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Global warming policy perils

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Faced with problems, humans look for solutions; that is part of who we are. Sometimes, though, solutions are tried before the problem (or what appears to be a problem) is understood. In such cases, problem-solving can be futile and, worse, counterproductive. Job One, therefore, is to stop and think about the issue at hand.

Nowhere is caution against an open-ended regime of tax-spend-regulate more necessary than with climate-change policy. The emotional, politicized debate over global warming has produced a fire-ready-aim mentality, despite great and still growing scientific uncertainty about the problem. For example, recent issues of Science magazine (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) have questioned three of Al Gore's pet alarms: more intense hurricanes, disruption of the Atlantic Ocean's climate-regulating currents, and a rapid rise of sea level.

After the devastating 2005 hurricane season, a hypothesis emerged that heated waters from an enhanced greenhouse effect translated into more intense hurricanes. Many hurricane specialists disagreed, but the newborn hypothesis made headlines. Then the unusually mild hurricane season of 2006 followed. And the Nov. 10, 2006, issue of Science reports: "The best theory and modeling still indicate that ocean temperature has only a minimal direct effect on storms."

The very next issue of Science neutered another popular alarm: that melting ice from the enhanced greenhouse effect would disrupt the Atlantic "conveyor belt" responsible for Europe's mild climate. This hypothesis, several years old, also made headlines. But the title of the Nov. 17 article says: "False alarm: Atlantic conveyor belt hasn't slowed down after all."

An accelerating rise in sea level is another scare that is prominent in Al Gore's book/movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." But an article in the Nov. 24 issue of Science says current observational data indicate melting ice sheets "presently contribute little to sea-level rise." A recent uptick in the sea-level rise may be due to "a natural fluctuation on a decadal time scale," but "comprehensive modeling of [ice sheet] dynamical effects is in its infancy."

The dispute over climate-change policy only begins with climatology. In addition, climate economists debate whether the costs of climate change exceed the benefits under moderate warming scenarios, after factoring in such things as the enhanced carbon dioxide fertilization of plant life. And economists are debating whether adaptation to climate change is better than trying to ramp down the consumer-driven fossil-fuel economy.

Political scientists, meanwhile, worry about the ability of government to pass and enforce laws to constrain greenhouse gas emissions. The concern is that special interests will dominate any regulation, and solutions will be "gamed" by commercial interests. Thus, climate policy will do little except drive up energy prices for consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Still, climate alarmists demand a multitude of do-somethings to address a problem they are sure exists and is solvable. No job is too big for government, because they welcome bigger and bigger government. They pronounce the debate over in their favor and call their critics names, such as "deniers" (as in Holocaust deniers). This has created a bad climate for scientific research and for policymaking. In fact, the debate is more than unsettled; it is giving a harsh verdict on Al Gore's scary scenarios.

The new Congress has focused on energy policy in its first 100 hours, and President Bush is likely to highlight energy in the upcoming State of the Union address. The list of do-somethings to address global warming, already large, could grow. A billion here and there in government subsidies could soon become billions. But how much of this will be used to buy votes rather than effect change? And even if the money is spent in good faith, do we know enough about global climate for government to re-engineer (or reverse engineer) it? What about energy consumers who choose fossil fuels 24-7 because they are cheaper, more reliable and more convenient? How far will taxpayers go down the "sustainable energy" road? What is the exit strategy if government planning in the name of "stabilizing climate" is a bust?

A National Academy of Sciences study pointed out, in reference to climate policy: "Errors of doing too much can be as consequential as errors of doing too little; the error of trying to solve the wrong problem is as likely as the error of failing to act." Given the importance of wealth in adapting to change of any kind, it is critical we not waste money and resources on mandated conversions to inferior energies or a forced energy diet.

Keeping energy plentiful and affordable, and building wealth to deal with problems when they are actually known, is the best climate policy for today.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. is president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston and author of "Climate Alarmism Reconsidered," published by London's Institute of Economic Affairs in 2003.

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