Position Paper: Politics and Global Warming

Here we comment on the current positions of U.S. major political parties concerning global warming. This is not endorsement, but a description of where we believe each party stands on this important issue.

Global warming is an issue that has been largely ignored for the past 30 years in the U.S. However, excuse the pun, it’s becoming a very hot topic and a major campaign issue.

Republicans are concerned that addressing this problem would be bad for the economy. They do not have a specific plan to address global warming. Most Republicans don’t admit that global warming is a problem.

For the Democrats, Vice President Biden has stated that he will spend $2.0 trillion during his first term fighting global warming. In addition, the Biden campaign and Democrat Select Committees on Climate Change in the House and Senate have published plans to address global warming. (See references).

As authors of a new book on global warming, Reaching Net Zero: What it Takes to Solve the Global Climate Crisis (Elsevier2020), we strongly support action over inaction. We support the Democrat’s goal to reach net zero quickly but question some aspects of their program as summarized in the following paragraphs.

The Democrats global warming plans
The various democratic programs have the same or very similar elements and objectives. In our view, The Senate Democrats’ report is the best written and most factual of these reports. Other observations follow below.

Main objectives
We agree that climate change poses “an existential threat and has to be dealt with now.” We support an immediate start of U.S. and international programs to stop global warming.

We support the goal of a 100% clean energy economy and reaching net zero, the elimination of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

We prefer a focused plan concentrating or stopping global warming. We would minimize other objectives not closely related to global warming. Other objectives, no matter how desirable, should be the subject of separate legislation to avoid diluting efforts to stop global warming.

Schedule
We don’t believe that the Democrats’ goal of achieving carbon-free electricity production by 2035 and achieving net zero by 2050 is possible. In our opinion, it is impossible to implement the changes needed fast enough to meet this schedule.

The goal set by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to limit global warming is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To reach this goal, the IPCC states it is necessary to reach net zero by 2050.

In our opinion, the IPCC goal of keeping the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels cannot be met. The earth’s average temperature has already increased 1.1°C and there hasn’t been any reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Mercator Research Institute’s carbon clock, 1.5°C will be exceeded in 7 years and 2.0°C will be exceeded in about 25 years if present trends continue.

It’s also unlikely that the public is ready to support the changes involved such as a carbon fee. A more realistic goal would be to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 (compared to 2019 as a base year), with a downward trend in emissions to achieve net zero at some future date.

It is not possible to reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity generation by 2035. Today about 17 percent of U.S. electricity production is from renewable sources (hydro, solar, wind, and others). In addition, nuclear power accounts for another 20 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. All these nuclear power plants are approaching the end of their service lives and most will need to be replaced by 2035. Only one nuclear power plant is under construction in the U.S. today and will replace only a small percentage of the electricity produced by nuclear power.  The rest has to be provided by renewables or fossil fuels.

Total electricity production in the U.S. will increase, especially if there is a transition to electric vehicles in addition to the normal growth in demand. As a result, more than a fivefold increase in electricity generation from renewables would have to occur in only 15 years.

A more realistic goal would be 50 percent clean electricity by 2035 and 100 percent by 2050.

Funding
The Democrats’ spending plans are unrealistic. Vice President Biden has stated that he will spend $2.0 trillion during his first term fighting global warming, about $500 billion per year. The Senate plan proposes spending of $400 billion per year, about 2.0 percent of GDP, to fight global warming.

This level of spending is too much too soon. There are no shovel ready global warming projects. It should take a year or longer to come up with an overall plan for global warming investments. We’d have to wait to see a specific plan for spending this money before we could comment on the amount that needs to be spent.

We have to remember that there is no money! Last year, 2019, in spite of a very good economy the federal deficit was about $1.0 trillion. This year the federal deficit will approach $3.3 trillion due to the recession caused by the coronavirus lockdowns. Disaster relief for wildfires and storm damage caused by global warming is already in the $ billions. Any new spending would be financed by increasing the deficit and national debt unless there is revenue from a carbon fee applied to fossil fuel use.

In addition, spending on global warming will have to compete with the Democrats’ other spending priorities such as expanding health care, new infrastructure projects, forgiving student debt, spending more on education, and support for underfunded state pension programs. Entitlement spending will continue to grow faster than GDP and require a larger share of tax revenues at the federal and state levels.

Vice President Biden plans to request tax increases that could increase revenues by an estimated $4.0 trillion over ten years if approved by Congress, or $400 billion/year. This is much less than potential spending increases.

The best strategy for the federal government would be to stop all fossil fuel subsidies—estimated at $20 billion per year for tax credits, intangible drilling costs, depletion allowances, special R&D expenses and other support.

