them.) Some anticipated a "clean air recession."

In fact, electricity rates have declined in inflation-adjusted terms since the restrictions were adopted, and the favorable results -- including lives saved -- have been far greater than expected. The economy boomed in the 1990s. A 2003 report by the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget found that the benefits of these and related air pollution rules were at least 11 times more than the costs.

This was not the first time that opponents of environmental regulations were wrong. Gregg Easterbrook, author of "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism," recalls the grim predictions about the 1970 Clean Air Act. "Detroit said it would be impossible to meet the standards, or would double the price of cars," he told me. "Instead cars cost less today in inflation-adjusted terms than then and emit on average about 1 percent as much smog-forming pollutant."

The carbon limits would be worthwhile even if global warming weren't looming in our future. By curtailing deadly pollutants, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, they will save 6,600 lives and prevent 150,000 asthma attacks a year.

But the critics can see only the possible downside of environmental rules. They perfectly fit Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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