Avoid Environmental Sensationalism

Published October 16, 2002

There may be lessons from the Montreal Protocol and ozone depletion to be applied to the Kyoto Protocol and global warming, but they are not the ones suggested in your editorial.One important lesson is to avoid environmental sensationalism. The Antarctic ozone hole, though real, has proven to be an exaggerated phenomenon. The frequently-repeated speculation about ozone depletion-induced increases in skin cancers, cataracts, and environmental damage has yet to be confirmed, even after decades of research. Little wonder, since the feared increase in ultraviolet radiation turned out to be considerably smaller than originally predicted. The ozone hole “crisis” is not being solved so much as it is proving to have been less of a crisis in the first place.Likewise, the risks of global warming are genuine, but the policy debate has been skewed by gloom and doom predictions that go well beyond the scientific consensus. The ozone depletion episode should teach us to be wary of such scary-sounding claims and to stick with the science.While the ozone depletion threat was overstated, the costs of dealing with it continue to be downplayed. Notwithstanding the assertion by an EPA bureaucrat that the costs of the Montreal Protocol were “totally inconspicuous to the customer,” the costs have been extremely conspicuous to anyone who has had a pre-1994 car or truck air conditioner repaired. These systems use CFC-12, one of the banned ozone-depleting refrigerants, and a typical repair can easily cost $100 more than it did prior to the phaseout of such compounds. To a lesser extent, higher maintenance and repair costs have also affected millions of commercial and residential refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. In fact, most studies (including EPA’s own estimates) put the US costs of the Montreal Protocol well into the tens of billions of dollars. Worst of all, these costs were largely unnecessary – a slightly slower but more orderly retreat from CFC usage could have achieved the same environmental goals far more cheaply. It should also be noted that the phaseout is only beginning in the developing world (which was given a ten year delay under the Montreal Protocol), so problems may still arise there.Similarly, there are ways of dealing with the threat of global warming that avoid unnecessary economic pain. But unless we engage in an honest debate about the environmental and economic risks, we’ll once again make the same costly mistakes.

This letter was sent to the Chicago Tribune by Ben Lieberman, a Senior Policy Analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.