By Meg Hansen
One signature and one vote thwarted the attempt to upend heating in Vermont’s built environment. Gov. Phil Scott won the game of political ping pong against the Legislature, when the latter failed to override his veto of the Clean Heat Standard (CHS) bill by one vote.
The CHS was touted as the most impactful plan to meet the carbon reduction goals mandated by the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). But Scott asked for the invoice upfront. Politicians who buy today with the promise of paying tomorrow (when they’ll be gone) were then forced to defang the bill. The new version still lacked “details on costs and impacts” and delegated outsized policymaking authority to the three-member Public Utilities Commission. So, Scott rejected it. This scheme may be dead but the ideology at its core — climate catastrophism — will return wearing a new pair of pants.
Scott nonetheless acknowledged the “importance of reducing GHG emissions.” One doesn’t rise to the top of a system by denying its dogmas. Not everyone though is fated to live as Havel’s greengrocer. The few amongst us, whose breads aren’t buttered by the prevailing system, can ask questions, challenge climate catastrophism, and otherwise flirt with heresy.
Since 1900, the average global temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit). CO2 and other GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion have warmed the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius, while sulfate aerosols released by burning coal and oil have exerted a cooling effect of 0.6 degrees Celsius. The planet cooled from 1940 till 1975, after which the temperature has been rising. Anthropogenic warming has thus largely occurred since the mid-1970s.
Serious critics acknowledge these facts. But they believe that Earth’s complex dynamical system of temperature is influenced by multiple factors rather than controlled by CO2 alone. Further, they disagree with the claims of imminent apocalypse, which originate from faulty computer models that have never accurately predicted any catastrophic occurrence.
Climate catastrophists assert that Earth will perish unless civilization drastically de-industrializes and eliminates fossil fuels. They blame GHG emissions for rising sea levels and worsening hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Are they right? According to the assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – no.
Such claims, conflating the weather with Earth’s climate, have become ubiquitous because of the systemic corruption of climate science communication. Actual scientific results are rarely, if ever, found in the briefs for the press and policymakers. Instead, clickbait stories win television ratings, votes, and the day. For example, the latest 4,000-page IPCC report expresses “low confidence” that humans have impacted the long-term trends in meteorological droughts, the frequency or intensity of hurricanes, and the probability or magnitude of floods. Yet, the public was told that the study signaled a “code red for humanity.”
Climate catastrophizing makes for sound practical politics, but leads to unsound policies like the CHS and the GWSA. An energy grid is notoriously intractable. It can tolerate slow, deliberate modifications. In contrast, abrupt and sweeping changes to large sectors, such as heating and transportation, will make energy unreliable and its costs prohibitive.
Moreover, renewable energy technologies are nowhere near ready. Deploying immature technologies would add to the societal disruption. The CHS planned to force Vermonters to install electric heat pumps that become inefficient or fail in frigid weather. Vermont legislators did not pay heed to the public backlash in the UK last year, which paused the British government’s effort to grow the heat pump market by banning gas boilers.
The GWSA’s targets are, in sum, unachievable. Future proposals to meet them could at best realize an immeasurable change to the atmosphere, but not without destabilizing society to the detriment of the non-wealthy. So, how do we make good climate policy?
1) Be honest about values. Increased economic activity leads to higher GHG emissions but also poverty alleviation and greater life expectancy. The total population grew from 2 billion in 1900 to 7.9 billion today. During this period, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty dropped from 82.5 percent to 9.2 percent.
William Nordhaus, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, argues that requiring “deep reductions in living standards” to chase climate goals would amount to “burning down the village to save it.” Would most Vermont lawmakers agree? Does the GWSA prioritize human flourishing or aim to altogether end human influence on the environment?
2) Be honest about the pros and cons of energy sources. As abundant, reliable, scalable, versatile, and energy dense sources, fossil fuels have founded modern civilization. Eco-activist Annette Smith, who has lived with a renewable energy system for decades, testified about the CHS before the Vermont Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, “I have made investments. I have weatherized my house. I have replaced the windows. I do not have alternatives for propane. There is nothing else.”
Fossil fuel powered technology has built resilient infrastructure and early warning systems, which have lowered the annual worldwide deaths due to extreme weather from half a million a century ago to 14,000 in 2020. It has also minimized air, soil, and water pollution, making the world cleaner and more livable.
Despite $2.6 trillion in global investments by the end of 2019, wind and solar energy produce a mere 3 percent of the world’s electricity and do not contribute to the thermal, industrial, and heavy-duty transportation sectors. Finally, nuclear power is safe, cost-effective, carbon-free, and should be decriminalized.
3) Be humble. Grandiose plans that impose uncertain and likely devastating outcomes on middle-income workers and families should go nowhere.
Humility will be required to admit that the Global Warming Solutions Act is a failure; courage will be required to repeal it. Neither animates Montpelier.
Meg Hansen is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a policy research and educational nonprofit organization in Vermont.