Commentary

Kyoto: Do the Math

Kudos to President Bush, the first world leader whose administration has pronounced the Kyoto Protocol stone, cold dead.

It’s about time —- and it’s about mathematics. Kyoto was probably the dumbest international instrument signed by an American chief executive.

Strong words, but easy to back up with a little primer on climate change. If we continue on our way, doing nothing and with no specific attempt to spread technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the earth will continue to warm. Averaging the so called “general circulation climate models” used in the upcoming U.N. compendium on climate gives a 2.2ºC (4 degrees Fahrenheit) warming for the next 100 years.

When run backwards, most (but not all) of those models “hind cast” too much warming in recent decades. When their mean prediction is adjusted for this fact, and for the scientific truth that a small fraction of recent warming is from changes in the sun, the expected warming in the next 100 years drops to around 1.4ºC (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Several scientists, ranging from those in the service of the British government (whose radical position on global warming resulted in riots last summer), to those in libertarian think tanks, have replicated this calculation and come up with the same answer.

That’s not a large number, and it is disproportionately distributed into a warming of the coldest winter temperatures. But, even so, what would Kyoto do about it?

The answer is, nothing.

At least nothing that could have any discernible impact on how climate influences our lives. Clinton administration scientists answered this one for us: If all of the nations did what they said they would do under Kyoto, the net amount of warming reduced by the year 2100 would be 0.14ºC. That’s 6.4 percent of the average warming of those U.N. models.

How much does it cost? Estimates range from 1 percent to 3.5 percent of GDP per year. The larger figure assumes very little “emissions trading” between nations, where we could take credit for emissions prevented in, say, Africa, by giving them less emissive technology. Incidentally, our European friends don’t want us to make up the majority of our emissions by doing this humane thing. The cost figure also looms large if we can’t “sequester” our emissions in trees and soils, and are instead forced to raise energy prices. Again, our European allies won’t let that happen, either. So the 3 percent-GDP range is the more likely figure.

If anyone wants to see a microcosm of what Kyoto would bring, look no further than California, except that the lack of energy must also be exacerbated by excessive energy taxes.

These numbers are well known to the Bush Administration—which needs to get them out in public—and to the environmental press, which never mentions them.

Think of them in terms of “insurance,” and substitute “your house” for GDP. According to Kyoto, you would pay 3 percent of the value of your property, each and every year. And should your house burn down, Kyoto will reward you with 6.3 percent of its total value. Is that all you get for your money?

It’s worse than this. Kyoto would probably wreak great harm on the environment. It is well known that the more affluent a society is, the more it protects the environment. Among other things, people have more capital to invest in the development of efficient technology. Taking this capital away in the form of the onerous energy taxes required to promulgate Kyoto has the additional pernicious effect of giving our government a virtually limitless fund to squander, when the investing should be left up to individuals. I have personally lost thousands of dollars on Ballard Power Systems, a fuel-cell company, and I drive a gas-electric Honda Insight (a great car that really does get 70 mpg). But it is not your responsibility to buy stock or cars for me or anyone else.

Finally, Kyoto is irrelevant. History teaches us that we cannot anticipate the technological changes of the next 100 years, but we can be sure that what gives us power, and how we move things, will be very different than what runs us today. Compare horse-drawn 1900 to Internet-driven 2000 for an example. I don’t know what will charge the world of 2100, but I doubt that it will produce a lot of greenhouse emissions, whether or not they are harmful.

Do the math. Kyoto was a bad deal, whether or not you care about global warming. And it’s a good deal that finally there is a world leader with the courage to tell the truth.

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