Climate Change: The New Pay-to-Play Game

A bulldozer works a coal mound at the Appalachian Electric Power coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West …
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Here’s a twist on conventional logic: In the empire of capitalism, where the market is supposed to rule, the Obama Administration is regulating 41 gigawatts of coal-based power generating capacity out of existence.

What began as a plan to euthanize old coal plants has become a brazen plan to kill them all. Meanwhile, in autocratic China, where the communist party spurns free-market dogma and democracy, the government is offering bonuses to any coal power plant that increases efficiency.

So, while President Obama was in Paris this month, pushing a “Clean Power Plan” to rid America’s consumers of a major source of affordable energy, China’s leaders were negotiating in the interest of their people. Since the president’s plan achieves no meaningful environmental benefit, it now appears to be little more than a hate crime against coal. And this from the country with more coal than any other.

Nothing more aptly dramatizes the gulf between the U.S. and China than their views toward coal at the recent UN climate conference. China chose to protect its consumers, while trying to grab headlines via soothing commitments to curb its rampant emissions.

Beijing’s pledge to cut CO2 output by 2030 is no different than its prior position – namely, that growth comes first. Just last month, Beijing admitted to under-reporting coal consumption by 17 percent. The only difference now is that China’s leadership has learned the value of using words like “transparency” and “monitoring” to lard its aspirations, while pledging “commitments” that mollify global greens and governments.

Of course, China will spend more to scrub emissions of particulate matter like SO2 and NOx – much as the U.S. has done since 1990, when the Clean Air Act was amended. And why not? Those pollutants, and not CO2, are responsible for Beijing’s now-infamous smog and haze.

But the public doesn’t appreciate that distinction any more than they distinguish bad weather from El Nino. No matter. From Washington to Paris, the big story is “Climate Change.” The White House wants to turn the page away from ISIS and the priority threat it poses. And so, if you “deny” that man-made climate change is the world’s top priority, you’re a cretin.

The other CO2-emitting powerhouse, India, has been less accommodating toward the Obama Administration’s desperate bid for a climate deal. The Modi government cares little about our president’s legacy, and like China, more about a swelling population that lacks access to electricity. Coal, said India’s energy minister, will “remain the backbone” of its economy. The developing world will either continue to use coal, or demand to be paid for using less of it, or both.

That brings us to that clever UN term of art, buried in its climate pledge, of “shared but differentiated responsibilities.” Meaning, nations that got rich using fossil fuels must do more to reduce future CO2 emissions than the poor countries “emerging” from darkness. The chief means by which this will be accomplished, says the UN, is to transfer wealth from the haves to the have nots. That makes climate change a global pay-to-play operation, as African, Latin American, Asian, and island nations line up, hands extended, for their take from the UN climate fund.

Our president has generously offered your tax dollars to pay these countries for various climate mitigation projects.  Secretary of State Kerry has pledged an $800 million down payment on the $3 billion the president promised. We’re sure ministers from Benin to Burkina Faso will be cheered by this generosity as they contemplate how best to spend the lucre. We’re less sure how they’ll spend it, though, since audit reports on these expenditures show that, to date, both the money and the projects are missing.

One place where more money could help to cool a potentially warming planet would be low-emissions technologies.  World Coal Association chief executive Benjamin Sporton told Paris negotiators that carbon-capture and other low-emission technologies are needed for all fossil fuels, not just coal, to reach the UN emissions targets. That sensible argument, endorsed in findings by the UN’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, doubtless fell on deaf ears in the White House. Until that crowd is driven from office, however, regulation (and not technology) will be the hammer for all our nails.

Luke Popovich is vice president for external affairs at the National Mining Association (NMA).