TCS Daily

Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death -- Again?

By Roy Spencer - March 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Every time I hear of new legislation that tries to limit the production of greenhouse gases by industry in order to avert climate catastrophe, I am reminded of John Stossel's ABC News special "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" That show put the arcane concept of "risk analysis" into easily understood terms. When we put millions (if not billions) of tax dollars into the latest environmental threat, do we consider the harm we are doing by redistributing that wealth away from programs where it might be needed more? And too often, those on the economic edge, the poor, are the first to suffer.

On Tuesday members of the House Global Climate Change caucus announced a companion version of the Senate's Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, introduced by Sens. McCain and Lieberman, which was defeated 43-55 last year. Among other things, it requires industry to gradually reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by the year 2010. It also calls for a new research emphasis on "abrupt" climate change, a focus which is gaining support from a recent climate model study that suggests that global warming could cause a new ice age (I am not making this up).

Now, being a climate researcher, I am partial to research funding. But redirecting large sums of climate research money within the Department of Commerce based upon a computerized climate model that purports to know how the deep ocean operates is risky at best. While atmospheric climate modeling still has large uncertainties regarding how clouds, water vapor, and precipitation processes might modify (or even mitigate) global warming, ocean models are even more primitive. Also, the fact that most other ocean models don't produce such a drastic response to global warming doesn't seem to matter too much to the legislative process.

Reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases significantly will be extremely painful. It may sound to John Q. Public that getting industry to "pollute less" is a good thing, until John realizes how much it's going to cost him. Using terms like "market-driven" and "tradable allowances," as supporters of these global warming bills do, can make greenhouse-gas reductions sound almost attractive. But it glosses over the fact that industries that happen to be particularly profitable at the time can trade their right to pollute with other industries. "Feel good" measures that might reduce global emissions by 5% or 10% aren't going to have any measurable effect on global temperatures in the next 50 years anyway - a fact the supporters of these bills will acknowledge if you ask them. Fortunately, many Americans can afford to both wring their hands over environmental threats, and pay more for their energy needs. But what about those who can't afford it?

Legislative punishment of the generation of affordable energy -- the lifeblood of free and growing economies -- will have huge winners and losers. But until we either accept nuclear power as an alternative, or develop new energy generation technologies, there is little we can do to reduce our production of greenhouse gases by any significant amount. The energy intensity of solar and wind are insufficient to make much of a difference. So what's the point of introducing legislation that will have relatively little positive environmental effect, but will have negative economic consequences? I can't believe that partisan politics would be involved in any least not in an election year.

Roy Spencer recently wrote for TCS about "Raining on the Global Warming Parade."


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