The Hot Air of Climate Change, Part 5

If human activity is a significant cause, would specific proposed legislation have any positive effects, on balance?

This is a multi-part series examining the current debate over "global warming", also known as "climate change".

For most of us living in the modern world, our daily lives are spent entirely in a human-created environment.  We leave our houses in the morning, go to our manufactured cars, drive on asphalt roads to our glass and steel offices, and the same in reverse at the end of the day,whence we sit on our vinyl couch in an electrically-lit living room, watching something even more artificial on TV.  The closest we get to the natural world is watering the ficus plant at the office.

So it's easy to forget that the Earth is a really big place, with an awful lot of stuff going on in it that has nothing to do with us.  As we've seen so far in our exploration of "climate change", anything that people do has the most infinitesimally tiny effect on the planet as a whole, compared to such forces as the Sun, volcanoes, plant growth, and even rude bovines.

But fixation with self is very much a human trait.  Thus we find governments attempting to pass laws to solve the "global warming" crisis, which as we've seen is - let us be generous here - not entirely proven to exist.  Let's take these proposals on their own terms, though, and assume them to be a genuine try at fixing a genuine problem.

5. If human activity is a significant cause, would specific proposed legislation have any positive effects, on balance?

Avid followers of the news should have no difficulty in answering this question.  When was the last time a new law fixed anything at all?  But it's still a useful exercise to explore the various current suggestions, and examine their consequences.  Although there are dozens if not hundreds of proposed laws in the U.S. alone, to say nothing of those mooted elsewhere, they fall into a few general categories.

Carbon taxes

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, "The power to tax, is the power to destroy."  If we take it as a given that we want to reduce carbon emissions, and further, that the government is the least qualified organization to decide precisely how that is best done, then a carbon emissions tax is, by far, the most logical way to go about it.  Nobody likes paying taxes, but you do when you have to.  Therefore, whenever it is relatively easy to reduce or end carbon emissions, that would be done so as to avoid the tax; wherever it was impossible or impractical to do so, the tax would be paid, thus providing government revenues and an incentive for future innovation.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a carbon tax, or a pollution tax in general.  It's by far less intrusive and inefficient than any other current suggestion; and if that would send the environmentalists back to their earthen-floor shacks, we should enact such a tax immediately.  The problem is that the situation is more complex than that.

When you read about carbon tax proposals, the primary targets are coal-fired electricity generation, and fuels used in transportation.  For sure, those are major sources of carbon, and they would be hit by the tax.  As previously noted, however, cows are a far larger source of greenhouse-gas emissions than cars.  Would we tax farmers as well?

Worse, what are the alternatives to those power sources?  Environmentalists like to suggest renewable resources such as wind and solar power, but those currently provide a tiny fraction of our energy needs.  Considering that a windmill is a rather complex mechanical beastie that takes a lot of energy to construct, there's even some doubt about the total carbon emissions of wind farms - that is, it takes more energy to make them than they produce.

By far, the biggest non-carbon-emitting energy sources available are hydroelectric power and nuclear power.  Both of these emit absolutely no greenhouse gases whatsoever - nor do they spew any other particulates or toxins into the atmosphere when properly used.  Unless you melt down the reactor, a nuclear plant keeps all the hazardous waste neatly contained in a box where you can deal with it; a hydro dam generates no wastes at all.  Alas, most environmentalists abhor new nuclear plants and new dams even more than they hate coal-power plants.

So the end result of a carbon tax would just be to raise the price of everything we need anyway, while accomplishing nothing for the environment.  No help here.

Fuel efficiency standards

Another constant drumbeat from the left is the need to raise our Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.  This sounds like a good idea - if we use less fuel, there will be less pollution.  The trouble is, the 30-year history of CAFE illustrates nothing more than the famous Law of Unintended Consequences.

Anyone who was a driver in the 1970s, or who likes classic cars, knows that the American road was a very different place back then.  This was the era of the "land yacht" - enormous cars that guzzled gas; giant station wagons; and muscle cars with far bigger engines than they really needed.  Prior to the 1973 oil embargo, fuel was so cheap that gas mileage didn't really matter.

After the oil shocks, the government instituted the first CAFE standards, setting (and this is important) two different levels that must be met: one for cars, and the other, higher, for light trucks.  The rationale was that pickup trucks were used for hauling tools, goods, etc., and it made no sense to penalize them; if anything, they were more efficient by being bigger, since they could haul a larger load in one trip instead of several.

The trouble was that Americans like big cars, and they do not like being told what to buy.  The CAFE standards killed off the station wagon, which had been for decades the mainstay of middle-class families; you can catch a glimpse of this in old Family Circus cartoons, where Billy's family rides around in a station wagon.  Being fairly large and heavy, it wasn't possible for station wagons to reach the CAFE standards for cars.

