June 14, 2001 | Commentary on Energy and Environment
It would have been easy for President Bush to avoid the slings and arrows.
He didn't have to say in March that the United States wouldn't implement the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. No other industrialized nation has ratified the agreement, and none seems likely to in the near future.
He could have said nothing or, better still, mumbled something about taking it under consideration, and his meeting with European leaders would have taken on an entirely different tone. He could have forestalled their lectures on American imperialism and their calls for the United States to drastically reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.
Yes, it would have been easier to skip over Kyoto, but it wouldn't have been right. Because, despite a lot of hot air to the contrary, the Kyoto Protocol is bad policy -- not only for the United States but even for the anti-global warming movement.
For one thing, the treaty's unfair. It would force the United States and other developed countries to make deep emissions cuts but would exempt developing nations, including Brazil, India and China, three of the world's leading polluters. Ironically, though -- thanks to population increases, economic expansion and a growing reliance on carbon-based fuels -- within 15 years these nations will be emitting more greenhouse gases than the major industrialized nations do today, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Another problem with Kyoto is that it would stick consumers with a huge price tag. A study by the American Council for Capital Formation shows that attempting to comply with its emissions standards would cause gasoline prices to climb by at least another 30 percent. Electricity rates to rise by 50 percent to 80 percent. Somehow I don't think the folks in California are anxious to watch their utility bills soar yet again.
But it's not just energy. U.S. productivity would plunge anywhere from $100 billion to $400 billion under the treaty because its emission mandates would force a dramatic contraction in economic output. Workers could expect to see wages shrink and living standards fall. A study by the Washington-based Global Climate Coalition found that more than 2 million Americans, most of them in the low- and moderate-income brackets, would lose their jobs
But even if we're willing to slip our economic necks in the noose, we have to face the fact that the treaty is based on findings that many scientists say are questionable. One study, for example -- conducted by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies -- suggests carbon dioxide may not be the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, even though carbon-dioxide reduction is holy writ as far as treaty advocates are concerned.
Even a new report from the National Academy of Sciences voices serious doubt. It admits to "considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases." It says warnings about the "magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward)." Contrary to recent media reports, this hardly qualifies as an endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol.
Bottom line: The science is still very uncertain. And we're supposed to blame President Bush for refusing to drive our economy into a ditch over a problem that may not even exist?
Rather than lecture President Bush on his sensible decision to shelve Kyoto, world leaders should embrace his calls for further study. After all, what are Kyoto proponents afraid of? That further study will prove them wrong?
Europeans have been quick to castigate President Bush for rejecting a treaty that would hurt his country (and ultimately the world), even though not one European nation has ratified Kyoto. It's easy for European leaders to preen in front of their green constituencies and condemn America for failing to support something they know won't take effect.
It's easy, just as it would have been easy for President Bush to voice support for the treaty knowing even the now-Democratic Senate would never ratify it. But it wouldn't have been right. And they know it.