For the nonscientists among us—and even for the scientists—much of the debate over global warming is what Yul Brynner’s King of Siam famously termed "a puzzlement." After all, in order to participate in the policy discussion that is, if I may be permitted a pun, heating up, we also need to know whether the planet we inhabit is actually getting hotter. Unfortunately, we just don’t know. True, weather data drawn from earth stations show a definite warming trend. But, alas, weather data drawn from satellite readings show just the opposite. It seems that the Earth’s average surface temperatures have increased by 0.3 to 0.6 degrees Celsius since the later years of the nineteenth century, but average temperatures at moderate altitudes have decreased slightly since 1979, when satellite data of this sort were first gathered.
The problem of understanding the weather data is compounded by the fact that nonpartisan sources of analysis seem to be unavailable. Certainly, we cannot look to the Clinton administration for much help. The White House is fond of referring us to data for the very long term and for claiming that the earth has warmed substantially since around 1500 AD. This latter statement is true, I am told. Unfortunately, it uses as its base year a mini-ice age that lasted approximately 450 years and led to crop failures and famine throughout Europe. To have warmed since people and crops were freezing hardly seems a bad thing. (For more on this aspect of the matter, see "Global Warming—Boon for Mankind?", by Dennis T. Avery, in the Spring 1998 issue of American Outlook.)
There are worse problems with the available information. Both sets of temperature data—ground level and satellite—are flawed, and scientists on opposite sides of the dispute have written learned papers defending their measurements and attacking those of their opponents. Like the politicians who will have to formulate policy, the rest of us simply cannot adjudicate that dispute. But we can reach two important conclusions. First, contentions that the earth is warming are subject to dispute, as are contentions that any warming trend that is indeed discernible is clearly the consequence of human activity.
We cannot be certain that there is a worldwide warming trend, for the reasons stated earlier. And we cannot be certain that the culprit, if there is one, is human activity and, more precisely, the burning of fossil fuels. For it seems that such warming as is exhibited in the data occurred largely before the widespread use of the automobile and other modern devices that rely on fossil fuels.
In short, it is definitely not the case, as the President, Vice President, and control-hungry international bureaucrats would have us believe, that the scientific issue is settled, with all reputable scientists convinced that we are in for a hot time unless we change our ways. In fact, as noted earlier, there are able scientists on both sides of the argument.
Which brings us to our second conclusion: absence of scientific certainty is no excuse for refusing to develop policies. In most fields these days, policymakers have to make decisions in the face of conflicting expert advice. Physical scientists are no more unanimous in their views on most issues than are the social scientists on whose conflicting conclusions we base decisions on everything from the level of interest rates to the impact of various incentives on the length of the welfare rolls. If the earth is, in fact, warming, failure to act would be irresponsible, if cost-effective actions are possible. If, on the other hand, there is no problem, to incur huge costs to combat the imaginary threat would be equally irresponsible.
In the case of global climate change—as, indeed, in many other policy issues—we must face the fact that the policy argument is merely the surface manifestation of a much more profound disagreement about how the world works and how it should work. It is no exaggeration to contend that the debate over environmental issues in general (and the global warming dispute in particular) is perhaps the most deeply ideological of any debate since the welfare state was established over the objections of those who believed in much more limited central government. The global warming debate is a proxy for several other issues.
One such issue is the desirability of economic growth. Those who believe that economic growth is a good thing, that more is indeed more, and that economic growth is the ultimate source of the wealth that will ease the lot of the poor, tend to be the most skeptical about the existence of global warming. Arrayed on the other side are those who have long felt that economic growth is undesirable, for reasons that predate the appearance of the global warming phenomenon.
Those who are persuaded that the earth’s temperature is rising as a consequence of economic activity, most notably the production and use of fossil fuels, were long ago convinced that economic growth places a strain on finite natural resources, which includes everything from fossil fuels to clean air. Besides, their argument goes, rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not mean rising well-being and happiness. One United Nations environmental group, for instance, writes, "Affluence has not protected high-income countries . . . from drugs, alcoholism, AIDS, street violence, and family breakdown." And remember Jimmy Carter’s statement? "Too many of us," he said, "now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. . . . But . . . owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning . . . [and] piling up material goods . . . cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." In short, the environmentalists tend to argue that more is less and that policies that limit growth are desirable in and of themselves, regardless of whether the globe is warming.
The global warming argument also serves as a proxy for disputes over the extent to which government should attempt to regulate economic activity. As H. L. Mencken once wrote, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with a series of hobgoblins." It is clear that if we do indeed face a warming planet, the government will have a very strong reason for limiting the size of cars, regulating the fuels that factories may burn, setting standards for residential construction, and so on. But if we do not have to worry about global warming, the case for further regulation of economic activity in the pursuit of environmental objectives will be much weaker.
Not surprisingly, those who generally favor regulation tend to accept the evidence that the world is getting hotter, and those who fear further government incursions into the private sector and private lives tend to view the temperature data with greater skepticism.
This argument also bears on America’s role in the world economy. Many of those who profess to see a need for government action against global warming have long argued that America consumes too much of the world’s resources and produces too much of its pollution. They are fond of pointing out that America, with only five percent of the world’s population, produces approximately 23 percent of its carbon emissions. But they neglect the fact that America also produces 23 percent of the world’s GDP. In Europe, much discussion revolves around ways to force Americans to use smaller cars, restrain Americans’ use of the automobile, stop us from "overheating" and "overcooling" our homes, and so on. The underlying assumption is that per capita use of the world’s resources should be equal—a case of egalitarianism masquerading as environmentalism.
