Doing Little Is Doing Right, or You’ll Wreck Economy

April 20, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Des Moines Register on April 20, 2008.

In a much‐​anticipated statement on global warming, President Bush on Thursday announced a national goal to stabilize our emissions of greenhouse gases — mainly carbon dioxide — by 2025.

To reach this goal, he proposed new fuel‐​economy standards for autos by 2020, and lower emissions from electricity production in the next 10 to 15 years. The president called for new technologies to further reduce emissions after 2025.

If every nation of the world met the president’s goal, there would be no detectable reduction of global warming from a “business as usual” scenario for at least 50 years.

If we want to significantly slow warming, emissions have to be cut by more than 60 percent. Pending legislation in the Senate, sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and John Warner, a Virginia Republican, drops them 66 percent by 2050. The only problem is that no one knows how to do this. The fact is that we simply don’t have — and can’t realistically imagine — the suite of technologies that would bring about such a sweeping change, nationally or globally.

Instead, lawmakers propose schemes to make carbon‐​based energy so expensive that people will use very little of it. Has anyone noticed that gasoline consumption has gone down only a half of 1 percent at current prices? How expensive does it have to be to go down 66 percent?

The president is being keel‐​hauled for being realistic, if ineffective. One can’t simply wave a legislative magic wand and wreck the economy in a futile attempt to halt the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide. China has already passed the United States as the world’s largest emitter, and will be far ahead of us by 2025. India won’t be far behind us for long. They are both industrializing largely with coal‐​fired electricity.

What are the technologies that can accomplish reductions in emissions that will have a major effect on global warming? Don’t ask me — or anyone, for that matter. In a telling commentary earlier this month in Nature magazine, Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at University of Colorado, wrote that “enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon‐​dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels.” What they are remained unspecified.

We currently flail from one politically correct technology to another. A few years back it was hydrogen, until people discovered that more energy would be expended in isolating and transporting it than would be saved. Then along came (dare I say in Iowa) corn‐​based ethanol. Scientists have been warning for years that it, too, would save little if any energy, as was forcefully acknowledged in Science magazine earlier this year. President Bush says “celluosic” ethanol (produced from fiber rather than grain) is just around the corner. Sure. We’re working on it. For 50 years.

Will there be some breakthrough technology? Maybe. But we won’t get it without investment, which means we won’t get there without a vibrant economy. The president is right about that one.

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