Too often, climate change policy is oversimplified to false choices: renewables versus fossils, economy versus environment, 100% reductions versus inaction. The reality is this: solutions must make a clean energy transition cheaper and faster while preserving economic growth and reflecting the global nature of the challenge. Solutions exist, but before we get to them, it’s important to become grounded with an understanding of where we are today.

“The climate is always changing!” That’s a point you often hear, and it’s true, temperatures have gone up and down a lot in the last 2 million, or so, years. When you look at the really long-term trends, we are currently at the end of one of the goldilocks periods — not too hot, not too cold — during which all human civilization happened. Based on the long-term trends, Earth should actually be getting a lot colder now, not warmer.

So to oversimplify, staying in a goldilocks spot where we know humans flourish is a good thing. But, these false choices lead to inaction and put that at risk.

Today, the changing climate is largely caused by larger amounts of greenhouse gases being emitted into the air. Another way to think about this; like a bathtub being filled with water, greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, is not toxic like a normal pollutant – we all breathe it in and out all the time. It’s also plant food, so plants help “drain” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, like a bathtub, if it fills faster than plants can manage, a little overflow is not ideal, and significant overflow will cause all kinds of problems.

The buildup, or overflow, of carbon dioxide could have lasting measurable impacts on weather patterns around the world. The buildup, or overflow, of carbon dioxide could have lasting measurable impacts on weather patterns around the world. Since 1980, the United States has spent $1.75 trillion in Disaster Recovery from 258 “billion-dollar events.” From 2014 to 2018 — the United States has seen an average of 13 billion-dollar disasters every year. This is all deficit spending– and it’s been going up like crazy. If we don’t better prepare, we increase deficit spending. According to FEMA, every $1 spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves on average $4.

Although increased carbon dioxide emissions are a reason, deliberating the science and long- term climate models can be weaponized and often leads to a dead-end political debate instead of solutions. As conservatives, ClearPath studies how to accelerate market-driven clean energy and climate solutions. We are constantly tracking how the private sector thinks about climate change in a free market economy. The trend has become abundantly clear — America’s largest utilities like Duke and Southern, energy producers like Exxon and Oxy, agriculture companies like Monsanto and Cargill, and financial institutions and other leaders are making long-term business decisions responding to climate change and investing in solutions.

To understand ClearPath’s mission — accelerating clean energy innovation — it is important to know where this excess carbon dioxide comes from, and how a free market can respond and thrive. Making electricity and heat is currently the largest source of emissions in the world. This is why ClearPath works in the power sector. ClearPath believes clean energy technologies developed in America can benefit and transform the rest of the world, like we’ve done in the past with natural gas, nuclear and solar power. Finding ways to make energy both more clean and affordable to solve climate change is a concept supported by thought leaders from Bill Gates to House Republican leadership.

In any debate, or simple dinner table discussion, don’t fall into the false choices trap — renewables or fossil fuels, economy or environment, 100% reductions or no action — that can cloud potential policy solutions.

False Choices on Climate

To act clear-eyed on climate change: avoid the political misconceptions, understand the basic facts, and consider solutions that reduce carbon dioxide emissions using conservative policies rooted in American innovation.

Clean energy means more than just wind and solar

Though they’re not celebrated by environmentalists, hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants produced 70% of America’s clean electricity in 2018. And though it’s a traditional fuel, natural gas power plants produce fewer emissions, allowing the fracking boom to massively cut carbon emissions while also slashing Americans’ power bills. According to the EIA, natural gas drove more emissions reductions than wind and solar combined. Thinking globally, American natural gas has a lower emissions profile than Russian gas. Russian natural gas exports to Europe have 41 percent higher lifecycle GHG emissions than American liquified natural gas exports to Europe. Read more on the shale gas revolution and how the federal government supported the early stage R&D as well as tax credits in this Energy 101: Hydraulic Fracturing: A Public-Private R&D Success Story.

You can’t solve climate challenges without U.S. fossil fuels. Opposing cleaner U.S. fossil production is supporting dirtier Russian and Iranian fossil fuels.

