Stalled on Global Warming

Comments by Charles O. Moore in
The Journal of Commerce

19 May, 1999

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Although scientific evidence keeps accumulating that human activity is slowly heating the planet, a political solution to the problem lately seems to be taking its lumps in the United States from the left, right and middle.

Environmentalists have traded charges with the Clinton-Gore administration, while in the Senate opponents of the 1997 Kyoto global-warming treaty have backed legislation ostensibly created to attack the problem but actually aimed more at lining the pockets of a few fortunate businesses. Even some of those who express genuine concern about the issue seem to be damning the problem with faint remedial proposals.

Recently, in an extraordinary public admonishment, CEOs of several leading environmental organizations issued a public letter to Vice President Al Gore, sharply criticizing him for breaking repeated promises to stem the pollution that causes global warming. In an equally unheard-of move, indicative of administration sensitivities, President Clinton stepped in on behalf of candidate Gore, personally authoring a defense of the vice president's record on the global warming issue.

But despite vocal political positioning and a long string of small, proposed fixes, the White House remains unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to meaningfully address the big problem - - greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, industry and electric utilities. The administration hasn't put forward a single idea over the last six years to significantly reduce domestic global warming pollution and meet the greenhouse gas emissions commitment made by President Bush in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992. (Meanwhile, on a related issue it just suffered a setback when an appeals court overturned its clean-air standards.)

Things are no better on Capitol Hill. Congressional opponents of the unratified climate-change treaty have alternately denied existence of global warming or blamed roadblocks to progress on developing countries whose per-capita and cumulative contributions to global warming pollution will remain a tiny fraction of U.S. levels for many decades to come. The only legislation now moving seems aimed at giving money to business for making progress that may not really exist, or studying the problem further.

Oddly enough, the administration seems in synch with this approach -- subsidizing research while paying polluters to stop unleashing the gases that are heating the planet -- though neither branch of government would offer enough payoff to make much difference at the smokestack. All this is in spite of reams of polling data showing widespread support for serious action.

And then there are those among the good guys who want to give 'em heck. The neo-conservative, natural-resource economics think-tank, Resources for the Future (RFF), suggests abandoning the Kyoto agreement while correcting the inverted logic of congressional and administrative tinkerers by suggesting, of all things, that polluters should be paying us for the privilege of devaluing our resources with their wastes.

RFF would require companies that produce the fossil fuels that release greenhouse pollution to purchase moderately-priced permits equivalent to the volume of global warming emissions released by the fuels they sell.

Most proceeds could be returned directly to consumers as reimbursement for higher energy costs. A portion could be used for special assistance to low-income residents in states with high per- capita energy use, and to offset the vulnerability of workers in industries that employ significant amounts of energy. But RFF needs to think more boldly, and also to forget about dumping the only political vehicle we now have: the Kyoto protocol.

The "polluter pays" or "price signal" approach is the best solution to the global warming pollution problem for a number of reasons. It places the social and environmental costs of pollution squarely on those who profit from it, institutionalizing what most economists agree is the most efficient way to cut pollution.

Unlike the pay-off schemes currently favored by some, this plan denies a windfall to polluters who would prefer us to ransom the Earth's climate system.

Finally, this concept addresses a serious problem that has stymied international negotiations -- the unwillingness of the United States to make a serious commitment to reduce its own emissions before asking emerging economies to do the same. Yet even the RFF proposal is too modest. It tries to garner the support -- or at least the silence -- of those who are skeptical about the costs of pollution abatement; it does this by starting small. This won't work.

The special interests that claim the economic sky will fall if steps are taken to address global-warming pollution won't back down simply because RFF offers a market-based proposal. Moreover, the environmental community won't embrace the effort if it fails to seriously address our Kyoto commitment.

But on the other side of the coin, although the RFF proposal needs strengthening, at least it falls under the heading of "big ideas." The White House should give it careful consideration before assigning it to the dustbin. Otherwise the administration will remain vulnerable to charges of talking big and acting small. And someone in search of bold thinking might decide to fight the good fight for a real solution.

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