Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

For real progress against greenhouse gases, drop the bureaucracy

April 28, 2010

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.

Comments
27 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Bravo! A revenue-neutral carbon tax not only avoids the evasion and market manipulation of cap and trade, it would reduce emissions, incentivize “green” R&D AND return the revenue to families already struggling under the weight of the current economic downturn. Esp. today, Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, it’s time for our representatives in Washington to put good public policy above political expediency and take another look at the solution that the vast majority of the world’s leading economists and scientists agree is best: a carbon tax. It’s a win for the environment and a win for the American people.

Posted by CTF | Report as abusive
 

CO2 caused global warming is an ingenious scam to generate new taxes and control global manufacturing. Almost every gas is a “greenhouse” gas but it would take hundreds of times more CO2 in the atmosphere than exists today to affect a change. See this–
hatch.senate.gov/public/_files/USSenateE PWMinorityReport.pdf
Also, US Government data since 1895 has failed to show a global warming trend. This is all about money and creating a carbon trading industry.See this–
nytimes.com/1989/01/26/us/us-data-since- 1895-fail-to-show-warming-trend.html

Posted by corporatemedia | Report as abusive
 

We can start by cutting down on the offshore oil drill explosions

Posted by STORYBURNcom_0 | Report as abusive
 

Good idea. In Europe the ETS has become part of the failure as no one knows what the price will be in the future. At least a carbon tax (if set at the proper level), will give long-term security to companies when they need to build new infrastructure.

Posted by RCarlson | Report as abusive
 

I’m glad to see someone essentially using a risk-management paradigm with respect to climate action, and rejecting the “it’s a hoax” and “it’s the end of the world” minority opinions. It’s also very refreshing to see someone asserting the importance of local and regional government and market solutions.
That said, the way the smog issue is portrayed here plays a bit fast and loose with history. While the invention of smog-reducing technologies was obviously a precondition to the implementation thereof, national (top-down) regulation played a key role. In the mid 1970s, the catalytic converter was mandated by EPA clean air rules. There was considerable industry and consumer push-back. The ’70s oil crises also played a significant role, encouraging US car makers to produce fuel-efficient models.
Also, perhaps this is simply a matter of semantics, but I believe fees are a better solution to the carbon issue than are taxes. By internalizing more of the costs associated with coal (for example, requiring more private insurance for coal-sludge impoundments, financing more of the coal-specific government services out of enterprise funds, etc), market solutions would naturally move away from coal. As it stands, diagonal subsidies pervert the market and make coal’s per kWh costs seems lower than they are. The same can be done with petroleum. This is a simple and economically efficient solution.

Posted by erdunhill | Report as abusive
 

No progess will ever be made as long as China is at the negotiating table. They are addicted to pollution!!! And they don’t care what damage is inflicted, or who is affected by their damage.

Posted by Voice-of-Reason | Report as abusive
 

Yo Gregg! Wanna get rid of those nasty CO2 gases? Simple. STOP BREATHING. You and all your silly eco-pals. Every time you exhale you clog up the atmosphere with this deadly CO2, so stop breathing! Now! Every single one of you!

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive
 

c02 is not deadly, plants need it to survive. The world has been changing, will continue to change and there is nothing we can do about it. In fact, some areas of earth have actually decreased in temperature. My opinion is that there are two main reasons why many at the top are peddling this. Impose a carbon tax to gain a significant amount of control over the people. 2nd, population control.

Posted by c6z06man | Report as abusive
 

What about Coase´s theorem? Let´s drop bureocracy and let the FREE MARKET take care of polution. Taxes are ex post estimations and are either progresive or regresive (thus harming either big bussiness or small and medium enterprises). If we let go of al the bureocratic bullshit and let contracts be freely negotiated then the market could take care of the problem. I do invite all comenteers to look up Coase´s Theorem online

Posted by OMS | Report as abusive
 

Yet another example of selfishness/egoism at work. Everyone knows there’s a problem. The science is clear on this issue. And as if that weren’t enough, there was recently news of glaciers melting.

And yet, nothing will be done until a few people figure out how to profit from the situation. Egoism dictates that NOTHING is to be done unless there is some kind of tangible reward to be gained. Profit above all else must be secured, even if it means that everyone suffers in the mean time.

@c02 is not deadly, plants need it to survive.@
We aren’t plants. CO2 is toxic to humans. That’s why we release it during respiration. Try breathing nothing but C02 and see how long you survive. It also holds in atmospheric heat. That heat will melt permafrost and glaciers and raise overall sea levels. This massive release of fresh water into the oceans will change water densities and alter current paths. This will devastate populated coastal areas.

But none of this is important to those involved in the “negotiations”. Profit comes first. There is no way to preserve the current economic structure and still tackle climate change. Our current model is what contributed to the problem in the first place.

