Fox's Global Warming Fix: “The Free Market, Cleaning Up Our Air”

A new report from the Energy Information Administration finds that U.S. carbon emissions are at a 20-year low, in part because energy companies are transitioning from coal to natural gas. Fox is seizing on that news to claim that “the free market [is] cleaning up our air,” and that the current availability of cheap natural gas undermines the need for government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But experts say that a variety of factors contributed to the emissions drop, and that shifting to natural gas is not a long-term solution to climate change.

The Energy Information Administration announced earlier this month that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in early 2012 were the lowest measured for a January-March period since 1992. The report attributed the decline to a combination of three factors: reduced household heating demand during an unusually warm winter, a decline in coal generation due to low natural gas prices, and low gasoline demand as a result of a slowed economy and the shift towards more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Source: Energy Information Administration

But Fox is ignoring the confluence of factors and touting the decline as a triumph of the free market. A Fox Nation headline today declared: “Free Enterprise Makes the Air Cleaner.” On Varney & Company, Fox Business contributor Charles Payne said: “The free market, cleaning up our air. Says a lot about the free market, doesn't it?” And on Money with Melissa Francis, Fox Business reporter Tracy Byrnes called the EIA report “proof that free markets can work better than government overregulation.” Byrnes went on to ask her guest why carbon dioxide emissions -- which are not “poisonous” or “inflammable” -- are even a problem in the first place: 

An Investor's Business Daily editorial today echoed these arguments, saying that "[t]he free market, it seems, does it better than the EPA." It added that "[f]racking will save the earth before anything like cap-and-trade or the Kyoto Protocol -- an inconvenient truth indeed for environmentalists."

But switching to natural gas is "no panacea for climate change," according to Nobuo Tanaka, the director of the International Energy Agency. A 2011 IEA report stated that the emissions reductions achieved by switching to natural gas alone would not be sufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change:

When replacing other fossil fuels, natural gas can lead to lower emissions of greenhouse gases and local pollutants. However, the high gas scenario shows carbon emissions consistent with a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5°C. A path towards 2°C would still require a greater shift to low-carbon energy sources, increased energy efficiency and deployment of new technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could reduce emissions from gas-fired plants.

For these reasons, climate expert Roger Pielke Jr. told the Associated Press, “Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem.”

Furthermore, while cheap natural gas has led to reduced coal consumption in the U.S., coal production has remained steady to keep up with rising demand in Asia. As a result, New Scientist explained, “the US is effectively exporting the coal-related emissions,” thus canceling out any global environmental benefits.

And while Fox declares the global warming problem solved, LiveScience notes that rising global temperatures may soon reverse this recent emissions decline:

However, one of the other factors behind the drop in emissions -- the unusual weather -- may mean this trend won't continue.

Six months from now, when all the energy data from this past summer is available, it's likely this summer saw higher carbon dioxide emissions than the past couple of summers, [Lawrence Livermore National Lab's A.J.] Simon said. The reason, the power needed to keep much of the nation cool during a summer that featured the warmest month on record -- July --for the continental United States.

This may represent an even longer-term trend, he said.

Climate scientists expect global warming to bring more extreme weather, including more hot days and more heat waves.