The Nation’s Energy Expert Speaks Out on Climate … Not

by Bill Chameides | July 15th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Melting permafrost and coastal erosion are causing infrastructure across Alaska to buckle, leading longstanding communities to seek new residences and energy companies with fewer workdays. (Copyright 2009 FarNorthScience |

Quiz: What soon-to-be-ex-governor of a very northern state could write an op-ed about climate legislation without once mentioning the word “climate”?

That’s right; Sarah Palin is against the “president’s cap-and-trade energy plan, … an enormous threat to our economy. It would undermine our recovery over the short term and would inflict permanent damage. … [And] immediately increas[e] unemployment in the energy sector.”

There is a lot to pick at in the Alaska governor’s piece and many have already weighed in. (See here, here, and the rant that is here.) I’ll focus on two aspects of her take on the cap-and-trade legislation.

Economic Impacts Overblown

Yes, it is absolutely true that reining in our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to address climate change is going to come with some price — to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous. But virtually all careful analyses of the impacts have concluded that, if done intelligently and gradually, the economic price will be modest. For example, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act would cost the average household about $175 per year; and by the way, $175 in 2020 is not “immediately.”

The costs are not insignificant but hardly the disaster the as-yet-still governor would have us believe. (More on this later.) It is true that the poor will be most stressed by the price increases, and that is why the Waxman-Markey bill reserved some of the funds collected from the auction of allowances to assist poor and middle-class families — the CBO analysis also indicated that the lowest income families would experience a net benefit of about $40 in 2020.

Where’s the Climate?

It blows my mind that someone could write a critique of a bill designed to address climate change and never once mention the word “climate.” And I mean this literally. Nowhere in the op-ed is climate mentioned, although, to be fair, she does include the words “environment” and “environmental” two times apiece.

Examples of What Climate Change Is Doing to Alaska
Longer summers and higher temperatures are causing drier conditions.
Insect outbreaks and wildfires are increasing with warming.
Warmer conditions have allowed insects to thrive when cooler summers and colder winters would have normally held them in check; for example, the spruce beetle has destroyed around three million acres of forest.
Lakes are declining in area.
Thawing permafrost is damaging roads, runways, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure.
Increased road maintenance costs and major landscape changes from accelerated thawing of permafrost.
Coastal storms increase risks to villages and fishing fleets.
(Sources: U.S. Global Change Research Program, USGS: National Climate Change Assessment, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

To read the Palin op-ed, one might conclude the reason for a cap and trade on carbon emissions is to prevent us from “tap[ping] the resources that God created right underfoot on American soil.”

Actually, the reason for a cap-and-trade system is to protect the planet that, in the governor’s argot, “God created” and that we are currently undermining through our unrestrained exploitation of its resources. If left to natural processes, the fossil fuels we are tapping with abandon would remain in the Earth’s interior for hundreds of millions of years, but we are extracting and using them up in a matter of about a century or two.

Don’t Forget the Costs of Inaction

It has become a common tactic of those who would stop climate legislation to focus on the costs of such legislation without mentioning the costs of inaction, the costs of allowing greenhouse gas emissions to increase without limit and trying to live with the climate consequences that would result. (John Kerry has a great comment on this aspect of Palin’s post, using the analogy of not repairing a roof because of repair costs but ignoring the costs of the leaks.)

Ironically, of all the states in the union, the governor’s own state of Alaska, which, incidentally, features the country’s longest coastline, is bearing the brunt of climate change. (See here, here and here for details.) Temperatures in the state have already increased by an average of 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit — a warming rate that is twice what the lower 48 states have experienced. One of the most apparent and also disruptive consequences of the Alaskan warming is melting permafrost — the permanently frozen ground that underlies about 80 percent of Alaska’s land area.

When permafrost melts, a formerly firm, hard ground is transformed into pockets of mushy morass, causing roads to buckle and homes and buildings to teeter and fall. And that 80 percent number I just cited should actually be used in the past tense, because the permafrost is melting and the thaw is already undermining infrastructure throughout the state. In 2003 Alaska was spending an estimated $35 million per year in infrastructure (primarily road) repairs made necessary by permafrost melting.

Is that a lot of money? Consider this: there are about 220,000 households in Alaska. So the annual cost per Alaskan household of melting permafrost — but one of a number of cost-carrying climate change impacts — is currently (i.e., today in 2009) about $160. That’s essentially the same as the CBO’s per-household cost estimate of Waxman-Markey in 2020.

Now consider that:

  • the costs of infrastructure repair from melting permafrost are projected to increase by a factor of 10 or more in the next 20 years, and
  • there a host of other impacts from climate change that are already exacting a cost to Alaskans, including, but in no way limited to, the widespread loss of Alpine forests from infestation of pests like the spruce beetle.

This is my take on the economics of cap and trade for Alaskans:

  • Burning all that fossil fuel may have made sense when gasoline was $4 a gallon and Alaskans could live high off the hog on petro-dollars from the rest of us, and climate impacts wer
    e just beginning;
  • But with current gasoline prices and growing climate impacts, a cap-and-trade program to slow a warming globe looks like a pretty good economic bet for Alaska.

Suffices to say, it’s a no-brainer for those of us who don’t stand to make huge profits through the sale of fossil fuels at exorbitant prices.

Gotta Stop Emitting CO2 If You Want to Get to Alaskan Oil and Gas

And here is the greatest irony. Melting permafrost is inhibiting the extraction of oil and gas in Alaska! To extract oil and gas you must be able to move big, heavy exploration and extraction machinery over the land, and you can’t do that in Alaska if the permafrost melts — because you are left with a mucky, unstable mess. Over the past 30 years the number of days that oil and gas exploration and extraction equipment can operate in Alaska has decreased from more than 200 days per year to 100 days.

Governor, if you want to be able to “tap the resources that God created right underfoot” in Alaska, you’d better get behind the president’s cap-and-trade energy plan.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, economy, faculty, fossil fuels, global warming
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