Opinion

Reihan Salam

Carbon isn’t just America’s problem

Reihan Salam
Jun 28, 2013 20:04 UTC

Canada has 35 million people. Africa has just over 1 billion. But rather remarkably, Canada consumes about as much energy as all of Africa, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Power Hungry, a provocative look at the global energy industry. As African economies grow, however, it is a safe bet that African energy consumption will grow with it, just as energy consumption has increased in China and India and around the world as hundreds of millions have escaped poverty. And that is the key challenge facing those who hope to do something about carbon emissions, including President Obama.

Despite the fact that less than a third of U.S. voters believe that climate policy ought to be a high priority, according to a Pew survey conducted in January, the president gave a sweeping climate policy address earlier this week. During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney tried to gain traction by claiming that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal,” a charge the president and his allies adamantly rejected. Yet there is no denying that President Obama has backed regulations that are making it more expensive to extract and burn coal, as Juliet Eilperin recently documented in the Washington Post. The really new development this week is that while the president had been working to make new coal plants unviable, he is now seeking to impose regulations on existing coal plants that will either lead to steep penalty payments or force premature shutdowns.

Though these steps are widely resented in coal country, they are accelerating a trend that has been driven in large part by the collapse in domestic natural gas prices, which in turn has been driven by a technological revolution in the development of shale gas resources. In 2012, the same year Romney and Obama were debating the war on coal, U.S. coal use fell by 12 percent. Not coincidentally, the International Energy Agency has reported that between 2006 and 2011, U.S. carbon emissions had fallen by 7.7 percent, the steepest reduction for any country or region in the world. To some extent, this decrease in emissions reflected a sluggish economy. But it also reflected the shale boom. The president’s war on coal is not without costs, and Republicans, particularly those representing coal states, will fight it vigorously. But for now, at least, it is a war that U.S. energy consumers can afford, and it will contribute to America’s ongoing decarbonization. The deeper challenge for the president and his allies is that while domestic coal use is declining, global coal use is increasing at a stunning pace.

Right now, global energy use is in the neighborhood of 1.5 exajoules per day, the energy equivalent of 250 million barrels of oil per day. Bryce makes this number easier to comprehend by comparing it to Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production of 8.2 million barrels per day. Rather than talk about 1.5 exajoules per day, he says that the world is now consuming 30 Saudi Arabias daily. And of these 30 Saudi Arabias, 26 are derived by hydrocarbons, including 10 from oil, nine from coal, and seven from natural gas. Hydropower accounts for two Saudi Arabias, nuclear accounts for 1.5, and non-hydro renewable energy accounts for no more than half of a Saudi Arabia.

But as countries around the world climb the economic ladder, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that global energy demand will, as Bryce puts it, increase by another 15 Saudi Arabias to reach a total of 45 Saudi Arabias. And if current trends hold, coal will play an enormous role in meeting this new demand. Unlike oil, coal is embedded around the world in relatively easy-to-access deposits. While there are shale gas resources in countries like China, the technology and the know-how needed to access it are not as readily available outside of the U.S. and a handful of other affluent countries, and so the fact that coal still has the upper hand should come as no surprise.

Pushing the immigration debate to the next level

Reihan Salam
Jun 21, 2013 17:08 UTC

It is often said that America is “a nation of immigrants.” But that’s not true in the strictest sense. As of the 2010 Census, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population was 12.9 percent, and so 87.1 percent of Americans that year were native-born non-immigrants. Granted, the nation of immigrants line tends to be used figuratively, to indicate that virtually all Americans come from somewhere else if you go back far enough. That includes the members of the indigenous communities that had settled in what is now the United States many centuries ago, and the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas against their will. Yet when we use nation of immigrants so loosely, it loses all meaning.

And when you compare the foreign-born share of the U.S. population to other countries, you soon realize that while the absolute number of immigrants living in the U.S. is very large, we’re nowhere near countries like tiny Qatar, where over three-quarters of the population consists of foreign-born individuals, most of whom are guest workers, or Canada, where the foreign-born share is a robust 20.6 percent. The U.S. is roughly in the same ballpark as countries like Germany and Sweden, which have become major destinations for immigrants only in recent decades.

So what would it mean for America’s foreign-born population to dramatically increase in the coming decades? That is the question we ought to be asking ourselves in light of the new Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate immigration bill. At first, many observers focused on CBO projecting that because the Senate immigration bill will tend to increase the U.S. working-age population while not increasing the number of retirees, at least not yet, it will tend to increase economic growth, raise tax revenues, and cut the deficit. Over the first decade, the CBO projects that deficits will decrease by $200 billion relative to the current law baseline, while they will decrease by $700 billion over the second decade.

Edward Snowden, model dropout

Reihan Salam
Jun 14, 2013 18:00 UTC

One of the more striking facts about Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who recently disclosed details concerning the National Security Agency’s various domestic surveillance programs, is that he is apparently a successful autodidact. After dropping out of high school, Snowden developed a very rigorous academic curriculum for himself, drawing on community college courses, online education programs and self-directed reading and programming. The fruit of these efforts was a lucrative job with an elite consulting firm, and a top secret clearance that gave him access to a treasure trove of state secrets.

Leaving aside the merits of Snowden’s decision to leak sensitive information to the press, his idiosyncratic educational experience points, however improbably, to a much brighter future for all young Americans, and indeed for anyone around the world hungry for knowledge.

After Snowden emerged on the national scene, a number of observers reacted with surprise, and in some cases dismay, at the fact that a high school dropout had found himself in such a sensitive position. Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer and New York Post columnist, has made several derisive references to Snowden’s dropout status, calling him, among other things, a “spoiled-brat, dropout Benedict Arnold” who deserves to be executed. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, suggested that Snowden’s failure to graduate from high school reflected a larger inability to navigate the mediating institutions of civil society, which teach us to make commitments to others and to restrain our passions. Brooks makes an important point. There is a great deal of value in completing high school, as it demonstrates a certain level of discipline and a willingness to work with others.

Absent fathers, not working mothers, limit student achievement

Reihan Salam
Jun 7, 2013 13:34 UTC

At a recent event sponsored by the Washington Post, Phil Bryant, the Republican governor of Mississippi, suggested that one reason for the mediocre performance of American students is that something went wrong when “both parents started working,” and specifically when “mom is in the workplace.” Not surprisingly, Bryant has been roundly condemned for supposedly condemning working mothers. Even at the time of his controversial remarks, however, he was careful to acknowledge that the rise of working mothers “is not a bad thing,” and that parents’ pursuit of careers is “a great American story.” Rather than blame working mothers, he simply observed that “in today’s society parents are just so challenged ‑ not just the mom, but the mom and the dad.” Bryant was trying to make a point, however clumsily, about the struggles working parents face in making time for their children, and his reward for doing so has been opprobrium from people who really ought to have listened to his entire statement.

I have my own objection to Bryant’s remarks, which is that he kept referring to the challenges facing two-parent, two-earner households. These challenges are real, as any harried married parent will tell you. But it is tough to argue that these households aren’t devoting enough time and energy to their children. For one thing, the median income of married-couple households is almost twice that of other households, in part because 59 percent of married-couple households are two-earner households. Money isn’t everything, to be sure, but it is certainly something, and married parents have substantially more of it than single parents.

Moreover, as the economists Garey Ramey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California-San Diego have found, married mothers and fathers spend substantially more time with their children now than they did in the mid-1990s, and this increase has been twice as great for college-educated as it has been for non-college-educated parents. If Bryant is right that making time for your children is important, and I’m pretty sure he is right, parents in two-earner households have been taking this idea to heart for almost 20 years, often at the expense of earning additional income.

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