From the October 2, 2009 Washington Examiner
October 2, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
"Facts are stubborn things," remarked John Adams 239 years ago. And so they remain. Which is why President Obama and the world's leaders can't agree on what to do to prevent the disastrous consequences of the global warming they have persuaded themselves is our fate -- unless they act together to cool things down.
The first fact that has proved stubborn is that national interests, including the survival instincts of national leaders, trump international cooperation every time.
Although the United States and other countries might set national CO2 emission limits, there is little hope of any legally binding international treaty to enforce those limits. Now that China and India have agreed to cooperate, sort of, unnamed European Union officials are passing the word that we are the stumbling block to progress.
They take Congress' inability to pass cap-and-trade legislation and the president's unwillingness -- so far -- to agree to a legally binding treaty as signs that the United States attaches a lower priority to emissions control than does the EU. Let's hope they're right.
The likelihood now is that when the world's leaders gather in Copenhagen in December -- Obama has not yet decided to attend -- they will not sign on to a legally binding international agreement. Obama will tout the steps he is taking to subsidize green energy, while China will promise only to keep the increase in its emissions below the rate of increase in its national output -- which means lots more emissions.
And there will be no ceding of sovereignty to an international enforcement authority. National sovereignty is not the only stubborn fact in the way of a binding agreement.
The other is that jobs trump environment, and emissions restrictions might stifle economic growth. No surprise that emissions have fallen 40 percent in this recession: Shuttered factories don't produce emissions -- or anything else. Least of all jobs, which Obama honcho David Axelrod says is the administration's No. 1 priority.
True, the world's leaders talk about all the jobs that will be created by green power -- all those subsidized solar panels to be built, all those subsidized wind machines to be constructed and put in place. But no country has ever built enduring prosperity on subsidies for inefficient production processes.
If that were possible, a nation could prohibit the use of energy-consuming machines on farms, and create thousands -- millions -- of jobs by regressing to the backbreaking labor of the bad old days. Hardly the route to rising living standards.
The third stubborn fact that confronts those who agree with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that "climate change is the pre-eminent geopolitical and economic issue of the 21st century" is that the data do not unambiguously suggest that the Earth is warming.
"Global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years," making it difficult to persuade policymakers, unable to grasp "scientific nuances", that the recent past "has no bearing on the long-term warming effects of greenhouse gasses. ..." reports the very green New York Times. Poor, dumb policymakers!
None of this means that it would be unwise to take prudential steps to curb the use of some fossil fuels, perhaps by ending subsidies to their production and use, as the president proposes. There are good security reasons for reducing reliance on oil from countries that are unstable or led by anti-American demagogues.
There are good reasons to believe that research into carbon sequesterization might make the burning of our huge coal reserves less emission-intensive. There are good reasons to believe that wind and solar have a place in many nations' energy futures.
And there certainly is good reason to believe that it would be a good thing if emission-free nuclear power were no longer the plaything of scare-mongering politicians and activists.
There might even be good reasons to confront directly what the U.N. bureaucrats are trying to conceal. They see taxes on emissions in advanced economies as a source of the funds for the international income redistribution they have long sought. If the developing nations clean up corruption, some sort of private-sector, government partnerships might just make development aid effective, although in those circumstances private investment would increase sharply, reducing the need for handouts.
So fear not when you read the some international conference on the environment has "failed." It hasn't. It has had to adjust to stubborn facts. Not a bad thing.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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