Is Obama Green?

Of course, President Obama is “green.” These days, it’s hard to find anyone or anything that isn’t. Barack and Michelle have their organic White House garden. George “dubya” has solar panels at his ranch. There are carbon offsets for the electricity that powers chairlifts at ski resorts and carbon neutral pet care. And then there’s the “first green concession stand” at the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium. Clearly, the President has no choice but to be on the green bandwagon.

The question, however, is not whether Obama has a green image, but whether his policies will really improve the environment. This is the question Laura Huggins and I ask in our book, Greener Than Thou: Are You Really an Environmentalist? Another question to pose is whether Obama’s green policies really are good for the economy. The answer to both is an emphatic NO.

Start with the president’s March 30 signing of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which creates more than 2 million acres of wilderness land. According to his rhetoric, “This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share. That’s something all Americans can support.”

The facts in PERC scholar Holly Fretwell’s recent book, Who is Minding the Federal Estate, suggest otherwise. For example, between 90 and 200 million acres of federal forests are at high risk of burning in catastrophic fire events, according to the Forest Service’s own estimates. Federal lands are taken for granted. And if environmental irresponsibility were not enough in the government’s land management agencies, fiscal irresponsibility is rampant. Between 2006 and 2008, the National Forest Service lost an average $3.58 billion each year. The Government Accountability Office testified in Congress that, in 2004, the Bureau of Land Management earned approximately $12 million in grazing revenues but spent $58 million implementing its own grazing program. The color of this act is not green; it is red from the sea of red ink that will flow from it.

The environmental and fiscal irresponsibility regarding land management pales in comparison to President Obama’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Obama’s approach to global warming is that cutting carbon is good regardless of the cost. He proposes reducing U.S. carbon emissions by 14 percent from the 2005 level by 2020 and by 83 percent from the 2005 level by 2050. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis to suggest that such cuts will have any impact on global temperatures over the next 100 years. This is especially true given that China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter and growing daily. Again Obama is green in rhetoric only.

Furthermore, the cost of pursuing Obama’s carbon policy should have us all seeing red. The Lieberman- Warner bill, under consideration in Congress and supported by the administration, is estimated to cost $800 to $1,300 per household annually by 2015, rising to $1,500–$2,500 by 2050. The Congressional Budget Office breaks down the burden of achieving a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions as follows: the bottom quintile of households will see their after-tax incomes fall by 3.3 percent; the middle quintiles will see theirs fall between 2.7 and 2.9 percent; and the top quintile will see theirs fall by 1.7 percent. Hence, the cost of carbon reduction is highly regressive, meaning it is shouldered more by the poor than the rich.

The Obama administration contends that using a cap-and-trade system will keep costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions down. At the same time, it estimates that selling carbon emission permits will bring in $646 billion to the treasury over the next 10 years, and independent estimates place the amount closer to $1 trillion. Because a disproportionate amount of this cost will fall on regulated utilities, expect this cost to be passed on to consumers. That is why the Wall Street Journal appropriately calls carbon cap-and-trade “an inconvenient tax.”

Finally, consider President Obama’s program to create green jobs especially through renewable energy technologies. Renewable energy currently supplies only 7 percent of America’s energy demands. Even in California with its abundant sunshine, solar accounts for less than 0.2 percent of its electricity. Expanding these amounts in any meaningful way given current technologies is implausible.

Obama wants to grow the renewable and alternative energy sectors in the name of green. But even environmentalists are increasingly suspicious of the real environmental impacts—witness the ethanol environmental debacle. And taxpayers should be equally suspicious. A recent study by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, estimates that each green job the Obama administration proposes to create will cost $418,800. Again, green should have people seeing red.

Green rhetoric from President Obama has glossed over three important points which are necessary for moving the environment and the economy forward. These are 1) that green policies should be measured in terms of their real impact on the environment and on the economy; 2) that Obama’s green initiatives are likely to slow economic recovery in the United States and world economies; and 3) that slower growth will undermine environmental improvements at home and abroad.

Is green really green? Not necessarily, especially when the environmental consequences are questionable and the economic costs are astronomical.

In “On Target,” PERC’s executive director Tery L. Anderson confronts issues surrounding free market environmentalism. He can be reached at perc@perc.org.

Topics: 
Type: 
Terry Anderson is the William A. Dunn Distinguished Senior Fellow and former President and Executive Director of PERC as well as the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He believes that market approaches can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive. His research helped launch the...
Read More > More Articles by Terry Anderson >