Clean power solutions are a central pillar to deep greenhouse gas reductions. These technologies can help decarbonize electricity use. Many of these technologies can decarbonize other sectors, such as how carbon capture can create cleaner fuels and other manufactured products.

The ozone layer isn’t really connected to climate change

The ozone layer and climate change are different environmental issues. Unlike climate and the buildup of heat-trapping gases, the ozone layer is a protective layer of atmosphere that was jeopardized by another type of pollution. Scientists discovered that certain chemicals (“CFCs”), often used in refrigerators and air conditioners, were drifting up into the atmosphere and eating away the ozone layer. Over time, this created sizable “ozone holes,” the most notable above Antarctica. Left unchecked, the hole would allow too much UV radiation to reach the Earth’s surface and increase skin cancer rates. Alternative ozone-friendly chemicals, however, were phased into new products and the ozone hole has become less of a pressing issue.

Recycling isn’t really connected to climate change

Recycling and climate change are also different environmental issues. Recycling helps reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills, maximizes the use of materials, and minimizes disturbances to wildlife. These clear environmental benefits, however, are not directly related to climate change. Climate change has more direct connections to energy use and agriculture.

The Earth is 60 degrees F. Space is negative 450 degrees F. There’s a big reason Earth is the only planet habitable for humans and plants.
Certain gases, known as greenhouse gases, trap heat on Earth like a blanket. The amount in the air is usually stable: animals, soils and decaying trees emit gases; plants and trees absorb them. When we talk about climate change, the very brief explanation is people adding more of these heat-trapping gases into the air, about 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per second, more than plants and trees can absorb. Those leftover gases linger in the atmosphere and raise temperatures.

Like a giant tree, the ocean absorbs much of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. Some carbon dioxide is essential for ocean life. But, there can be too much of a good thing: the extra carbon dioxide makes the ocean more acidic. Ocean acidification and warmer waters are corroding the “bones” of shellfish, bleaching coral reefs, and even changing global ocean currents.

Remember the bathtub analogy, carbon dioxide is not toxic like a normal pollutant – we all breathe it in and out all the time, and normal amounts are not only manageable but also needed for plant life. But, too much causes all kinds of problems.

As conservatives, we would normally not look to anything in liberal bastion Berkley, CA for our data. But, a non-profit called the Berkeley Earth Team, which was funded by Charles and David Koch in 2010, have looked very closely into the statistical correlation between CO2 and climate. They’ve concluded that there’s just no better connection than CO2 after looking at every alternative, and even all alternatives put together.

For nearly 200 years, scientists have known about greenhouse gases. Even then, some speculated that large increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions could cause unnatural warming. Using supercomputers and other state-of-the-art technologies, the bright minds at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have concluded as much. The space agency operates 17 satellites that collect billions of pieces of data on the climate each day. This data, along with countless others, informs climate forecasts on some of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Even with this computing horsepower, the simulations are so complex that one can take over one month.

They’ve also looked back at historic records going back hundreds of thousands of years to rule out other potential drivers. Scientists can piece together a thorough climate record by painstakingly analyzing ancient ice samples, fossils, and other fragments from the past. Some people have suggested that natural processes — such as the sun, volcanoes, or historical heating trends — could explain the sudden rise in global temperatures. Another alternative theory is that the Earth has been warming as it “bounces back” from the most recent ice age. Virtually all scientists agree that these natural factors alone cannot explain recent changes. Scientists estimate today’s levels of carbon dioxide have not been seen on Earth for at least 800,000 years.

Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index


Source: climate.nasa.gov

“Weather” refers to atmospheric conditions on a given day whereas “climate” is the average condition over decades. Sometimes weather, or extreme weather events, are conflated with climate when they should not be.

For example, speeding in your car alone rarely causes a car accident. The direct cause is usually something else, like a deer in the road, but speeding makes accidents much more likely, and severe when they do happen. In the same way, research indicates a warmer world creates conditions for more frequent and extreme natural disasters.

Most studies suggest that climate change has intensified, but you don’t need a study to see that a place like Houston experienced 3 ‘500-year’ floods in 3 years, or just up the road in Ellicott City, Maryland who have seen two 1,000-year floods in the last five years. Whether or not this is undeniably related, businesses and local governments are already adapting, mitigating and preparing for a future with more extreme weather events.

We have heard the question, how can you have more flooding, and more droughts? For that, we recommend NASA’s super satellites and supercomputers who study weather and geography, and they say, “droughts will pose serious challenges to the safety, health, food and water supplies of plants, animals and humans in some regions, and floods will do the same in others.

Under the current emissions trajectory, hundreds of billions of dollars are at risk in key sectors by the end of the century.

The private sector, as well as governments at each level — local, state and federal — are mitigating potential economic challenges due to climate change.

The U.S. Military is also strategizing how best to handle damaging weather events. A 2019 report produced by the U.S. Army War College and NASA for the Army said that “the Department of Defense (DoD) is unprepared for the national security implications of climate change-induced global security challenges.” Even simple logistics like hydration: The study says, “The U.S. Army is precipitously close to mission failure concerning hydration of the force in a contested arid environment. The experience and best practices of the last 17 years of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa rely heavily on logistics force structures to support the warfighter with water mostly procured through contracted means of bottled water, local wells and Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units (ROWPU).” The Army is reinvesting to keep pace with rising global temperatures, especially those arid areas of conflict.

Flooding
American farms can also be severely crippled from flooding. In 2019, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration estimated $400 million in damages to crops, and $400 million in lost livestock, following the Missouri River flooding out of its banks. An Iowa crop farmer across the river describes getting completely wiped out from the same flood, just eight years after nearly filing for bankruptcy following a 2011 “500-year flood.”

The city of Miami is investing $500 million to install pumps that combat “sunny day flooding,” which occurs at high tide when seawater flows into drain systems and spills out into the street. Nationally, our coasts also house critical American energy infrastructure. The Department of Energy warns that by 2030, severe flooding will endanger almost $1 trillion worth of coastal energy assets like refineries, pipelines, and power plants.

Companies are already making big investments in mitigation and adaptation. Nike has relocated several Southeast Asian facilities outside of flood zones to mitigate risks. Liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities in southwest Louisiana are planning to build 20 plus foot concrete flood walls around their facilities to plan ahead for future flooding.

Wildfires
Firefighters are already dealing with unprecedented conditions. Four times as many large forest fires burn in the U.S. West every year compared to 30 years ago.

The wildfires problem is also undeniably influenced by decades of reckless forest management policy influenced by far left environmental organizations that have allowed them to develop into a powder keg.

The federal budget on fighting wildfires has ballooned by more than four times since the 1990s, and for the first time, topped $3 billion in 2018 — again, deficit spending. Community impacts are often several-fold the direct cost of fighting fires: homeowners in fire-prone regions can face insurance premiums three times higher than historic averages. NASA expects rising temperatures to double or even quadruple the frequency of “high fire” years. Normally, these particularly bad wildfire years occur just once per decade. Wildfires are a national water concern because 80% of U.S. freshwater is sourced from forested land. The ash, chemicals, and pollutants from these massive wildfires can contaminate drinking water for years.

Droughts
Higher temperatures speed up the evaporation of water from the soil. That can cause longer and more severe droughts. NASA researchers warn that by the end of the century, Texas and the rest of the southwestern U.S. are very likely to face 30-year “megadroughts” if climate change remains unsolved. Droughts strain municipal water supplies and create challenges for farmers. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, U.S. corn yields are expected to decline 5% to 15% per each degree of warming.

Whether it’s a corn farmer in the midwest, a cotton farmer in the south or a vegetable farmer in the southwest, droughts can lead to massive financial loss from poor crop yields. Companies like Pioneer, Syngenta and Monsanto have already invested in mitigations like drought tolerant seed products.

There’s many types of greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide is perhaps the most important. One molecule released today can stay in the air for hundreds of years. And we make a lot of it: people release more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air per second.

