Commentary

Clinton’s Global-Warming Time Bomb

Now that the election’s finally over, the Clinton administration has a last chance to do some real damage to George W. Bush’s economy.

President Clinton believes passionately that part of his legacy will be to put in place a mechanism that will forever mire America in the United Nations’ infamous Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Last month, the signatories met at The Hague, where Clinton proposed that we meet almost 90 percent of our obligations to reduce net emissions of major greenhouse gases by cutting energy use. Originally, the United States had proposed to lock up 50 percent of such emissions through trees and soil management — a relatively inexpensive proposition — but the European Union insists on emissions reductions, a course that will cause us grave economic harm.

So we caved all the way to a 90 percent reduction, and the EU still said no, we need more. Then, last week, the Clinton administration tried again in a closed-door meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Still no agreement. Finally, on Dec. 13, Norway’s Environment Ministry invited everyone to Oslo — before Christmas — for a third try.

This will be the last go-round, and Clinton has every incentive to give away the store. The result is a twofold “legacy” — being the first U.S. leader to commit to major reductions in greenhouse gases, and saddling the incoming president with a massive political and economic burden that will have absolutely no detectable effect on global weather and climate.

The political gains are obvious. Bush either gets clobbered in 2004 or the Republicans suffer in 2008. While Kyoto agreements go into force in 2008, major taxes and infrastructural changes have to begin long before then to meet these massive reductions in energy use. First, say good-bye to affordable electricity. Currently 56 percent of our juice is produced by burning coal, but because it emits a bit more greenhouse gas per unit energy than natural gas (which costs more), well, coal’s gotta go.

California, as usual, is leading the way here. Thanks to a moratorium on production of fossil fuel power plants, they’re out of power. It is a sad day when our Grinch-green friends compel us to turn off the Christmas lights, but that is the case right now in Los Angeles.

Second, we hope you like your new hybrid automobile. The technology’s really cool. My Honda Insight really does get 70 miles per gallon on a good day, and it is an engineering marvel. The only problem is that Honda’s losing at least $8,000 per car, and the company only sold 3,502 through November. It seats two comfortably.

So either we’re going to have to pay about 50 percent more for a mid-range hybrid car, or we’re all going to have to make it up in taxes to subsidize those who do buy them. And it might require quite a subsidy, too. Insight sales in November, at 291 units, were down 40 percent from August, despite giveaway prices.

Third, the $2-a-gallon gas of spring 2000 will be just a fond memory, thanks to the taxes required to discourage enough consumption to make you buy that subsidized hybrid.

High gas prices, tax-mandated technology, and dark Christmas trees are not the correlates of political popularity. But that is exactly where Clinton could force Bush to go if he gives away the store in Oslo.

All this for an agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, that is not the law of the land. It hasn’t been ratified by the Senate, and it stands little chance. And even if it were in force, the Clinton administration’s own scientists say it would only change global temperature by seven hundredths of a degree in 50 years. That’s too small to measure.

There will almost certainly be some weather disaster during the Bush administration. Right now, the insured value of property along the East Coast is almost equal to our annual Gross Domestic Product. We haven’t had a Category 5 hurricane hit since 1969. Even a lower Category 4, well-aimed, will cause unimaginable destruction. Federal scientist Christopher Landsea (the most appropriately named hurricanologist in the world) has shown that even this class of hurricane, if it hits Miami/Fort Lauderdale, will be good for about $70 billion. On the high end, $100 billion from a Category 5 isn’t out of the question. People will blame global warming rather than admit it’s pretty stupid to sink one’s life savings in a sand dune on a hurricane-prone beach.

In Bush Sr.’s administration, the Senate was adamantly opposed to a different climate treaty — the Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) refrigerants. NASA scientist Bob Watson — now the powerful head of the U.N.’s Panel on Climate Change — announced an imminent ozone hole over North America, and five days later, the Senate passed a ban on CFCs, 99 to 1. A senator by the name of Al Gore whipped up the troops with an impassioned speech about an “ozone hole over Kennebunkport,” Bush’s home.

Never mind that the predicted disaster never happened. NASA had made a measurement error. But Bob and his friend Al had correctly calculated the political trajectory that would bring in the ban on CFCs.

So it can happen, and next week in Oslo, the Clinton administration may sow the seeds that trash the future of George W. Bush.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Satanic Gases (Cato Institute, 2000).