Subsidies should be replaced with a fee on carbon emissions as measured at the wellhead and mine, and the resulting revenue used to fund clean energy incentives. A carbon fee would be a source of real revenue for the federal government. A carbon fee starting at $40 per ton of CO2 would raise about $225 billion per year which could be enough to start funding U.S. government programs. This revenue source would increase annually as the carbon fee is increased. Note that the U.S. government has determined that the social cost of carbon (SCC) due to public health costs, oil spills, etc., is $36 per ton, so an initial carbon fee of $40 per ton is reasonable.

Is massive government spending the solution? We think government spending should be used as a catalyst for, not the driving force of, a clean energy infrastructure. Electricity produced by renewables, wind and solar, is already cheaper than coal and nuclear and on par with natural gas. Market forces are driving the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. In 2019, more money was invested in electricity generation by renewables than for fossil fuels both in the U.S. and globally. This trend is our friend.

A carbon fee?
We support “an enforcement mechanism based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of pollution they are emitting.” A carbon fee would be the most effective means to reduce fossil fuel use and be the best way to charge for the full cost of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of the fossil fuel subsidy is not cash payments or tax breaks but allowing carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and other pollutants to be discharged into the atmosphere for free. The best way to eliminate this subsidy is to apply a reasonable fee for the emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. This should be a straight forward fee applied at the wellhead or mine to all fossil fuel production, not some complicated system that can be gamed by special interests. A initial fee of $40/ton of CO2 is proposed in our book, increasing annually until the fee equals the cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere, about $100 to $200/ton or more.

A border adjustment tax or fee would be needed to offset the lower cost of imports from countries that do not apply a carbon fee. Several other countries are implementing carbon fees. If the U.S. doesn’t have a carbon fee as well, U.S. exports could be penalized by those countries that implement carbon fees.

International efforts:
We strongly support the goal to rally the rest of the world to take action on the climate threat.

Decisive action from every major country around the word is needed. Global warming is a global problem. If a few countries aggressively address global warming while others do not, the problem won’t be solved. In addition, those countries that do make the effort could find their economies at a disadvantage compared to others that don’t commit to making the effort and investment required to stop global warming.

Reentering the Paris Agreement is a very important step that we support.

We also agree with the objective to fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to world trade, and to rally the world to meet the threat of climate change.

We agree that as part of our international effort we should demand a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies, as well as a uniform carbon fee.

Employment:
The Democrats’ plan is to create at least 10 million new jobs that expand the middle class. Creating millions of good paying jobs is a laudable objective. Renewable energy projects and projects to improve energy efficiency and conservation is a good source of new jobs.

The Senate Climate Crisis report estimates there are 3.3 million clean energy jobs in the U.S. today, an increase of about 800,000 jobs over the past five years.

However, some of the employment created by these new jobs will be offset by a decline in current employment in the fossil fuel industries. According to the recent U.S. Energy and Employment Report, about 1.6 million people are employed in the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. An additional 1.2 million people are employed in traditional fossil fuel sectors in the electric power industry. Employment in fossil fuel industries is higher if we consider indirect as well as direct jobs in fossil fuel sectors.

Do these new jobs need to be union jobs as proposed in the Democrats’ plans? Only about 6.3 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized today. Almost all the new jobs will be in the private sector. It will be most important that these jobs are competitive internationally, otherwise these jobs won’t be created in the first place or won’t be sustainable. 

Social justice
The most important thing we can do for minorities and low income households is to stop global warming. These are the groups that are likely to suffer the most from global warming, due to job loss, food shortages, higher prices, storm damage to marginal housing, and so on.

We also support broader social justice goals but question that these objectives should be part of a program to stop global warming as opposed to being addressed in separate legislation. 

Other government actions
New government regulations will be an important part of any global warming plan. This could include restoring environmental regulations cut by the Trump administration, including higher mileage standards for vehicles.  Tax incentives to improve building energy efficiency and promote the use of electric vehicles would be desirable. Restoring the ban on new leases for fossil fuel drilling or mining on federal lands is appropriate.

The creation of an ARPA-C advanced research agency would be a good program focused on climate change to accelerate the development of improve batteries, green hydrogen fuel, alternate liquid fuels, technologies for carbon capture and storage, and other technology improvements.

Nuclear power
There may be some potential for new nuclear reactor designs. We doubt that any new nuclear reactor would be cost competitive with the declining cost of electricity from solar and wind. In addition, any new reactor design still has to deal with the problem of safety and siting. No one wants to live near a nuclear power plant. Where can we put any new nuclear power plants that would be acceptable to the public?

