Is "Action Against Climate Change" A Winning Political Issue?

“Action against climate change”— that’s one of the big planks that the Democrats ran on in the recent election. For new socialist “it” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s the “Green New Deal”: “100% of national power generation from renewable sources". A few days ago, Ocasio-Cortez was joined in a Capitol Hill press conference by some 17 of her congressional colleagues, most of them newly-elected, to advocate for the Green New Deal program. Supporters included six of the new Democrats from California, as well as the woman from Minnesota who replaced Keith Ellison, Ilhan Omar. Here is Common Dreams reporting on the press conference on November 30:

In recent actions organized by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, thousands of people have swarmed the offices of Democratic lawmakers to demand they back a Green New Deal. One included a sit-in at the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to urge Democratic leadership to commit to a climate plan in line with the crisis's scale and urgency. "Tens of thousands of young people have rushed to join our movement since Ocasio-Cortez proposed the Select Committee on a Green New Deal. The enthusiasm from young voters is clear: Pelosi and the Democratic leadership must put the Green New Deal at the top of the agenda for the new Congress in January," said Sunrise co-founder and spokesperson Varshini Prakash.

You can feel the excitement, and the momentum. At the Atlantic yesterday, Robinson Meyer compliments the activists on their new political strategy, destined to save our planet.

The Green New Deal aspires to cut U.S. carbon emissions fast enough to reach the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate goal: preventing the world from warming no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. . . . The Green New Deal aims to get us there—and remake the country in the process. It promises to give every American a job in that new economy: installing solar panels, retrofitting coastal  infrastructure, manufacturing electric vehicles. In the 1960s, the U.S. pointed the full power of its military-technological industry at going to the moon. Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing, except to save the planet.

It would be hard to dispute that the “action against climate change” plank worked to the Democrats’ advantage in November. But then, neither the federal government nor any state has yet enacted carbon emissions restrictions that have gotten to a level sufficient to take a real bite out of the people’s prosperity. You might wonder, if a carbon tax or other emissions-restriction proposal gets to a level sufficient to start impacting overall emissions significantly, will it still be a political positive? Or will it inevitably be so costly as to cause a massive blowback. We can get an idea of the answer to that question by looking at some international experience.

For example, there’s Australia. In 2012, Australia imposed a “carbon tax” on generation of electricity. The tax was 23 AUD per ton of emissions, which would be equivalent to about $17 USD per ton. Now, try to translate that into how much an electricity bill might increase. For the price of gasoline, this calculator provides a result of about $0.15 per gallon for a $17/ton carbon tax. So maybe for Australia we were talking about a 5% increase in electricity bills, very roughly. But even that relatively small amount caused a political firestorm. By mid-2014 the offending government had been voted out of office and the carbon tax had been repealed. A chart in this paper indicates that Australia’s emissions from electricity generation went down by maybe 7% during the two years that the carbon tax was in effect; but then the same chart also indicates that Australia’s emissions from electricity generation had also gone down by about 4% in the four years before the carbon tax was enacted. So how much of the 2012-2014 decline was actually due to the carbon tax? Maybe some. To be fair, in the two years after repeal, emissions from electricity generation were back up by about 3%. But even if you credit the carbon tax with the entire 7% reduction in emissions from electricity generation while it was in effect, the emissions from electricity generation are still a minority of total Australian emissions. So at best the reduction in the country’s overall emissions caused by the tax was about 3%, and more likely 1-2%. And the cost of even that insignificant reduction in emissions caused enough resistance to get the government thrown out.

Can you draw any conclusions from this about how much of a carbon tax you would need to get to zero emissions, as proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and her crowd? Remember that the first cuts to emissions are the easiest — for example, replace some coal electricity plants with natural gas. You might even save up to 10% of national emissions that way. To get to 40%, you could replace your entire electricity sector with nuclear, which of course would be entirely unacceptable to environmentalists. And then, exactly how are you going to address things like air travel, ocean freight, and mechanized agriculture?

Next, consider the case of the province of Ontario, Canada. In 2017, under a government of a premier and majority of the legislature from the Liberal party, Ontario put into effect a “cap and trade” program, designed to cut emissions and raise money in a manner similar to a carbon tax. Instead of a fixed tax, they would hold auctions for the right to emit CO2, with a “floor price” set around $18 per ton. How much would that cost a typical family? Of course, the whole idea was to make that impossible to figure out; but the expectation was that the program would raise about $1.5 - 2 billion per year for starters, so if you divide that by an Ontario population of about 14 million, you get about $100-125 per capita, $400-500 for a family of four. It doesn’t seem like a huge amount (although the design of the program was that they would increase the prices every year until they got the emissions reductions they wanted). But it became a big issue in the provincial elections of June 2018, with Progressive Conservative candidate Doug Ford promising to scrap the cap and trade system. Result: Ford won big, and on top of that the Liberals were mostly wiped out of the provincial legislature. In one of his first acts as new premier, Ford carried out his campaign promise and completely scrapped the cap and trade system. Currently, Ford is engaged in a tussle with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with Trudeau set to have the Canadian federal government impose a $20 per ton carbon tax on Ontario starting January 1, 2019 unless Ontario first enacts its own tax (in some indeterminate amount). We’ll wait to see how this plays out; but again, the indications so far are that once costs of forcing emissions reductions, even in relatively small amounts, become manifest to the voters, the “climate action” agenda suddenly becomes electoral kryptonite.

And then we have France and its “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters. 300,000 protesters in the streets, for days on end, some in Paris, some around the country, including some level of destruction of property and setting of fires. What is this about? It’s an increase of a big 4 euro cents (4.5 US cents) per liter of gasoline. There are about 3.8 liters per gallon, so call this the equivalent of about 17 U.S. cents per gallon. And after a few days of the protests, the French government has backed down and rescinded the tax increase, at least for six months; and they had to take that humiliating step right in the middle of the UN “climate” summit in Poland.

Now, from reading some about this situation, I think there is more to it than just the 17 cents per gallon gas tax increase. Gasoline already cost about $6 per gallon in France, twice the U.S. price, with the differential representing taxes that had been previously imposed not as part of some “climate” plan, but rather just to raise money for an insatiable government. And the productive citizens of France who use fuel to drive to get to work, or who drive trucks for a living, or who are farmers, have plenty of other grievances, including recent lowering of speed limits and proliferation of automated radar speed traps. But still, it was the mere 17 cents per gallon increase in the gasoline tax that was the proximate cause sparking the protests. The approval rating of French President Macron has fallen to 23%.

Here in the U.S., the reality of the costs of these “climate” proposals somehow has not yet been brought home. Even as the Obama administration fought to impose every fossil fuel restriction it could get away with, we were blessed with the fortuity of the fracking revolution, and substantial price decreases for fossil fuels. What we need now is for some state, or small group of states, to actually push forward with their serious “climate” agenda. California supposedly has a goal of cutting its emissions by 40% by 2030, and all the way to zero by somewhere around 2045. Go for it! Here’s some news for you: you can’t get anywhere near 40% emissions reductions by the small step of just building wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity, and backing those up with natural gas plants. That might get you to 15 or 20% emissions reductions at most. To get beyond that, you’re going to need something like trillions of dollars worth of batteries or a carbon tax so high that it shuts down most industry and prices people out of automobile and airplane travel. Somewhere around when the price of electricity and/or gasoline gets to around triple what it is in the rest of the country, the voters will wake up. This might even lead to a substantial political realignment of the country. What idiots would impose these kind of costs on their citizens for theoretical benefits that are so small they can’t even be measured? I can’t wait.