This commentary originally appeared in The Federalist on April 22, 2016.
What will be labeled a global triumph will in reality likely be a tragedy for rich and poor countries alike, and especially for the poor.
Friday marks the forty-sixth Earth Day, but this year will be different. This year the United Nations has decided to hold an elaborate ceremony to gather the signatures of the countries who endorsed the Paris climate agreement last December. Of the 196 countries that attended the Paris confab, more than 130 countries and 60 heads of state are expected to sign the pact at the UN’s headquarters in New York City.
Alarmists will herald Earth Day 2016 as the moment all humanity joined together to save the planet from man-made global warming—also known as human profligacy wrought by high energy consumption, individual liberty, and economic freedom. That a majority of the world’s nations would sign an agreement “recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat” requiring an accelerated, “deep reduction” in global greenhouse gas emissions is, indeed, an unprecedented but tragic event in mankind’s history.
What will be labeled a global triumph will in reality likely be, if actually implemented, a tragedy for rich and poor countries alike and especially for the poor wherever they reside. The Paris agreement represents the first energy regression in mankind’s history. It’s a regression imposed by the ruling elites of the world’s most prosperous and educated countries, abetted by legions of UN functionaries and their kin in non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Multiple public opinion polls in developing and developed countries, however, show that action to combat alleged global warming is last on a list of a dozen genuine public priorities such as employment, education, and health.
A Return to Pre-Industrial Days
Accelerating a transition from fossil fuels to renewables means subsidizing and mandating a return to pre-industrial energy scarcity when the energy upon which fundamental human welfare depended was far more expensive but less efficient, versatile, and reliable. The grand delusion of climate policy is the assumption that renewable energies can now supplant fossil fuels and still affordably provide the myriad of services, goods, and food handily provided by the highly concentrated and controllable energy in hydrocarbons. As Google’s engineers concluded, renewables are a “false hope.”
For decades, the UN’s Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) has unsuccessfully tried to forge a globally binding agreement to curb man-made greenhouse gases. The poorer countries of the world have understandably refused to jeopardize the energy availability necessary to reduce poverty and power economic growth while richer countries have refused to cede sovereignty and shackle their prospering economies with onerous carbon cuts.
The Paris agreement evidently overcame this impasse by making the carbon cuts each country pledges voluntary. Yet this change from a binding to a voluntary plan makes the Paris agreement futile if avoiding the wrath of the weather gods is the real goal of the enterprise. The aggregate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions each nation pledges through what the agreement calls “Intentional Nationally Determined Contributions” is not at all enough to avoid the dangerous warming predicted by the reigning science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Much greater emission reductions will be required,” states the agreement, if catastrophic warming is to be averted.
Developing and developed countries finally united to support the agreement because prosperous countries, for the first time, caved to the demands of the poor countries. In the Paris agreement, rich countries agreed to undertake “economy wide absolute emission reduction targets,” while poorer countries promised to develop less economically onerous programs for adaptation to climate change.
Developing Countries Get a Free Pass, Others Handicaps
Unlike mandatory carbon cuts enforceable under the rule of law as in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan, the developing countries’ individual pledges to reduce greenhouse gases are conditional. Most developing countries pledged carbon reductions only if such measures do not constrain economic growth.
On that note, the likelihood of actual implementation of developing countries” pledges is slim. While the media extols the Paris Agreement as a global agreement to end the era of fossil fuels, more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants are under construction or planned, according to a study by four institutes for climate research. While EPA rules drive major U.S. coal companies into bankruptcy and destroy thousands of U.S. jobs, China is now building 368 coal plants; India has 297 coal plants under construction.
The prosperous countries even acceded to another developing-bloc demand that had long been an insuperable barrier: climate payola from rich to poor countries. The Paris agreement institutionalizes a Green Climate Fund to be financed by annual contributions of $100 billion from developed countries. Given weak economic growth and increasing geopolitical tensions across the world, the likelihood of contributions reaching $100 billion every year is also slim.
It’s Not about Climate, But Redistribution
Everybody loses on the path laid out in the Paris agreement, both the rich countries embracing the decarbonizing but awash with energy or those beginning the grand energy transformation without full access to electricity. Man-made energy scarcity will stymie existing economic growth in developed countries and constrain if not preclude economic growth in developing countries.
There is nothing inviolable about fossil fuels. Who knows what energy innovations creative human minds will achieve? At the moment, however, there is no comparable substitute for fossil fuel or the massive, seamlessly operating energy infrastructure built around these rich hydrocarbons across the world.
The Paris agreement formalizes wealth redistribution on several levels: from rich countries to poor countries and from poor people to rich people. Former UN climate official Ottmar Edenhofer candidly reveals the endgame: “One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. … We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy.” Subsidizing and mandating still far more expensive renewables forcibly redistributes the earnings of the poor to the rich elites who can afford higher energy prices.
UN Climate Program chief Christina Figueres admits her program now creates the political and organizational wherewithal to replace the economic system that made modern economic growth possible. As she nonchalantly comments: “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution.”
If fully executed, the Paris agreement would slow or arrest the still-growing advances of the last century that have extended the average human lifespan and increased per capita income 10 to 20 times over. The Paris agreement may be futile, but this climate chimera is dangerously political and morally offensive.
Kathleen Hartnett White is director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. White also sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Regulatory Science, the Texas Emission Reduction Advisory Board, and the Texas Water Foundation.