But the pleasure and comfort of personal wealth is more important to these people than the real problems we face as human beings.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive
 

Selfishness and egoism is the culprit that you can type on your computer, enjoy A/C, have internet and read books that are against all that humanity has done already…

Profit is not evil, I assure you that if given the oportunity you would jump at Lloyd Blankfein´s job. Humanity does not need cero polution, it needs a ssutainable rate at which the problem can be progresively solved.

Advocating for cero polution is equal to advocating for killing millions, something I do not think anybody is looking for.

Posted by OMS | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Easterbrook has written an excellent article, and his argument that a carbon tax is the best solution for controlling GHG emissions has considerable support among many economists and environmentalists. While I agree with almost everything he has written, I think Mr. Easterbrook’s use of the smog example is misplaced. As another person (erdunhill)has pointed out, smog regulation played a critical role in reducing smog pollution. Moreover, smog and GHG pollution are fundamentally different. Smog tends to be restricted to the regions where it is produced and its effects are immediate, thus creating an incentive for local jurisdictions to tackle this local problem. Once emitted, GHG’s spread globally. The pollution cost is shifted primarily to other people, both in other countries and to future generations. This creates a free rider opportunity that allows individual countries and industries to avoid limiting their GHG production. While one country controls its GHG production, another chooses to allow its industries to use dirty fossil fuels to produce less expensive products for the global marketplace (products that do not incorporate pollution externalities), thereby gaining a competitive advantage. For this reason an international approach is needed. Mr. Easterbrook is correct that the past policy approach has been an abject failure. Nonetheless, a fresh approach will have to be sought.

Posted by DanToronto | Report as abusive
 

I have an even better idea – why do not we tax volcano eruptions? Those nasty things pollute our air and produce an enormouse amount of heat contributing to the global warming…

Also, the Earth seems to have too little drinkable water – lets tax water consumtion.

And how about that run-away government spending that is ailing Greese and many other countries and municipalities – let’s tax government stupidity.

Everything you do not like – poverty, urban sprawl, loud music – lets tax it, it is a no-brainer.

And then lets spend the tax money to give the goverment workers even better health insurance and higher pensions.

Posted by ForeverSPb | Report as abusive
 

Wait a minute…what about the bankers fees?

Posted by csodak | Report as abusive
 

CLIMATEGATE

Posted by c6z06man | Report as abusive
 

All the climate change data that the UN gives is distorted and they keep changing it when a discrepancy is pointed out. It’s laughable. – The point is people are exaggerating the numbers.

Posted by c6z06man | Report as abusive
 

CO2 is pollution, let’s just treat it as such. Ban or tax it AND, most importantly, allow any WTO member to tariff the imports of a country with a lesser standard.

If your country has strong CO2 controls, then you get to tariff the goods you import from a lower standard country (China) to even the competitive landscape and provide an incentive to others to raise their standards.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive
 

Hey Benny_Acosta….. do some research. I hope every person in America will eventually see this video by the man who started the weather channel. This CO2 thing is just another money making/power grabbing scam. If Al Gore more worried about the environment than filling his bank account with money, he’d sell that huge house that uses as much energy as a small city….and stop burning so much jet fuel flying around promoting his self interests. I urge everybody to pass this shortcut on and get the truth out there. I am not suggesting we waste natural resources or abuse Mother Earth any more than the most enthusiastic environmentalist. But I really think this hoax has gone on long enough. http://www.kusi.com/weather/colemanscorn er/84148157.html

Posted by CaptDan | Report as abusive
 

If you believe in free markets..

and you believe in global warming…

then you have to conclude that a carbon tax is the best possible solution. If carbon emitters have to pay a price, we’ll stop emitting so much carbon through technological innovation, energy conservation, whatever seems to work best.

Actually this applies to any pollution. Tax pollution and we’ll solve our pollution problems.

Posted by bruce1963 | Report as abusive
 

“…the United States needs a carbon tax” Are you out of your mind?? Noticeably absent from this article is the FACT that one place in North America already has a carbon tax – British Columbia, Canada. According to media reports it has had ZERO effect on pollution, it has created another self-serving fat bureaucracy, has made BC the most expensive place to live in North America and is a complete FAILURE. The public hates it!! This is just another tax grab by another deficit ridden government — keep in mind that the more complex any bill is, the more easily the true purpose will be buried out of public sight.

Posted by JJWest | Report as abusive
 

It is so nice to see civilized and rational discussion of this topic. The author still manages to repeat the quote about polar ice melting, which is no longer true at the north pole and never was true at the south pole, but overall a reasonable presentation.

Very few skeptics would disagree that the world did get warmer between the 1970s and about 1998. There are some who question whether the warming has continued and is likely to continue or not. There many more who question about the degree to which any of the warming is caused by human activity as opposed to normal climate variation.

