In a speech yesterday here in Washington, Al Gore challenged the United States to "produce every kilowatt of electricity through wind, sun, and other Earth-friendly energy sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable, and transformative." (Well, the goal is at least one of those things.) Gore compared the zero-carbon effort to the Apollo program. And the comparison would be economically apt if, rather than putting a man on the moon—which costs about $100 billion in today's dollars—President Kennedy's goal had been to build a massive lunar colony, complete with a casino where the Rat Pack could perform.
Gore's fantastic—in the truest sense of the word—proposal is almost unfathomably pricey and makes sense only if you think that not doing so almost immediately would result in an uninhabitable planet. Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens recently came out with a plan to generate 20 percent of America's power through wind. His estimate was that it would cost $1 trillion to build that capacity and another $200 billion to update our electrical grid to transmit that energy around the country. (And what would be the environmental impact of all those windmills dotting the countryside? Or solar panels covering our pristine deserts?)
By my math, using Pickens's numbers, converting the whole economy to renewable energy in a short period of time might cost $5 trillion—and that is if you assume that government-led projects come in on budget. (Remember, the current U.S. gross domestic product is $12 trillion.) That would be like creating another Japan. Or fighting World War II all over again. The latter analogy is especially apt since the Gore Plan would effectively transform our free-market economy into a command-and-control war economy full of rationing and scarcity. Of course, there are many folks like Gore who view global warming as the moral equivalent of war. But Gore would extend the concept into the economic equivalent of war. Again, all this makes sense if you think we are doomed otherwise.
This isn't the first time Gore has made a proposal with jaw-dropping economic consequences. Environmental economist William Nordhaus ran the numbers on Gore's idea to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2050. Nordhaus found that while such a plan would indeed reduce the maximum increase in global temperatures to between 1.3 and 1.6 degrees Celsius, it did so "at very high cost" of between $17 trillion and $22 trillion over the long term, as opposed to doing nothing. (Again, just for comparative purposes, the entire global economy is about $50 trillion.)
You know, when she was running for president, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she stated that climate change would make a "great organizing principle" for the economy. What Clinton and Gore miss is the opportunity cost of doing something else—anything else—with all that dough.