Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science. These uncertainties undermine our ability to accurately determine how carbon dioxide has affected the climate in the past. They also limit our understanding of how anthropogenic emissions will affect future warming trends. Further confusing the policy debate, the models that scientists have come to rely on to make climate predictions have greatly overestimated warming. Contrary to model predictions, data released in October from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit show that global temperatures have held steady over the past 15 years, despite rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the facts that are clear, however, are that U.S. emissions contribute very little to global concentrations of greenhouse gas, and that even substantial cuts in these emissions are likely to have no effect on temperature. Data from the Energy Information Administration show, for example, that the United States cut carbon dioxide emissions by 12 percent between 2005 and 2012 while global emissions increased by 15 percent over the same period.
Using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Science and Public Policy Institute paper published last month found that if the United States eliminated all carbon dioxide emissions, the overall impact on global temperature rise would be only 0.08 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Further confounding the debate are unscientific and often hyperbolic claims about the potential effects of a warmer world. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama said that extreme weather events have become “more frequent and intense,” and he linked Superstorm Sandy to climate change.
But experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have told the New York Times that climate change had nothing to do with Superstorm Sandy. This is underscored by last year’s IPCC report stating that there is “high agreement” among leading experts that trends in weather disasters, floods, tornados and storms cannot be attributed to climate change. While these claims may make for good political theater, their effect on recent public policy choices hurts the economy.
Last spring the Environmental Protection Agency proposed emissions standards that virtually prohibit new coal-fired power plants. As we await implementation of these strict new rules, additional regulations that will affect existing power plants, refineries and other manufactures are sure to follow. Analyses of these measures by the American Council for Capital Formation, which studies economic and environmental policy, show that they will raise both electricity rates and gas prices — costing jobs and hurting the economy — even as the EPA admits
that these choices will have an insignificant impact on global climate change (a point former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson confessed during a Senate hearing in 2009).
Instead of pursuing heavy-handed regulations that imperil U.S. jobs and send jobs (and their emissions) overseas, we should take a step back from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe and think critically about the challenge before us. Designing an appropriate public policy response to this challenge will require that we fully assess the facts and the uncertainties surrounding this issue, and that we set aside the hyped rhetoric.