Climate Happy Talk at the New York Times

I’m always watching for the dominant media to advocate market based measures instead of regulation.  They are pressing this approach particularly hard in the climate change area, and many liberal groups fall for it – witness the recent enthusiasm for Cap and Trade.[1]

Such approaches can be quickly debunked with the help of Google, and the resulting information makes a good short educational presentation for a meeting, an op-ed or letter to the editor, talking points, Facebook post or just something to bug your friends about. As an example, I recently spotted an article in The NY Times, and wrote the following for the local Democratic Party newsletter. 

Now don’t get me wrong, The Times has done fine reporting and editorial work on climate change and particularly on hydrofracking. The Business Section, however, is differently managed and written for a somewhat more select clientele. From these pages we are more likely to learn that free market magic is solving the most difficult problems.

Such a piece appeared on 3/20/13 under the heading “A Model For Reducing Emissions.”[2] “Who would have thought the United States would one day be a leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” asked columnist Eduardo Porter citing a 13% drop in US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since 2007. “It was perhaps the biggest decline among industrial countries,” he enthusiastically added. But, the best news is, “What stands out most in this shift, however, is not environmental regulation or public concern about global warming but the price of energy and market-driven technological advancements.” Who says the age of miracles is over?

Lets stop right here. Using the year 2007 as the baseline is cherry picking the good news to manufacture a trend, and that trend appears to be ending. The EPA started collecting emissions data in 1990 and the long term picture shows an 8.7% increase in US greenhouse gas emissions from then to the most recent data for 2011.[3]  In addition, the United Nations reports that 32 countries including the EU and Russia had a better percent change in emissions since 1990 than did the US.[4]

Not being totally out of touch, columnist Porter notes that the recent emissions reduction is largely due to the recession and that wonderful fracked gas. Interestingly, he says that the switch to fracked gas, particularly in electrical generation, brings “within reach” President Obama’s 2009 promise of a 17% cut in CO2 emissions by 2020. This explains a part of Obama’s fascination with natural gas, though we might add that 17% is woefully inadequate.  Porter also recognizes that while CO2 is the main greenhouse gas, it isn’t the only one, and that fracking also releases Methane.

Actually, the emissions drop since 2007 resulted from US coal fired generating plants having been run at 50% of capacity. In turn, this was caused by reductions in demand due to the recession, combined with unsustainably low natural gas prices.[5]  We can not solve the climate problem by relying on continued economic stagnation and a gas price that is below the cost of production.  True, the market economy does appear to be prone to just such stagnation, but this is not to be wished for. The answer to both the climate and the stagnation problem is massive government led investment in green energy.  

Steve Max is a vice chair of DSA.

 [1] A failed Obama plan to give polluters credits or allowances to legally pollute.  By polluting less, they could sell their unused credits to other polluters or to Wall Street companies to package into derivatives or to gamble on pollution futures.