Special Report

Greens Against Growth

The media hides an inconvenient truth: California's clean-energy law has damaged the state economy.

By 12.11.08

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Under normal circumstances, November 2008 might have been remembered as a key moment in the American climate-change policy debate. Two independent evaluations were made public that analyzed California's groundbreaking, path-setting 2006 law dictating a sharp state increase in the use of cleaner, costlier energy -- specifically Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's repeated assertions that not only would the law not be a drag on the economy; it would actually make the state's economy healthier. Similar claims are common in Washington and many state capitals, which are all considering California-style regulations.

Both evaluations were highly dismissive of the notion that the California plan would help the economy. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office -- the most respected voice in Sacramento -- concluded (pdf) that the California Air Resources Board's claims of economic gains were simply not sustained by the "scoping plan" it released outlining the implementation of the 2006 law. Instead, the plan ignored likely negative effects and cherry-picked data to produce a forecast of long-term economic benefits. Most tellingly, the LAO noted that the "ARB deemed all measures included in the plan 'cost effective' simply because they reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, whatever the cost." By this logic, a business shutting down would be "cost effective."

But the most damning criticism came from the economists hired to do a "peer review" (pdf) of the ARB. Most were stunned by the shoddiness of the ARB's analysis.

Wesleyan University's Gary Yohe denounced the "spurious precision" of the ARB's forecasts, detailed vast shortcomings in the report's methodology and found the readiness of the ARB to make such confident claims "almost beyond belief." Two analysts from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, Janet Peace and Liwayway Adkins, also faulted the report's methodology and said the report "gives the appearance of justifying the chosen package of regulatory measures rather than evaluating it." UCLA's Matthew Kahn detailed how the ARB had simply ignored the likely effects of much higher energy costs on California manufacturers, who employ 1.5 million workers.

But the most striking remark came from the most prominent peer reviewer: Robert Stavins, the director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. He warned that the ARB's plan had so many "glaring and severe errors and deficiencies" that it could set back efforts to aggressively deal with global warming.

"I fear that at this stage of the process, CARB will find itself in a position of being compelled to publicly defend its economic analysis from critiques such as my own, rather than significantly amend it in response to expert commentary," Stavins wrote.

So much for the view that the Golden State was a climate-change model for the nation and the world. The Harvard economist clearly expected the negative reaction to force California to go back to the drawing board with its energy policy -- or to at least acknowledge the economic downside of a forced move away from cheaper energy sources.

Under normal circumstances, that's just what would have happened, and the happy talk about a painless transition to a new energy era might have been discounted.

Instead, the main effect of the two studies has been not to change the course of the climate change debate but to confirm the media is hopelessly in the tank on global warming.

As of Wednesday, a Nexis search shows the only newspapers anywhere to detail the findings of either the Legislative Analyst's Office or the peer-review economists are the San Diego Union-Tribune, where I work as an editorial writer, and the Sacramento Bee, which had a total of one 450-word account.

What was once merely a media hostility to skeptics of human-caused global warming has now mutated into a media hostility to anyone who has any doubts about the invasive, inevitably costly ways that government wants to deal with climate change. And so the critics of Arnold Schwarzenegger's bogus claims for his global-warming approach must be ignored -- even if they have impeccable reputations and unimpeachable credentials.

Now here's the sick kicker to this story of the news media's greenout: The head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, was widely reported to be on President-elect Barack Obama's short list to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This was no surprise, given Obama's lavish praise of Schwarzenegger's aggressive climate policies.

But at some point will the media note that far from playing a constructive role in the global-warming debate, Nichols' agency was actually castigated by Harvard's Stavins, the author of the most widely used textbook on economics and the environment?

Don't bet on it. The media have their narrative, and they're sticking to it -- all inconvenient truths be damned.

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About the Author

Chris Reed is an editorial writer for the U-T San Diego newspaper, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune.