“We’re all Keynesians now,” declared President Richard M. Nixon when he surrendered his fiscal policies to liberal orthodoxy. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did much the same with his recent executive order calling for draconian cuts in the emission of “greenhouse gases” linked to global warming. “The debate is over,” he claimed.
The issue of global warming, though presented as a matter of scientific certainty, is actually highly controverted. Although the planet almost certainly is warming, how much of that is due to humanity — which contributes only about .3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions — remains in dispute.
So does the likely magnitude of warming, as well as the ultimate impact on the climate. Over the last decade predictions of the temperature rise over the coming century have fallen greatly, with the most realistic estimates lagging behind the increase during the “little climate optimum,” the Medieval period roughly 2.5 degrees centigrade warmer than today.
Indeed, moderate warming at night and in the northern hemispheres, when and where most of the recent warming has occurred, is a positive development for humanity. Such a temperature rise lowers morbidity and mortality rates and lengthens growing seasons.
Moreover, most of Schwarzenegger’s claimed consequences of global warming simply aren’t true. Joel Schwartz, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that warmer temperatures won’t increase heat-related mortality, which has fallen by 75 percent since the 1960s.
Nor is the phenomenon related to asthma, as Schwarzenegger claimed. And higher temperatures are more likely to reduce than increase other air pollutants.
NEVERTHELESS, ASSUMING THAT global warming is a problem to be solved, the so-called Kyoto treaty, signed in December 1997, is not a good answer. By its own terms it would merely mean that the temperature predicted to occur in 2100 (any estimate a century off is essentially meaningless) would actually arrive in 2106.
Kyoto’s original objective, to hold energy consumption at 1990 levels, is well-nigh unattainable, at least at acceptable cost. And since the Kyoto pact did not cover developing states, most importantly rapidly growing China and India, today’s industrialized states would have to cut their energy consumption even more.
Even a dozen European nations that once championed Kyoto now concede that they will fall short. Notes Frances B. Smith of the group Consumer Alert, “People cannot simply turn up their air conditioner thermostats to 72 degrees from 70, or replace 75 watt light bulbs with 60 watt bulbs. Instead, the proposed Kyoto accord will require drastic reductions in energy use in every aspect of people’s every day lives.”
And that won’t be easy. “Energy is the lifeblood of industrial civilization,” observed Case Western University Law School Professor Jonathan Adler. Radical reductions in energy consumption mean radical reductions in economic activity.
Among the steps proposed to force down U.S. energy consumption are an emissions cap on greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide; a “carbon tax” on fossil fuel consumption; an increase in fuel economy (CAFE) standards on autos; new building codes and appliance energy standards; a national deposit on beverage containers; regulations encouraging high density home construction and discouraging driving; and a variety of subsidies for alternative energy sources and fuel efficient cars. Since fossil fuels remain the world’s most plentiful and cost-efficient energy source, none of these steps would be cheap.
Total economic output would take a huge hit. Over the last decade or so estimates have ranged up to $350 billion annually. In the mid-1990s this represented an economic loss of up to $1,500 per person. Eugene Trisko of the United Mineworkers of America warned that “most credible estimates of the costs of reducing carbon emissions in the U.S. show cumulative GDP losses of up to $1 trillion to $3 trillion over a 15 or 20 year period.”
Another cost measure is job loss. Estimates vary, but the projected magnitude is consistent. For instance, an early study by Wilbur Steger and Frederick Rueter for CONSAD Research Corporation predicted that between 240,000 and 360,000 jobs would be lost in the first three to five years after Kyoto’s implementation, “and would be accompanied by adverse economic conditions, including high inflation, resembling the energy price shocks of the 1970s.”
Within a few more years lost employment could rise above 1.6 million, with several more million jobs at risk in “vulnerable industries.” Their work matches the results of a study by the consulting firm DRI, Inc., which predicted 1.7 million lost jobs. A Clinton administration study foresaw an employment loss of 900,000.
THE MORE STRINGENT THE STANDARDS, the bigger the impact. Steger and Rueter considered proposals to reduce rather than stabilize energy usage (at the time based on 1990 levels). They warned: “We are looking at magnitudes of short-to-medium-term output, employment and value added effects that are double, triple, or possible even five times greater.” The economic cost of large, arbitrary cuts in energy consumption would be enormous.
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