So, Obama plans to implement an auction-based carbon cap-and-trade system so onerous that it would bankrupt anybody that tried to build a coal fired plant. Not to worry, however, he will use the proceeds of the auction to fund alternative energy sources. [video, transcript] [h/t Instapundit]
Obama’s plan drives home a trait of leftists that I have noticed for several years: They do not seem to distinguish between altering human behavior (which requires nothing but the willingness to use force) and creating new viable technology (which depends on the laws of nature). In other words, they believe that if you have the will to create something, then can force people to create it.
In this case, this trait leads Obama to set policy based on the assumption that he can order the creation of new, non-carbon-emitting power sources as easily as he can order the shutting down of coal plants.
We’ll, he can’t. It’s easy to destroy and threaten but it is very difficult to create.
Shutting down coal plants requires nothing more than a political consensus which will generate laws that will prevent people from operating the plants. The actual physical acts and knowledge required amount to little more than persuasive debate and signing a few papers. Indeed, if some bizarre set of circumstances required it, a president could order troops into every coal plant in the country and take them all offline in a matter of hours. Obama’s plan represents a slower and more deliberate method, but obviously if we muster the collective will to shut down coal plants we can, without any doubt whatsoever, shut them down.
We cannot, however, will the creation of a new technology with an arbitrary set of characteristics. Just because we want a non-carbon-emitting, non-radioactive, non-polluting, decentralized and cheap alternative technology to coal plants does not mean that we can actually create that technology.
Firstly, the laws of nature restrict the range of possible technologies. Just because we can imagine a perpetual motion machine doesn’t mean we can build one. Secondly, even if the laws of nature allow a technology to exist, we must possess sufficient understanding of the laws of nature to even begin to develop the technology. Just because we need to know something doesn’t mean we actually know it. Thirdly, we use technology to create technology so we can only create new technology that we can build with our current technology. Even if we can imagine a hypothetical technology consistent with the laws of nature, we may lack the tools to create it.
Of course, we can use political will to increase our scientific knowledge and to improve the tools we use to build other technology, but when we will ourselves down that road, we don’t know where exactly we will end up or how long it will take us to get there. Look back at history at what technology people thought possible. Look at how optimistic people were about nuclear power in the ’50s. If politicians could snap their fingers and order the creation of any technology they wanted, we’d all have atomic powered flying cars sitting in our driveways.
Obama’s confusion between altering human behavior and creating technology is doubly dangerous because no direct feedback exists between shutting down existing plants and creating a replacement technology. Nothing in the cap-and-trade system links the cost of emissions credits to the availability of alternative power. We could easily shut down or cripple our coal-based power production for years or decades before practical alternative power sources came online.
Obama does not understand that alternative energy can’t replace coal just because he wants it to. That’s a dangerous blind spot for someone in his position to have.