Cognitive Dissonance on Greenhouse Gases

In the year 1587, the famous "Lost Colony" of Roanoke disappeared creating a mystery that puzzled historians for many years. We now know it was the driest year of the past several centuries, meaning the colonists had no rain and could not grow crops to feed themselves. They were victims of climate change.

More in-depth studies of tree rings reveal that prolonged periods of drought were normal on this continent for ages. The last two centuries have been unusually wet, no one knows for certain why.

That is not to suggest that human activities are not a factor. Many civilizations have self-destructed by abusing the environment they depended upon for livelihood. There is a consensus among scientists today that the greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere are contributing to a warming trend that portends disaster for all forms of life, including humanity. There is a steady drumbeat of demands that our government take action to avert this calamity.

It was inevitable that the Obama administration would respond to this plea given its close connection to the environmental movement, but in doing so it has tripped over an issue that possibly evokes more cognitive dissonance than any other in public life today. We are all concerned about climate change but none of the proposed remedies -- including Obama's draconian assault on coal-fired electricity -- offers a plausible remedy.

The Washington Post underscored the point the key flaw of Obama's initiative. "It does not apply to the rest of the world." Indeed, it does not. According to an earlier report by the Environmental Protection Agency cited by The Wall Street Journal, if we shut down every one of our coal-fired power plants today, replacing them with zero carbon sources, it would reduce the Earth's temperature by about one-twentieth of a degree Fahrenheit in 100 years.

"But doing nothing is not an option," the Post said. Which calls to mind the ancient medical axiom of "First, do no harm." If pursuing a specific policy will not alleviate the environmental problem, and will inflict severe economic harm on millions of people, it amounts to a cure worse than the disease.

What we need is a multifaceted energy policy focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That policy would include a faster shift to natural gas, greater investment in "clean coal" technology, massive investments in renewable energy sources and most importantly -- a bipartisan commitment to enlist the American people in the cause. There are countless practical ways for citizens to reduce energy consumption that taken together will greatly mitigate our dependence on burning fossil fuels.

The time has come to break through the cognitive dissonance and come up with a coherent plan. The Post is right -- doing nothing is simply not a viable option. Let's hope this ill-conceived initiative stimulates creative thought about workable ways to deal with climate change and preserve our environment for future generations.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. June 2014