September 29, 2007
By Ben Lieberman
Global warming is a complex issue to figure out, but one thing
about it is actually quite simple -- discerning which side
dominates the debate right now. For the past year, those who view
global warming as a crisis justifying a major federal response have
had just about everything going in their favor.
Granted, the Bush administration continues to resist first-ever
mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, but
the Democratically controlled Congress has introduced a number of
so-called cap-and-trade bills to do just that. Some of them have
bipartisan support. And many of the leading presidential candidates
have endorsed these efforts.
Several other factors, including a recent Supreme Court decision
compelling the Environmental Protection Agency to consider global
warming measures, as well as state and local efforts to bypass the
feds and impose their own controls, all seem to be forcing
Meanwhile, the opposition to cap and trade seems to be collapsing.
The owners of the nation's coal-fired power plants, manufacturing
facilities, and oil companies -- until recently the most
politically powerful holdouts -- have largely given up the fight.
Most now see some form of fossil-fuel rationing as inevitable, and
several are actually lobbying for cap-and-trade legislation in the
hope that they can shape it to their advantage.
Of course, the driving force behind all of this is the steady
stream of gloomy claims about global warming. Most recently, the
U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report
received widespread coverage as the smoking-gun evidence that
mankind is warming the planet to dangerously high levels. Al Gore's
Academy Award-winning movie and accompanying bestseller, An
Inconvenient Truth, has also done much to hammer home the
The drumbeat continues as virtually every natural disaster that
occurs-- from storms, to droughts, to floods, to wildfires, to
disease outbreaks-- gets pinned on global warming. Even normal
summer temperatures sometimes get alarmist ink.
The frightening coverage has clearly shaped public opinion.
Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans want their
government to do something about warming.
Taking all of this into account, there's no question that
global-warming activists currently have the momentum. But momentum
can change, and on this issue there are reasons to believe it soon
will. It may well be that the prospects for the cap-and-trade bills
are peaking -- before being enacted into law -- and will begin to
fall once as the following factors come into focus.
China's Great Leap Forward on
A central part of the climate-change message has been the
demonization of America as the world's top global-warming culprit.
But that will soon change, as China is close to surpassing the U.S.
and becoming the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses. When this
shift happens it will have tremendous practical as well as symbolic
significance, and it will dim the appeal of unilateral U.S.
It is important to note that China isn't slowly edging past
America; it is roaring ahead. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the
byproduct of fossil-fuel combustion and the greenhouse gas of
greatest concern, are exploding along with China's economy. New
coal-fired power plants are reportedly being added in China at the
rate of about one per week, and these facilities are less efficient
and higher-emitting than their western counterparts. According to
the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which believes
China has already surpassed America, emissions in China rose
9-percent in 2006, on top of a 12-percent increase in 2005.
Meanwhile, America's emissions have been growing much more slowly,
averaging little more than 1-percent per year. They actually
declined by 1.3-percent in 2006, according to the Department of
The U.S. was easily the biggest emitter during the 20th century,
but future carbon-dioxide emissions will come less from American
sources, and more from Chinese ones. Even if the U.S. saddled
itself with economy-damaging energy constraints, it would barely
begin to offset China's projected increases. But so far, China has
adamantly refused to agree to any controls, arguing that economic
growth is their top priority. Other fast-growing developing nations
have said the same thing.
Thus, notwithstanding questions about the seriousness of the
global-warming problem, any bills that single out U.S. emissions
will be a fast-shrinking part of the solution. As China's emissions
race ahead of ours, Americans will begin to realize that unilateral
action is not the way to go.
The Failing Kyoto Protocol
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the multilateral global-warming treaty,
is still being touted as a great success. The Western European
governments that signed onto the treaty continue to congratulate
themselves for doing so while criticizing America for staying out.
Most climate activists here convey the same message. They hope to
convince Washington to make up for lost time by enacting one of the
Kyoto-like cap-and-trade bills currently under consideration.
But far from being a model to emulate, Kyoto is proving to be a
near-complete failure, and over time it is going to get more
difficult to conceal this fact.
For all their rhetoric, the European nations are well off track of
Kyoto's requirement that emissions be 8-percent below 1990 levels
starting in 2008. Official European emissions data shows that
nearly every one of these countries has higher
carbon-dioxide emissions today than when the treaty was signed in
1997, and the emissions increases show no signs of leveling off.
The same is true of Canada, Japan, and other major non-European
signatories. In fact, most of these countries are seeing their
emissions rising faster than those in the U.S.
Pro-Kyoto Protocol activists and the media continue to heap praise
on the treaty for its carbon-emissions goals, but they rarely
explore the obvious question of whether these goals are actually
being met. But the failure to reduce emissions can't remain a
secret for much longer. Once Kyoto reality sets in, it will deal a
blow both to the treaty itself and to any congressional efforts to
mimic its approach.
