Sunday, October 3, 2004

If four hurricanes had blown through the Southeast in rapid succession at any other time in recent years, the phenomenon almost certainly would have been blamed on that all-purpose explainer for nearly every unexplainable natural phenomenon, global warming.

But there has been nary a peep about global warming. For one thing, this has been one of the cooler years on record, a huge disappointment to the climate-change enthusiasts. For another, the presidential candidates find it an uncomfortable subject.

Sen. John Kerry referred to the issue in Thursday night’s debate, but only briefly and indirectly. At one point, he asserted President Bush had “turned away” from a treaty on global warming. But he did so only to cite an instance of the administration failing to pass the “global test” of approval by other countries, not for the merits of the Kyoto Protocol negotiated by fellow Democrat Al Gore in 1996.

And understandably so. In the late 1990s, Mr. Kerry was one of 95 senators who voted not to even consider the treaty. And the Democratic Party platform this year doesn’t even mention Kyoto. Post-Gore Democrats understand energy controls are not a terribly popular idea among working class people who depend on internal combustion for their livelihoods.

And as Mr. Bush might have noted, Europe’s harsh criticism of U.S. inaction reflects vested economic interests more than enlightened concern for the environment. Any rollback in emissions necessarily would throw some very large grains of sand in the gears of the U.S. economy, the biggest energy user in the world. In a single bound, Mr. Kerry’s friends in France and Germany would regain some of their competitiveness vis-a-vis the United States — without enduring the political pain of rolling back the vastly inefficient welfare states.

Additionally, though Europe pays lip service to the Kyoto accords, it already is falling behind the voluntary emissions goals it set for itself. Rather than admit failure, Europe is trying to bribe Russia into ratifying the Kyoto Protocol with the promise of cash and admission to the World Trade Organization. Because of Russia’s economic collapse, it far exceeds the emissions caps proposed in Kyoto. Under the Kyoto rules, it is allowed to sell its “credits” to other countries, who can then claim the overall emissions target is being met.

Maybe the issue will come up again in the debate on domestic policy. Seven attorneys general in the Northeast are suing major utilities for abatement of carbon dioxide “pollution,” which is bound to add huge amounts to already soaring energy bills, even though CO2 has never been defined as a pollutant. And California, in its never-ending war on the automobile, several weeks ago issued a legally dubious order requiring automakers to sharply reduce CO2 emissions.

But don’t count on the candidates themselves to pursue the matter. In addition to Mr. Kerry’s usual rubberiness, President Bush appears disinclined to make much of an issue of it. In response to John Kerry’s other reference to global warming the other night — that the White House has ignored “the truth of the science… behind global warming” — Mr. Bush might have pointed out the science is anything but certain. Instead, he let the remark pass unchallenged.

That could be because one of Mr. Bush’s strategic goals in this campaign was to gain the support of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who is pushing his own “Climate Stewardship Act.” Mr. Bush may be ducking the issue partly out of gratitude for the very public bear hug the popular Mr. McCain bestowed on him a month ago.

Maybe those of us who suspect the global warming hysteria is mostly humbug should be glad it isn’t getting much attention. Iraq and the economy are clearly the most important issues.

But just to ensure the voters don’t suffer a postelection flip-flop, it would be nice if future debate moderators would press a little harder for answers from both men. Hurricanes shouldn’t be the only source of questions about an issue of substantial concern in the industrial heartland, where jobs are hard enough to come by without government adding to the burden by pursuing gauzy theories about weather in the year 2050.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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