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What will we get for a multitrillion-dollar energy policy?

What will we get for a multitrillion-dollar energy policy?

President Biden has made no secret of his plans to spend trillions of dollars on climate policies, which in his case means substituting renewable energy (especially wind and solar) for fossil fuels.   

But the question we should all be asking is: What will those trillions get us?   

In reality, close to nothing. That is, the U.S. will expend enormous resources to replace one vast electric system with a different one, which will do nothing any better than the one we have now. Well, it will emit less carbon dioxide, but its effect on global temperatures will be negligible.  

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Moreover, there are other less costly and disruptive ways to reduce CO2 emissions besides erecting 60,000 wind turbines and 500 million solar panels, as Biden plans. Yet all that new energy technology will just provide light and heat that run our appliances and charge our electric automobiles — the same as the technology we have now. 

Actually, the new technology will in many ways be worse because it will be prone to blackouts, kill endangered birds and bats, raise electric rates and deface farmlands and wilderness areas with gigantic wind turbines, newly carved access roads and thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines strung across thousands of steel towers.  

Of course, Biden and members of his administration would argue that the new system will give us the ultimate prize: life itself. Otherwise, because of climate change, we face an “existential crisis.” Or to put it bluntly: if we keep our current system, we’re all going to die — soon.  

On that score, what’s several trillion dollars? Shouldn’t we spend all of our money to keep humanity alive?  

Except are those really the stakes?  

Forecasts of climate cataclysms have been around for many years. A recent article tracked 79 predictions of climate-related catastrophes. The first ones were made in the year of the inaugural Earth Day in 1970; some much more recently. But of those predictions, 48 have passed their prophesied date of calamity 

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They have all been wrong. The rest are pending but why should we believe them?   

Expertise?   

Many of the 48 failed forecasts were made by scientists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), regarded by many as the “gold standard” of scientific credibility on climate, authored several of the failed predictions.  

For example, the United Nations agency announced in 2007 that if emissions had not started to fall by 2015 we would lose any chance to hold global temperatures below catastrophic levels. A few years later the deadline was extended to 2030. In the meantime, emissions have continued to rise while the rate of warming has not. 

Other famously wrong predictions have been made by public figures, especially politicians. Al Gore gave the world 10 years in 2008 “to make dramatic changes in our global warming pollution, lest we lose our ability to ever recover from this environmental crisis.” The way to do it? He said we needed to remake our entire energy system in those 10 years — lots of windmills and solar panels.  

That date was extended to 2030 (or 2050) when, according to another politician, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change." 

Fortunately, Gore was out of office and couldn’t spend the vast sums needed to, as he believed, save the world, and AOC was a relatively powerless new member of Congress. 

Biden, on the other hand, can act and has shown he intends to. But his belief that life on Earth will vanish if we don’t act is at least as farfetched as any of the 48. 

Most of the apocalyptic forecasts are based on a scenario called “Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP),” created for the IPCC, which was intended as a worst case, projecting a rise in average temperatures by about 5°C, which would be courting worldwide disaster. For some reason, RCP 8.5 became the business-as-usual scenario in much of the media, scholarship and political discourse on climate.  

But it isn’t.  

We are not on that pathway. Much more realistic assessments suggest that we are on track for Earth’s temperature to rise 1°C-3°C. At the higher end especially, there will be many problems for the world in the second half of this century. But extinction? It’s not plausible. 

In that light, spending trillions on windmills and solar panels seems a waste of resources. In economics, we always ask what are the trade-offs. The trillions here could be used to directly help people to escape poverty. It could be used for better health care, improved educational opportunities, more research on fighting pandemics, adapting to climate change and so on. 

Proponents of Biden’s energy policies claim that they will not only save life on Earth but will also have all sorts of social benefits.   

But not spending trillions of dollars to have a system that does the same thing our electric system does now could have even greater social benefit.  

President Biden is like a modern Don Quixote, only he’s tilting with windmills not at them. Nevertheless, like the literary Don, he’s trying to slay a dragon that seems to be mainly in his mind. 

Peter Z. Grossman is the author of several books on energy including “U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure” (Cambridge 2013).