“Energy & the Environment, & the Precautionary Principle” by John Edward

John Edward teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell. This is the seventh in a series of columns he has written on economics and the presidential election. Links to his earlier posts may be found at the end of this column.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are far apart on many economic issues (see the links to previous columns at the end of this column). Their positions on energy and the environment are almost polar opposites. The consequences of their policies could have a dramatic impact on planet Earth. Should the precautionary principle come into play?

Clinton will retain existing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Trump will get rid of them, and maybe the EPA as well.

Clinton wants tighter controls on fracking. Trump is promoting fracking.

Clinton wants to spend $60 billion on programs to address the impact of climate change, Trump — $0.

Clinton supported President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline. Trump wants to resurrect the plan.

Clinton wants the United States to uphold the Paris climate change agreement. Trump wants to cancel it.

Clinton favors a transition to renewable energy sources. Trump wants to drill baby, drill.

Where you stand on these issues probably depends on your view of global warming. A panel of 18 scientific associations issued the following statement in 2009:

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.

Many science groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society have issued similar statements. See the NASA web site for more.

A widely cited statistic is that 97 percent of scientists agree global warming is well underway, and that the human race is causing much of it. Studies show the consensus grows with the level of climatology expertise of those surveyed.

Skeptics that question what the consensus means are asking the wrong questions. What percentage agrees with exactly what is causing global warming is not important. The question needs to be – what are we going to do about global warming and its impact.

The precautionary principle says:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this case it would seem the scientific community has established cause and effect.

If you acknowledge global warming, on this issue Hillary Clinton should get your vote.

Donald Trump is a global-warming skeptic. He has referred to it as mythical and a hoax by the Chinese. If you agree with Trump then he wins on energy policy.

I suggest both candidates, and you, should consider the following. What if you are wrong?

Forbes says Clinton has “the most nuanced positions on energy policy.” However, if she is wrong we end up investing too much in alternative energy. At least we will develop technology and expertise that other countries will want to buy from us. If Clinton is wrong a lot of fossil fuel will go untapped – but it will still be there. Some coal miners may have to find a new job. Clinton’s policies will create jobs in “green energy” industries. Oil companies may make a little less profit.

Foreign Policy says Trump showed the “same lack of basic knowledge” about energy policy “that he has shown on nuclear weapons, international alliances, and global trade.” The media has debunked many of Trumps favorite campaign talking points, such as on the viability (or merit) of energy independence, how many coal mining jobs he can restore, the prices of different energy sources, and how many birds get killed by windmills. If Trump is wrong on global warming we are facing major consequences, and some of them potentially catastrophic.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, sea levels globally have risen 8 inches since 1880. The rate is accelerating. They project sea level increases in the conservative range of 6 to 16 inches by 2050, and 12 to 48 inches by the end of the century (they also cite a high-end range of 48 to 78 inches).

The New York Times has an interactive graphic showing the results of sea level rise. At 60 inches (a level considered probable by next century), 9 percent of Boston is flooded, 26 percent of Cambridge, and 88 percent of New Orleans.

If Trump is wrong, if global warming is real, if our emissions are making it worse, then:

  • Major cities will be permanently flooded or disappear (see above).
  • Hundreds of millions of people living along coastlines will be dislocated (see above).
  • The EPA describes the likely damage climate change will have on food production.
  • We may have a lot more earthquakes due to fracking (as explained by the U.S. Geological Survey, or just ask someone from Oklahoma).
  • National Geographic reported that the first mammal (a rat that used to exist in Australia) has apparently gone extinct as “only the first of many species that face significant risk due to a warming climate.”
  • According to the World Health Organization “An estimated 16.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments” and climate change will add millions more including 95 thousand a year due to childhood malnutrition.

However, the worst damage will occur long after a Trump presidency, and after he is dead. Trump’s policies are looking backward, not forward.

When it comes to energy policy and the environment, candidates, and voters, need to apply the precautionary principle. We should be Putting a Premium on the Future. Future generations will pay for whatever poor policies our Presidents put in place. Our children and grandchildren (and great grandchildren, etc.) will pay tomorrow for the mistakes that voters make today.

The Department of Community Health and Sustainability at UMass Lowell endorsed the precautionary principle years ago. The abstract for one of their papers says:

The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.

Can we sustain our greatness in the face of uncertainty? Can we sustain our way of life without taking preventative action? What if Trump is wrong? The burden of proof should be on him given the potential harmful effects of trying to drill and frack our way to greatness?

Voters have a decision to make. Do we try to make America great again by moving backward with Trump? Or do we keep America great by moving forward with Clinton.

Energy and environmental policy matters more than most any other presidential election issue in one regard. Presidents can greatly influence energy policy; can implement their agenda for the environment, through executive action, without the consent of congress. Look no further than President George W. Bush who was accused of not implementing the Clean Air Act by his own head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Look no further than President Obama committing us to the Paris climate agreement.

An informed voter is our best citizen.

Next up, Clinton vs. Trump on the defining issue of our times. Hint: it is not terrorism but it does involve homeland security.

The first column in this series, “The 100 Percent,” appeared on May 16, 2016; The second, “Voodoo Two,” on May 23, 2016; the third. “Paying for the Wall” on June 22, 2016; the fourth, “Trump’s Trade War” on July 5, 2016; the fifth, “Making America Sick Again” appeared on August 16, 2016; and the sixth, “The Education President” on August 29, 2016.