Blame It On Rio

Blame It On Rio

Horner Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
February 21, 2002

It was ten years ago this spring that President George H.W. Bush took a step that began a slide down the long path toward energy rationing. It was barely ten days ago that his son, President George W. Bush, took an equally large stride in that unfortunate direction. During the heat of the 1992 political campaign, an ambitious Senator from Tennessee traveled to the World Environment Summit in Rio de Janeiro, demanding to know "Where's George?!" There the world had gathered to moralize against the usual suspects, such as too many (other) people using too many resources. At this conference, numerous feel-good but dangerous agreements emerged, including "Agenda 21", which, despite some humanist rhetoric, was about as anti-people as we're likely to see in the light of day. But possibly the worst such frivolity was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- UNFCCC, or the "Rio treaty". At the time, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu hailed its call for significant reductions in "greenhouse gases" (GHGs, or energy use emissions) as a victory. The reason? The reductions would be "voluntary" not mandatory. This, he believed, was a victory for prudence over hasty action. Well, anti-growth advocates may be a lot of things, but they aren't stupid. With the U.S. having conceded the need for action, but only agreeing to voluntary steps, nearly overnight the world called us on that straddle and demanded mandatory cuts. Thus was born the Kyoto Protocol, as an amendment to the (signed and unanimously ratified) UNFCCC. Before Kyoto could get too far, however, the electoral fates intervened, this time for the better in the form of the current president Bush. And the U.S. (rhetorically, but not de jure) "abandoned" Kyoto. But this was short-lived victory for common sense on climate change. Just under a year after reaffirming his campaign pledge against Kyoto, and vowing not to regulate carbon dioxide, President Bush proposed "voluntary" GHG cuts and a carbon-trading (buying) scheme. This step again dignified the idea that something must be done to lower energy use emissions, but now in the context of a domestic program. As President Bush's own talking points admit, this means reducing energy use. There is no reason not to believe that, as Rio was to Kyoto, Bush's "voluntary" proposal will be to actual energy rationing. Such GHG suppression comes through taxes or hidden taxes in the form of a cap-and-trade program. Again, all to satisfy those easily swayed by environmental alarmism. Most folks saw what they wanted to see in the current Bush proposal. The greens were shrill in their denouncements, quickly zipping off fundraising appeals. Moralizing officials of (non-Kyoto-ratifying) European governments, such as German Environment Minister and Green Party leader Juergen Trittin, "welcome[d] the fact that with this program President Bush has recognized the need for measures to tackle climate change." In other words, they exploited Bush having dignified eco-alarmism. Such capitulation by the White House only makes doing the right thing in the future that much harder. And Washington's establishment-types played true to form as well, exhibiting behavior that, along with sloppy reporting, enables inane policies to advance to the serious stage. Industry parties directly affected by the proposals, particularly utility groups, fearfully offered lukewarm support for a program they privately disparage. This is so as to not lose the treasured "access" that this White House churlishly denies when criticized. Yet how valuable is access if it fails to impede such a regrettable proposal, specifics of which Bush's "allies" learned after the media? It must be too alluring for power-proximity junkies to forsake the ability to rakishly drop "I was at the White House today…". This whole scheme, begun in earnest one decade ago, will likely end badly. Appeasement-minded players may deserve what they get, but the effects will be felt down the economic ladder, most greatly harming seniors and the poor. Energy taxes -- be they direct or "cap-and-trade" -- are highly regressive. That is why such policies deserve enhanced scrutiny. Instead, we are offered a mishmash of policy straddles and dodges that still add up to decreased competitiveness, lowered standard of living, and increased suffering.