December 4, 2000

December 4, 2000 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Global Warming and Hot Air

How strong is the U.S. economy? One telling sign is that months of climbing gas prices have produced only grumbles from American motorists. But let's say prices start soaring again, until they surpass $3 or $4 a gallon. Would the complaints grow louder?

Of course they would. Which is why consumers ought to be glad that efforts to amend a treaty that would severely limit the "greenhouse gases" thought to fuel global warming went down in flames at a recent United Nations conference in The Hague.

Here's why: The treaty, widely known as the "Kyoto Protocol," would force industrialized nations such as the United States to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to levels below what they were 10 years ago. In the minds of many European officials, there's only one way Americans should do that: by slashing the amount of fossil fuels they burn - coal and oil, of course, being prime offenders.

But how do you get American consumers to do that? According to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, "the efficient way … is to provide market incentives to burn less carbon. The most straightforward policy would be an across-the-board carbon tax." How high? Krugman won't say, but it would have to be steep enough that most of us would be willing to use far less energy than we do now - and start junking our Jeep Cherokees and Ford Explorers for Geo Metros and Volkswagen Golfs.

Perhaps your concern for the environment is such that you consider this a good, if tough, solution - a small price to pay for saving the environment.

But is that what we'd be doing? In fact, many scientists admit that we can't be sure how much of an impact human activity has on global temperatures.

Many uncertainties surround even the theory of global warming. The conventional wisdom is that climate change can be explained as a simple cause-and-effect relationship: As greenhouse gases increase, so do average temperatures. Industrial activities pump these gases into the atmosphere, trigger warming, and invite environmental calamities.

But recent scientific research throws these assumptions into doubt. According to Dr. Kenneth Green, environmental director of the Reason Public Policy Institute:

"Our ability really to know what the climate is doing is limited by a short observational record and by the uncertainties involved in trying to figure out what the climate was like in the past or might be like in the future, for comparison with recent climate changes. While the Earth's climate has been evolving and changing for over four billion years, recordings of the temperature only cover about 150 years … In fact, temperature records are spotty before the 1950s and only cover a tiny portion of the globe mostly over land."

Yet, despite the immense void in data, warming is touted as scientific fact. This is partially the fault of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a 1995 report, the IPCC claimed a "discernable human impact on the climate system." Less widely reported was the report's conclusion - that "it should be clear ... that current data and systems are inadequate for the complete description of climate change."

Moreover, as technology improves, other variables that affect climate are better understood. These include cloud changes, "carbon sinks" (forests that soak up carbon dioxide), solar radiation and volcanic aerosols. The more we learn about the climate change process, the more existing climate change models are exposed as inadequate. The temperature change they predict is continually reduced as more information and better models become available.

Developed on the basis of spotty data and deeply flawed analytical models, the Kyoto treaty - if implemented - would produce only one certain result: severe harm to the U.S. economy. As Wall Street Journal columnist James Glassman has noted, "The U.S. could meet the Kyoto targets only by sharply increasing the price of fossil fuels. … [T]he growth of gross domestic product in the U.S. would be cut by more than half as businesses moved offshore to escape the high tax."

Although the Hague talks fell apart, the treaty isn't dead. The next meeting on the Protocol will take place in May. Let's hope the next administration realizes that the environment will be better served if the United States rejects the treaty's "command-and-control" approach and substitutes one that emphasizes market-based incentives such as low taxes and deregulation. This would spawn long-term improvements and new technologies that will do far more to reduce greenhouse gases than the flawed Kyoto Protocol.

Angela Antonelli was the former director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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