This commentary originally appeared in the National Review Online on April 14, 2016.
Will the U.N. Climate Agreement undo the gains for mankind since the first Earth Day?
Later this month, First World environmentalists will rally around Earth Day as their most important annual celebration. There will be marches, recriminations, and finger-pointing at globalization, development, and the fossil-fuel industry in particular for what these activists see as the desecration of the world as we know it.
Earth Day was started in 1970 as a way to focus attention on the environmental problems on our planet. This year, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has invited “all world leaders” to travel to U.N. headquarters in New York City on April 22 for a signing ceremony for the historic climate agreement that was reached in Paris in December. The agreement will remain open for additional nation-state signatures for one year.
Historic, perhaps. Effective, not so much.
I was a high-school freshman living in Puerto Rico in 1970, and I admit the first Earth Day piqued my interest. Environmentalism, as a movement, was sweeping America, appealing to young idealists. Three years later, with my ponytail, guitar, and flip-flops, I entered college. I majored in forestry and wildlife management, and have spent the majority of my career working in the natural-resource field.
There were a lot of predictions made on that first Earth Day of coming widespread famines, mass starvation, and extinctions. Air pollution, we were told, would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one-half, crude-oil supplies would run out by the year 2000, and by that date the world would be 11 degrees cooler. Cooler! Of course, these dire predictions never came true.
But that isn’t to say there weren’t environmental problems.
Efforts to protect our air and water were nonexistent. Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner has said, “City after city, state after state, had essentially failed in their efforts to protect their air and the water, the land, and the health of their citizens.” Stories abounded of rivers catching on fire; there were major oil spills, air pollution was commonplace, and, although its principal assertion was later proven to be false, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which blamed DDT for the massive killing of birds, had been widely read and accepted as truth. These facts and others led to federal legislation to take primary environmental oversight away from the states and give it to the federal government.
In 1970 Congress passed, and Republican president Richard Nixon signed, the Clean Air Act. Two years later, he signed the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA, in the years since, the levels of six common pollutants — carbon monoxide (CO), ground-level ozone (O3), lead (Pb), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter (PM) — as well as numerous other toxic pollutants, have been lowered by 69 percent.
These things are worth celebrating. But the central question is: Is the world better off 46 years after the first Earth Day?
Resoundingly yes. High levels of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, child labor, illiteracy, and unsafe water have ceased to be global norms. Infant mortality has never been lower, and we are living longer and healthier lives. That is worth celebrating this Earth Day.
However, just as with the dire predictions of 1970, climate alarmists are once again predicting the end of the world as we know it. This time the culprit is carbon dioxide.
In Paris, the 196 parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change reached their historic agreement to combat climate change by pledging to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How? By limiting the emission of CO2, a trace greenhouse gas.
Stephen D. Eule, vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy and former director of the Office of Climate Change Policy & Technology at the U.S. Department of Energy, recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He told the senators that there are flaws in the Obama administration’s intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the U.N. goal. The administration set a goal of cutting the United States’ net greenhouse-gas emissions 26 to 28 percent from their 2005 level by 2025, with a “best effort” to achieve 28 percent.
How does this U.S. commitment add up? “It does not,” said Eule. He described the significant pace of technological innovation that would be required to meet this goal and the lack of basic information in the commitment. He also told the committee that a close examination of the INDC “raises more questions than it answers.”
For the U.S. to achieve a 28 percent reduction by 2025, emissions would have to drop to 4.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (TCO2 eq.). Taking all of the carbon-reduction efforts together, the Institute for 21st Century Energy estimates that in 2025 total net greenhouse-gas emissions would still be about 800 million TCO2 eq., or 45 percent short of the 1.8 billion TCO2 eq. in reductions needed to meet President Obama’s 28 percent target. The math does not add up.
Eule goes on to say that the U.N. goals are significantly unequal between nations. While the U.S. is aiming for these draconian reductions, “the rest of the world,” he said, “continues to emit [carbon] with abandon.” China, India, and Russia have not made commitments anywhere close to ours. The consequence is likely to be the movement of manufacturing, industry, and jobs from the U.S. to other countries.
In order to achieve the unmeasurably small climate benefit of 0.018 degree Celsius, the United States would have to wreak havoc on the economy, jobs, and electricity rates — and, in the process, on the lives of millions of people. While life on Earth is improving, the U.N. policy would only reverse what has been achieved. Earth Day resulted in tangible benefits to society. The Paris agreement will not.
Doug Domenech is the director of the Fueling Freedom Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Prior to joining TPPF, he served as secretary of natural resources in the Commonwealth of Virginia.