When you’re an environmental “expert” for a conservative think tank publishing an op-ed in National Review, your job is to instruct your readers that environmental regulation is terrible. Then you have to write a bunch of words. Whether those words fit together in any coherent way, other than following the rules of grammar, is beside the point and not germane to the job description. Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has a column today in National Review denouncing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that shows you how this works.
Bryce makes three major points in his column. Point No. 1 is that Obama’s Clean Power Plan is horribly burdensome. “An analysis of the proposed measure by NERA Economic Consulting estimated that the Clean Power Plan could cost the electric sector between $41 billion and $73 billion per year,” he informs us. That sounds like a lot of money. Bryce does not mention that this study was financed by energy companies. In any case, it has become de rigeur for conservative pundits to cite this figure as though it were the product of disinterested research.
On to point No. 2: The Clean Power Plant won’t help because it only reduces greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. It’s obviously true that greenhouse-gas emissions are a worldwide collective action problem. No single country can alleviate it by itself. The purpose of Obama’s program is to fulfill American commitments as part of a coordinated international agreement.
You may or may not believe that such an agreement is likely to succeed. But most conservatives don’t argue that it won’t succeed. They simply pretend it doesn’t exist. Their entire argument is that U.S. emissions reductions alone won’t do anything.
Bryce makes this argument, or argumentlike collection of words, in two ways that both manage to avoid the entire issue. He notes that emerging countries like Pakistan and China need more energy. He also notes that “a bit of math” shows that American emission reductions are a small percentage of the total reductions needed to limit the damage of runaway climate change. All that is true.
At no point does he acknowledge the incredibly simple and obvious response: that is how international agreements work. Americans commit to reducing emissions, in return for emerging countries also reducing their emissions. Again, you can challenge the feasibility of such an agreement. International agreements are hard. But Bryce — typically for conservatives writing on this issue — writes as though the dynamic does not exist, as if there’s no connection at all between American emission standards and the behavior of emerging countries. Instead he treats the inability of American regulations to solve international climate change by itself as an obvious flaw that somehow nobody in the U.S. government has considered.
Finally we get to Bryce’s third point, which is his most original contribution to right-wing climate thought. Bryce argues that the United States is reducing emissions so quickly and cheaply that further regulations are not even necessary to reach Obama’s targets:
Not only will the Clean Power Plan not save the climate, it simply isn’t needed. Over the past few years, the U.S. electric industry has been reducing its coal use as natural gas has gotten cheaper. And electricity producers are using the lower-cost fuel to produce power from generation units that are far smaller and cheaper than the ones that burn coal. …
Meanwhile, solar power — nearly all of it heavily subsidized — is growing rapidly and is eating into the revenue of the incumbent utilities. The same is true of wind energy. …
The result of these many factors: The U.S. electric sector has already achieved about half of the carbon dioxide emissions reductions that the Clean Power Plan aims to achieve.
This argument … could possibly turn out to be true. But does Bryce remember his first point, about how complying with these standards will be so costly it will impose massive burdens on the economy, as his trustworthy friends in the coal industry have calculated for him? It can’t simultaneously be the case that the Clean Power Plan requires impossibly expensive clean energy standards and that those standards are so within reach that requiring them is unnecessary. Or, at least, it can’t if your job requires your sentences to convey logical meaning. If your job is to begin and end your column by denouncing Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and fill the middle of it with a bunch of facts that scan as being related to the environment somehow, then Bryce is doing a bang-up job.