TCS Daily

A Smart Consensus

By Duane D. Freese - November 4, 2004 12:00 AM

In politics, as Tuesday's election results confirmed, there is no consensus of opinion about who would be the best U.S. president for the next for years. But at least on one thing, President Bush and his challenger John Kerry agreed, that the international political consensus forged on global warming as represented by the so-called Kyoto protocol is wrongheaded.

Bush long ago called the agreement, aimed at curbing greenhouse gasses in developed nations, as fatally flawed as it cost too much to do too little and didn't include the largest future emitters of greenhouse gases, India and China, under its rules. Better, according to Bush, to push the development of new clean energy technology and pursue its spread through bilateral accords.

Meanwhile, Kerry's campaign issued a statement in August stating simply: "John Kerry and John Edwards believe Kyoto is not the answer."

In a Q&A with the Oregonian, the two men issued quite similar responses just days before the election to the question: What role should the U.S. play on matters of global environmental concern, such as climate change or deforestation or fisheries?

Bush responded that this country "must coordinate an international Earth observation system; reduce greenhouse gas emissions using business and energy tax incentives; work with the United Nations for international improvement, and combat illegal logging and conserve tropical forests."

Kerry said: "The big problems are international, calling on the U.S. to lead all nations in devising a climate change strategy to combat global warming. And it must work in cooperation with other nations to halt deforestation and depletion of fisheries."

Note that neither man mentioned moving ahead with Kyoto.

On that score, the two candidates agreed with a group of eight top economists -- six from America, two from other countries and three who had won Nobel prizes -- brought together last month by the head of Denmark's Environmental Assessment Institute, statistician and author Bjorn Lomborg.

The economists "came to Copenhagen to reach consensus about how to help the world's poor," Lomborg said. At the top of their list came battling HIV/AIDS, as it had the highest return for dollars spent; then adding micronutrients to diets; then free trade and mosquito nets and five other issues. At the bottom, climate change. Lomborg noted that economists felt that the best thing to do in dealing with that far down the road problem is to "make people rich."

This, of course, alarmed Europe's rabid environmental community, one of whose leaders huffed that "unless you act to prevent runaway climate change, all the other things which they prioritize ... will be wrecked by global warming."

The only problem with that assessment is that the only consensus that humans are inducing "runaway climate change" is among those environmentalists and the political culture in Europe that feeds on their passion. Most of the climate models that are the basis for global warming predictions forecast only mild to moderate warming as a result of human activity over the next century. And scientists in their discussions of climate change are even more circumspect.

Their "consensus" opinion, stated in the first chapter of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2001, was:

"The fact that the global mean temperature has increased since the late 19th Century and that other trends have been observed does not necessarily mean that the anthropogenic (human-induced) effect on the climate has been identified. Climate has always varied on all time-scales, so the observed change may be natural."

In short, what we are observing in terms of global temperatures, while affected by human factors, is affected by natural factors as well. Indeed, the strongest consensus on "runaway climate change" was stated by a National Academy of Sciences report in 2002, "Abrupt Climate Changes, Inevitable Surprises":

"Until the 1990s, the dominant view of climate change was that Earth's climate system has changed gradually in response to both natural and human-induced processes. Evidence pieced together over the last few decades, however, shows that climate has changed much more rapidly -- sometimes abruptly -- in the past and therefore could do so again in the future."

In short, climate may change abruptly for a variety of reasons, which suggests that what mankind needs to do is prepare for the inevitable -- not try to change what it may have little control over.

Consider all the scares raised by environmentalists in the wake of three hurricanes hitting Florida this year. That this was only, as most meteorologists believe, merely the statistical smoothing of cyclonic activity after decades of lower than normal hurricane activity, that didn't keep Europe's climate alarmists from forecasting more of the same ahead due to global warming.

Lost in their rhetoric, though, is that for all the damage caused by the hurricanes in Florida, it didn't lead to devastating, deadly flooding. Why? Because Florida has become rich enough to develop flood abatement programs to mitigate such flooding. Dikes and levees provide it better protection than hurricanes.

Contrast Florida with Haiti this fall, where 600 died in flooding, or the 6,600 killed mostly from flooding in Honduras from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Those countries were too poor to afford decent flood programs.

Hurricanes will always be with us. So, the economists have a point when they say that increasing wealth is the best way to deal with global warming, especially when the alternative is a flawed treaty that would do nothing to actually slow greenhouse gas growth and might, by slowing growth, actually do just the opposite.

Studies by Clemson environmental economist Robert McCormick have found that increasing national incomes help reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. How? Richer countries build homes with wood rather than burning it for fuel. Richer nations plant trees rather than destroying them. Richer nations use better agricultural techniques. They use cleaner coal technology. They find better ways to store their waste. The bottom line: They take more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than poorer nations do, even as they may produce more. According to McCormick, "the growth rate of net carbon emission per person will soon be negative in the United States."

As Terry L. Anderson of the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center summed it up: "[R]icher may well be cooler."

The good news from the election is that the nation had two candidates who refused to be stampeded to embrace Kyoto, establishing a political consensus here that creating wealth is a better route to dealing with global warming.


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