Bush Denies Plan to Cap Carbon Dioxide

Published December 1, 2006

President George W. Bush is pleased with ongoing declines in greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of economic output and has no plans to cap carbon dioxide emissions, he told the Wall Street Journal on September 29.

Bush’s statement contradicted rumors circulated by proponents of carbon dioxide caps that the Bush administration is poised to make a dramatic shift in climate variance policy.

“We’re meeting those targets,” Bush said in regard to his administration’s stated goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 18 percent per dollar of gross domestic product by 2012. “So long as we’re meeting those targets then I think we ought to pursue the current track we’re on.”

National Policy?

While former Vice President Al Gore circled the globe pushing his theatrical view of climate Armageddon, rumors were floating that Bush had experienced an epiphany. White House staff were reported to be “formulating a huge energy initiative designed to ‘change the whole nature of the discussion’ and challenge the GOP, Democrats, the oil and electricity industries and environmentalists,” according to the September 12 Greenwire.

For those favoring limited government, this would be the unkindest cut of all from the Bush administration. A national policy to control greenhouse gases would mean regulating virtually every aspect of energy production and use, and giving environmental regulators with a well-known disdain for private enterprise unparalleled control over people’s private and economic lives.

No Easy Reductions

Greenhouse gas emissions are a direct consequence of burning fuel, whether from wood, coal, oil, gasoline, or natural gas. The vast majority of energy in the United States is generated using those fuels.

As energy analysts Peter Huber and Mark Mills observe in their book, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, “Power is one of the three fundamental inputs that determine the productivity of labor in every sector of the economy.”

Unlike pollutants addressed and restricted by government regulations, greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide) are not easily removed at the end of a pipe. Short-term reductions of greenhouse gas emissions therefore require a net reduction in fuel usage. Theoretically, this would be achieved through costly energy-efficiency measures, including displacement by more expensive non-greenhouse sources such as wind power, or from carbon taxes or emission-trading programs.

In a greenhouse gas-constrained world, energy would become more expensive, with substantial economic consequences.

Ripple Effects

Raising the costs of energy or limiting its availability through the imposition of technology or emission standards for greenhouse gases is likely to make companies raise the costs of goods and services; reduce costs by suppressing employee wages; switch to lower-cost raw materials or suppliers; or relocate or limit expansion to areas without greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

What businesses cannot do is sit by while they lose their competitive edge, deliver less return to shareholders, and eventually watch their customers move to less-regulated competitors, whether regional, national, or international.

Internationally, most developing countries have refused to comply with greenhouse gas reduction schemes. Because China, India, and other developing countries will continue to grow economically and emit greenhouse gases, the reductions that already-developed and already more energy-efficient countries could achieve would have little effect on the climate.

To prevent such free-riding, a global climate regime would require a global body with binding authority to set and enforce limits on all countries’ energy use. Most countries–particularly the successful ones–will not submit that kind of authority to distant, unelected bodies of bureaucrats.

Adaptation, Sequestration

Measures to increase our adaptive capability and to increase our ability to withdraw greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (sequestration) offer both short-term and long-term benefits, regardless of whether any given change in climate is caused by human greenhouse gas emissions or by the natural variations of Earth’s climate.

Such measures have been proposed since the issue of climate variance rose to prominence, but a widespread fixation on greenhouse gas reduction has left such approaches to languish. That may finally be changing.

As Frances Cairncross, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, observed in the September 5 London Independent, “Almost all the discussion of climate change up to now has been about ‘mitigation’–in other words, how to prevent it from happening. But prevention, although important, is not enough. Climate change is going to happen, and we need to think more about adapting to it.”

Mitigating Effects

So, what would adaptive measures consist of?

With regard to our social and economic systems, measures to increase adaptive capacity could include actions such as eliminating federal programs that subsidize construction in climatically vulnerable regions, including low-lying coastal areas, flood plains, fire-risk areas, and drought-prone areas. Additional efforts would focus on improving the resilience of infrastructure in energy, transport, food, medicine, water, levees, and other vital systems that might be influenced by climate variability.

With regard to ecosystems, adaptive policies recognize the best way to protect ecosystems–both ours and others’–is to make sure they are healthy and resilient.

The best way to do that is to sustain and promote wealth-building institutions such as free markets, property rights, and the rule of law at home and around the world. Only wealthy countries can afford to set biological resources aside, reduce the strain on ecosystems, and help nurture their innate ecological resilience.

In both the short and long terms, an increased focus on sequestration might let us reduce the scale of the challenge. Research is underway to enable us to pull greenhouse gases out of the air, sequestering it in trees, soils, and on the ocean floor.

Rumor Mill Persists

Despite Bush’s consistent denial that he is contemplating a national climate variance policy, rumors persist that he might announce a plan to control greenhouse gas emissions as early as the State of the Union address in January.

Such measures would offer little or no benefits while imposing significant costs. In looking at the issue of climate change, a sharper focus on increasing America’s ability to adapt to climate change and ultimately remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere would be a much better response than federal emission reduction mandates.

Kenneth Green ([email protected]) is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. This article is derived from his recent AEI publication, “Climate Policy: What’s Best–Emission Reduction or Adaptation and Sequestration?”

For more information …

Remarks by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke at the Economic Club of Chicago, June 15, 2006, http://www.federalreserve.gov/Boarddocs/speeches/2006/200606152/default.htm

Francis Cairncross, “We Must Start Adapting to Climate Change,” The Independent, September 5, 2006, http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article1362663.ece

U.S. Climate Change Technology Program, “Technology Options for the Near and Long Term–A Compendium of Technology Profiles and Ongoing Research and Development at Participating Federal Agencies,” published in November 2003, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20019.