NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

GREENHOUSE GUESSING

November 10, 2006

Sir Nicholas Stern's report on global warming is a masterpiece of misleading public relations, says Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

Just last week the United Nations reported that of the 41 countries it monitors (not including most developing nations), 34 had increased greenhouse emissions from 2000 to 2004.  These include most of the countries committed to reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.  Why is this?  There are three reasons, says Samuelson.

With today's technologies, we don't know how to cut greenhouse gases in politically and economically acceptable ways:

  • The world's 1,700 or so coal-fired power plants -- big emitters of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas -- are a cheap source of electricity; the wholesale cost is 4 to 5 cents a kilowatt hour, says the World Resources Institute.
  • By contrast, solar power costs five to six times that; although wind is roughly competitive, it can be used only in selective spots and supplies less than 1 percent of global electricity; nuclear energy is cost-competitive but is stymied by other concerns (safety, proliferation hazards, spent fuel).

In rich democracies, policies that might curb greenhouse gases require politicians and the public to act in exceptionally "enlightened" (read: "unrealistic") ways: 

  • They have to accept "pain" now for benefits that won't materialize for decades, probably after they're dead.
  • For example, we could adopt a steep gasoline tax and much tougher fuel economy standards for vehicles.
  • In time, that might limit emissions (personally, I favor this on national security grounds).
  • Absent some crisis, politicians usually won't impose -- and the public won't accept -- burdens without corresponding benefits.

Lastly, even if rich countries cut emissions, it won't make much difference unless poor countries do likewise -- and so far, they've refused because that might jeopardize their economic growth and poverty-reduction efforts, says Samuelson.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "Greenhouse Guessing," Washington Post, November 10, 2006.

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