In addition, the U.S. government has not yet come up with a plan for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel that is presently being stored at the site of each reactor in the U.S. Over the past 50 years, we haven’t been able to agree on an acceptable solution in spite of spending billions of dollars.

Any electricity from new nuclear power plants needs to be competitive with electricity from renewables. Electricity from renewables is already less expensive than from nuclear power. The cost of electricity from renewables continues to decline making it more difficult to justify any new investments in nuclear power as opposed to renewables.

New, small modular nuclear power plants are being developed. It will take a long time to design, get approval of, fund, and construct enough of these plants to make a difference. It is also estimated that the cost of electricity from these plants will be more expensive than from large nuclear plants in operation today. In addition, siting could be a problem, having to identify sites for 10 small nuclear power plants instead of one larger plant. However they might find economic use as peaking plants, when wind and solar are not available.

An important policy would be to keep existing nuclear power plants in the U.S. in operation as long as possible. This could include extending the operating lives of some of these plants where possible without compromising nuclear safety. As these plants are shut down fossil-fueled power plants would be used to offset some of the lost electricity production. 

Mitigation/resilience
The reports recognize the importance of mitigation and building more resilient infrastructure and communities.

Due to latency, the delay between cause and effects, we have not experienced the full impact of global warming from greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. In addition, greenhouse gases, especially CO2, will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time until slow-acting natural processes slowly deplete the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere.

There will be a substantial cost associated with increasing temperatures, sea level rise and other effects in the future.

Grow the economy
It’s important that we continue to grow the private sector economy since all government revenues are paid for by the private sector, and all jobs are either created in or paid for by the private sector.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables has to be planned and managed to reduce adverse effects on the economy.

China competition
There will be global competition for most products and services associated with fighting global warming. U.S. businesses will have to be competitive in a global economy, especially with China. China is already ahead of the U.S. in clean energy industries and has targeted these industries as part of their industrial policy.

Presently, China is the world leader in the production and use of electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar arrays, and batteries for vehicles and utility scale electricity storage, and nuclear power plant design and construction. China has recently introduced its first electric vehicle in the U.S., the Polestar 2.

We will have to match China’s costs, technologies, and manufacturing capabilities if we are to create employment in these industries in the U.S.

We need to deal with the fact that China has a closely regulated economy and financial system, as well as an undervalued currency leading to a substantial trade surplus with the U.S. and the rest of the world. It will be difficult for U.S. businesses to compete as long as this situation persists.

Other objectives
Some other objectives are:

  • Electricity generation: improve the national distribution and transmission system to accommodate clean renewable energy sources for electricity generation; phase out fossil fuel generation, and expand battery storage capacity.
  • Energy efficiency: upgrade 4 million buildings, weatherize 2 million homes, encourage low carbon processes in industry, etc.
  • Transportation: encourage automobile manufacturers to convert to electric vehicles; incentivize a switch to electric buses; pay “cash for clunkers” to get inefficient vehicles off the road; expand the use of nonpolluting fuels by airlines.

The federal government did not have to build gasoline service stations to supply automobiles, nor should it build charging stations for electric vehicles. As the number of electric vehicles expands, industry will meet the demand for charging stations as is already being done.

Providing every city with a population of 100,000 or more with a zero emissions public transportation system has a very low benefit/cost ratio. This should be left to the cities. Federal support, in the form of low cost, long-term loans, might make sense on a case-by-case basis to cities that can demonstrate both the need and capability to manage a public transportation system development.

The Democrats’ plans have a number of extraneous objectives that may be desirable, but do not help the U.S. reach net zero emissions. This category includes clean water improvements, rebuilding infrastructure (other than the national electricity transmission and distribution system), expanding broadband wireless, plugging abandon oil and gas wells, reclaiming old mines and a host of proposed programs in the category of “environmental justice”– improved infrastructure for tribes, afterschool opportunities for young people in high poverty areas, etc. As necessary and desirable as these social programs might be, they do not aid in the goal of reaching net zero, and could be a distraction.
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References

  1. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations published in July 2020 is 110 pages long.
  2. Joe’s Vision available on Vice President Biden’s official campaign website is a 564 page document with 46 chapters. Two chapters deal with global warming.
  3. The House Democrats’ Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report Solving the Climate Crisis dated June 2020 is a 538 page report.
  4. The Senate Democrat’s Special Committee on the Climate Crisis report The Case For Climate Action dated August 25, 2020 is a 220 page report. 

William Fletcher and Craig Smith

Reaching Net Zero: What it Takes to Solve the Global Climate Crisis

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