The Magazine

Inside the Bush Greenhouse

There's a contradiction at the heart of the administration's global warming policy--but it's fixable.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By WILLIAM F. PEDERSEN
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CREDIT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ACHIEVEMENTS always comes hard for Republicans. Sure enough, the Bush administration's global warming policy, though largely a model of prudent judgment and respect for science, is relentlessly denounced. And the attacks take their toll. The Bush team's alleged indifference to an issue of planetary importance has drained all credibility from its environmental policies at home and diminished American "soft power" abroad.

It doesn't have to be so. A review of the Bush policy shows not only that its principal elements are sound, but also that its chief weakness--the self-contradiction of a policy that admits the need for action, yet rejects even modest mandatory measures to control greenhouse emissions--could be readily reversed. By adopting a program of moderate greenhouse limits--for which there exists a cost-effective, road-tested model consistent with conservative principles--the administration could convert global warming policy from a drain on its political strength and credibility into an asset.

In all its major statements on global warming, the administration has agreed that human activities have increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and will continue to increase them; that this may have caused some measurable change in global temperature; and that the prospect of further temperature increase is a legitimate national and international concern, justifying a response.

But the administration rightly rejects the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement on greenhouse limits, as both ineffective and mismatched to the problem. Since Kyoto imposed no obligations on developing countries, which will emit over half of all greenhouse gases by about 2020, even perfect compliance by the covered countries would not significantly reduce global emissions. What's more, any costs resulting from global warming will probably increase slowly over many decades. Yet for the countries it covers, Kyoto sets absurdly short, tight, and costly reduction deadlines, which almost no one will meet.

The administration also rightly rejects calls for establishing a planetary carbon limit by some unspecified means, and then setting up a global market in carbon "emission rights." We do not know enough at present to establish a planetary limit. Even if we did, taking the next step and assigning country by country control responsibility would be politically impossible as long as the cost of carbon control remained high. Distributing emission rights in proportion to current carbon emissions would force poor countries to buy allowances from the rich as they developed. But favoring poor countries would require rich countries to buy allowances from the poor--or from the elites who govern them--simply to keep their economies running. And it might not even work. Many poor countries cannot control illegal logging or electricity theft. How could they be expected to control carbon emissions?

Instead, the administration champions a new approach to global carbon control, one that is workable and fair for rich and poor alike. It seeks reductions not in carbon emissions directly, but in the "carbon intensity" of an economy--the ratio of carbon emissions to gross national product. If the carbon intensity of a country's economy falls by 20 percent, that economy can grow by 20percent without increasing its carbon emissions. When carbon intensity falls faster than the economy grows, carbon emissions decrease.

This approach rewards cleaner growth, not diminished growth. In a world two-thirds of whose people live in poverty, curbing growth is both immoral and politically unacceptable--witness the rejection of Kyoto obligations by developing countries.

Since economies that use current technology have unavoidably high carbon intensity, only new, carbon-free technologies can reconcile economic growth with carbon control. Accordingly, the Bush administration seeks to spur the development of cars that run on hydrogen, ways to burn coal without carbon emissions, and new, safer nuclear power plants. Success in developing these technologies might eventually make global carbon regulation possible.