State CO2 Caps a Costly Symbolic Statement

Published October 1, 2003

This summer, Maine became the only state legislature to pass a law aimed at capping greenhouse gas emissions. The law is similar to greenhouse gas reduction plans implemented outside of the legislative process in four other New England states.

The New England developments are part of an important environmental debate taking place in all 50 state legislatures. Unfortunately for state taxpayers and hard-working families, that debate is characterized by more heat than light.

The politics of climate change is far removed from the science and economics of climate change. That problem is not unique to the climate change debate, but the dangers of rash political action on climate change are so grave this debate merits our special attention.

Science of Climate Change

Where does the science of global warming stand?

More often than not, the mainstream press covers climate change stories as if there is a scientific consensus that dangerous global warming is occurring, is caused by humans, and will accelerate in the future if the government doesn’t take action now. Only rarely will a newspaper report that the science is unsettled or quote scientists who reject global warming theory.

As James Schlesinger noted in a Washington Post article (see “Climate Change: The Science Isn’t Settled,” reprinted in the August 2003 issue of Environment & Climate News), “Despite the certainty many seem to feel about the causes, effects, and extent of climate change, we are in fact making only slow progress in our understanding of the underlying science.”

A petition compiled by a past president of the National Academy of Sciences has attracted the signatures of more than 17,000 scientists. All agree the science of climate change, and man’s role in it, is uncertain. Fully 89 percent of respondents to a survey of state climatologists agreed that “current science is unable to isolate and measure variations in global temperatures caused only by man-made factors.”

The ongoing scientific debate illustrated by this petition and survey is that current data and scientific understanding of the processes of climate change do not support the conclusion that human-induced global warming is occurring or is likely to occur in the future.

Will CO2 Controls Help?

Computer models of the global climate use assumptions and data that are constantly being revised and disputed by experts. Though not designed to make predictions, the models are often cited by those who forecast the Earth will experience roughly 2º Celsius of warming during the next 100 years. That would return the Earth’s average temperature to about what it was 2,000 years ago.

Those same computer models have been used to predict the effect on climate that would be achieved by the Kyoto Protocol, assuming all parties were to adhere to their end of the bargain. The greenhouse gas controls envisioned by Kyoto would prevent just 0.13 degrees of warming in the next century. Instead of being roughly 2º C warmer, the Earth would be roughly 1.87º C warmer.

Actions taken by individual states, of course, would have a dramatically smaller impact. As two coauthors and I noted in a February 2003 study for The Heartland Institute,

A typical state’s successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would reduce anthropogenic planetary greenhouse gas emissions by 0.00125 percent (1 x .25 x .02 x .25). This in turn would reduce natural as well as anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 0.000125 percent (.00125 x .10). And finally, the effect of all greenhouse gases, natural as well as man-made, is overwhelmed by changes in solar radiation and the temperature of the sun, over which we obviously have no control.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the effort by states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is only a symbolic statement with no real-world effect at all.

High Price to Pay

Now consider the economics of greenhouse gas control measures.

According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy under the Clinton administration, implementation of the Kyoto Protocol (which President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore strongly supported) would result in an 86 percent hike in energy prices and a 52 percent hike in gasoline prices. U.S. Gross Domestic Product would fall more than 4 percent–nearly $400 billion–by 2010.

Analyses conducted by private-sector economists have confirmed the estimates produced by the Clinton administration researchers, also predicting jumps in unemployment and tax revenue shortfalls that would result from Kyoto.

The damage will be far greater for states, like Maine and some of its Northeastern neighbors, that decide to “go it alone.” If a state caps greenhouse gas emissions, it will double the energy prices that must be paid by its industry and residents. How long do you think it might be before businesses and residents move to states without caps?

The Heartland Policy Study I coauthored earlier this year offers state-by-state estimates of just how expensive greenhouse gas controls might be to a state’s economy.

For example, if the Maine law actually results in a mandatory program to cut greenhouse gas emissions–right now the law requires only a plan to meet specific reduction targets–by 2020 the average Maine household will likely pay more than $6,300 per year in higher-priced goods and services and lost income. More than $400 million will be lost from the state’s tax revenues every year. Unemployment will be at least a full percentage point higher than it would be without the CO2 controls.

While plans to cap greenhouse gases are taken seriously in state legislatures across the country, the science and economics of climate change point in the opposite direction.

State policymakers, don’t sentence the citizens of your state to a future of economic hardship in order to make a merely symbolic statement on the environment. Your intentions may be good, but this not a road you want to travel.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].