For real progress against greenhouse gases, drop the bureaucracy
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!
George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol underlying the international talks, and though President Barrack Obama sends U.S. delegates to international greenhouse negotiations, he has not endorsed any international carbon-restriction language that would be binding on the United States. Denmark and Germany, the industrial nations with the strongest commitment to greenhouse-gas reduction, might actually accept strict international greenhouse rules, which would for intents and purposed be international control of internal energy policy.
It’s hard to believe many other countries would. Even Japan, host for the Kyoto agreement, has merrily ignored the carbon-emission restrictions that Tokyo appeared to accept there.
International agreements on relatively minor ecological subjects have proven hard to implement – enforcement of a whaling ban continues to bedevil the world’s nations, and whaling has almost no economic significance. To think there can be international regulation of fuel use – energy production is the single largest economic sector – is a fantasy. Though, a good excuse for a taxpayer-subsidized week in Cancun.
The key point is that international greenhouse regulation isn’t necessary! Smog is declining almost everywhere in the world, though no international agreement governs smog. Smog is way down in Mexico City and in Los Angeles, somewhat down in Beijing. If you saw the Olympics smog, rest assured, it was far worse a decade ago.
Smog is declining because anti-smog technology has been invented, and proven affordable and compatible with economic growth. Last week, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson noted that air pollution in the United States has declined 60 percent in recent decades, even as GDP doubled. Now that affordable anti-smog technology exists, nations are switching to such technology of their own volition, because it is in their interest to do so. The lack of international involvement in smog reduction has been a reason for rapid progress. No complex rules to satisfy, just implement the best ideas as quickly as practical. National self-interest is a far more powerful motivator than empty speeches at conferences.
Like smog, greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. What is needed is for greenhouse gas reduction technology to be invented, then nations will adopt such technology on their own, because it is in their self-interest to do so. No Bible-sized international greenhouse gas treaty ever will be enforced; negotiations toward this end are a complete waste of everyone’s time. The climate change problem will be solved when nations act on their own.
Where will greenhouse-gas control technology be invented? In the United States, the world’s most innovative, tech-savvy nation – and the place where smog-control technology was invented. Once greenhouse-gas emission ceases to be free in the United States, control mechanisms will be invented – then other nations will switch to them, of their own volition. That’s the realistic way to stop artificially caused climate change. Tech-savvy China surely also will contribute, but the United States must lead the way.
The Kerry bill, subject of year-long negotiations among many senators, would create a super-complicated sector-by-sector cap on carbon emissions from various industries, impose a puzzling number-from-a-hat goal of 17 percent greenhouse gas reduction by the year 2020, and authorize still more legislation on the details of sector-by-sector rules. All the media attention would be on the Kerry-bill vote, which would be seen as a dramatic commitment to global warming prevention. Lobbyists would take command when the sector-by-sector rules were enacted, larding them with subsidies and giveaways. (Reform at Risk, an excellent 2008 book by University of Virginia political scientist Eric Patashnik, shows how the media swarm over symbolic legislative votes but ignore the later amendments by which lobbyists rewrite rules to create handouts to political donors.)
Editorialists and environmentalists are likely to say that Congress must hurry to enact the Kerry bill because climate change is happening. It is. But it’s taken a century for greenhouse gas accumulation to become a problem; the fix will take at least decades. The response must be smart and flexible. Well-drawn legislation is the priority, and however well-meant, Kerry’s approach is way too complex and bureaucratic. It won’t work – and that would cause public cynicism about greenhouse gas reduction, setting back the cause.
Rather than a super-complex regulatory scheme, what the United States needs is a carbon tax. That’s right, a t-a-x. As in, TAX.
We live in a moment when tax is a forbidden word, yet ever-higher national debt is okey-doke. That equation needs to change. Whatever government taxes, society gets less of. Right now government mainly taxes capital and labor, which society wants more of. Pollution, on the other hand, society wants less of. Taxing greenhouse gases will give inventors and entrepreneurs a profit incentive to think of ways to reduce global warming emissions, which currently are free. The result will be that society gets less air pollution, while money generated by a carbon tax reduces the deficit.
A carbon tax would be far simpler and less bureaucratic than any sector-by-sector cap scheme. Even Republican economists such as N. Gregory Mankiw, who was a chair of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, have announced support for carbon taxes.
In a carbon-cap system, federal bureaucrats would make all decisions, surely after years of delay and special-pleading lobbying. In a carbon-tax system, individual inventors and business people make the decisions, quickly and flexibly, driven by the chance at profit. Appeasing bureaucrats or gaining profits: Which seems to you the stronger source of motivation?
If the United States imposes a carbon tax – acting on its own, forget the international negotiations – American innovation may produce greenhouse-restricting technology, clean energy and business models that other nations will adopt of their own volition. This was the model that worked against smog; it should be used against the next air pollution problem, greenhouse gases.
Obviously, no politician wants to advocate a t-a-x. But Barack Obama is the most persuasive political leader since Ronald Reagan. He of all people can show the American public the logic of the situation – especially since a carbon tax would be infinitely preferable to corporate and income taxes in fighting the deficit.
Footnote 1: senators Susan Collins of Maine and Maria Cantwell of Washington State have proposed a variation on the carbon tax, via which carbon-tax revenues would annually be rebated to individuals. This is a noble idea, but with an ever-worse deficit, carbon tax revenues should go toward debt retirement. There’s also a worry that if the Cantwell-Collins scheme was enacted, the money would just end up redirected to special-interest groups. (“Because of the [insert word] crisis, this year the carbon revenue is going to [insert group that bought most favor]. Next year we promise that…”) The Cantwell-Collins would do a better job at reducing greenhouse gases than the Kerry bill, but wouldn’t help with the national debt.
Footnote 2: Incorporating its 27 amendments, the United States Constitution is about 8,000 words long – about 35 pages double-spaced. The recent health care bill was about 235,000 words, or 29 times the length of the Constitution; the 2010 Defense Authorization Act was 120,000 words, 15 times the length of the Constitution. The Kerry greenhouse gas legislation is expected similarly to rival in length the final Harry Potter book.
Why not a standard that legislation cannot exceed the length of the Constitution? That would cut away non-germane riders and sweetheart language inserted at the behest of campaign donors. If Congress cannot express its will in less than the length of the Constitution, chances are it is lobbyists who are the ones expressing themselves.
IS ARTIFICIAL CLIMATE CHANGE REAL?
The National Academy of Sciences, which through the 1990s was skeptical of global warming scare-mongering, said in 2005 that climate change is real. I don’t pretend to know more about science than the National Academy of Sciences. So this is good enough for me.
There is indeed a strong scientific consensus regarding a danger from climate change – those who claim otherwise aren’t being honest. But the consensus is quite mild – those who claim a doomsday consensus aren’t being honest, either.
The consensus is that in the last century, air has warmed by somewhat more than one degree Fahrenheit; the oceans have warmed a little and become more acidic; ocean warming means more than air warming, because the oceans have far more mass than the air; rainfall patterns have changed in some places; most ice melting has accelerated; ocean warmth (not melting ice) has caused modest sea-level rise; human action plays at least some role in all this.
The consensus hardly means crisis. Glaciers and sea ice, for example, have been in a melting cycle for thousands of years, while air warming has, so far at least, been good for farm yields. But climate change has serious possible negative consequences, especially if rainfall shifts away from agricultural regions or sea-level rise accelerates. Climate change, rather than global warming – rising temperature in itself can be beneficial — is the big worry. All the world’s major science academies have said they are convinced climate change is happened and that human action plays a role. That is an ample consensus to justify reform.