U.S. President George W. Bush has announced his opposition to an international global-warming treaty, citing the harm it could do the U.S. economy and the costs it would impose upon its workers. Predictably, this decision not to pursue approval of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change generated a firestorm of criticism around the world.
Given the outcry, it would seem that there are few arguments to support the American position. This is incorrect.
The Kyoto Protocol would require 38 developed nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants by 5 percent between 1990 and 2010. Achieving this goal would require government interventions to control greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce the use of carbon-based fuels, including the imposition of new transnational interventions.
Bush’s suggestion that there is an “incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change” is neither an understatement nor a reflection of ignorance. There are differences between the conclusions drawn by climate experts, even those who accept that greenhouse-gas emissions can cause global warming.
For example, there are discrepancies in the temperature trends between the surface of the earth and the atmosphere. And even if there is now a spell of warming, the question remains whether real climate variation over the long term is within the pattern of natural variability.
In making the claim that the 20th century has been the warmest in the past 1,000 years, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s summary combines data sets that are like apples and oranges. Data derived from tree rings that indicate a stable climate from 1000 to 1900 are added to surface-based thermometer data collected for the 20th century. Such data masquerading as conclusive evidence of dramatic warming over the current century would be rejected in a high-school statistics class.
Using tree rings to garner information about past temperature variations ignores other conditions that might affect growing seasons. Rainfall and atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations affect tree growth as much as temperature does. And the sample is biased since most of the data come from Northern Hemisphere countries and from urban “heat islands” or airports.
These continued controversies have kept the IPCC from ratifying and releasing a final report. As it is, most of the documents released to date conatin many caveats to the cataclysmic global-warming scenario that have escaped those who seem to rely upon executive summaries or selective reading.
The IPCC released a Second Assessment Report in 1995 that offered a prediction that warming would range from 1 degree C to 3.5 C by the year 2100. It included a “best estimate” that warming would raise temperatures by 2 C by 2100.
Without citing new evidence to justify such a dramatic change, the Third Assessment Report offered an increase in the warming estimate ranging from 1.4 C to 5.8 C. It reflects a tweaking of the computer-generated climate models by changing assumptions about population and economic growth as well as fossil-fuels use. But it ignores the rapid advances in technologies to curb emissions.
Even if there is some uncertainty about climate change and human contributions, some policymakers demand that “precautionary” measures be taken that would reduce further risk of global warming. But there is no way to know whether the costs of the proposed steps exceed the benefits to the environment unless the proposed measures reduce the risks of man-made climate change or reduce the costs of emission abatements designed to achieve the same goal.
However, there are concrete risks that Kyoto-based policies could slow down the pace of economic and technological advance. Instead of inventing new intrusive regulations overseen by an increase in expensive bureaucrats, governments should seek to remove those existing interventions that contribute to problems with fossil-fuel consumption.
A good start might involve deregulation to reduce greenhouse gases. For example, government subsidies in many developing countries distort energy markets and contribute to over-consumption of fossil fuels. Governments also maintain inefficient electricity monopolies and impose regulations that impede innovation in the energy sector.
Regulations that currently prevent airlines from using the most cost-effective and energy-efficient routes cause them to burn more fuel in the upper atmosphere. And government support of national air carriers encourages oversupply of flights. There are also regulatory barriers in other transportation sectors that retard efficiency gains in road construction and management that could yield substantial emission reductions.
An alternative to government interventions is to have market-based emission reductions and discourage the adoption of lower-emission technologies. Another way to address these problems is to increase innovation in the energy sector to boost energy efficiency. Instead of hindering economic growth and innovation with more regulation, there should be steps that reduce barriers to the emergence of creative energies as the basis for innovation and the ability to cope with environmental disasters. Economic growth, market institutions and technological advance can serve as more effective insurance against future uncertainties than intrusive government regulations and energy-deprivation policies.
Although the White House declared that the treaty was not in the best interest of the United States, it should also have pointed out that it might not best serve the interests of the rest of the world either.
On the one hand, it represents a diminution of national sovereignty by an international accord that was not democratically endorsed. On the other hand, developing countries face less stringent controls than advanced economies. Such differences would give some countries an unfair competitive edge.
Bush’s requirement that there be better scientific evidence before invoking the Kyoto requirements is also guided by the high potential for government actions to be harmful. Those who support increased intrusions overlook evidence over the millennia that government bureaucrats are seldom efficient and do not always serve the interests of the communities they are meant to protect. In this sense, Bush is merely imposing a higher standard before accepting increased regulation.
Consider for a moment that the Kyoto Protocol could be flawed. If there are better approaches to reducing emissions, these should be considered. Let’s reduce the rhetoric and begin a meaningful dialogue over this vexing problem.
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