TCS Daily


Carbon Caps Aren't The Answer To Global Warming Uncertainties

By Lynn Scarlett - March 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Barely a month into her role as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Christine Todd Whitman chimed in on climate change. "The science is good on climate change. It does exist," she assured Crossfire TV show host Robert Novak. She also added that a policy to regulate carbon dioxide with other so-called greenhouse gasses might be in order.

Yet the science on climate change is not settled. And even greater uncertainties afflict proposed policy measures to reduce greenhouse gases.

It's understandable that President Bush's new EPA administrator might think the science is a done deal. Press releases and news reports announcing summaries of the new 1,000-page report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it seem so. The summaries indicate the globe may warm faster than predictions made five years ago. They also say there is a significant link between warming and human activity. And using the term "will" rather than "might," the summaries predict greater floods, storms, shore erosion and permafrost degradation as a result.

The report itself offers no such certainties. Dr. Kenneth Green, a peer reviewer of the IPCC report (and writer for TechCentralStation) praises the IPCC scientific process, and he notes the reports themselves are "rich in detail and are careful to include numerous caveats that accurately portray the large uncertainties in predictions of future climate changes and impacts." Unfortunately, the Summary for Policymakers, not written by the scientists, distorts that work. It is no basis for policymaking.

IPCC report documents, for example, that temperature shifts in the climate record are sharper before humans existed than currently observed changes, shedding some doubt on the idea that human action lies at the root of currently observed warming trends. Those same documents show a slight increase in Antarctic sea ice since the 1970s, rather than melting, as global warming might cause. They also show sea levels have risen for 20,000 years, unrelated to human action, and IPCC scientists found no speeding up of this trend. And they find that the greatest warming in this century occurred between 1910 and 1945 and mostly lack any human connection.

Close examination of one summary's most alarming claims - that temperatures may be rising faster than thought - show these new predictions result from computer modeling of "worst-case" scenarios, not new empirical information.

The fact is that climate dynamics are complex. Their relationship to human action remains uncertain. Outcomes of any warming on flora, fauna, and human flourishing are speculative -- and vary by location.

These uncertainties do not sweep away the prospect that climate change might be occurring. But even if we acknowledge that some warming may be occurring, we don't know why. We don't know the human contribution to that warming. And, as University of Denver technology professor Frank Laird points out, we face enormous uncertainties about who is emitting which greenhouse gases -- a prerequisite to effectively implementing traditional "lower-rates-by-certain-dates" regulation.

In addition to not clearly understanding the nature of the problem and whether "rate and date" reductions on greenhouse gases will have any effect, there are practical problems, too, with regulations that cap greenhouse gas emissions.

Such caps have a way of unleashing endless "bean-count" bickering. What reductions are included? Will the planting of trees provide a "carbon" credit? With so many natural sources of greenhouse gases, how does one measure reductions? These are precisely the battles unfolding internationally as nations squabble over the international climate change agreement, the Kyoto Protocol negotiated by Vice President Al Gore in 1997.

This doesn't mean Whitman in her Crossfire remarks was speaking out of turn. While President Bush repeatedly denounced the Kyoto Protocol during his campaign, buried in his campaign policy documents were references to a so-called multi-pollutant strategy. And that strategy included carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas alleged to contribute to global warming, among the pollutants.

The policy, though, blends together two very separate challenges.

On the one hand, the nation is in serious need of more holistic environmental decisions -- approaches that move away from regulating each air, water, or waste problem separately. That segmented approach prevents opportunities for balancing goals or more efficiently reducing emissions. Caps also can stand in the way of technological progress. When emissions are hard to measure, technology mandates often become a proxy indicator of regulatory compliance. U.S. regulation of sulfur dioxide and other air emissions has often followed this path, with permits linked to the installation of specific technologies, not achievement of overall emission goals. Such permitting makes regulatory enforcement easier, but it can stand in the way of innovations that might advance pollution prevention and energy efficiency.

Where states -- and the EPA -- have experimented with facility-wide (multi-pollutant) permits, companies have been able to achieve more emission reductions, often at less cost. Indeed, a just-released Department of Energy study confirms that integrated pollution-reduction strategies can cost much less than pollution-by-pollution approaches. This suggests that President Bush and EPA Administrator Whitman should reinforce opportunities to move toward such multi-pollutant strategies.

However, including carbon dioxide in such a strategy would be a mistake. Warning signs of potential changes in climate patterns may warrant some policy response. But the scope of uncertainties about the nature of the risk and what is causing it argue for an emphasis on adaptation and technology development, not direct regulations to reduce greenhouse gases.

This is not a do-nothing approach. New Jersey has a voluntary emission-reduction program for companies. The program encourages energy efficiency, which, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Participating companies supplant old-style "source-by-source" pollution-reduction efforts with a system-wide approach. Some old-style regulations stand in the way of plant modernization or equipment upgrading. Programs like New Jersey's overcome these regulatory barriers to innovation.

Adaptation also can involve reducing people's vulnerability to extreme weather conditions. It can involve research so agriculture can weather changes in weather. And it can involve facilitating market-based exchanges of technology between the United States and developing countries.

The energy department study suggests a "rates-and-dates" approach that includes carbon dioxide is not merely expensive. It can deter innovation in energy technologies, facility upgrades and adaptation - the things that allow real people in real circumstances to address the particular challenges that any changes in climate patterns unleash, whatever their source or nature.
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