What we should be taxing: greenhouse gases
Bravely, international diplomats, United Nations officials and environmentalists are meeting in Cancun this week to demand that other people use less fossil fuel. Bravely they met in Copenhagen a year ago to make the same demand, after also bravely meeting in Bali, Montreal and similar resort locales in prior years.
I will skip the obvious point about the greenhouse gases emitted by the jets and limos that bring the participants to these annual confabs, where preaching-to-the-choir is the order of the day.
Most of what happens at the annual international conference on climate change has been decided on in advance, so the greenhouse emissions could be avoided by a tele-meeting. But then the delegates wonâ€™t get a paid trip to Cancun!
Last year, the majority of the worldâ€™s heads of state, including President Barack Obama, attended the climate change conference in Copenhagen, where they bravely made vague, nonbinding comments about how other people should use less fossil fuel.
Obama ended the conference by declaring the United States would make a nonbinding commitment to engage in future greenhouse gas negotiations — exactly what the elder president George Bush was mocked for saying at the conclusion of the 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio, a place the delegates bravely went.
Nearly two decades after Rio, nothing has changed in the international legal status of greenhouse gases, which are all but unregulated; nothing has changed in the United States, which does not regulate greenhouse gases; and President Obama was even using 17-year-old meaningless boilerplate!
Wait, the 2009 meeting did vote out this extremely vague, nonbinding document, whose only clear conclusion is that the United Nations and its member countries should continue to provide cushy jobs to the kinds of people who attend these kinds of conferences. Amorphous as the 2009 document was, only about half the heads of state present endorsed it. The rest just made hollow speeches then jetted away, after posing for pictures. But they posed bravely! It takes tremendous courage to stand in a fancy hotel in a beautiful locale and demand that other people use less fossil fuel.
This yearâ€™s conference may not even result in a vague nonbinding memo. Though there is sure to be lots of talk about â€¦ next yearâ€™s conference.
Perhaps you think I am mocking the Cancun event because I believe climate change to be inconsequential. Rather, I am mocking the Cancun conference because I believe climate change is a real threat.
Going-through-the-motions of international gatherings that accomplish nothing other than a luxurious week of travel for climate-o-crats are part of the problem. Such conferences make global warming concern seem the kind of thing only United Nations officials and environmental fundraisers care about. Having the United States president, and other heads of state, attend such conferences and then reach no agreement only makes the climate change concern seem ridiculous — as yet another self-promotion photo-op for politicians.
Greenhouse gases wonâ€™t cause the instant-doomsday calamities spoken of in Hollywood and environmental literature. But there is real risk climate change will harm agriculture, by altering rainfall patterns; will raise sea levels and change ocean currents; will reduce the global freshwater supply, by melting the snowpack and glaciers that provide most of the freshwater used for farming and drinking. Plus we should be reducing fossil fuel consumption regardless of climate trends.
The above paragraph contains ample rationale for action to reduce greenhouse gases. But wasteful international meetings in resort cites will not get this job done — no matter how fancy the chardonnay and canapĂ©s may be.
The United States should drop out of all international negotiations on greenhouse gases — such negotiations are a total waste of everyoneâ€™s time — and go it alone. Regulate carbon within the United States, on a domestic-policy basis. This will inspire U.S. engineers, inventors and business people to devise clever ways to reduce greenhouse gases cheaply. Once we invent them, we give them to the world.
That is how rapid global progress against smog and acid rain was achieved. The United States regulated these problems on a domestic-policy basis, invented cost-effective engineering and economic solutions, then gave the solutions away. Smog and acid rain are now declining almost everywhere in the world, even with population growth. Yet no international treaty governs these issues, and the United Nations has nothing to do with them.
International negotiation regarding greenhouse gases is not only complex, expensive and goinâ€™ nowhere, there is no chance — none, zip, zilch — that the United States Senate ever will ratify a treaty that grants the international community decision-making input into American energy policy.
The Senate ratified the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, under whose auspices the annual meetings are held. But the Framework Convention has no teeth — basically, it authorizes annual meetings. In 1997, a test vote on the Kyoto Protocol was rejected 97-0. Not even one Democrat voted in favor!
The current Kyoto Protocol is somewhat improved over the 1997 version â€“ it might draw 15 or even 20 votes in the Senate. There is no chance — none, zero, zilch — that Kyoto or a hypothetical better-written Daughter of Kyoto will be ratified by the Senate. Not in the lifetime of anyone reading this column, at least.
So why does the White House and State Department continue to participate in climate change negotiations and send officials to conferences like Cancun to make empty speeches? In order to create the appearance of action, distracting attention from the lack of real change.
The cap-and-trade greenhouse legislation failed last year in Congress, and good riddance to the bill, which was ultra-complex, plus larded with bureaucracy and special-interest handouts.
The United States needs a carbon tax, the simplest and most cost-effective means to address greenhouse gases. Free-market economists such as N. Gregory Mankiw, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush, have endorsed a carbon tax — to inspire inventors and business people to seek profit by finding cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases.
Right now Washington is debating raising taxes to fight national debt. Rather than tax labor or capital — all current proposals call for one or the other — letâ€™s tax greenhouse gases. This will create a profit incentive to fix the global warming problem. Then weâ€™ll give the solution to the world.
Thatâ€™s American can-do spirit, and thatâ€™s what can protect us against climate change. Not conferences in Cancun.
Photo caption: A member of an environmental organization holds a sign during a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador November 30, 2010, to demand that the U.S. sign the Kyoto treaty on climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference that is being held in Cancun, Mexico. The talks are seeking a successor for the U.N.’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which obliges almost 40 developed nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The U.S. never joined Kyoto, believing it would cost U.S. jobs and excluded developing nations. REUTERS/Luis Galdamez