Commentary

Green — U.S. Red, White and Blue

There’s a war on. And it cannot be successfully prosecuted without a delicate combination of U.S. leadership and international cooperation. Anything that threatens either threatens all. Unfortunately, two upcoming environmental issues do both.

Although it seems a lifetime, it was a bit over two months ago when European leaders couldn’t say enough bad things about President Bush, when he wisely said “no” to the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol on global warming. That was during the last “Conference of the Parties” (COP) to the treaty, in Bonn, Germany. Bush knows the whole thing costs a fortune and, even if climate change is a big deal, the Protocol has no detectable effect on anything but our economy. Hopefully, the events of the last month provide a bit of needed perspective on how big this deal is.

In their obsession with pleasing radical greens (who just got clobbered in a Hamburg election), the euros modified Kyoto in Bonn. The purpose was to get the Japanese to go along, which will satisfy a requirement necessary to make it legally binding. In doing so, they made the climatically inconsequential treaty more irrelevant. They also left out a lot of details that need to be cleaned up at the next COP.

That COP begins on October 29 in, of all places, Marrakech. Last July, the United States intimated that despite our opposition to Kyoto we would attend and maybe pony up a new plan.

Let’s kill this meeting now, before it harms our wartime alliance. All it will do is re-open old wounds. And don’t even think about the security issues of getting a few thousand people from the hated West together in an Islamic nation, however friendly and moderate the current leaders might be.

The consequence of alliance-building is that we’ve been offering some pretty generous terms, such as debt-forgiveness and dropping of economic sanctions. We can only hope that our European allies didn’t make any demands about Kyoto. And if we don’t go to Marrakech, that will be a very good sign that they didn’t.

The second green threat to the war effort is on the home front. Career bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency don’t seem to get it: This is not the time to saddle the nation with new rules that could constrict our energy security.

Right now, they’re busily working away on new regs to restrict a basket of three emissions: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and airborne mercury. The first two are substantially regulated already, and no one has been able to find one death from the last one. But we know that mercury is toxic, and despite the obvious lack of morbidity and mortality, so the logic goes: We must regulate.

The problem is that while sulfur and nitrogen oxides are already largely scrubbed from coal combustion, apparently the only way to keep the mercury out of the air is to stop burning it. Coal produces over 50 percent of our electricity. We have so much of it in the ground (despite attempts by the Clinton Administration to lock it up, as it did in Utah) that we are called the Saudi Arabia of coal.

In a war, prudence plans for the worst contingencies. One of those is that things can and do go bad, and that we could wind up with an embargo — in reality or de facto — on Middle Eastern oil. A supertanker is a wonderful target for, say, an airliner-cum cruise missile. Not likely, you say?

In 1973, oil was embargoed, fuel prices skyrocketed, and soon after, the economy went into a sharp and severe recession. Recall that the shock was so great that one of his first acts as president was for Jimmy Carter to declare that energy security was “the moral equivalent of war.” Now, consider prosecuting a real war in this environment.

In the worst-case scenario, if supplies are restricted, the United States can buy more oil — at potentially great expense — from non-Arab vendors. But how does it get shipped, once one supertanker blows up? In that world we can formulate alternative fuels out of the strategically inexhaustible coal. No one likes the idea. It’s dirty, but so is war, where a lot of things can happen that no one likes. Let’s not place this industry in harm’s way before such an effort might be required.

Yes, there’s only a small chance of this. But it is larger than the probability of the events of September 11.

The point is simple: It’s time to back off on things like Kyoto and regulations that have the potential to tie our hands in any way. Halfhearted war efforts are for losers.

Finally, for those concerned about ultimate environmental degradation, take solace. Big wars, however noble, leave behind big governments and even bigger alliances, which will be only too eager to impose all kinds of new regulations once the smoke clears away. The residuum from the last one is called the United Nations, which gave us the Kyoto Protocol.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute and author of “The Satanic Gases.