Cheap Energy: a Human Right for the Public Good

Cheap Energy: a Human Right for the Public Good
June 24, 2013

Marita Noon

Marita Noon is the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion... (read full bio)

A few months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama proudly pledged to tackle climate change—despite opposition from Republicans. To date, precious little action to combat climate change has been seen from the White House—which pleases most Republicans and angers the left.

Environmental activists are some of Obama’s most ardent supporters, but they are frustrated and losing patience with the president. He hasn’t been definitive on killing the Keystone pipeline; as the Washington Post reports, he’s “fallen back from the broad clean energy agenda he envisioned when he first took office”—even to the point of supporting natural gas exploration and recently approving Liquefied Natural Gas export terminals that will increase demand by shipping US natural gas to foreign markets; and he seems to have acquiesced to a fossil-fuel future by proposing adaptations to make “coastal communities more resistant to increasingly severe storms and floods.”

The environmental community wants to see bold steps toward a fossil-fuel free future.

Michael Brune, executive director for the Sierra Club, groused:  “On climate, we’re worse off than we were when the president’s second term started.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is calling on the president to “outline exactly how he plans to combat global warming by 2016.”

In a new campaign being launched by the NRDC, filmmaker Robert Redford states:  “Four months ago, President Obama spoke of our obligations to combat climate change, saying failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Ads from the NRDC feature Redford challenging Obama to live up to the “courage of his convictions.”

Even those within his own party are pressuring the president.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has called climate change “the issue of our time.” He believes that Obama should announce the implementation of strong regulatory steps that will “revive this great issue.” Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently pushed the president to oppose the pipeline—despite polling that shows the vast majority of the public supports it: “I encouraged him to follow through on the correct policy position, suggesting polling numbers aren’t always in support of smart policy.”

With his base looking for immediate remedies, his popularity plunging, and more negative news hitting the airwaves every day, an announcement—as Whitehouse wants—of “strong regulatory steps” to “revive this great issue” could be advisable. It would give environmentalists the aggressive action they are itching for and divert the discussion from the various scandals plaguing his presidency.

Instead, when the White House made a decision to raise the social cost of carbon emissions by 60%—which will have a costly impact on the economy with wide-ranging implications for everything from power plants to the Keystone pipeline, there were no optics: no fanfare, no press conference, no announcement.

Tucked into a rule about microwave ovens’ efficiency standards (With everything going on in the world, we are worrying about microwave ovens?) is an increase in the figure the government uses to weigh costs and benefits of proposed regulations. The “so-called social cost of carbon,” represents the “approximate losses from global warming such as flood damage and diminished crops.” The Daily Caller describes this social cost of carbon dioxide emissions as “a monetary estimate of the damages caused by carbon emissions” that “all federal agencies must use when formulating regulations.” The White House Office of Management and Budget raised the cost of a metric ton of carbon from the current $23.80 to $38.00 in 2015—which gives the administration “justification to be more aggressive than they otherwise would be,” explained Jeff Holmstead, air quality chief at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.

It seems that this “determination” was intended as appeasement to Obama’s agitated base while not damaging his falling popularity—though it probably fails at both.

Frank Ackerman, an economist at Tufts University who published a book about the economics of global warming calls the social cost of carbon: “the most important number you’ve never heard of.” According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, he said:  “This is a very strange way to make policy about something this important.” And added: “The Obama administration ‘hasn’t always leveled with us about what is happening behind closed doors.’”

Why bury “something this important” in an afternoon announcement about something that is virtually insignificant? The answer, I believe, is found in a small piece of the Washington Post story cited previously. Apparently, the White House’s own research found that when Obama, in his State of the Union speech, “vowed to act on climate change if Congress refused to do so,” a focus group’s “favorability” rating “plummeted.” White House transcripts reveal that Obama knows that “the politics of this are tough.” At an April fund-raising event at the San Francisco home of billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer, Obama defended his lack of action on climate change: “if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade, if your house is still $25,000, $30,000 underwater … you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your number one concern.”

As a result, his Organizing for America team—“formed to advance the president’s second term agenda”—has been laying the “groundwork with the American public before unveiling a formal climate strategy.” Teasing out the increase in the social cost of carbon was likely part of the strategy, intended to test the waters ahead of the planned climate announcements from the White House. Likewise, his comments in Berlin, where he reintroduced the subject, calling climate change “the global threat of our time.” The next day, headlines read: “Obama to renew emissions push.” It is believed that the new “measures to tackle climate change” will “effectively ban new coal-fired power plants”—to which I add, will effectively ban “cheap electricity.”

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that US power generation is, once again, using more coal—reversing the trend toward natural gas: “A flood of inexpensive natural gas led to the highest-ever use of that fuel for electricity generation while coal-fired electricity fell to its lowest level in a quarter-century.”  Natural gas prices have been creeping higher and have pushed an increased use of coal in attempt to keep electricity costs as low as possible—after all, progressives and career environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhous, of the Breakthrough Institute, posit: cheap electricity is a public good and a human right that has saved the forests, produced more food on less land, and lifted incomes.

Wait, wait, wait! Regular readers of my affordable energy advocacy should give pause here. It is not me saying that cheap electricity is a basic human right—though I believe it, it is Shellenberger and Nordhous, whose own biographies describe them as “leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics” and whose book, Breakthrough, has been called “the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.”

In a treatise, which I believe should be required reading for everyone, titled: “Has there been a great progressive reversal? How the left abandoned cheap electricity,” the auhtors outline a historic shift that’s taken the left from being champions of the poor to being “developed-world progressives, comfortably ensconced in their own modernity.”

They explain: eighty years ago, “The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.” Cheap electricity changed all that and Senator Al Gore Sr. fought for it.

Today, “Environmentalists demand that we make carbon-based energy more expensive” and the left calls it “A threat to the planet and harmful to the poor.” Shellenberger and Nordhous state: “In the name of democracy it now offers the global poor not what they want—cheap electricity—but more of what they don’t want, namely intermittent and expensive power” which “offers the poor no path to the kinds of high-energy lifestyles Western environmentalists take for granted.”

Believers in anthropogenic global warming, they acknowledge that “modernization” does have “side effects,” but they believe that these are problems that can be “dealt with.” They claim that “energy poverty causes more harm to the poor than global warming” and that “modern energy”—a term they use interchangeable with “cheap energy”—“makes the poor vastly less vulnerable to climate impacts.”

Shellenberger and Nordhous close their eye-opening commentary by stating that the 1.3 billion people who lack cheap grid electricity should get it. “It will dramatically improve their lives, reduce deforestation, and make them more resilient to climate impacts. … Any effort worthy of being called progressive, liberal, or environmental, must embrace a high energy planet.”

Their logic is tough to dispute. While I do not agree that global warming is a manmade crisis, I certainly support their conclusions about the importance of cheap energy as a human right and public good.

This whole line of reasoning, begs some questions:

  • ·         Why did the left abandon cheap energy? (Remember, in California, it was the rich, white Democrat representatives, who voted to ban fracking, while the black and Hispanics, in districts in need of jobs, didn’t vote for the ban.)
  • ·         Why is the Obama administration willing to make policy that will cause its favorability rating to “plummet,” raise the price of energy, and disproportionately hurt the poor?
  • ·         Why does America continue subsidies that emphasize activity rather than outcomes and continue to follow the failed energy policies of socialist Europe?

Your answers to these questions should scare you and bring another question to your mind: How do we stop this and save America?

[First Published on Townhall.com]

Marita Noon

Marita Noon is the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion... (read full bio)