January 17, 2017

The Case For (or Against) Scott Pruitt

Is a climate skeptic qualified to run an environmental agency? Donald Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency puts that question front and center. The answer depends on what exactly Mr. Pruitt is skeptical about, where that skepticism comes from, and what—if anything—he would entertain as a hedge against climate risks.

At heart, most climate skepticism is driven by the fear that accepting mainstream narratives about the risks of climate change will invite crippling regulatory policies, central economic planning, punishing energy prices, unreliable electricity service, and de-industrialization. If you believe those things, you’re going to be highly motivated to convince yourself (and others) that the warming problem is overblown or doesn’t exist.

Conservative fears about climate action are not entirely unreasonable. Al Gore argued two decades ago in Earth in the Balance that addressing climate change would require “a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.” Author Naomi Klein contended in This Changes Everything that, to save the planet from warming, capitalism as we know it and the entire neoliberal world order had to go.

While not all environmentalists traffic in such shock-and-awe narratives, conservatives can be excused for taking these ambitions seriously and responding with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Even so, arguing that nothing of consequence is going on is impossible. The planet is warmer now than at any time since the Eemian period 120,000 years ago, when sea levels eventually stabilized at 20 to 30 feet higher than today. While it may take centuries for such a  disaster to play out again, we can clearly see it beginning now.

Sea levels are rising faster than they have in two and a half millennia. If current trends continue, by 2100, sea level rise will prove devastating—with much worse later to come.

Those who think that the world can adapt to climate change without significant transaction costs, economic damage, and human loss simply aren’t paying attention. Present day climate variability has already increased U.S. mortality rates by 11 percent, and lowered the U.S. economic growth rate by 1.69 percent. As warming progresses, the burden will only get worse.

Denying that industrial emissions are the main cause of warming is a function of highly motivated cognition. Only ten of the 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies published between 1991 and 2011 find that humans are responsible for less than half of the warming. Five of those papers, moreover, were in third-rate journals with paltry citations. The remainder of the literature attribute nearly all of warming to industrial activity. Natural phenomena can’t possibly explain what’s happening.

Even the Republican base is unconvinced by denial. More than half of the people who voted for Donald Trump (55 percent) support upholding policies currently in place to combat climate change. And 61 percent think that the government should require U.S. companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans are perfectly positioned to offer what most economists believe to be the ideal policy response: a federal, economy-wide carbon tax that would replace the expensive web of energy regulation and subsidies that are now in place. Ensuring that the cost of fossil fuels includes the risks associated with warming makes the market work better and more efficiently. And leaving it to consumers to decide when, where, and how to use fossil fuels is infinitely preferable to harnessing regulation, subsidies, and production orders to do the same.

Conservatives have thundered angrily about the energy price increases that would follow from a carbon tax. But if carbon tax revenue were rebated in equal lump sums to all adults, poor and middle class households would actually see net increases in household income. That’s because the rich use a lot more energy than anyone else. The top quintile of wage earners, however, would see only a 1.9 percent decrease in net household income—and that is before they invest in energy efficiency, go solar at home, and find uncountable other ways to beat the new tax regime. Once we factor in the reductions in conventional air pollution that would follow from a carbon tax, overall economic well-being would improve across the board. A $30 carbon tax of this nature would reduce emissions far more aggressively than current policy.

With Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, conservatives no longer need to fear that acknowledging climate change will usher in a parade of policy horribles. They now control the parameters of the debate, which provides them a tremendous opportunity to address one of the greatest threats mankind faces over the next century in an economically responsible manner. Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation should ride on whether he’s interested in that project or not.