Commentary

Bush Is Right on Climate Change Policy

President Bush should be applauded, not criticized, for deciding against regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) and withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Protocol. His approach is scientifically merited and was economically required. Carbon dioxide is a fundamental building block of life; regulating it as a pollutant would have put agenda-based environmentalism on a collision course with the growing energy requirements of modern industrial society.

Many European leaders and environmental groups have professed outrage at the Bush administration’s decision to reject Kyoto. Yet it was an open secret that the 38-nation agreement (sans the developing world) was a dead letter. Indeed, it was the European Union negotiators who rejected a Clinton/Gore compromise position regarding carbon sinks and international air permit trading that would have added as many problems as it would have solved.

Two years ago the leader of a Washington-based energy/environmental think tank, Paul Portney, said, “I can find virtually no one—in government, in the environmental advocacy community, in business or in the press—who thinks that the Kyoto Protocol has even the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of coming into effect in anything approaching its current form.” Chris Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based environmental group, said in 1998, “The challenge now is to renovate the baroque structure that the Kyoto Protocol has become—or else scrap it and get ready to start over.”

What was baroque over two years ago became far more baroque, and President Bush did little more than put the dead letter out of its misery.

On the science side, there is reason for climate optimism even as the hydrocarbon age continues to mature. Scientists have known since the beginning of the debate that man-made global warming was benignly distributed toward warmer nights and higher below-freezing temperatures. The case for climate alarmism has other problems, as well.

The U.S. National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration recently reported that global surface temperatures in 2000 fell for the second consecutive year. Last year, in fact, was the second coolest year since 1994. An article in the January issue of Geophysical Research Letters estimates that the “record” warming over the last two decades has been overstated by 40 percent due to errors with sea surface temperature techniques. This suggests that the satellite and balloon temperature records that do not show global warming in the lower troposphere may be more accurate than previously thought. A study funded by NASA, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society presented evidence that cloud behavior reduces the enhanced greenhouse effect, explaining why climate model predictions have been so much greater than actual warming given a century of greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere.

The United States and the world went through global warming and global cooling scares well before the current debate over climate change began in the hot summer of 1988—a story chronicled by James Fleming in his book Historical Perspectives on Climate Change. The present global warming scare may be transient as well.

Like many things, the truth is probably in the middle. There is global warming from the combustion of hydrocarbon energies. But the warming is benignly distributed and produces many benefits, not only costs. A moderately warmer and wetter world with enhanced carbon fertilization is a greener and more productive world.

Climate alarmists are predictably alarmed at Bush’s decision to reject the premise that CO2 is a pollutant that threatens future generations. But their concerns may be misplaced. Evidence is mounting that effectively regulating CO2 is incompatible with a modern, energy hungry society, and CO2 warming is not problematic. Thanks to Bush’s politically courageous decision, sound science can replace politicized science.

There remains much work to be done to understand a very complicated issue, but the balance of evidence is weighing in against climate alarmism. In this light, great caution is merited before a fundamental and possibly irreversible decision is made to demonize and regulate CO2 and enter into problematic international treaties that are unfair at the beginning and unworkable in the end.

Robert Bradley is president of the Institute of Energy Research in Houston, Texas and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.