Rejecting the World

Published June 1, 2003

The New York Times
April 18, 2003
by Paul Krugman

The Bush administration did the right thing on diesel emissions this week, curbing an important source of air pollution. Yet George Bush has, in general, reneged on the environmental promises of his 2000 campaign. Most notably, he broke his campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, offering instead a purely voluntary–and therefore, one might have thought, meaningless–plan to limit global warming.

In a single speech, candidate Bush accidentally included carbon dioxide in a list of pollutants he would regulate under the Clean Air Act, and leftists have been claiming it was a “campaign pledge” ever since. In fact, candidate Bush repeatedly expressed his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and to mandatory emission controls on carbon dioxide.

But even this, it turns out, was too much for Mr. Bush’s party. The energy bill passed by House Republicans last week didn’t include any plan, even a voluntary one, to limit greenhouse emissions. Why?

The program, President Bush’s Global Climate Change Initiative, already exists and has been in place for more than a year. Why pass a law creating a program that already exists? The Bush program and other voluntary initiatives are working: U.S. greenhouse gas emissions actually fell 1.2 percent in 2001, the largest drop since 1990. America currently emits 14 percent less greenhouse gas emissions per unit of domestic product than it did a decade ago, and it is expected to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity another 18 percent under the President’s program.

The answer, I believe, has to do with an aversion to all things global.

President Bush opposes the Kyoto Protocol precisely because it is not truly global. In a widely circulated letter to Sen. Chuck Hagel dated March 13, 2001, the President wrote, “I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy.” The objection to the Kyoto Protocol is that it unfairly targets businesses in the U.S. and, partly for that reason, wouldn’t work.

On its face, the Bush plan on global warming was a sham, relying on the kindness of corporations. The Department of Energy would have issued credits to companies that reduced carbon dioxide emissions, but since there would have been no legal limits, those credits would simply have been a symbolic recognition of good behavior.

The President’s plan involves much more than “relying on the kindness of corporations.” It includes spending billions of dollars a year on research and development on global warming (more than the rest of the world combined), fuel cells, clean coal, and other emerging energy technologies; subsidies for energy conservation and alternative fuels; tracking and certifying the success of public-private projects; and U.S. participation in myriad bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Thanks in part to these efforts, the U.S. in 2012 is expected to emit 151 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per million dollars of gross domestic product, down from 183 metric tons in 2002.

Or would they? Right-wing think tanks engaged in a concerted, and successful, campaign to persuade Congress to reject the Bush scheme. Those think tanks argued that keeping track of emission reductions would make it easier for a future administration to introduce a real global warming policy: companies that had accumulated credits might favor measures that gave those credits some value. More broadly, they opposed any legitimization of the idea that global warming is a problem.

Enron lobbied then President Clinton very hard to commit America to the Kyoto Protocol after Enron learned it had a pre-existing bank of greenhouse gas credits. Does Krugman want to Enron-ize the entire economy?

But why would that be such a bad thing, from their point of view?

We can safely dismiss the idea that the right has carefully weighed the scientific evidence and concluded that the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is wrong. We can also dismiss the idea that conservatives have carefully examined the economics of emission controls and concluded that they are too expensive.

There is no “overwhelming consensus of the scientific community” that global warming is real and threatening. Satellite readings of global temperatures, uncompromised by human error and artificial heat islands surrounding measuring stations, have measured no increase in global temperatures since readings began in 1979. More than 17,000 scientists have signed a petition saying, in part, “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

A February 2003 Heartland Institute study reports implementing Kyoto nationally would cost America $397 billion by 2010 and send the country into a prolonged recession. Efforts to impose Kyoto on a state-by-state basis would be even more damaging. For example, New York could lose 140,000 jobs and $10.2 billion in state tax revenue in an effort to comply with Kyoto.

So was it just politics as usual? Opposition to a global warming policy partly reflects a general aversion to government regulation. Don’t forget that Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, is a former exterminator who entered politics because he was angry about controls on pesticide use.

But the ferocity with which the right opposes any policy to limit greenhouse gases, even the nearly empty Bush plan, goes beyond general anti-environmentalism. What’s different about global warming, I think, is that unlike local pollution, dealing with it requires concerted action by governments around the world. And that’s what the right really can’t stand.

In fact, the Left is strongly attracted to the global warming scare precisely because “dealing with it requires concerted action by governments around the world.” This is why the Left studiously ignores evidence that rising carbon dioxide levels are actually beneficial to humans and wildlife.

This shouldn’t be surprising. There was a time when U.S. conservatives were isolationists. Nobody thinks that’s a viable position nowadays, but the same impulses–an assertion of moral superiority, an unwillingness to consider alternative points of view–lie behind America’s new spirit of unilateralism. We obviously can’t ignore the world, but many Americans reject the idea that other countries should have any say over what we do. [continued]

America’s “new spirit of unilateralism” is only the Bush administration’s clear advocacy of American interests in the face of European socialism and appeasement. It only appears to be new because it follows eight years of the Clinton administration’s acquiescence to the United Nations and other international bodies.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News, and Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute.