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Hickenlooper’s climate order based on magical thinking

Hickenlooper’s climate order based on magical thinking

By Linda Gorman

When the US withdrew from the Paris Accord, Governor Hickenlooper proclaimed that climate change is “the single most pressing issue facing humanity.” His newest executive order imposes the Paris Accord’s petty tyrannies on Coloradans.

The Order directs the “State of Colorado” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the “electricity sector” by 35 percent between 2012 and 2025 and to support “locally-led climate goals.” It directs the state to reduce electricity sales by 2 percent despite requiring it to increase electricity use by spending the $61.3 million from the Volkswagen settlement to create a “plan” to “build out” “key charging corridors” for electric vehicles to “boost tourism.”

Short of issuing ration coupons or scheduling methodical brownouts, the only way to reduce electricity sales by 2 percent in a state with a growing population is to raise its price to the point where people can no longer afford to use it, and energy intensive businesses depart for more hospitable business climates. In effect, the Governor is ordering free electricity for those wealthy enough to buy electric cars at the cost of fewer productive jobs and higher electric bills for the rest of us.

Germany has one of the most ambitious Paris Accord compliant renewable energy programs in the world. Eurostat reports that its large industrial users of electricity in Germany paid roughly 30 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2016. The costs of renewables is so high that when the US exited from the Paris Accord, German auto manufacturers urged Europe to “facilitate a cost efficient and economically feasible climate policy to remain internationally competitive.”

Between 2000 and 2014, Colorado’s renewable energy policies helped increase industrial electricity rates by 67 percent. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Colorado industrial users payed 6.71 cents per kWh in 2014. The US national average was 6.47 cents. Industrial customers in Oklahoma paid 4.42 cents.

Though the enormous real costs of the anti-climate change policies Governor Hickenlooper favors are well known, the effects of the additional CO2 produced by human activities are not. While government control of energy production and use certainly enriches government functionaries and the crony capitalists they favor, existing evidence suggests it will have a limited effect on global climate change.

Climate change predates the human use of fossil fuels. Scientists think that things cooled off quite a bit  when the Great Ice Age began 2 million years ago, that the earth has been warming since then, and that the sea level has increased by an estimated 450 feet. In more recent times, people living between 800 and 1300 enjoyed global warming during the Medieval Warm period. Those alive between 1500 and 1900 suffered through global cooling.

Separating the effects of human activity from the natural fluctuations in global temperature and CO2 concentrations is a hard, hard, problem.

It is hard to agree on what global average temperature is and how to measure it. Gabriel Fahrenheit’s mercury thermometer dates to 1714, weather balloon measurements date to the 1950s, and satellite measurements date to 1979. It is hard to adjust for differences in the quality of temperature measuring instruments, earth orbits, land use, and software over time. A 2014 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study found the uncertainty for average daily temperature measurements by analog thermometers was 0.5 degrees C, larger than the uncertainty assumed in the scientific literature.

The satellite record suggests a warming trend of 0.1 degrees C per decade. Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama estimates that this is 50 percent less than the warming trend suggested by surface temperature. Climate models predict warming is 30 to 50 percent larger. Evidence from theory, ice cores, and fossilized plants suggest that atmospheric CO2, currently around 408 parts per million (ppm) after a low of around 200 ppm 20,000 years ago, has fluctuated between 200 and 1,000 parts per million by volume (ppmv) for the last 350 million years.

Understanding the climate’s response to increased CO2 concentrations is even harder.

Richard Lindzen, an Emeritus Professor of Meteorology at MIT, describes the problem: “the system we are looking at consists in two turbulent fluids (air and water) interacting with each other. They are on a rotating planet that is differentially heated by the sun. A vital constituent of the atmospheric component is water in the liquid, solid and vapor phases, and the changes in phase have vast energetic ramifications.”

What, he asks, is the likelihood that the whole system is controlled by small changes in a single variable, the concentration of atmospheric CO2? “Doubling CO2 involves a 2% perturbation” in the planet’s energy budget. That’s small enough that believing CO2 concentration controls the climate is “pretty close to believing in magic.”

Governor Hickenlooper has ordered a two percent decline in electricity sales and wishes to give state government control of energy pricing and production. Only someone who believes in magic can possibly believe that this will improve Colorado’s economy.

Linda Gorman is an economist at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.