- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

When then-President Clinton visited flood victims in North Dakota a few years ago, he couldn't resist suggesting that perhaps there was more involved there than random misfortune. No one knew for sure whether global warming was to blame for a "substantial increase" in disruptive weather events, he said, but many people believed that it was. The implication of his remarks was that some plant manager, some automobile driver or some otherwise inconsiderate person somewhere had emitted sufficient "greenhouse" gases to trip the global warming starter, thereby setting off associated inclement weather and disaster in North Dakota. Unless someone did something soon, he implied, there might be more such events.

A variety of scientific studies have discounted the relationship between global warming and the likes of hurricanes, tidal waves and other disasters. Today Mr. Clinton's remarks serve primarily as a timely reminder of H.L. Mencken's adage: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with a series of hobgoblins."

One would have hoped that the departure of the Clinton administration would have meant an end to the endless Halloween parades to which this country has been treated for the last eight years, but on Saturday the New York Times reported otherwise. Citing a campaign pledge of President Bush, the paper said his administration and some congressional Republicans had taken up the cause of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, a "gas" that humans exhale and that puts the bubbles in beer. It also helps trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the now-famous "greenhouse" effect. Without "greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide or water vapor to trap some heat, the Earth would be just another galactic snow cone devoid of human life.

The question now is whether there is so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that it could wind up barbecuing the Earth and bringing on environmental "holocaust." That's how Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill effectively described it, which partly explains how the administration got drawn into the controversy. The Times reported that he might be the strongest advocate in the Cabinet for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. At the first Cabinet meeting, Mr. O'Neill reportedly handed out copies of a speech he had made two years before, warning of the dangers of global warming. There are two issues, he said, that warrant special attention. "One," he said, "is nuclear holocaust and the danger of renegade states having available to them nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The second is environmental: specifically the issue of global climate change and the potential of global warming."

The juxtaposition of the two as morally equivalent is breathtaking. Not only are scientists unable to agree about the extent to which humans have contributed to global warming. They can't even agree on whether it is necessarily a bad thing. Rather than devastation and havoc, it might mean longer, more productive growing seasons, for example. It might mean longer, more productive human lives. (There's a reason many retirees migrate south.) This is a holocaust?

Regardless of the merit of this outlook, it created political problems for Mr. Bush, who had made it clear that he wants to seek oil in the barren wilds of Alaska, sometimes known as the "Arctic Wildlife National Refuge." What is the point of drilling for oil, a fossil fuel guilty of emitting carbon dioxide, if you aren't going to be able to use it because of regulations that cap carbon emissions? If Mr. O'Neill, the secretary of global warming, had his way, Mr. Bush would be better off emulating the mismanaged energy policies of California, where rolling blackouts and high energy prices limit carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr. O'Neill's outlook also raises potential ethical problems for him. One of the ways environmentalists seek to reduce emissions is to insist on the production of smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient cars. Many auto manufacturers have responded to such pressure by using more aluminum in their cars. As critics at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are quick to note, Mr. O'Neill holds substantial shares of Alcoa, the aluminum manufacturer, and he stands to benefit financially if U.S. policy-makers see hobgoblins in the same places he does.

Fortunately, Mr. Bush does not scare so easily. After remaining silent as the debate over the administration's stance on global warming raged on around him, Mr. Bush sent a letter to Congress Tuesday, saying he would not seek caps on carbon dioxide emissions because of the "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change." Just so. If Mr. O'Neill can't convince Mr. Bush of the impending environmental holocaust, he may find the American people an equally hard sell.

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