Epstein Warns: "Beware of the Green Energy Crusade"

Beware of the Green Energy Crusade
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
February 2, 2011

One conspicuous difference between the last Congress and the present one is the disappearance of a comprehensive cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions from the overall political agenda. But its demise as a grand social policy should be understood, at least on the part of the president, only as a tactical political retreat and not a change of political will. In place of cap-and-trade, the president has reiterated his earlier support for "green" energy from renewable sources, in part to reduce overall levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

In my view, this change of approach on energy policy is a bit like jumping from the fire into the frying pan. Before attempting such a heroic task—and one that will arguably do a counterproductive job of regulating elusive carbon dioxide emissions—it is better to apply sound regulatory principles to admitted forms of pollution, which is not quite achieved by cheerleading for green economics and green jobs. In being critical of the presidential change of approach, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as someone who just does not care about environmental issues. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am prepared to pay a good deal of hard-earned income to that end, so long as the program is done right.

Put otherwise, my concerns with cap-and-trade are not directed to the method of regulation itself. The system has worked quite well with respect to sulfur dioxide emissions, for example. The gas is emitted by a relatively few sources, has known harmful qualities, and is confined within narrow geographical regions, all of which allow for the creation of a sensible trading framework. But none of those conditions are satisfied for carbon dioxide, which is why it is dangerous to wrench a regime that works well in one context and apply it aggressively in another. The same cautious approach is appropriate for green industries. My opposition to the president’s proposals rest on the flaws in their key design features, not on any steadfast hostility to environmental protection writ large. A quick primer explains why.

Richard A. Epstein