Responding to Global Warming the Bush Way

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Last March, President Bush announced that the Kyoto Protocol for the control of greenhouse gas emissions was "fundamentally flawed," and thus unacceptable to the United States. At the same time, he stated he believed global warming was occurring and that his administration would develop its own plan in response. The plan was announced in February, and it made very few people happy.

Surprising no one, environmentalists denounced the president's plan for not going far enough. Conservatives and global warming skeptics, on the other hand, decried the fact that the Administration supported any emissions reductions whatsoever, even voluntary ones, since they believe to do so is tantamount to admitting that humans are causing global warming - a point they have yet to concede. Skeptics also argue that a "voluntary" emissions reduction plan will inevitably evolve into substantial mandatory cuts that would reduce energy availability and harm the economy.

Leaving both sets of criticisms aside for the moment, the Bush plan does highlight some critical points that have yet to be addressed in the wider global warming debate.

Nearly everyone agrees that basic research into the causes and potential consequences of global warming is critical to crafting informed policies. Accordingly, the Bush administration proposes a budget of $4.5 billion for climate change programs including $1.7 billion for basic research and $1.3 billion for research, development, and deployment of more efficient energy technologies and technologies to sequester or capture greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted.

Going farther, the administration has decided to triple funding for 'Debt for Nature' tropical forest conservation programs to $40 million. Forests act as carbon sinks, removing carbon from the atmosphere. Thus, halting logging in tropical forests will reduce the atmospheric carbon load. The administration also budgets $155 million to provide clean energy technologies to developing countries, as well as $25 million to establish climate observation systems in those countries. These programs are especially important since developing countries exhibit the fastest growing greenhouse gas emission levels and they are expected to become the largest greenhouse gas emitters by 2025.

Now, getting back to the most controversial provisions in the president's plan: a proposal to establish a voluntary greenhouse gas emissions registry while encouraging verifiable emissions reductions through tax incentives, and a plan to tie greenhouse gas reductions to "greenhouse gas intensity" (i.e., the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output). While I agree with skeptics that there are serious potential problems with the administration's plan, such as voluntary emissions reductions becoming mandatory, continued oversight by skeptics both within and outside of the administration should be able to head off ill-advised, premature government action.

And certainly environmentalists are correct that the administration's plan will not substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. But neither would the much touted but radically defective Kyoto Protocol.

To the extent that companies participate in the administration's voluntary greenhouse gas inventory, it should be easier to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the future and, should new information prove global warming skeptics such as myself incorrect and such cuts be necessary, assign and enforce mandatory emissions reduction targets.

The administration's plan to tie emission reductions to greenhouse gas intensity has several points in its favor. First, it provides flexibility, allowing emissions levels to stagnate or even rise should the economy enter a downturn and technological innovation come slowly, while encouraging the installation of cleaner technologies when the economy is humming. Second, as companies become more efficient, they adopt new technologies which reduce energy use and thus emissions - in other words, the economy naturally becomes more energy efficiency and emits fewer greenhouse gases overtime. Indeed, the modest emission reduction called for under the administration's plan might be met simply through expected investments in new technology.

A 1999 NCPA study by Stephen Brown, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, concluded that the "economic benefits of lower energy use justify U.S. reductions in CO2 emission of only about 14 percent of that required by the Kyoto treaty." Since greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by approximately 30 percent by 2010, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of only about 4.2 percent is justified by the potential threat. Evidently, the Bush administration did its homework, since their plan would reduce emissions by approximately 4.5 percent.

The Bush Administration crafted a nuanced global warming plan that encourages continued economic growth, while taking reasonable steps to respond to the environmental threats posed by global warming. Since the plan pleases neither partisans on the left side or the right side of the political spectrum, perhaps the President has struck the right balance.