My New Year’s Wish: Fact-Checking the Correctness of “Politically Correct” Environmental Policies

Norm King
Norm King is a former city manager of three California cities and of the San Bernardino County transportation commission and has taught part-time at USC and Claremont McKenna College. He also served as past director of the Leonard Transportation Center at CSUSB

Norm King served as city manager in three Southern California cities and is the former executive director of the San Bernardino Transportation Commission. 

It is important for the reader of the following critique of various “politically correct” assertions to understand that I believe that climate change is serious and is caused by human activity, that we need to reduce poverty in California and that that a transition to reduced carbon consumption is a necessity. 

My hot button issue is that so many proposed “politically correct” solutions rarely survive a “fact check,” that they will not solve our critical environmental concerns, that they will exacerbate social inequities and that they will result in costly and ridiculously expensive policies to reduce carbon consumption vs. what could be achieved at less cost.

I am constantly amazed that the mainstream media – most newspapers, television and social media (not to mention the present and future president) – advocate polices which rest on unsupportable assumptions and lack empirical evidence that such policies will produce the intended results. Check out yesterday’s LA Times editorial on transit as a prime example of the triumph of ideology and platitudes over facts and data. It is a spectacular irony that many espoused “politically correct” policies not only do not achieve what is intended but which also produce outcomes which contradict the fundamental values of the proponents.  

The following is a short list of often touted “politically correct” policies which rest more on wishful thinking than data. Each assertion is followed by a brief and incomplete rebuttal.  I don’t ask for agreement.  But if you disagree, show me your data and let’s have the conversation. 

  1. Joe Bidden is calling for a “rail revolution.” Here are the results of President Obama’s 2010 $11.5 billion (plus $6.5 billion state expenditures) High Speed Rail program: a complete waste of $18 billion.  The results: no increase in train speed, no increase in service, no ridership increase – unless you count the $334 million spent to increase the speed of a once per day train in Vermont from 40.7 to 45.0 mph or the $116 million spent in Maine to extend service to two small towns for a train which carries 127 passengers per day. 
  2. “Keep it in the ground” policies such as banning new oil pumping in California. All fuel oil used in California comes by ship, mostly from countries with autocratic regimes and abysmal human rights practices.  The over $30 billion we pay per year is exported out of our state to these regimes. We have increased oil imports from 5% in 1992 to about 60% today. Curbing supply does nothing to reduce the demand for oil. We will simply import even more oil which is produced in counties which have lower environmental regulations than those in place in California and will cost consumers more than oil pumped in California. 
  3. Impose bans on fracking. The single largest source (and the least expensive cost per ton) of carbon reduction in the United States over the past few years has been the substitution of natural gas for coal. Since 2010 60% of CO2 emissions reductions in the U.S. have come from natural gas substitution. 
  4. Zero emission vehicle (ZEV) subsidies.  Where do we start? Direct cash subsidies are highly skewed to the most affluent. The mandate to sell an increasing number of ZEV’s results in a substantially higher cost of new standard sedans.  This means non-ZEV users subsidize those who purchase a ZEV. The federal emissions credit system allows ZEV manufacturers to sell credits with the absurd result that greenhouse gas emissions will increase more than a ZEV reduces them.
  1. Roof top solar subsidies. Solar tax credit subsidies are highly skewed to the most affluent. We are now producing too much green power at the wrong time of day and this is causing major grid management issues which will require a massive investment to correct.  Net metering policies impose costs on non-solar owners who are generally less affluent than solar owners. Increased wind and solar power production is the single most important reason California electrical rates (which are now 50% higher than the national average) have increased so much.  
  2. High Speed Rail (HSR) in California will bring environmental and mobility benefits. Virtually all HSR trips (door to door) will take longer than air and auto alternatives. The claim that HSR will reduce greenhouse gas, always bogus because CO2 produced during construction was not accounted for, is even more bogus because of reduced ridership projections.  Highway congestion will be essentially unaffected by HSR.  The system will require a heavy public subsidy with benefits going disproportionately to the most affluent. None of the promises made in the 2008 HSR bond proposition in regard to financing, cost and benefits can possibly be achieved. 
  1. California’s cap and trade scheme reduces GHG. Aside from major flaws in California’s program (for one thing the very low price per ton) most cap and trade programs exist primarily to fund a piggy bank which empowers legislators to pick favorites by allocating funds to some businesses and not others and requires them to select one technology over another. As noted below a better alternative would be the imposition of a revenue neutral carbon fee.  But this would de-fund the legislature’s piggy bank. 
  2. Gov. Newsom’s edict to ban gas powered vehicles by 2035. It is deceiving and disingenuous to propose such a policy without simultaneously proposing solutions to the massive side effects of such policies among which are: the cost of grid improvements, the exponentially increased cost to taxpayers to provide subsidies for purchasing a ZEV, the loss of gas tax revenues to pay for road maintenance; the cost of and the environmental damage from disposing ZEV batteries. 
  3. California’s leadership in GHG reduction policies is important to our nation. If so, someone explain why California has achieved less carbon reduction than most other states. Since 2007, on a per capita basis, 41 states outperformed California on CO2 cuts. 
  4. Adoption of increased mileage standards.  Mileage standards have reduced fuel use but the benefits have been overstated because such standards force manufacturers to use more carbon to produce a green car vs. a traditional car. Thus, the net benefit (and for a ZEV there may not be any net benefit) is vastly reduced when the total carbon footprint for production and use is accounted for. 
  5. Transit is the wave of the future and will increase densities, reduce carbon emmisions, improve mobility and reduce driving.  How many ways to discredit this pillar of smart cities and sustainability rhetoric?  Transit and transit related developments do not significantly increase density or reduce driving – even with massive public subsidies. Even before Covid, transit ridership was in a freefall in spite of substantial increased transit funding over the last 20 years. Auto commuters can reach exponentially more jobs than transit in a given timeframe. Low income people with automobile access are twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times as likely to keep them. Transit commute trips take roughly double the time of the average auto trip.   The automobile on average uses less carbon per passenger mile and creates less greenhouse gas per passenger mile than transit. Every year transit fuel consumption per passenger mile increases relative to driving.  Every year transit produces more greenhouse gas emission per passenger mile than the year before. 
  6. The state mandate to require rooftop solar on all new residential buildings (effective December 2019). The cost of homes will increase and the alleged savings ($80 per month for electricity less an increase in mortgage costs of $40 per month) are over- stated even without accounting for the increased costs to other consumers stemming from net metering and other indirect and direct subsidies.
  7. Any program or policy which reduces GHG is good for society. In order to maximize the amount of carbon reduction achieved per dollar invested, funding should be targeted to those carbon mitigations which cost the least per ton. It’s pretty simple – you get more for the buck. A revenue neutral carbon fee would be the most equitable and efficient way to reduce carbon emissions at the least cost per ton. Anytime a product does not include the cost of the externality (in this case climate change and environmental costs) the reduced price to the consumer is a “subsidy” because the externality becomes a public cost for which the consumer doesn’t pay. Thus the most affluent, who consume proportionally more carbon-producing products, receive the greatest benefit. In general, the top 20% consume around 35% of total society resources; the bottom 20% around 8%.

Effective greenhouse gas reductions will not come from trillion dollar spending programs which would be allocated by legislators relying on their guesses about which technologies will be most effective.  It won’t happen by continuing to bribe people via subsidies (primarily to the most  affluent) to do the “right” thing. It will only happen when we develop policies (such as a carbon fee) which make each of us personally and financially accountable for the costs we impose on others and our planet.  Once a level playing field is established – meaning that an across-the- board per ton fee on carbon is factored into the price of everything we consume – there will be an incentive for all producers and providers to minimize the carbon cost and content of their product versus their competition.  

Summary:  I don’t pretend to possess complete knowledge about all the above issues. But I believe there is overwhelming evidence that many of the policies supported by well-intentioned citizens, whose values I share, will be counterproductive to achieving their desired result and will contradict the values of those who propose them. 

This is my New Year’s Wish: those of you, who advocate “politically correct” solutions to these very complex issues, examine your assumptions and respond with empirical data that supports your position. I think you will find this hard to do. 

If the above seems slanted to a critique of the left, it is, if only because the right seems oblivious to concerns about climate change and social equity and thus offers no potential solutions to critique. 

Let’s have the debate!

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