Newsweek’s Cover Story: How the Tail Wagged the Dog

Newsweek‘s cover story, by Sharon Begley and three colleagues, purports to be an expose of the global-warming “denial machine” and how it keeps America Kyoto-free.

The Clinton Administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol but never submitted it to the Senate for a debate and vote on ratification. Why not? Newsweek says “denial” groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute were too influential. Begley and company are correct to this extent. Groups like CEI made it impossible for policy makers to ignore Kyoto’s dreadful cost-benefit ratio.

In 1998, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a key climate adviser to Vice President Al Gore, published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters assessing Kyoto’s potential impacts on global temperatures and sea level rise. Wigley calculated that even if all industrial countries, including the United States, limit their emissions to the Kyoto target (roughly 5 percent below 1990 levels), and do so in perpetuity (no mean feat, since global energy demand, driven by economic and population growth, is growing rapidly), this would avert only 0.07C of global warming and only 1 centimeter of sea level rise by 2050. Such minuscule results would be too small for scientists to detect.

Also in 1998, the Energy Information Administration published a study of Kyoto’s potential impacts on U.S. energy markets and the economy. EIA concluded that Kyoto could lower GDP by tens to hundreds of billions of dollars annually, depending on the extent of emissions trading and other variables.

In short, the leading scientific and economic assessments published in 1998 revealed that Kyoto was all pain for no gain. Clinton’s decision not to seek ratification of Kyoto was the right decision on the merits.

Would Clinton have pushed for Kyoto ratification if groups like CEI had kept mum and policy makers had to depend on Newsweek to learn about the Wigley and EIA studies? We will never know.

This much — for want of a better word — is undeniable: The resources wielded by pro-Kyoto advocacy groups vastly exceed those of pro-market groups like CEI. Newsweek misses the real point of the story: The tail cannot wag the dog unless the merits of the argument favor the tail.