Dixy Lee Ray Symposium: CO2 Levels: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Published December 1, 1999

As the world’s economies continue to rely on fossil fuels, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere continue to rise. Is that good news or bad? And if it’s bad, what is the “something” we should do about it?

Conference participants mulled over these issues and more at the Institute for Regulatory Science’s Second Dixy Lee Ray Memorial Symposium, held August 31 to September 2 in Washington, DC.

The event included a series of highly technical presentations on research projects designed to explore ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere using high-tech instruments and agricultural technology. Research paper presented, for example, included technical discussions of sequestration using “photovoltaic” systems and “ultramafic rock deposits.”

Intermingled with the high-tech presentations were several policy-oriented discussions and scientific debates regarding the value and implications of rising CO2. This offering–a unique medley of policy and hard science–honors the work of accomplished scientist Dixy Lee Ray, a PhD in marine biology. Ray, who died in 1994, is noted not only for her contributions to science, but for her service in numerous public policy positions, having held several public offices, including the governorship of Washington State.

The Politics of Kyoto

The conference opened with a political discussion, as perhaps every DC conference does. The invited keynote speaker, Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia), was unable to attend, but staffer Franz Wuerfmannsdobler presented in his place.

Wuerfmannsdobler noted his boss’s sponsorship of Senate Resolution 98, which set guidelines for the administration to follow before it left to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol–the proposed international treaty aimed at reducing CO2 levels worldwide. One provision of the so-called Byrd-Hagel resolution demanded that any negotiation require all signers–including China and India–to participate in CO2 reduction programs. Both developing countries are expected to see dramatic increases in CO2 output as their economies grow.

The failure of the Clinton-Gore negotiating team to meet this mandate, Wuerfmannsdobler said, has made the treaty unacceptable for ratification by the Senate. Later participants noted even better reasons for the Senate to reject the treaty.

Climatologist Robert Balling of Arizona State University noted that global climate models (which serve as the basis for the global warming theory) predict a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius. Had the Kyoto Protocol been in effect in 1990 or 1998, the predicted temperature increase would have been a mere .05 or .08 of a degree Celsius less. “Are such minimal benefits really worth the price we’d pay?” asked Balling.

Fred Palmer of the Western Fuels Association further predicted that fossil fuel use worldwide will increase regardless of what governments do. Fossil fuels are needed not only to meet basic human needs, he said, but also to expand public access to modern technologies that we in the U.S. take for granted. Palmer noted that some two billion people worldwide still live without electricity. If their standard of living is ever to approach our own, their use of fossil fuels will necessarily increase.

Palmer also highlighted the vast energy demands resulting from expanding use of the Internet. In The Internet Begins with Coal, a study by the Greening Earth Society (a group financially supported by Western Fuels), author Mark Mills reports that Internet-connected computers represent 8 percent of all U.S. electricity consumption today. Adding in other computer uses brings the figure to 13 percent. Mills predicts that the Internet will eventually be responsible for 30 to 50 percent of U.S. electricity consumption.

To Conserve or Not to Conserve

Wuerfmannsdobler nevertheless contended that the U.S. should act unilaterally on energy conservation programs, simply as a matter of good public policy. Those sentiments have been expressed by some members of Congress as well. Senator John Chafee (R-Rhode Island), for example, has proposed legislation that would offer corporations “early credit” for reducing CO2 emissions before implementation of Kyoto.

Such early-implementation efforts have sparked much controversy during the past year. Even before Chafee offered his bill, Representative Joseph Knollenberg (R-Michigan) and Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) added to several 1999 appropriations bills provisions that would bar agencies from early-implementation activities.

Recently, even Wuerfmannsdobler’s boss has expressed some dismay, albeit more mild than others, with the administration’s attempt to implement the unratified the treaty. Byrd cosponsored an amendment to the Environmental Protection Agency’s FY 2000 appropriations bill demanding the agency ensure that all programs “are justified by goals and objectives independent of implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.”

Wuerfmannsdobler remained firm in his stance that Kyoto Protocol-style policies should be implemented, with or without ratification, simply because they are good public policy. He expressed support for a series of bills that would implement a number of “energy security” policies. Such programs, first adopted in the 1970s, have become a source of contention as industries complain they are saddled with “stranded costs” required by “energy security” mandates that forced them into bad investments.

Others in Congress question science

Presenting another view from Congress was House Majority Whip Tom Delay’s staffer, Tom Pyle. Noting that the world’s climate is a very complex thing, Pyle emphasized that scientists really do not understand the interaction among the many factors that contribute to climate. This lack of understanding makes the computer models on which global warming theory is based highly controversial.

Skepticism of such models is healthy, says Pyle, because similar models have cost us dearly in the past.

In the late 1950s, for example, modelers said sulfur dioxide (SO2) released by utilities was reacting with oxygen (O2), producing sulfuric acid that entered lakes directly or by rain and snow–the so-called acid rain phenomenon.

The model predicted an environmental disaster. Congress provided funding to study the issue, spending $500 million and two decades to find out that, except for a few lakes in the Upper Adirondacks, no lakes in the Northeast were affected. Even though scientists considered the models reliable, their predictions were wrong.

Climate models can’t even predict the next season’s weather, let alone long-term global warming, noted Pyle. Were global warming models correct, we should have experienced an increase in global temperatures in the 1970s . . . but temperatures fell. Unfortunately, Pyle notes, the politicians base their policymaking on doom-and-gloom predictions, and rarely retract things they’ve done once the predictions turn out wrong.

And What If CO2 Is Good?

The global warming debate doesn’t end with those who doubt the science, or question the economics of the Kyoto Protocol, or think the U.S. should act simply because CO2 reduction is “the right thing to do.” Yet another set of conference participants contended we shouldn’t be worrying about rising CO2 levels at all . . . because CO2 is a beneficial substance, not a pollutant.

Rather than sequester CO2 using expensive technological devices, proposed Dr. A. Alan Moghissi of the Institute for Regulatory Science, we should harness it to produce more food for a growing world population. Dr. Keith Idso of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change presented research demonstrating that plants flourish in CO2-rich environments. The higher the CO2 level, the more productive the plant. Moreover, Idso’s research finds that increased CO2 levels help plants grow more productively in stressed environments–such as those with limited water supply, low nutrient levels, or high temperatures. Hence, greater CO2 concentrations may enable plants to grow in areas where they would not have survived before, facilitating farming in areas where drought and other factors make food production difficult.

The implications for the developing world–which is not yet meeting basic caloric needs and will face even higher food demand given population growth-are obvious. Less obvious, notes Idso, but still important are the benefits to biodiversity: Plant productivity, he noted, is the prime determinant of species biodiversity.

The conference included other impressive presentations and debates that Dixy Lee Ray would have found engaging. The Institute for Regulatory Science plans to host its third symposium in the year 2000.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. She can be reached by email at [email protected].