The Never-Ending Saga Of Climate Futility

There are two essential elements to climate change advocacy, which are not necessarily that closely related. Element number one is the idea that human “greenhouse gas” emissions, principally CO2 from burning fossil fuels, are causing a crisis of global warming that poses an existential danger to mankind. Element number two is that our government must and can address the crisis by imposing laws and regulations to restrict use of fossil fuels and thus emissions of CO2, thereby “saving the planet.”

Maybe you accept element one. This post only addresses element two. Here’s the fundamental question: Even assuming that element number one is completely accepted, is there anything that the U.S. can do to address the question of CO2 emissions that is other than an exercise in total futility, particularly given what is going on in the rest of the world?

Let’s consider a few data points for this month. First up, we have the ongoing saga of the litigation over the Obama administration’s so-called “Clean Power Plan,” currently becalmed in the DC Circuit. Here’s a link to all the papers in the case. You will recognize the CPP as the Obama EPA’s big effort to solve climate change via an enormously-complicated set of rules that would essentially force the closure of all coal-fired power plants in the U.S., and probably most or all oil-fired ones as well. The case started out as a petition brought by Republican-led states seeking to have the court declare the CPP to be beyond the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. When the DC Circuit initially declined a motion for a stay of the CPP, the petitioners went to the Supreme Court, which granted the stay in early 2016. But a stay of implementation of the regulation did not necessarily mean that the DC Circuit could not proceed to rule that the CPP exceeded (or not) the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. The en banc DC Circuit actually held oral argument on that issue on September 27, 2016 — two years ago today. Everybody expected them to shortly rule that the CPP was just fine. Everybody also expected Hillary Clinton to win the election.

When Trump won the election, no opinion immediately emerged from the court. After taking office in January 2017, one of Trump’s early acts (March 28) was to issue an executive order that EPA reconsider and revise and/or replace regulations including the CPP. The same day, EPA made a motion to the DC Circuit to hold the case “in abeyance” pending adoption of some new rule by the Trump EPA. Rather than grant an open-ended abeyance, the court granted one for 60 days — and then has renewed it for repeated 60 day periods ever since. Only on August 21, 2018 did the Trump EPA then issue its proposed replacement rule, known as “ACE” (“Affordable Clean Energy”).

Now it’s the turn of the Democrat-led states, and their environmentalist allies, to squeal. On September 4, they filed a big brief demanding a ruling on the underlying case. The brief is filled not just with accusations of stalling, but also with apocalyptic statements about the critical importance of getting the CPP going immediately.

Not deciding the case will lead to a significant waste of . . . critical time, in realizing Congress’s directive to EPA to protect our residents and members from the urgent and severe endangerment caused by carbon pollution. As demonstrated again by this summer’s extreme heat, storms, and wildfires occurring across this country and around the world, the dangers of climate change are no longer only in the future, and the commitment to even more dangerous impacts deepens with each year of delay in curbing emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants.

But, look as you might through this 28 page opus, and you will not find any calculation or estimation of how much full implementation of the CPP might affect world temperatures. Is it possible to make such a calculation? Yes! As pointed out many times at this site, for example here just last month, the U.S. government has an official model, known as MAGICC, used to calculate how much a given amount of human CO2 emissions will cause world temperatures to increase. The same model can be used in reverse to calculate how much a reduction in emissions will avoid in future temperature increase. And the Cato Institute has provided a handy calculator to make these calculations.

The entire electric power sector in the U.S. accounts for about 28% of U.S. CO2 emissions per EPA data here. The MAGICC calculator allows us to input assumptions for the percentage by which U.S. emissions will be reduced, and for the assumed sensitivity of the climate to such reductions, and to then calculate the effect on world temperatures. Let’s assume that with sufficient regulation we could eliminate as much as 70% of the emissions from the U.S. electric power sector, which would reduce total U.S. emissions by about 20%; and we’ll assume a ridiculously-high climate sensitivity of 3 deg C for a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. What would be the effect? The answer is (drumroll!!!!!) that that huge reduction in emissions would achieve about 0.013 deg C reduction in world temperatures by 2050 and 0.018 deg C by 2100. Oh, but the CPP only seeks to reduce emissions from the power sector by about 30%. So divide those numbers by about 2. It comes to 0.0065 deg C by 2050 and 0.009 deg C by 2100. For comparison, recognize that the measurement accuracy of the best instruments we have to measure world temperatures (satellites) is about 0.1 deg C, or 10-15 times these highly theoretical effects. So these projected changes in world temperatures would be well less than anything that could be measured.

Why again is there some kind of rush to decide this case?

Let’s try another relevant data point. The U.S. currently has about 266 GW of coal-fired electricity generation capacity. What’s going on in China? The answer is that, despite statements made in the international arena about reducing or stopping its construction of additional coal capacity, China has in fact proceeded full speed ahead — and currently has under construction some 259 GW of new coal-fired capacity, just a shade less than the entire U.S. existing fleet. This fact comes from a brand-new (September 20) report from a group called EndCoal, anti-coal campaigners who are actually rather upset by what is going on. Their source is satellite images of the plants under construction, many of them appearing in their report. From EndCoal:

  • 259 Gigawatts (GW) of new capacity are under development in China, comparable to the entire U.S. coal fleet (266 GW). This represents a 25% increase in China’s coal power fleet. (Note: A typical coal-fired generating unit is 300–1,000 Megawatts, or 0.3–1.0 GW, in size, with most power stations having two or more such units.) . . .

  • China’s developmental pipeline places it on a trajectory to exceed its own announced 1100 GW coal power cap through 2020, with coal power capacity already at 993 GW in 2018.

  • Adding 259 GW of new coal power in China is wildly out of line with the Paris climate agreement. According to the IEA, a 50% chance of limiting future temperature increases to 1.75°C requires China phase out its traditional coal plants by 2045.

With a little calculation there, you can figure out that China already has well more than 3 times the coal generating capacity of the U.S., and the new plants will take it to well more than 4 times. Anyway, don’t let yourself get too upset by this — the entire world pipeline for new coal plants is more like 1700 GW (well more than 6 times the U.S. fleet), and there’s plenty more to come when those plants are up and running. Hey, the third world needs electricity!

It’s really hard to conceive of a bigger exercise in total futility than the anti-carbon efforts of the previous administration.

UPDATE, September 28: This post has been slightly edited for accuracy, particularly as to the arithmetical calculations from the MAGICC model. The changes to the numbers are not material.