The Magazine

The Climate Circus Leaves Town

As traditional energy sources go from doom and gloom to boom.

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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If you had told environmentalists on Election Day 2008 that four years later there’d be no successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, that a Democratic Congress would not have enacted any meaningful climate legislation, that domestic oil production would be soaring even after a catastrophic offshore oil spill, and that the environmental community would be having a lively internal debate about whether it should support reviving nuclear power, most might have marched into the ocean to drown themselves. Yet that’s the state of play four months into President Obama’s second term.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

Start with climate change. Early in March, the hacker or leaker of the two email caches from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that rocked the climate science world in 2009 and again in 2011 released the remaining batch of material. The news produced barely a shrug even among climate skeptics, partly because the file contains 220,000 emails and documents (as opposed to about 1,000 in round one, and 5,000 in round two), making it impossible to review comprehensively. But it also appears unnecessary, as the climate change story has been overtaken by facts on the ground. Most significant: The pause in global warming​​—​​now going on 15 years​​—​​has become so obvious that many of the leading climate scientists are grudgingly admitting that global warming has stopped. James Hansen, who recently stepped down as NASA’s chief climate scientist to become a full-time private sector alarmist, is among those admitting that the recent temperature record has flatlined.

After two decades of steady and substantial global temperature increase from 1980 to 1998, the pause in warming is causing a crisis for the climate crusade. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The recent temperature record is falling distinctly to the very low end of the range predicted by the climate models and may soon fall out of it, which means the models are wrong, or, at the very least, something is going on that supposedly “settled” science hasn’t been able to settle. Equally problematic for the theory, one place where the warmth might be hiding​​—​​the oceans​​—​​is not cooperating with the story line. Recent data show that ocean warming has noticeably slowed, too.

These inconvenient data are causing the climate science community to reconsider the issue of climate sensitivity​​—​​that is, how much warming greenhouse gases actually cause​​—​​as I predicted would happen in these pages three years ago: “Eventually the climate modeling community is going to have to reconsider the central question: Have the models the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] uses for its predictions of catastrophic warming overestimated the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases?”

A steady stream of scientific studies (often government-funded) published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that conclude climate sensitivity is overestimated were ignored by the media, with the notable exception of New York Times science blogger Andrew Revkin. But the media blackout was broken in dramatic fashion by the Economist in its March 30 edition, with a long feature about the growing doubts over the catastrophic warming projections that have been the lifeblood of the climate campaign. The Economist reviewed a number of new findings that conclude the likely range of future warming will be much more modest​​—​​and manageable​​—​​than the Al Gores of the world have been claiming.

That the Economist would break with the pack is significant because the august British newsweekly had been among the most prominent media voices beating the drum for climate catastrophe and radical action to suppress hydrocarbon energy. Now it offers this zinger: “If climate scientists were credit-rating agencies, climate sensitivity would be on negative watch.” A Reuters story last week notes that scientists are “struggling” to explain the pause in warming. Expect other media to follow​​—​​if they continue to give the issue much coverage at all. The New York Times shut down its environment news desk in January and discontinued its Green Blog in March, concessions to the fact that readers are thoroughly bored with the issue. Recent opinion surveys find that public concern about climate change is at 20-year lows, not just in the United States but almost everywhere.

But it may not have mattered whether these troubles came to the climate campaign. Even if the full-monty doom and gloom case still looked persuasive, the massive and unexpected resurgence of hydrocarbon energy over the last few years has made the green dream of hydrocarbon energy suppression more implausible than ever, chiefly because the “renewable” alternatives are still so much more expensive, inferior in performance, and inadequate to our energy needs. The boom in natural gas production is being accompanied by an equally substantial boom in domestic oil production for the same reason​​—​​advances in directional drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing. 

Domestic oil production has reversed its long slow decline​​—​​heretofore thought irreversible by every public and private forecast​​—​​and is at its highest level in more than 20 years. The International Energy Agency forecasts that the United States is on its way to becoming the world’s top oil producer, without, it is worth noting, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or large new areas of offshore reserves that have been the center of contention for the last 30 years. Barack Obama has done what any clever politician would do: claim credit for the boom, even though most of the new activity has occurred on private and state land. Obama’s regulators are still slow-walking permit applications for drilling on federal land. It has to be awfully discouraging for environmentalists to have won most of those access fights but still find U.S. oil production soaring.