The High Costs to Cool The Planet
The reason Kyoto Protocol signatories are not reducing their
emissions is that doing so is proving to be prohibitively costly.
These nations are learning the hard way what the Bush
administration has understood all along -- that attempts to rapidly
force down the fossil-fuel use that provides the backbone of modern
economies will be very expensive. As costs enter into the debate,
they could well prove to be a game changer.
While inundating the public with scary stories about global
warming's effects, the proponents of cap-and-trade have thus far
said little about the costs of combating the threat--and for good
reasons. Their agenda would inflict serious and noticeable economic
pain long before it would have even a modest impact on the earth's
future temperature. Kyoto's provisions, if fully implemented, would
have cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars annually from
higher energy prices, but would, according to proponents, avert
only 0.07 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2050.
Given the Kyoto Protocol's small impact on warming, many
proponents believe that the treaty should be just a first step
towards much stronger controls. But, as the European experience is
showing, even this first step is proving too costly and
It should be noted that the surveys indicating public support for
action on warming also show that the support quickly turns into
opposition if the measures taken would raise energy prices
appreciably. This is especially true for gasoline prices, and on
this point the European experience is worth noting. A European
Environment Agency report found that greenhouse-gas emissions from
motor vehicles continue to rise due to increased driving, despite
punitively high European gasoline taxes that push the overall price
well above $6 per gallon. In fact, increased vehicle emissions are
a big part of the reason most Western European countries are going
to miss their Kyoto targets. If $6 per gallon is not high enough to
discourage driving and meet Europe's global-warming targets, then
what will it take here? Americans, who get angry enough over $3
gas, will want answers to this and other economic questions before
they buy into any climate policy.
A realistic discussion about costs can't be sidestepped much
longer. Once it commences, it has the potential to greatly sap the
momentum for these bills.
Bursting the Climate Fear Bubble
In the last year or so, the coverage of climate science has
gotten more apocalyptic in tone. This is not so much a change in
the underlying science as a change in the way it is being
communicated to the public. The cap-and-trade proponents have
cranked up the gloom and doom for a reason -- they essentially had
to. The issue in the U.S. was dead in the water without it.
Previous efforts to move cap-and-trade bills had been easily
defeated, and proponents needed to shake things up. For now, it is
But fear is two-edged sword. It can be used to whip up support for
action over the near term, but it is hard to sustain for long,
especially if it is not well supported by fact. Eventually it could
lead to a backlash. Indeed, the global-warming doomsayers may well
prove to be their own worst enemy, with their credibility taking a
tumble along with the prospects for cap-and-trade
One over-utilized source, employed in spreading this kind of fear,
is supposedly rock-solid "scientific consensus" on global warming,
a consensus that has significant outer limits. Virtually everything
the public has been told about global warming that sounds
terrifying is not true and lies outside that consensus. And what is
true and fully accepted by most scientists really isn't
Consider the two scariest and most attention-grabbing claims from
An Inconvenient Truth -- rising sea levels and
deadlier hurricanes. Gore devotes considerable attention to the
horrible consequences of an 18- to 20-foot rise in sea level over
an unspecified time frame, including computer graphics showing
major parts of coastal cities like New York and San Francisco and
even entire regions, like South Florida, under water. Yet the IPCC
report (which Gore considers to be the gold standard of consensus
science) projects an increase of 7 to 23 inches
over the next century. The lower end of that range is about what
has occurred -- without serious consequences -- over the last two
centuries. Of course, the public doesn't closely follow the details
of global-warming science, but the disjunction between hype and
reality is so big that even casual observers can smell a rat.
In addition, Gore couldn't resist exploiting Hurricane Katrina,
America's deadliest natural disaster in years. He blames global
warming for the storm that claimed over 1,000 lives in August 2005,
driving home the message with image after image of post-Katrina
devastation. Gore asserts that Katrina portends a dangerous new era
where deadlier storms are more common. But how then to explain the
2006 hurricane season, which was unusual only in how little
hurricane damage occurred?
Global warming or not, we will get our share of hurricanes. But if
we go yet another year without anything as bad as Katrina, the
public may realize, quite rightly, that Gore simply engaged in
opportunism, and that no global warming-induced pattern of deadlier
hurricanes exists. If people start to feel that they have been lied
to about these and other global-warming catastrophe scenarios, it
could spell the end for cap-and-trade legislation.
The current Congress has pledged to make a go of enacting
cap-and-trade legislation, actually pegging it as a top priority
when they took over in January. But beyond holding innumerable
hearings on pending bills, the House and Senate have done little
since, except put off their initial deadlines for action. This may
be a first sign that their momentum is slowing. And with the
current trends currently pushing their way into the debate, things
are not going to get any easier for them in the months and years
Ben Lieberman is
senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic
Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online
Global warming is a complex issue to figure out, but one thing about it is actually quite simple — discerning which side dominates the debate right now. For the past year, those who view global warming as a crisis justifying a major federal response have had just about everything going in their favor.
Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
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