US needs new ideas on the environment, not economic suicide

US needs new ideas on the environment, not economic suicide

2020 Democratic US presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in West Branch, Iowa. (Reuters)

The majority of climate scientists and laypeople alike accept that the global temperature is rising gradually. Though there is much debate about the causes of global warming — man-made carbon emissions, changes to the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth, natural cycles in the environment, etc. — and the potential impact, the overwhelming acceptance of the general concept has pushed politicians to propose solutions. Some of these solutions are unrealistic and even a little crazy.

In the US, the environmental rhetoric and policies are ratcheting up as Democrats vie for the nomination to run against President Donald Trump in 2020. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Fossil fuel executives should be criminally prosecuted for the destruction they have knowingly caused. #GreenNewDeal.” This proposal is laughable. In the US, people cannot be prosecuted unless they violate an already-established law, and even Sanders did not claim that these oil, gas and coal executives have broken any existing laws. He simply declared that businessmen should be locked up for offending the sensibilities of his supporters.

Sanders’ tweet is dangerous in theory but effectively harmless, because civil rights and due process requirements protect people from the capricious whims of political leaders. But the incident displayed Sanders’ penchant for pandering to the crowd. Whatever one thinks about global warming, the environment or fossil fuels, Sanders’ irresponsible tweet should give pause.

Any environmental law must balance protection of the environment with its power to infringe on individual liberty and commerce.

Ellen R. Wald

However, Sanders’ other announcement about environmental policy could have a more lasting impact. He last week released his vision of a Green New Deal. The original Green New Deal was a proposal earlier this year by the popular and outspoken New York congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her plan called for nothing less than a re-engineering of the American economy to end the use of fossil fuels and lower carbon emissions. Sanders’ plan is similar, but includes a few tweaks. Neither plan is serious or feasible, as they would both cause massive disruptions to the economy, food supply, and way of life of the American people.

Sanders wants to spend more than $16 trillion over 10 years on his environmental and economic transformation program. Even the US, the world’s richest country, cannot afford this. Current American debt already exceeds $22 trillion, and the US has shown no ability to cut existing recurring expenses. A new $16 trillion program would bankrupt the country.

Sanders also wants to phase out gas-powered engines, which would eliminate airplane travel and long-distance auto travel, as electric vehicle batteries are insufficient for long trips. It would also ruin America’s ability to efficiently farm the vast Midwestern plains that feed not just the US but also people across the world. Sanders’ plan also offers no realistic way to provide for the country’s massive electricity needs (4.3 million GWh in 2016).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren admits she has already had several plans for the environment, but now she has a new one. Her campaign website reads: “Building on some of my earlier plans to address climate change, my new plan attacks it by using the power of public markets to accelerate the adoption of clean energy.” Her website then describes plans that are not part of the public market at all. She writes: “I’m proud to be an original supporter of the Green New Deal,” Ocasio-Cortez’s government-centered blueprint. Also, “I’ve proposed an historic $2 trillion (government) investment,” which apparently would be in addition to the excessive capital disbursed under the Green New Deal. Further, “I’ve proposed a set of executive actions… to stop drilling and promote renewables on public lands,” meaning she wants to unilaterally halt private business in contravention of the public markets. Her plans continue with more government interference in the free market.

Now, it may be that the government must act to cut carbon emissions. There is surely a place for government in creating environmental regulations. In the US, both the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 have been instrumental in fighting pollution and ensuring clean rivers and lakes and breathable air. However, any environmental law or regulation must balance protection of the environment with its power to infringe on individual liberty and commerce.

Whatever one thinks about global warming, and whatever the truth is about man’s role in a changing environment, there can be no doubt that we want cleaner air and cleaner water. These are important goals for our species and all species on this planet. But the policies put forth so far by the politicians in the US are infeasible. Centralized planning doesn’t work, and it never beats the open and free market.

Nevertheless, democratic elections are great opportunities for new ideas to penetrate a national conversation. What America and the world needs are new ideas, not the destruction of the economy. To avoid polluting, we need innovation and invention. We need technological progress, not government control. Powerful politicians and bureaucrats in the capital will not solve our problems. Yet there is money to be made in solving these problems, so the businessmen, engineers and tinkerers in their garages will succeed. Meanwhile, politicians should keep the unrealistic policies and pandering to a minimum.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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