Reality and Climate Change Policy

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

When President Bush announced in March that the Kyoto Protocol for the control of greenhouse gas emissions was "fundamentally flawed," and thus unacceptable to the United States, many world leaders, especially the heads of European Union nations, expressed disappointment, dismay and surprise.

The question is why? As a candidate for president in 2000, Bush said he rejected the protocol. Maybe Europeans had ceased to expect a President of the United States to keep campaign commitments.

Furthermore, Bush's stance was more honest than the previous administration's. Although the Clinton/Gore administration signed the protocol- the terms of which would require the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent between 2008 and 2012 - they never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. That's because 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. Since Kyoto met neither of these conditions, Clinton knew the Senate would not ratify it. President Bush referred to this when he announced U.S. withdrawal from the protocol.

To move forward, we must first decide whether there is a concrete problem that can be corrected. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report requested by the Bush administration described 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. However, they also found the science linking human activities to global warming is uncertain. They 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 even if public policies can affect future temperature change.

In contrast to the ambiguity of global warming science, we do have credible economic forecasts that show compliance with the Kyoto Protocol will significantly hurt our economy. For example, the Department of Energy under the Clinton administration issued a report predicting that meeting the Kyoto greenhouse gas limits would result in a 52 percent increase in gasoline prices and an 86 percent increase in electricity prices. In addition the Gross Domestic Product would drop by 4.2 percent and reduce personal disposable income by 2.5 percent.

While the proposed protocol would harm the U.S. economy, it would do little of anything to benefit the environment. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 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.

Nevertheless, emission reductions under Kyoto will have a negligible effect on global warming at best, because developing countries are not obligated to cut their emissions, even though they 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.

If developed countries unilaterally stopped all their greenhouse gas emissions (something no one seriously proposes), total greenhouse gas concentrations would continue to rise. By 2025, China alone will emit more carbon dioxide than the current combined total of the United States, Japan and Canada. Thus, if greenhouse gas emissions are the source of potentially catastrophic global warming, the Kyoto Protocol will do nothing to prevent it.

The Bush administration has decided to follow where the science leads rather than politically dictate the conclusions that climate scientists should reach. This will maximize 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.