The Magazine

Bush Is Right on Global Warming

. . . not that reporters would understand . . .

Jun 25, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 39 • By JAMES K. GLASSMAN and SALLIE L. BALIUNAS
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CLIMATE, RICHARD LINDZEN OF MIT fondly reminds us, always changes. It must. Over centuries, responding to stresses internal and external, the earth is either warming or cooling, just as the temperature from day to day heats or chills. It could stay the same, but not for very long. "Climate change," then, is not a calamity but a truism.

Evidence from ice cores, glaciers, boreholes and tree rings, deposits of microscopic animals on the sea floor, pollen in lake beds, and mineral deposits in caves show clearly that surface temperatures in some centuries have been very different from temperatures in others. From roughly 800 until 1200 A.D., for example-during what,s called the Medieval Warm Period-the Northern Hemisphere became so hot that the Vikings cultivated Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. By the 1300s and 1400s, a widespread cooling had begun that devastated Europe with shortened crop-growing seasons, and human lifespans fell by 10 years. That "Little Ice Age" persisted until the late 19th or early 20th century. Such major climate swings occurred long before the industrial age. More important, the earth,s cycles of warming and cooling predate human existence-not to mention sport-utility vehicles.

But, in the view of the people we call "calamitologists," it is man-especially modern man-who despoils nature, stomping around in the Garden of Eden, killing rare species, dumping slop in the streams, and, in a final flourish, turning this beautiful green planet into an oven. A footnote on page 9 of "Climate Change Science," the study released in early June by the National Academy of Sciences, addresses just this issue: "While the activities of mankind are part of the natural world, the convention exists in most discussions of the atmosphere that ,natural processes, are those that would still exist without the presence of human beings."

And what are these unnatural humans up to now? They are spewing more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As CO2 rises, it tends to prevent some energy from escaping to space. If the climate system does not shed that extra energy, the buildup of CO2 in the air could enhance the largely natural greenhouse effect. Eventually, goes this scenario, the planet gets so warm that icecaps melt, malarial mosquitoes swarm, and droughts starve the inhabitants.

To head off such a putative catastrophe, a protocol signed in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 required industrial nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to levels well below those prevailing today. Since carbon dioxide results from the burning of all fossil fuels-coal, oil, natural gas, wood, peat, you name it-the only effective way to cut emissions is to limit the use of energy, either through a high carbon tax (on gasoline and electricity, for example) or by government fiat (the sort of blackouts we see in California). President Clinton,s Department of Energy estimated the cost of enforcing such limits on the United States alone at $300 billion to $400 billion-that is, 3 to 4 percent of GDP-a year.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Senate in July 1997 pledged, 95-0, not to ratify any climate-change treaty that exempted developing nations and caused "serious harm" to the U.S. economy. The Kyoto treaty did both, but four months later Al Gore signed it anyway. In the ensuing three years, no developed nation (unless you count Romania) ratified it-though the Europeans and Japanese heaped scorn on Americans for resisting. This March, President George W. Bush took the obvious-and courageous-step of rejecting Kyoto. It was, he said, "fatally flawed in fundamental ways." Bush did two other things: He asked the National Academy of Sciences quickly to review the state of knowledge about climate change, and he ordered a cabinet-level working group at the White House to conduct an unprecedented seminar on global warming, listening to scientists and economists explain what was known and unknown. We both participated in that process.

On June 11, five days after the Academy issued its report, the president gave a clear, smart, and forceful presentation on climate change in the Rose Garden. He quickly dismissed Kyoto but said that climate change was a serious matter. He reviewed the science and noted that the United States had spent $18 billion on climate research since 1990-"more than Japan and all 15 nations of the EU combined"-but that this wasn,t enough. There are too many gaps in our knowledge. First, he said, we need to know the nature of the problem. Then, if it is serious and conducive to mitigation, we will try to fix it. But sound science comes first.