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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cap-and-traders miss the point when they invoke the moon landing.

How fortuitous for proponents of cap-and-trade legislation that the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing coincided with congressional efforts to tackle global warming. The House passed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill a few weeks before the July 20 lunar landing anniversary, and the Senate is expected to take up the matter shortly. Is it any surprise to hear that if we can put a man on the moon, then surely we should be able to build a clean energy economy for the 21st century that ends our reliance on fossil fuels?

It is an oft-repeated theme these days. Julian Wong of the Center for American Progress (CAP) testified to Congress that “the United States won the race to the moon, but we’re losing the race for a sustainable Earth.” Phil Angelides, former California Treasurer and one of the state’s leading Democrats, said the push to the moon four decades ago should inspire us to “blaz[e] the path to a clean energy economy . . . reclaim our position as a global scientific leader, save our fragile planet, and put millions of our citizens back to work in the clean energy jobs of the future.”

Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, co-sponsor of the energy-rationing global warming bill that narrowly passed the House, waxed excessively poetic: “Just as we rocketed past the bounds of gravity, we must bring soaring temperatures from global warming back to normal. Scientists say global warming is a man-made problem; clean energy will be the American-made solution. The Waxman-Markey bill addresses the technological imperative to lead on clean energy, the economic imperative to compete in a global race, and the moral imperative to protect our planet. Waxman-Markey has the ambition of the moon landing, the moral imperative of the Civil Rights Act, and the scope of the Clean Air Act, all wrapped up in one.”

To start, the moon launch and the Manhattan Project had very defined and specific goals, each driven with military urgency.

It is hardly a new refrain. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama often suggested that efforts to construct a clean-energy future could be modeled on the Apollo moon landing. The Apollo Alliance, a coalition of activist groups and labor unions pushing a decidedly left-wing environmental agenda that includes government-mandated carbon emission reductions, was established in 2003 with a name invoking the moon launch. Angelides heads the group today, and White House green jobs advisor Van Jones was a founder and served on the Apollo Alliance’s board before joining the Obama team.

While undoubtedly stirring, does the moon landing analogy make any sense? How about similar calls for a new Manhattan Project for clean energy, an idea touted repeatedly by New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman and cited by President Obama? Hardly. The goals are far too dissimilar, and the situations too diverse, to draw any helpful conclusions from those earlier efforts for application in today’s climate discussions.

To start, the moon launch and the Manhattan Project had very defined and specific goals, each driven with military urgency. On one—the Manhattan Project—hung the future of the civilized world in a race against Hitler. The other example—the bid to put a man on the moon—was the latest advance in a race with an enemy sworn to the destruction of the West. Both endeavors served the same client, a federal government apparatus with essentially unlimited resources.

Why not institute a crash government program to develop those resources in ways that are economically competitive with fossil fuels and uranium? Turns out we already have.

Compare that to today’s situation, where the foe to be vanquished is the possibility that average global temperatures may increase on the order of one to three degrees over the next century. Or may not. While we could be certain of Hitler’s ambitions to overrun and enslave free nations, our fears about climate change are based entirely on highly speculative computer models. Those models have failed utterly to predict the recent cooling the planet is now experiencing, so perhaps we should be careful relying on their century-off predictions in deciding whether to reorient the fundamentals of our economy.

Costs might not have mattered when we sought to send Americans to the moon or set about building an atomic bomb. But they surely matter now. Over the course of a century, we created highly developed processes and infrastructure for supplying the energy that powers a dynamic economy. A central reason our economy has flourished over that period is because those supplies—coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium—and the system that supports them provide our energy cheaply and reliably. If we want to come up with something to replace them, the alternatives have to be just as cheap and just as reliable. But the candidates often talked up by President Obama and other self-styled environmentalists in Washington are things like wind and solar and biomass. Those cannot come close to competing with the sources that markets prefer.

So why not institute a crash government program to develop those resources in ways that are economically competitive with fossil fuels and uranium? Turns out we already have. It is the Department of Energy, formed three decades ago to deliver us from foreign oil dependency. Despite tens of billions of dollars spent on basic energy and research science at DOE, we are further from energy independence than at any time. Indeed, it would be hard to point to a single significant energy breakthrough that has emerged from DOE and its national labs. What makes anyone think a new government bureaucracy focusing on the same mission would fare better?

Costs might not have mattered when we sought to send Americans to the moon or set about building an atomic bomb. But they surely matter now.

So let’s not get swept up in clarion calls for a dubious goal based on similarly dubious premises and misplaced analogies. When CAP analyst Wong stresses the urgency of acting because “we are losing the race” for a sustainable planet, or when Rep. Markey says, “The clean energy race is the space race of our time,” they are missing the point. This is not a reprise of the post-Sputnik 1960s, when two great powers were locked in mortal battle for supremacy of a new frontier. There is no competition today with other nations in a bid to switch our economies to energy sources that are vastly more expensive than the ones currently in use. Indeed, when the Obama administration recently lectured China and India on the need to get aboard the low-carbon energy express, those nations’ governments told ours to take a hike. What the cap-and-traders and lunar pleaders don’t get is that it’s not a race if no one else is running.

Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

FURTHER READING: Max Schulz wrote “Who Should Decide the Size of Your TV?” on California’s considering a proposal to regulate big-screen TVs off the market. In “Obama’s European Energy Vacation,” Schulz argues that President Obama is dead wrong about what we can learn from the European approach to energy.

 

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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