The consequences for the U.S. energy picture are staggering. Oil imports have fallen by one-third over the last five years; the sour economy accounts for less than half of this decline. The United States is within striking distance of doing without Middle Eastern oil if it wishes. Although Europe and Asia have lagged the United States in deploying new technology to unlock oil and gas, they are catching up quickly. The “peak oil” hypothesis looks more and more like the population bomb, imminent resource exhaustion, and other busted Malthusian forecasts of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, renewable energy​​—​​wind, solar, and biofuels​​—​​is sputtering everywhere, as one would expect of any product wholly dependent on subsidies in a time of budgetary constraints. Tax credits and subsidies for wind and solar power survived the fiscal cliff deal on January 1, the result of some fancy footwork by renewable lobbyists months before, but aren’t likely to survive much longer. In Europe, subsidies for renewable energy are being cut just about everywhere. Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland have all announced cuts in renewable energy subsidies; South Africa, India, and China, too. At the same time, Europe’s carbon emissions trading scheme​​—​​the cornerstone of its climate policy​​—​​is near collapse. On April 16, the European parliament narrowly voted down a last-minute attempt to rescue the sagging carbon-trading system. Most investment banks that jumped on the carbon-trading bandwagon have closed their carbon desks. It may yet survive, but it has almost no enthusiastic support. On top of everything else, coal use in Europe is actually on the rise, some of it imported from the United States.

Despite these relentless setbacks for the climate campaign, environmentalists are not going gentle into this well-lit night, nor will they abandon their decades-old crusade to kill off hydrocarbon energy. The movement is too well funded, and has established ample footholds in the policy machinery stretching down to the local level in the United States. Having a “climate action policy” is de rigueur for just about every self-respecting city council and county commission in the country, typically raising numerous regulatory hurdles for new development. Moreover, the fallback position for the climateers​​—​​Environmental Protection Agency regulation under the Clean Air Act​​—​​is just getting into high gear, though “high gear” for the EPA is an excruciatingly slow process.

And that process just got a bit slower. Last year the EPA announced a draft of “new performance standards” for power plant greenhouse gas emissions that would have the practical effect of making it impossible to build new coal-fired power plants, except with unproven and uneconomical carbon sequestration technology. Only natural gas plants could meet the new standard. The EPA was supposed to finalize the rule a week ago, but withdrew it at the last minute, probably because the proposed rule was unlikely to survive a legal challenge. The EPA has solid legal ground to develop greenhouse gas regulations (unfortunately), but an arbitrary anti-coal rule might have been tossed out in court just about the time a new president arrives in town four years from now​​—​​perhaps a Republican who would scupper the whole thing. The EPA has not announced a timetable for a revised rule, but the new EPA administrator-designate, the true-believing Gina McCarthy, will no doubt push hard for aggressive regulations. The EPA is already talking about tough new performance standards for existing coal plants over the next 18 months.

The most high profile energy controversy remains the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama punted on a decision before the election, and now that the State Department’s latest environmental review gave the project a thumbs up, he’s in a difficult political spot. If he okays the pipeline, his vocal environmental supporters, such as Tom Steyer, the anti-Keystone San Francisco billionaire who hosted a fundraiser for the president two weeks ago, will go berserk. But the business community, organized labor, a solid Senate majority, and, according to polls, a solid majority of the public, favor Keystone. The Canadian government, after observing a cautious stance of staying out of domestic American politics, has started making unusual public noises that a denial of Keystone will strain relations. Obama can’t vote “present” on Keystone forever.

What he may do is tentatively approve Keystone along with a major policy shift that will please environmentalists and subject Keystone to further and perhaps fatal delays. There is talk that the administration may expand the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to require that proposed projects like Keystone document their impact on global warming in the permit approval process. It would be a bonanza for environmental lawyers, who would have new grounds for filing lawsuits to challenge the adequacy of environmental impact statements. Activists have implicated global warming in everything from AIDS to zoonotic diseases (see The Warmlist, www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm, for a complete dossier), so environmental impact statements could become multivolume affairs with endless court challenges and costly “mitigation” steps required for permits.

While this might thrill environmentalists, it risks a major backlash. The problem with environmental statutes such as NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act is that taken literally they could prohibit almost all human activity. Environmental regulation has always been subject to realistic political constraints, though regulators strain at the leash to see how much they can get away with. This slow, insidious process tends to go on regardless of which party occupies the White House. But an overreach by Obama could finally prompt Congress to consider revising the basic statutes that give regulators so much leeway. The landmark environmental statutes of the 1970s have been politically sacrosanct, but red state Democrats would surely not be fond of a dramatic expansion of environmental regulation.

The final unexpected aspect of the global hydrocarbon renaissance is that it is starting to cause a few environmentalists to have second thoughts about .  .  . nuclear power. For nearly 30 years nuclear power was the only form of energy environmentalists despised more than hydrocarbons. But even with Japan’s nuclear power plant disaster of 2011, some environmentalists have come to see a positive tradeoff of nuclear power over coal and natural gas. James Hansen recently co-authored a paper concluding that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives over coal and gas-fired alternative electricity sources since 1970, and will prevent 7 million deaths by midcentury if it supplants a significant portion of fossil fuel electricity. In June a new documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, will feature prominent environmentalists, such as Stewart Brand, who have changed their mind on nuclear power. The film was screened to good reviews at the most recent Sundance Film Festival; apparently the resolutely anti-nuke host, Robert Redford, hadn’t noticed it on the program. But there’s a lot the old fossils of environmentalism don’t notice these days, starting with the dead-end road they’ve hit.

Steven F. Hayward is the Thomas Smith fellow at the Ashbrook Center, and the William Simon distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

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