Global Warming: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally Doesn’t Work

Published March 18, 2003

“Think globally, act locally” has long been a credo of the environmental movement. It is often a helpful principle to guide effective advocacy efforts and make personal lifestyle choices.

But there’s at least one case where this principle doesn’t work: global warming. A new study produced by The Heartland Institute, which I coauthored, provides a detailed examination of state global warming programs.

Some environmentalists believe man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing “global warming,” a potentially catastrophic destabilization of the Earth’s climate. President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol – a treaty that would have required the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012 – because he believed the science did not support immediate action to reduce emissions. His decision prompted environmental pressure groups to lobby for “back door implementation” of the treaty by state legislatures.

Several states have already explicitly capped emissions by electric utilities. In their 2002 legislative sessions, 25 state legislatures considered 71 bills explicitly seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The bills ranged from voluntary and mandatory emissions reporting and carbon sequestration programs to requirements that utilities buy expensive electricity from renewable energy sources and probably illegal transportation initiatives.

The most credible studies of the Kyoto Protocol found a national program to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the Kyoto Protocol’s requirement of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012 would increase gasoline prices at least 65 cents a gallon and double the price of electricity for consumers and businesses, destroy at least 2.4 million jobs, cause average household income to fall $3,372, and cost state governments $116 billion a year in revenue.

One reason the Kyoto Protocol would be so expensive is because developing countries are not required to reduce or even cap their emissions. Their exclusion from the agreement means global emissions will rise no matter what developed countries do: in other words, “all pain and no gain.” Kyoto also places off-limits many of the lowest-cost emission reduction opportunities, which typically exist in developing countries.

State versions of the Kyoto Protocol would cost even more. More low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions will lie outside the state’s borders, forcing businesses and consumers to act on higher-cost options first. States are forced to use command-and-control regulations, such as renewable energy mandates and emission caps, because intra-state markets are too small to support market-based solutions such as carbon taxes and emission permit trading. Moreover, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one state are partially or entirely offset by increases in the emissions of other states and countries as businesses and economic activity migrate to places with lower energy costs and fewer regulations.

The Heartland study estimates a typical state-based greenhouse gas program would cost 10 times as much, per ton of carbon avoided, as the Kyoto Protocol. The financial burden in most states would simply be unbearable: $10,200 per household in Illinois, $7,200 per household in California, $7,600 per household in New York, and so on. The average annual cost per household for the 37 states we examined came to $10,000.

It is inconceivable that reducing greenhouse gases could be worth $10,000 per household. Each state’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is too small to matter. Even if a typical state banned activities that generate greenhouse gases inside its borders (including cars and trucks, home heating, and virtually all manufacturing), global emissions would be reduced by only one-half of 1 percent. Even this assumes no goods or services manufactured outside the state would be consumed by the state’s residents.

Should we even be trying to forestall climate change? The latest and best research indicates U.S. workers and consumers would benefit from a modest warming, since it would increase crop yields, lower food prices, reduce construction costs, and reduce heating bills. (Most of the warming is likely to occur at night, in northern latitudes, and during winter seasons.) According to Yale University economist Robert Mendelsohn, global warming by 2060 is likely to have a small (0.2 percent of GDP) positive effect on the U.S. economy and a small (1 to 2 percent of GDP) negative effect on the global economy.

Maybe the wealthy lawyers and professional advocates who work for environmental organizations can afford to pay $10,000 a year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a barely visible amount. Most middle-income families cannot afford such a bill, and senior citizens and the poor absolutely cannot. For them, state greenhouse gas programs would mean less money for food, medicine, home heating, and other essential goods and services.

State legislators should oppose new efforts to cap or reduce greenhouse gas emissions because such efforts are expensive, slow economic growth, and produce few if any economic or environmental benefits. Thinking globally and acting locally simply doesn’t work for global warming. Those who say otherwise are placing their states’ poor and elderly at grave risk.

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James M. Taylor is an attorney and managing editor of Environment & Climate News, a monthly newspaper published by The Heartland Institute. Taylor’s email address is [email protected]

For further information contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447, email [email protected]