White House Wobbles on Warming?

Rumor around Washington has it that the White House is about to change its long-established policy on global warming. It is hard to see why the Bush administration would contemplate such a move, but whatever the reasons, there will be little gain in what is at best a meaningless gesture and at worst an albatross around the economy’s neck.Contrary to climate alarmists’ rhetoric, the existing policy is not based on a belief that global warming is not real; it is real, and the administration has said so repeatedly. Rather, the policy recognizes the damage that climate change mitigation strategies — which in practice would mean higher energy prices and drastic cutbacks in affordable energy use — would have on the U.S. economy. The U.S. Senate endorsed this stance when it passed the 1997 Byrd-Hagel resolution by a 95-0 vote, scaring Bill Clinton and Al Gore away from submitting the Kyoto Protocol for ratification once they had signed it to the adulation of the world.Yet now the nation’s capital is abuzz with talk that the White House plans to adopt some form of mitigation strategy — either a cap-and-trade scheme whereby industries have to purchase the right to emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), including carbon dioxide (CO2), but can sell credits for cuts in emissions; or the adoption of some long-term target for stabilizing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, which have been rising since the Industrial Revolution. As noted, these will require cutbacks in affordable energy use and will result in higher energy prices, including a reversal of the recent drop in the price of gasoline. That is because carbon dioxide is integral to generating the energy that makes modern civilization possible. As an article in the journal Science noted in 2002, “The fossil fuel greenhouse effect is an energy problem that cannot simply be regulated away.”So what is the White House thinking? Certainly not about a meaningful reduction in the rate of global warming. It is well established that the Kyoto Protocol, even if fully implemented by all signatories, would reduce expected warming by just 0.07°C by 2050. Greenhouse gas concentrations would continue to rise. The “Kyoto Lite” measures repeatedly rejected by Congress — such as the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act — would do even less. Furthermore, major developing nations like China and India have repeatedly said that they will accept no limits on their emissions, and will likely overtake the U.S. as the world’s greatest emitters sooner rather than later, especially if European industry outsources there as a result of onerous European Union regulations.Moreover, even those countries that have put Kyoto into effect are not seeing significant emissions reductions. Most Western European nations are way above their Kyoto targets, hoping that Britain and Germany will bale them out. Since 1997, when Kyoto was negotiated, all the Western European nations, Japan, and Canada have seen increases in emissions. Kyoto can’t even deliver the tiny reduction in warming it promised.So the White House’s real intention cannot be to counter global warming. Perhaps then it seeks to wean America off its “addiction” to oil — which the president denounced in last January’s State of the Union address — in the hope that reducing fossil fuel-use will weaken terrorist-supporting states. Yet the foreign states that are believed to support terror are also those that produce oil the cheapest. A reduction in America’s oil demand will hurt not those states, but nations like Canada and Nigeria, which will be unable to compete as the price of oil declines.Yet it is hard to see how government regulations could reduce significantly America’s oil demand. In 1998, the Energy Information Administration declared that, in order to reduce automobile emissions to the levels needed to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, the price of gasoline would need to rise to about $2 a gallon. Of course, we passed that mark long ago and the American public continues to drive more than it ever has. In Europe, auto emissions continue to rise despite the cost of gas being at $6 to $7 a gallon. Economic simulations appear to have severely overestimated the effect of the price signal in deterring personal travel — which in turn means that estimates of costs to the economy as a whole from GHG mitigation policies are probably far too low.So it is unlikely that the new policy will reduce oil demand. What, then, of the idea that the White House is concerned with the president’s legacy? As just explained, the policy will almost certainly be unsuccessful, even if the goal set is very long-term. Thus, we are left with the unpleasant conclusion that the only motivation is political — an effort to take an issue “off the table” for the forthcoming midterm elections. Yet this or any proposal from this administration is unlikely to quiet climate alarmists. The Sierra Club reacted to the rumor that the White House might set a goal of stabilizing concentrations at 450 ppm by 2106 by saying, “We’ve got to make 450 [ppm] by mid-century, not next century,” adding that the administration’s plan “would not stave off the worst impacts of global warming.”Conceding a point like this does not take the issue off the table. Rather, it emboldens the opposition to make even more of the issue, castigating inadequate plans while pointing out that the other side has accepted the basic principles of their argument.Let us hope that the rumors are indeed just rumors — or, if they were ever more than that, that such a policy was shot down for any or all of the reasons outlined above. Above all, at a time when gas prices are finally falling, it seems politically unwise to advocate policies that will push the price up again. So what is the White House thinking?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />