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Carbon Copies

Kansas has rejected a proposed tax on CO2 emissions. But trendier states may lack the smarts to do so.

By 2.26.08

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The Kansas Legislature has wisely written a proposed tax on carbon dioxide emissions out of this year's energy legislation. That's the good news: As originally written by the Committee on Utilities, the Sunflower Energy bill's CO2 tax would have been a first, and a very bad precedent. The bad news is that the original bill will be copied and wind up before other legislatures that are more likely to pass it, like those of California and Oregon.

A CO2 tax will largely be levied on utilities that exceed modest limits on their carbon dioxide effluent, so consumers won't "see" it -- except in their electric bills. They'll send in their monthly checks, quite unaware that the new tax revenues are likely to be shoved into a slush fund for solar energy, windmills, biodiesel, ethanol and other green gadgetry boondoggles.

Never mind that even the New York Times now acknowledges that biofuels add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the equivalent amount of conventional fuels, or that the diversion of a third of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production has driven world food prices up so much that we are now witnessing riots, including a major one in Jakarta last month.

Let's just consider the merits of this legislation vis-a-vis some pretty well-known (if poorly publicized) global warming science.

Further, we'll cheat a bit and stipulate that the bill results in a 10% net reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, and that global warming fever sweeps the nation, resulting in similar legislation passing in every other state.

Based upon a widely accepted formula originated at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, if the entire United States adopted the original Kansas legislation, it would prevent a total of 0.11 degrees F of global warming per century. Read that again, because it's not a typo: Eleven one-hundredths of a degree in 100 years.

Instead, let's apply the original Kansas legislation to every nation on the planet that agreed to limit its emissions under the infamous 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an amendment to a 1992 United Nations global climate treaty that would require the U.S. to reduce emissions far beyond what was written out of the Kansas bill. The new law would prevent 0.27 degrees F of warming per century. That's an amount too small to measure, because global temperatures vary by more than that from year-to-year -- global warming or not.

Since 1979, satellites have been measuring lower atmospheric temperatures around the globe. In the last 12 months, they show that the earth's mean temperature has dropped by 1.13ºF. Thus, in one year, that natural variability is four times greater than the amount of warming that would be prevented if the entire industrialized world adopted the original Kansas statute.

The satellite temperature surveys also show there has been no net global warming since 2000. It's a little unfair to go back much further in this discussion, because 1998 was an extremely hot year -- the high point in both satellite and land-based temperature histories -- because of a huge El Nino (which, incidentally, proved to be a great boon to Kansas's wheat farmers).

All of which is to say that global warming isn't exactly proceeding apace. Rather, the rate of planetary warming is falling in line with the low end of 21st century projections made by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the smart money now riding on a bit more than 3 degrees F of warming this century. It's worth noting that the 20th century saw about half of that warming, along with a doubling of life expectancy in the industrialized world, and an approximately ten-fold increase in real personal wealth.

But we hear over and over that if we don't "do" something serious about carbon dioxide emissions in the next eight years (a conveniently presidential number), we are condemning ourselves to an unmitigated climate disaster, as much of Greenland's ice crashes into the sea, raising sea level as much as 20 feet.

That's about as likely as a bill limiting CO2 emissions in Kansas putting a detectable dent in global warming. Congratulations to the legislature for its wisdom in writing out the carbon tax. But beware, electronic copies of the original are flying around the country, looking for places to land.

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