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The Price of Junk Science

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The Clinton administration knows how to add insult to injury. Not only is it committed to an environmental program that will sap the American economy of its vitality, it also refuses to level with the American people about the costs.

At the global warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, the administration promised that the United States would cut emissions of so-called greenhouse gases below the 1990 level by 2012. That’s a cut of more than one-third of the projected level. The gases, mainly carbon dioxide, are produced by burning fossil fuels: gasoline, coal, natural gas, and heating oil. Virtually all economic activity depends on those fuels. Yet Clinton and Gore say the cut-back can be costless or even profitable.

The administration’s position can be faulted on many counts. Most basic is that carbon dioxide is a plant nutrient not a pollutant. If you think back to high-school biology, you’ll recall that plants turn CO2, water, and sunlight into food and make oxygen as a byproduct. But some climatologists (not all) and some environmentalists believe that the buildup of CO2 threatens to overheat the earth’s atmosphere. The problem with the theory is that the temperature record does not support it. The earth has actually cooled slightly in the recent past. Fear of global warming is based on imperfect computer models, not observation.

Economist Thomas Gale Moore says that global warming would be benign. Since CO2 is good for crops, agriculture would boom. People tend to live longer in warmer climates. Climatologist Patrick Michaels says that if warming occurs, it would be in the arctic during the polar night. Such warming would delay the first frost of winter and lengthen the growing season.

So why the attraction to the nightmare version of global warming? It could have something to do with its usefulness in the service of government regulation of the economy.

People with a visceral dislike of free markets and individual liberty have been adrift since the worldwide collapse of socialism. They can’t oppose capitalism on economic or political grounds any longer. So they have turned to environmental grounds. Unsupervised free markets, they say, will destroy the earth.

The advocates of environmental regulation know, however, that people won’t go for policies that will make them poor. So they promise that combatting global warming can be done painlessly. President Clinton says he will not support a tax on carbon fuels; new energy-saving technologies, which can be encouraged through tax credits, will reduce the use of fossil fuels.

But that merely demonstrates economic illiteracy. Industry already has all the incentive it needs to develop and adopt worthwhile energy-saving technologies. No business wants to use more resources than necessary. Cutting costs increases profits. If capitalists are as “greedy” as their critics say, they can be counted on to be miserly with energy.

The problem for the preachers of apocalypse is that fossil fuels are the most economical fuels around. No synthetic or “green” form of energy can touch them for efficiency. So unless the government actually restricts their use, there will be no reduction beyond what would have occurred anyway. Sooner or later the administration will propose a carbon tax to reach the 30 percent reduction it promised at Kyoto.

A carbon tax will be costly to everyone. The price of energy will rise dramatically, curtailing production and reducing living standards. The promise of green and rich will fade, and all of us will be poorer.

The bright side of this is that the U.S. Senate is not likely to ratify the global-warming treaty in its current form. Republicans, who duck the basic principles, have taken the more “constructive” line that the treaty is unfair because developing nations are exempt. Clinton and Gore promise to fix that. If they do, will the Republicans cave in? Or will they discover that the treaty is built on bad premises and is dangerous to the well-being of every American? Let’s hope it’s the latter.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.