Chrysler Corporation, exercising the innovation for which Americans are rightly famous, invented a solution: the minivan.  A minivan filled the same niche that a station wagon had, but being bigger, could be classified as a light truck, thus falling under the looser standards.  The other car companies, particularly GM, soon followed suit with what we now know as the SUV - again, a "truck" only in the technical definition, but a people-carrier for families that, in years past, would have bought a now-vanished station wagon.

So what was the end result of the CAFE standards?  Average fuel economy didn't improve; it got worse, because the regulations forced people to buy bigger and heavier vehicles than they'd previously done, to avoid the standards and get what they needed.  Sorry, Feds, you cannot fit an American family into a Yugo.

Environmentalists scream that the two-tiered CAFE structure provides a loophole which should be closed by enforcing one standard across the board.  But that is hardly going to work either.  Real Americans buy what they want; and unless we are prepared to outlaw cars over a given size, tinkering with CAFE standards will accomplish nothing more than the amusing spectacle of watching car manufacturers game the system.

The much-hyped hybrid cars are not much more than that.  The tremendous mileage numbers that have been hyped for some years, have turned out to be so utterly disconnected from reality that the EPA has had to revise the tests.  Lexus's new hybrid SUV has both lower gas mileage and higher emissions than the European average for conventional cars; it's been slammed for false advertising.  Even with hybrids that are truly fuel efficient, such as the Prius, the high-tech components and advanced batteries use such exotic and poisonous materials, that the total energy cost (when you include making the car and disposing of its energy parts) is worse than a conventional Hummer!

There is one clear accomplishment of CAFE, though: dead people.  The simplest way to make a car more fuel efficient is to make it lighter, and it's long been known that the lighter the car you're in, the more likely it is to get squashed in an accident.

So, insofar as killing people stops them from consuming, maybe the CAFE standards have actually accomplished something for the environment.  But that isn't really the solution preferred by most people who aren't hard-core environmentalists.

The Kyoto Treaty

Now we come to the granddaddy of all government global-warming action: the Kyoto Protocol.  This United Nations treaty, signed in 1997 -- but not by the United States -- is intended to require reductions in "greenhouse gas emissions" - basically, carbon.

From the point of view of an American environmentalist, convincing the U.S. to sign the treaty is the Holy Grail of activism; according to the Constitution, international treaties are considered to be equal in authority with the Constitution itself.  So, if we signed that treaty, whatever draconian actions might be required to meet it, would be automatically Constitutional, even if they made a mockery of all the other freedoms listed therein.

That fact alone would be sufficient reason to oppose the Kyoto Protocol.  But the question here isn't, is Kyoto a good idea?  The question is, would it work?

To answer this question, we need look no further than Europe.  The EU, being composed of industrialized countries, is expected to cut emissions almost as harshly as the US would have been.  And, unlike the US, the vast majority of European voters support drastic action.  So, how's it going?

Ten years after the signing of Kyoto (with all the abundant greenery, hype, and passing of manifold laws) we see that Europe's carbon emission output is growing by 1.5%.

Meanwhile, with no particular action but a lot of yelling and screaming, American output appears to be decreasing.

It's not hard to see why Europe is having a tough slog of it.  An analysis of the Kyoto treaty, performed by the U.S. government at the time (during the Clinton Administration with Vice President Al Gore), showed that the costs of full compliance to the U.S. would be a reduction in GDP of 2.3% per year - basically, getting rid of half or more of our economic growth.  And the reward for this unprecedented sacrifice?

According to a climate model of the National Center for Atmospheric Research recently featured in Science, the Kyoto emission-control commitments would reduce mean planetary warming by a mere 0.19 degree Celsius over the next 50 years.

So, we impoverish ourselves, for a warming reducing of two-tenths of one degree?  'Nuff said.  Particularly considering that the Kyoto treaty doesn't cover developing nations such as China, which, we now find, has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

It's pretty obvious that salvation isn't going to come from government, as if that should be surprising.  Moving right along to:

6. What would the cost be to make changes, and would that cost exceed the cost of dealing with the consequences of not making the change?

To be continued...

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
This is the aspect of the "global warming" nuttery that makes the least sense to me. Okay, supposing that the world is ending - depending on the government to fix it is absolutely the last conceivable thing that could possibly work. I'd sooner trust in Britney Spears.
January 10, 2008 2:33 PM
"As previously noted, however, cows are a larger source of carbon emissions than cars. Would we tax farmers as well?"

you actually stated that cows produce more greenhouse gases, not more carbon, necessarily. Cows actually produce large amounts of methane, and while methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, it is not carbon. I'm not being critical, just helping you get the facts strait. The whole series is pretty good.
March 23, 2008 8:57 AM
It's the carbon content in the methane I think. On a mass-mass basis. Methane is 75% carbon -

I think that the writer should read the IPCC reports - WG 1 & 2 where it is stated that Climate Change is unequivocal. It's happening, we're experiencing it. The End.
March 26, 2008 8:46 PM
Lindsay, you need to read the series through to the end, including the linked references. I'm afraid you've been deceived.
March 26, 2008 11:21 PM
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