A Balanced Approach to Climate Change

February 22, 2013

During his State of the Union speech, President Obama advised that Americans must take steps to cut emissions based on scientific evidence and claimed that recent weather phenomena are the effects of global warming. He said that heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods are becoming more frequent and more intense. Historical trends lend validity to some of Obama's statements, but undermine others, says Ronald Baily, Reason Magazine's science correspondent.

  • Analysis of global heat wave data shows that the last 12 years rank among the 14 warmest since 1880; however, in the United States, heat waves were dramatically more severe during the 1930s.
  • According to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, droughts were most widespread through the 1930s and 1950s, with the last 50 years having been generally wetter on average.
  • Forty million to 50 million acres burned annually in the 1930s compared with an average of 3.7 million acres burned between 1960 and 2000.
  • Data from the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the magnitude of flooding has not increased over the last 127 years, though the Environmental Protection Agency notes that extreme precipitation events are increasing over the contiguous United States and globally.

The data shows that while President Obama's claims about heat waves were accurate, his claims about wildfires, droughts, floods and hurricanes were largely inaccurate.

  • To reduce global warming, Congress has considered numerous cap-and-trade schemes that raise the price of fossil fuels and incentivize consumers to improve their homes' energy efficiency and inventors to seek out and develop low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources.
  • The president also promised to speed up new oil and gas permits, hinted at the possibility implementing a carbon rationing scheme through executive order and lauded green energy advances.

If President Obama is right about global warming posing a serious threat to our wellbeing, his proposals won't do much to help. Some have already been tried and failed, others do not account for the "energy rebound effect" (i.e., energy and money saved in one place gets used someplace else) and finally, his solutions are national but the causes of warming are global. Indeed, ending all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States prevents less than 7 percent of the expected warming. 

According to Bailey, the best idea -- that is, least economically damaging scheme -- assuming the federal government is going to do something about climate change, would be to remove all regulations on carbon dioxide emissions and eliminate all energy subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for a revenue-neutral, full rebated carbon tax.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "The Climate and Energy State of the Union," Reason Magazine, February 15, 2013.

 

Browse more articles on Environment Issues