Easterbrook: A Carbon Tax And The Free Market Are All That’s Needed On Global Warming

Greg Easterbrook often touches on non-sport topics in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback essay on ESPN. This week, among other topics, he tackles global warming.

Al Gore Heartbroken That World Refuses to End: Once again last week, world leaders met to engage in duels of doomsaying and soaring rhetoric about global warming, then did nothing of substance. It’s tempting to think concerns about artificial climate change aren’t backed by science, or are just the latest form of power-grab by elites who want more taxes and more control over people’s lives. Unfortunately, the scientific basis of global warming theory is reasonably (not completely) strong and the danger real (though exaggerated by Al Gore types). There’s a self-interest aspect, to be sure. Washington, Brussels and other cities are rife with think-tank and NGO types who know that if some super-complex international greenhouse treaty is ever enforced, it will mean a lifetime of high-paid employment for them in the gigantic, stultifying bureaucracies that will be created. That’s why they want a super-complex treaty, rather than simply taxing greenhouse gases and letting the market sort out details. That’s the solution yours truly favors — something must be taxed to reverse national debt trends, so tax greenhouse gases, since we want to discourage their production anyway. Taxes are a far simpler way to achieve ends than command-and-control: Taxing internalizes a cost, and then people decide for themselves how to respond to the tax. Here is that argument in detail.

Global temperatures have declined slightly in the past few years, which does not disprove artificial global warming, any more than a few warm years proves the notion. There’s been almost no Atlantic cyclone activity this year, which does not disprove artificial global warming, any more than an active year (like 2005, the terrible year of Katrina and Rita) proves the notion. But absurdly, some environmentalists are upset that temperatures and hurricanes are down! Here is some enviro-establishment lamenting that in the past few years, the world hasn’t gotten hotter. Wait, weren’t we told that it would be bad if the world got hotter — so shouldn’t failure of the world to get hotter be a good thing? Not if your income depends on doomsday fundraising! There’s a long tradition among ideologists of actually hoping things get worse, to cause radicalization. Marxists once rooted for “immiseration,” or worsening working-class poverty, because this would cause the workers to rise up. Today some right-wingers root for terrorism because this would cause liberals to be voted out, while some enviros root for runaway warming because this could be used to justify state control of industry.

That global temperatures have gone down slightly for four years is unwelcome news to the instant-doomsday crowd. The reason may be minor natural fluctuation; maybe the current, puzzling lack of sunspots; maybe rising acid rain emissions from China and India, since sulfur dioxide is an anti-greenhouse-gas that reflects sunlight back into space. Who knows? Regardless, greenhouse levels in the atmosphere continue to rise. The greenhouse gases must be doing something. We probably won’t like what they do — since climate change (differing wind and rainfall patterns) means more than temperature anyway.

The current minor decline in global warmth is a warning not to exaggerate alarms. Since 1988, Gore and James Hansen of NASA have been saying that immediate action must be taken against greenhouse gases or artificial global warming will strike. Nothing’s been done, and nothing has struck. This is not a reason for inaction: Greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere took half a century to become significant and may take half a century to repair. We need to start working on the problem, via carbon taxes and programs to restrict emissions of methane and H-CFCs, which are more potent pound-for-pound than carbon dioxide. But the sense of emergency cultivated by doomsayers backfires, because it literally makes no difference what we do this year. If no action is taken on greenhouse gases for a generation, there might be serious consequences. If no action is taken on greenhouse gases in 2009, there will be no consequences of any kind. In turn, this is a reason any greenhouse regulation enacted by Congress must be sensible. Getting it right is a hundredfold more important than doing something fast. The current House-passed greenhouse gas bill, stalled in the Senate, is nightmarishly bad legislation — more than 1,400 pages of special-interest favors for political donors, command-and-control bureaucracy and handouts to the privileged. If enacted, it will do little to reduce greenhouse gases, while discrediting the notion of climate change legislation. Artificial global warming stands a better chance of being prevented if the House bill is mulched for recycling and a simple carbon tax enacted.

Lawmakers and leaders can’t even come up with a comprehensible way to state their goals, let alone a comprehensible bill. Originally the House bill said it would create a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, from the level of 2005, by 2020; now it says a 17 percent reduction from 2005, but an 83 percent reduction by 2050. Love that pseudo-scientific precision! Not “about a two-thirds reduction,” exactly an 83 percent reduction in exactly 41 years. The European Union says its greenhouse gas goal is a 20 percent reduction, from the level of 1990, by 2012. China wants the United States to commit to a 40 percent reduction, from the level of 2000, by 2020; while President Hu Jintao wants China itself to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 2020. At the G8 summit in Italy this summer, world leaders adopted a (nonbinding, of course) goal of 50 percent reduction, from the level of 2009, by 2040.

Some of the proposed “reductions” are double-talk. China’s promise to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP, for example, is empty, since trends in technology are already reducing carbon output compared to GDP in every nation. This 2003 lecture by Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University details how “decarbonization” — less fossil fuel per unit of economic activity — is a century-long technological trend operating independent of decisions of governments. In 2007, George W. Bush pledged to “decarbonize” the United States economy, a pledge easily made since this required no action and was certain to occur anyway. That Bush’s 2007 declaration and Hu’s similar one last week were treated as significant concessions by a credulous press corps, and by international diplomats, shows many people running the greenhouse regulatory debate have no idea what they are talking about. Hu might as well have told the General Assembly, “To prevent global warming, I promise to cause the sun to rise.”

Beyond that, all the zany estimates are completely meaningless. No one has the slightest idea what emission levels or global temperatures will be a decade from now, let alone in 2050. It doesn’t matter that these things are unknown — all that matters is triggering a phase of clean-energy innovation. We need a simple carbon tax that will give inventors and business people a profit motive to control greenhouse gases. Enact a tax, wait 20 years to see what’s invented and what people decide to do voluntarily, then reassess the science. That’s a practical formula for global warming reform. Sorry that it’s not 1,400 pages long and won’t guarantee corporate donations to chairmen of congressional committees.

Capitalism, is there anything it can’t do?

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