As the author kindly pointed out, the earth has been experiencing ‘climate change’ for billions of years. Only recently has ‘climate change’ been redefined by global warming advocates to mean that “temperatures are increasing due to human activity and will continue to increase forever unless we drastically change the way we produce electricity and power our cars and trucks”.

Redefining normal words into keywords for true believers is part of the cause for unpleasant discourse. For example, defining carbon dioxide as a pollutant is just nonsense. Mercury, sulfur, nitrogen oxides, and soot are harmful pollutants that should be suppressed because they cause serious harm to humans and other living creatures. CO2 is emitted by humans and the same creatures when we breath out.

Posted by AGW_Skeptic99 | Report as abusive
 

Since there is more misinformation about CO2, also known as carbon dioxide, I will say more.

CO2 makes up about 4 tenths of one percent of the air we breath today. The worst case scenarios presented by the true believers will have this go to half of one percent or maybe all the way to .006 of the total air volume.

No one has suggested that there is anything even slightly harmful to worry about from increasing CO2 in the air except when the global warmers insist that the world will warm so much that we will either drown or fry.

Greenhouses pump much higher concentrations of CO2 into the air because it makes plants grow faster. Stop with the poisonous stuff.

Posted by AGW_Skeptic99 | Report as abusive
 

Is there any point in discussing any of this if the global population continues to grow at the rate it is? Over population is behind almost every problem humanity faces, from over fishing, deforestation to the over use of natural resources. There is absolutely no point in doing anything if we are not prepared to tackle population growth. It will simply render all our efforts futile.

Posted by paulos | Report as abusive
 

OMS

I never said that profit was evil. What I did say was that profit for the sake of profit itself, is evil. To put it another way, you can bring yourself pleasure by doing something meaningful (contributing good to society), or you could do it by doing something destructive, like stealing, or drugging yourself comatose. One path is sustainable and multiplies the benefits for everyone. The other path will destroy you, and quite possibly others around you.

If one profits by solving real problems and providing real service, for the sake of contributing good, there is nothing wrong with this. But when profit is chased for its own sake, you need only look at the state of the economy to see where that can lead. Yes I have A/C, a home, a computer etc. And I’m very grateful for what I have. But nothing I have is the result of my own doing. If it were not for the others that produced what I was able to purchase, there would be nothing for me to purchase.

Hence, it is important to remember that the ONLY reason one is able to profit is because of the cooperation of others. And because of this it is the responsibility of the business owner to contribute positively to the community(s) in which they do business.

Even if global warming isn’t happening (not likely), no one can deny that we pump billions of tons of pollutants into the air every year. No reasonable person would believe that such a condition can go unchecked for ever. Only a fool would believe that. The writing is on the wall so to speak. And it’s time for us to be more responsible with the environment we live in. The Earth will be fine no doubt. But WE will end up killing ourselves by choking on our own garbage eventually unless we change the way we do things.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive
 

AGW_Skeptic99, what about the 79% nitrogen, 20% oxygen and 1% argon rumour ?

Voters are really going to be impressed by another tax, let alone V-A-T.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive
 

AGW_Skeptic99

It also needs to be pointed out that the reason CO2 is building up is because of the burning of fossil fuels. High school chemistry teaches us that burning anything uses up oxygen and creates co2 and water. When a volcano erupts, co2 is indeed emitted, but it does not displace the oxygen in the atmosphere. This is because melting something is not the same as burning it. Burning requires the use of oxygen. The heat coming out of the earth is due to the enormous pressures very deep in the earth beneath the mantle and nearer to the core.

Scientists studying atmospheric content have discovered that our oxygen levels have been declining. This only happens when something is burned. And in order to affect level of oxygen in the atmosphere there has to be LOTS of burning going on. And that means US. We burn fuel constantly. And as we add to the co2 levels we also decrease the levels of oxygen available for us to breath. Add deforestation to this mix and it ends up being a really ugly situation. This isn’t just some wild guess with no data to back it up. It’s real. And it’s happening now.

When the hole in the ozone layer was discovered above Antarctica in the 1970′s, it was barely noticeable. Now that barely noticeable hole is larger than the entire continent itself. There is NO denying the reality of what is happening. Denial is a powerful emotion to be sure. But it does nothing to affect the reality we live in.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive
 

Benny, while your chemistry is technically correct, the amount of O2 displaced is negligible comprared to the atmospheric volume.

Since the industrial revolution, CO2 concetrations have gone no where but up. Global temperature, however, has gone all over the place. If there were a direct link between CO2 and global temperature, I imagine it’d be visible in a chart like this one:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/co mmons/f/f4/Instrumental_Temperature_Reco rd.png

Since that graph isn’t (mostly) a straight slope upward, I can only deduce that CO2 does not play a significant part in Earth’s Temperature.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive
 

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