By Rupert Darwall
Not letting a crisis go to waste, climate change advocates have seized on COVID-19 to press their agenda to decarbonize the American economy. The World Health Organization would have us believe that the pathogen’s emergence is linked to fossil fuels, though Chinese authorities have banned investigators from visiting the source of the virus in Wuhan. The Green New Deal overlaps “so perfectly” with the coronavirus, says Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager and likely Treasury Secretary in a Biden administration, views environmental sustainability and COVID-19 as “one and the same,” representing “huge physical changes in our lives.”
Democrats have seized on this fable. The pandemic demands unprecedented, transformational federal investment in “resilient, sustainable, and inclusive infrastructure,” their 2020 platform declares. “We can, and we will, deal with climate change. It’s not only a crisis, it’s an enormous opportunity,” Joe Biden said in his acceptance speech. “We’ll not only build it back, we’ll build it back better.”
“Build back better” is code for decarbonization—and the promise that, out of the ashes of a U.S. economy devastated by the coronavirus, a new economy will emerge under the beneficent guidance of the federal government, setting America on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
We don’t need to “build back” anything, though. America’s physical infrastructure is intact. Its power stations and energy infrastructure, its roads and bridges, its railways and airports are almost exactly as they were before the virus struck. We are not Germany in 1945, after Allied bombs had reduced it to rubble. COVID-19 has done no damage to American physical assets.
What COVID-19 has destroyed is lives and livelihoods, and corporate and household balance sheets. Businesses have fixed costs that they can’t recover. Despite the best efforts of the Fed and its unprecedented monetary loosening, time won’t stand still for capital and the debt used to finance it when economic activity grinds to a halt.
The best antidote isn’t some building program but strong, sustained economic growth. At this stage, the most pro-growth economic policy is adopting proportionate COVID-19 responses that accelerate the reopening of the economy while protecting the most vulnerable citizens and treating them with the most efficacious medical therapies.
You won’t get any of that from “building back better.” The Green New Deal and Biden’s plan for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 are the last things that a recovering economy needs. Mandating net-zero is the equivalent of imposing multi-trillion dollar tax hikes—and with not one cent for deficit reduction, the proceeds going instead to controlling the “global climate.” And there’s more. While America—with the glaring exception of California—already has all the energy it needs, Biden wants to spend $1.7 trillion on alternative energy, a gargantuan outlay that would pile on to an already rapidly growing federal deficit.
Climate activists draw many spurious links between COVID-19 and climate change, but they have one thing in common: zero tolerance. For COVID-19 absolutists, society should be organized around the principle of zero Covid. For climate absolutists, society should be organized around the principle of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
We can see the collateral damage to the economy, to society, and to human freedom from the draconian measures adopted to contain this virus. On climate, Biden promises drastic action but avoids telling voters what it might mean. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is more honest. It says that net-zero requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” That’s true.
In January, the British government’s chief scientific adviser notified Prime Minister Boris Johnson that achieving net-zero will require “fundamental changes in our society and economy.” The letter went on to warn that the government should “consider and manage the impacts in areas where existing industries will be disrupted”—a euphemism for being wiped out.
In the U.S., that means the oil and gas industry. “Kiddo,” Biden was filmed telling a voter, “look in my eyes. I guarantee we’re gonna end fossil fuels.” He didn’t tell her that fossil fuels meet 80% of U.S. energy needs. Despite Biden’s subsequent denial that he would ban fracking, the logic of net-zero plainly says otherwise. Its unavoidable implication is the progressive outlawing of all fossil fuel energy.
Fracking ended America’s dependence on imported energy and transformed it into a global hydrocarbon superpower. The technique has created hundreds of thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs, both in the shale fields and in downstream manufacturing. It has cut energy prices, making a family of four better off by an average of $2,500 a year. That’s an awful lot to give up for Joe Biden’s fable of “building back better.”
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of THE CLIMATE NOOSE.