Within the United States, carbon dioxide emissions fall within one of five main sectors:

Transportation (~30%): Passenger vehicles, trucks, ships and planes
Electricity (~30%): Power plants
Industry (~20%): Manufacturing facilities and refineries
Buildings (~10%): Home heating, stovetops and other appliances
Agriculture (~10%): Animal emissions and soil management

Methane is another important greenhouse gas. It mainly comes from energy production, agriculture and landfills. Similar to how clean energy technologies are being developed to limit carbon dioxide, companies and innovators are also finding ways to minimize methane emissions. For example, farms and waste facilities across the United States are capturing methane and using it to create clean electricity. In contrast, Chinese coal mines emit 33 percent more methane than the average U.S. mine and are doing nothing to change or capture.

China is also leading us in rare earth material development and exports. Rare earths are used in just about everything including rechargeable batteries for electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, catalysts in cars and oil refineries. Of the U.S. rare earth imports, China supplied 80% from 2014 to 2017 and is home to at least 85% of the world’s capacity to process rare earth ores.

Corporations are taking action against climate change, both to reduce emissions and adapt to natural changes. Energy firms must plan for the long term, and they’ve actually funded the development of some of the most advanced climate models in the world. The executives who lead these companies take these threats seriously. America’s largest electric utilities, including Alabama-based Southern Company to North Carolina-based Duke Energy, have committed to similar reductions. According to the Smart Electric Power Alliance, 68% of all electricity customer accounts in the country are now served by a utility with a significant carbon emissions reduction goal, and 19 of the 48 companies setting goals are for net zero or carbon free power by 2050.

Corporate commitments go well beyond the energy industry. Walmart’s “Project Gigaton” is aimed at reducing 1 gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chain by 2030. Microsoft has committed to reducing its emissions to zero — and then some — promising to remove all the emissions it has ever created over its lifetime. Their precision agriculture technology will not only improve farmers efficiency, but also significantly reduce emissions.

Corporate actions lead the change and let markets, not mandates, blaze the path. While encouraging, policymakers too have a role. Enabling and partnering with the private sector on breakthroughs that can address the global nature of the challenge will be at the core of any long-term solution.

Effective policies to make clean energy cheaper include both pushes and pulls – they invest in basic and applied R&D, demonstrate technologies in public private partnerships, and accelerate early deployment. This early deployment enables the all important “learning by doing” which has driven the huge cost declines in natural gas, wind, and solar.

Federal tax incentives have effectively deployed numerous clean technologies – such as the unconventional gas credit that scaled up shale gas. Read more on the federal support that kickstarted the shale gas revolution in America.

A molecule of carbon dioxide released in the United States is no different than one on the other side of the world. And the United States creates only about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, reflecting the global nature of the challenge. Since the United States is only a fraction of global emissions — China by far being the biggest — unilateral domestic reductions will do little to solve the climate problem.

Even if the United States eliminated all domestic carbon pollution by mid-century, the estimated increase from developing Asian countries alone would completely offset this. Thus, focusing on solutions that are replicable in other countries, especially developing countries, is critical and necessary. Solutions that reduce carbon dioxide emissions on a market-driven basis will benefit the U.S. economy and create new energy export opportunities.

As we refine these technologies at home, we must prepare strong support for exports to the developing world. This is where America is at greatest risk of falling behind.

China and Russia view the spread of their technology as a means to expand their power, and use their state-owned enterprises to these ends.

China is financing $36B in inefficient coal plants in at least 27 countries. Russia has overtaken the U.S. in nuclear exports, with Rosatom developing 33 reactors in countries like India. China is close behind, increasing nuclear exports with questionable safeguards under the belief that more nuclear proliferation will make the world more peaceful while supporting their economic goals.

In other words, an American vacuum on clean energy exports risks severe climate change while also threatening our national security and geopolitical position.

Watch ClearPath’s executive director, Rich Powell, testify as the Republican witness at the House Committee on Financial Services hearing, Examining the Macroeconomic Impacts of a Changing Climate.

View more of Our Take and let us know what you think at jaylistens@clearpath.org.