Another underlying issue is the need for taxes. It is generally agreed that, in most industrialized countries, politicians who propose increases in income taxes will soon have ample time to devote to their golf games. But environmental taxes—in this case, carbon taxes of some sort— are a different matter. They can be defended—and properly so, in cases in which they are in line with the uninternalized costs imposed by polluters—as virtuous efforts to cope with the impending disasters that global warming will produce. These "green taxes" are the last great potential source of new revenues for governments that are finding their welfare states increasingly difficult to finance. Harvard Professor Richard Cooper estimates that a worldwide carbon tax would yield $750 billion annually by 2020, equal to 1.3 percent of gross world economic production in that year. That is real money.
The last important issue behind the debate is the role and power of international agencies. Those who feel that something like the Kyoto protocol is necessary to stop global warming generally favor most such expansions of the role of international regulatory agencies. They look forward to the creation of the new international bodies that would have to be established with the powers to monitor and enforce agreements to reduce emissions. On the other hand, those who believe that the UN and its various agencies are populated by bureaucrats at best and kleptocrats at worst, tend to want a lot more evidence that a warming trend exists before acceding to the creation of still more international regulatory bodies.
These are the underlying issues that make the debates about global warming generate so much heat and so little light. My guess is that the forces backing bigger government, more taxes, and more equal distribution of the earth’s resources will carry the day, and that we therefore will be making policy on the assumption that the earth is warming.
This does not mean that there is a chance that the Senate will ratify the Kyoto protocol and its progeny. Kyoto commits the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2010, or by about 40 percent from the levels they would otherwise be in that year. The Senate probably will not ratify it, as President Clinton recently recognized when he announced that, although the United States has signed on to the treaty recently worked out in the Buenos Aires follow-up to Kyoto, he would not submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification until 2000.
But no matter. Until then, the Clinton administration will attempt to accomplish by administrative fiat what it is unable to accomplish by treaty. Already, the administration has begun a war against sports utility vehicles, the quintessential symbol of American self-indulgence—at least to those who agree with Jimmy Carter that we are excessively hooked on material comforts. Never mind that in this case small is lethal, not beautiful.
And after 2000, if the Republicans continue to set records for ineptitude in presidential elections, we can be sure that a Gore administration will push for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with even greater fervor than its predecessor. And who is to say that a Republican Congress, if it still remains in the GOP’s hands, will suddenly find the courage and skills to resist a cause so worthy as preventing the earth from overheating?
One way or the other, it is incumbent upon us to develop the ingredients of a policy that makes sense—one that does not deny the possibility that temperatures are rising but that does not assume that actions to be taken can be liberated from the test of cost effectiveness. Such a policy must have three main ingredients.
First, it must include the developing nations, and in a meaningful way. The major increases in carbon emissions in the years ahead are likely to come from China, India, and—if its economy recovers even a little—Russia. So far, these nations have shown no desire to abort their growth or to substitute more expensive fuels for cheap coal. Unless other nations can persuade them to sign on to a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nothing the industrialized countries can do will matter very much. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that greenhouse gases will increase by 44 percent from 1990 levels by 2010, and that three-quarters of that increase will come from developing countries. China, for instance, will increase its coal usage by 1.6 billion tons, which is more than we use in the U.S. today. A treaty that leaves the developing nations free to increase emissions may serve the purpose of those who would cut the American economy down to size by increasing its production and regulatory costs, but it will do little or nothing to keep temperatures down.
Second, a global warming policy that makes sense must include a system for trading emission permits. The Clinton administration has estimated that if a worldwide, perfect system of trading permits can be developed, the U.S. can meet most of its obligation to cut emissions by buying permits from other countries, which will minimize the cost of compliance. Absent such a trading scheme, the Department of Energy estimates—reluctantly, and only after Congress demanded such estimates – that compliance will drive gasoline prices to as much as 66 cents per gallon above where they would otherwise be in 2010, and it will force electricity rates to levels 86 percent above what they would otherwise be. And GDP will be 4.1 percent lower in 2010 than it would otherwise be.
The problem is that the world does not share our enthusiasm for market-oriented, cost-minimizing solutions such as trading of permits. They see permit trading as a way for America to buy its way out of bearing any pain. As one international diplomat prominent in the Kyoto negotiations put it to me, "We see this as a moral, not an economic question." But if the name of the game is to reduce emissions worldwide, it should not matter whether that reduction occurs in China or in the U.S.
Third, it is important to remember that haste makes waste. Even under the most extreme scenarios generated by the computerized climate change models, delaying action on greenhouse gases for thirty years would have almost no effect on predicted temperatures. Therefore, we have an ample amount of time in which to develop technologies, institutions, and plans. It might well be cheaper (more efficient) to achieve large reductions thirty years from now than it would be to obtain small ones now.
Meanwhile, we must ignore politicians’ efforts to menace us with this hobgoblin. And menace us they will. Then-senator George Mitchell has written that rising temperatures will unleash multiple disasters on the world, "killing millions of people." And Al Gore sees the emission of greenhouse gases as "the most serious problem our civilization faces," apparently outranking even Saddam Hussein’s formidable accumulation of weapons of mass destruction. In the face of such heated rhetoric, it is difficult to stay cool; but stay cool we must.