TCS Daily


Breathing Evil

By James K. Glassman - March 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Hard on the heels of President Bush's recent announcement of a plan to fight global warming, the administration's prime advocate of the new policy started handing out prizes to corporations she termed "Climate Leaders."

At a Feb. 20 ceremony, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman left no doubt that the administration, in a dramatic change in policy, was now demonizing carbon dioxide - the stuff we exhale, the stuff that makes plants grow. She effectively placed it on the White House list of evil-doers.

While the plan has been derided by green organizations as "Kyoto Lite" for its voluntary nature, the administration is clearly indicating that it will use its powers to reward companies that cut emissions and punish those that increase them. The big loser in the new policy will be America's Coal Country.

Since coal-fired utility plants emit more CO2 than natural-gas-fired plants, the new policy will discourage the use of coal - and the building of new coal-fired plants. It's hardly a surprise that one of Mrs. Whitman's "Climate Leaders" is Cinergy, a big natural-gas utility based in Cincinnati. (Another firm was Miller Beer. Are they making a new Miller Flat?)

According to Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, located in the state capital of Columbus, the administration's plan will have serious consequences for coal. "It's really disingenuous to say that you're not going to regulate CO2, but to then massively incentivize reductions in CO2 emissions. Regulating CO2 goes right to the core of the American economy, and will have disastrous consequences for coal-producing states like Ohio," he said.

It is a deadly serious fact that the policy strikes a severe blow against coal states like West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

Those states are expected to be the main battleground for the 2004 presidential election, so the policy announced on Valentine's Day raises key political questions: Has Mr. Bush written-off the coal states in an attempt to win the votes of upscale urban voters and soccer moms in the Northeast and West? Is he now taking coal-state voters for granted? Or is he sacrificing potential Coal Country votes in an effort to stifle criticism from environmentalists, both at home and abroad?

A year ago, Mr. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol as "fatally flawed." Signed in 1997 by then-Vice President Al Gore but opposed by nearly the entire U.S. Senate, the treaty would have committed the United States to a significant reduction in its emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, which is a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels - used to power automobiles, factories and most utility plants.

The only realistic way to cut CO2 emissions is to cut energy use - at a cost to the economy of about $400 billion in annual output, based on Energy Department estimates using the Kyoto targets. "Most reasonable people," said Mr. Bush in June, "will understand that [Kyoto] is not sound public policy." At the time, Mr. Bush stressed that research into the causes of the one-degree surface-temperature increase over the past century was inconclusive.

Big questions remained. How much of the past rise was caused by humans? Would it continue? Why had temperatures just above the Earth not increased? Whether natural or man-made, could warming be reduced anyway? The president decided to commit massive sums to research and to help developing nations, which would suffer the most if warming accelerated.

Mr. Bush's rejection of Kyoto, many analysts believe, set the tone for his administration, in much the same way that President Reagan's firing of air- traffic controllers did. It demonstrated confidence and a willingness to buck the conventional wisdom, as formed by Washington's political and media class.

There was a furor, but as time passed, it died down. Now, new research, published in journals like Nature and Science, is indicating a net cooling, rather than warming, in the Antarctic, with a thickening of the ice shelf. Other scientists are finding a link between solar activity and higher temperatures on parts of the Earth. Wouldn't it be remarkable if the sun caused global warming?

But on Valentine's Day, Mr. Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of appearing a strong, sure leader, he now seems to be responding to the shifting winds of public opinion. The administration was split on whether to announce a new policy, but working against a deadline of the president's departure for his Asian trip, the White House decided to back Kyoto Lite.

If Mr. Bush expected the policy - which begins as a "voluntary" program but will almost certainly become mandatory - to please his environmentalist opponents, he was mistaken. Instead of satisfying them, it gave them a fat target to attack. "The Bush administration is sticking to the polluting policies that the energy industry asked for," said Sierra Club chief Carl Pope in a typical response. After all, if the White House now concedes that CO2 requires "aggressive reduction goals," as the EPA put it in a press release, then why should targets be optional? Good question.

This confused policy has stirred a hornet's nest of opposition. The shame is the policy of research and technical assistance that the administration was pursuing was perfectly reasonable politically, economically and environmentally.

What Mr. Bush should have said was this: "The best protection against climate change of any sort - warming or cooling, human-caused or natural - is the resilience provided by a strong economy. Our climate-change policy, then, is to boost our economy and the rest of the world's by using our energy resources wisely and well. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and we have no intention of neglecting this important source of energy in the name of unsound science."
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