A Climate Change Policy for the Real World

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The leaders of the world are beginning to find out that President Bush means what he says. The first indication of this came when he announced that the Kyoto Protocol for the control of greenhouse gas emissions was "fundamentally flawed," and thus unacceptable to the United States. This announcement seemed to catch many world leaders, especially the heads of European Union nations, off-guard. It shouldn't have, however, for as a candidate Bush had said emphatically that he rejected the protocol.

The President Clinton signed the Kyoto protocol on November 12, 1998 - the terms of which would require the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent between 2008 and 2012 - even though he knew the Senate would not ratify it. Prior to the Kyoto negotiations, the Senate had unanimously passed a resolution requiring the administration not to participate in any global warming agreement that would either (1) harm the U.S. economy or (2) fail to require meaningful participation by developing countries. Kyoto failed to meet both of these conditions. President Bush referred to this when he announced U.S. withdrawal from the protocol. Thus, Bush's stance was an honest reflection of reality and an attempt to move forward.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report requested by the Bush administration indicated a modest 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature and a more than 30 percent rise in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 during the past 150 years. The NAS also found, however, that the science linking human activities to global warming is uncertain. It warned, "[b]ecause there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases ... current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward)." The NAS concluded that since the timing, magnitude and direction of any climate change are currently unknown, the impact of any actions taken to prevent this change cannot be predicted with any confidence.

In other words, we do not know if the earth will get warmer or cooler in the future, and if temperatures do change, by how much or when, or if public policies can affect future temperature change.

In contrast to the ambiguity of global warming science, the effects of U.S. compliance with the Kyoto Protocol seem quite clear. All of the credible economic forecasts indicate that Kyoto would hurt the U.S. economy. For example under the Clinton administration, the Energy Information Administration, the official forecasting arm of the Department of Energy, issued a report predicting that meeting the Kyoto greenhouse gas limits would: increase gasoline prices by 52 percent and electricity prices by 86 percent, decrease Gross Domestic Product by 4.2 percent and reduce personal disposable income by 2.5 percent.

The case against Kyoto gets worse. In addition to the pain to the U.S. economy, there wouldn't be any significant gain for the environment because developing countries are not obligated to cut their emissions. Developing countries produce nearly half of all greenhouse gases. According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions will come from developing countries exempted from the proposed protocol, including China, India, South Korea and Brazil. By 2025, China alone will emit more carbon dioxide than the current combined total of the United States, Japan and Canada. If developed countries unilaterally stopped all their greenhouse gas emissions (something no one seriously proposes), total greenhouse gas concentrations would continue to rise. The result, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is that if all of the signatories meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets, the earth will be between .07 degrees Celsius and 0.19 degrees Celsius cooler than it would be absent Kyoto - a temperature difference so small it cannot be measured by ground-based temperature gauges.

Are human activities are affecting the world's climate and if so will these changes be beneficial or harmful? Only time will tell. What we can say for now it that President Bush's decision to stand up to international pressure to implement the Kyoto Protocol showed political courage. He has decided to leave our policy options open - maximizing our economy's flexibility to respond to future climate changes regardless of the source and direction - while funding basic research on the components and possible effects of climate change and on ways to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations without hampering economic progress. That's leadership!