Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

For real progress against greenhouse gases, drop the bureaucracy

Apr 28, 2010 22:00 UTC

International negotiations on global-warming accords continue to be an expensive exercise in pointlessness, while the leading anti-greenhouse-gas legislation in the United States Senate, shepherded by John Kerry of Massachusetts, is said to be so lengthy it may make the recent health-care bill seem like a Post-It note. Release of Kerry’s proposal was delayed Tuesday when its sole Republican cosponsor, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, developed cold feet. Some Senate action on the proposal is expected this spring.

Ideally, both the international negotiations and the Kerry bill will collapse under the weight of their own complexity. That would be ideal if you favor progress against greenhouse gases! The threat of artificially triggered climate change is all too real: see more on that below. But new thinking – not more top-down bureaucracy – is the best hope to reduce greenhouse gas accumulation.

Both the international proposals, and Kerry’s bill, seek to create ultra-elaborate regulatory regimes that would guarantee cushy jobs for bureaucrats and big paydays for lobbyists, but not necessarily much reform. Both reflect what many hate about government – prescriptive top-down regulation combined with ample opportunities for insiders to direct giveaways to themselves. Among Washington insiders, especially the think-tank set, there’s a sense of delight that a mega-elaborate greenhouse-gas regulatory hierarchy is coming. Thousands of lobbying pressure-points will be created, while some gigantic Department of Atmospheric Administration will result, top heavy with senior-grade functionaries who spend their days infighting about whose signature goes on memos. Elites in Washington and Brussels surely will benefit from the complex approach to greenhouse regulation. Will anybody else?

First the international situation. At the Rio global-warming summit in 1992, heads of state made symbolic nonbinding commitments about greenhouse reduction while praising themselves, then pledged to serious action sometime soon. At the Copenhagen global-warming summit in 2009, heads of state made symbolic nonbinding commitments about greenhouse reduction while praising themselves, then pledged to serious action sometime soon. Insert another city name and future year, and the sentence will read the same.

Two decades of international negotiations on greenhouse gases have led to almost nothing of substance, beyond some European Union trial programs. The only concrete achievement is an annual Conference of Parties, via which highly paid delegates fly in jets burning fossil fuels, and ride in low-mileage limousines, to meet in luxurious circumstances and demand that someone else conserve resources. Milan, Bali, Copenhagen – the 2010 Conference of Parties will be held in Cancun. Why aren’t these meetings in Chengdu or Fargo? International elites need to be in resort locations to think about why average people’s use of fossil fuel must be restricted!

What will Iran do with nuclear weapons? Probably nothing

Apr 22, 2010 05:00 UTC

Gregg Easterbrook is a Reuters columnist. Any views expressed are his own.

World leaders meeting in Washington last week engaged in a competition to see which could make the strongest remark about Iran not getting an atomic bomb. President Barack Obama has asked Russia, China and other nations to form a united front against the Iranian atomic program. Vice-president Joe Biden recently said, “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.”

The comments seem eerily similar to those made by presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, plus other world leaders, about preventing North Korea from acquiring the bomb. This happened anyway. Current anti-Tehran blustering and posing will be about as effective. Soon Iran will become an atomic power. The world community must prepare for this moment.

The simple reality is that other nations cannot prevent Iran from fashioning an atomic device. Cannot, except perhaps by an all-out nuclear first strike that obliterates much of the country, or invasion and permanent occupation of a nation substantially larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Conventional aerial attack might slow but cannot stop an atomic program using underground facilities – or conventional aerial attack would have been used against North Korea. (See details below on the reasons conventional airstrikes aren’t the answer regarding the Iranian program.)

Get over the moon. We need NASA to save the Earth

Apr 15, 2010 05:01 UTC

Gregg Easterbrook is a Reuters columnist. Any views expressed are his own.

Space policy is a small fraction of the U.S. federal budget – around one percent, when NASA and Air Force spending are combined – and much less important than topics such as health care, defense or debt. But if government can’t get minor policy right, how can it be trusted with major issues? That is the underlying question of President Barack Obama’s appearance at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today. Cable-news commentary may focus on the political fight: who gets the biggest handouts. More important is whether Obama can change NASA from an example of what’s wrong with government (wasteful projects that serve only political favorites) to an example of what can be right (an agency that provides tangible benefits to taxpayers).

Yes, the Apollo moon landings were significant and memorable, but the last one occurred 38 years ago. In recent decades, NASA’s record has been spotty. The agency’s space science program – probes of the outer planets, telescopes that scan the far heavens – is successful and cost-effective. But for decades manned space flight, which receives the bulk of NASA funds, has accomplished: um, what? More money than was spent for the Apollo moon missions has been invested in the International Space Station, whose primary function is to give the space shuttle a destination. The shuttle, in turn, exists mainly to fly to the space station. The space station has no notable scientific achievements: it is such a white elephant that already NASA is studying the best way to “deorbit” the whole 380-ton structure, meaning allow it to burn in the upper atmosphere. This may happen as soon as 2016.

While spending freely on the space station and the shuttle, NASA has avoided research into new launch strategies that might cut the cost of access to orbit. Lower cost isn’t wanted – the whole point is to make the manned program expensive! And NASA has done just shy of nothing to plan for protecting the Earth from an asteroid strike: more on that in a moment.

A magnificent day

Apr 8, 2010 05:01 UTC

Today, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet in Prague to sign an agreement that will eliminate more than 1,000 large nuclear bombs from the Earth. Ho-hum! Commentators are carping that this development is not splashy or dramatic enough. Quite the contrary: it is magnificent news for our world.

When historians look back on the present generation, they will say that there were three trends of historic import – and none involve the effluvial trivia that dominate most contemporary discourse.

One trend of historic import is the spread of democracy, a sanguine development which seemed impossible as recently as the 1980s. The second is the rapid decline of global poverty – an improvement barely remarked upon in the West, because it isn’t happening there, and violates the chic-pessimism script preferred by tastemakers. China has moved 220 million people, nearly the population of the United States, out of poverty in a single generation. This production-and-output achievement is every bit the equal of America’s production-and-output achievement to win World War II. Poverty is declining in many though of course not all other developing nations.

Global news roundup

Apr 1, 2010 05:01 UTC

Gregg Easterbrook writes a weekly column for Reuters.com. The views expressed are his own.

Speaking at the White House today, President Barack Obama said, “The federal budget has become an accounting swindle little different from Enron. We are showering money on interest groups while passing unconscionable levels of debt to future generations. I apologize for my role in this: I have talked fiscal responsibility while borrowing to spend without restraint. Social Security benefits simply are going to have to be cut – it’s the only way out of the mess both parties have made of Washington. The time has come to state this honestly.”

Speaking on Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader John Boehner apologized for his fist-shaking speech calling the health care bill a “disgrace” that represents “the last straw for the American people.” Boehner said, “My behavior has been petty partisanship at its worst. The country cannot move forward when lawmakers like me act like spoiled children. I’ve been encouraging destructive politics and I was wrong.”

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