It is hard to know where to begin on the multifarious misimpressions and
twisted interpretations revolving around the Bush administration’s
decision not to place “caps” on carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power
plants. Let me start with a personal acknowledgment. I have criticized the
Bush administration in the past, and I have little doubt I will do so again
in the future. But on this one they did the right thing and did it in a
reasonably intelligent manner.
Yes. The Bush administration made a correct decision — and in some ways a
brave one — on carbon dioxide “caps.”
It represented a willingness to
listen to valid concerns about the cost of regulation, to look at the
state of the science on global warming rather than accepting arguments
based on emotional convictions, and to make a common-sense decision that
reflects the interests of the vast majority of American consumers rather
than an insulated policy elite — knowing it would take serious hits from
the usual suspects as a result.
Perhaps most unusually for a band of politicians, Mr. Bush and his
advisers were willing to say forthrightly that a previous position (or at
least an implied position) had been a mistake, and to take the heat for
admitting it was a mistake and moving to correct it. That might turn out
to be this episode’s most important long-term implication. The besetting
temptation for most politicians is to pretend they are infallible as well
as wise and loveable. To see a politician admitting that a previous
position was a mistake is downright refreshing.
This is not the spin you’ll hear in most of the media. Where to begin?
Perhaps the supposed campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide would be a
Numerous news stories have played a comment in a Sept. 29 speech on
energy policy as a solemn pledge to regulate carbon dioxide that has now
been betrayed (an act of “breathtaking betrayal” according to a widely
trumpeted sound bite from California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman). In that
speech, whose theme was the importance of affordable and reliable energy,
Mr. Bush did include carbon dioxide, along with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen
oxide and mercury, as emissions that power plants would be required to
That was the only time during the campaign that Mr. Bush mentioned carbon
dioxide, and the only stir it caused at the time was an AP story making
fun of Bushite verbal stumbling, saying something like “carbon bonoxide.”
During the rest of the campaign, Mr. Bush concentrated on the idea of more
affordable energy through reduced regulation and an explicit rejection of
the mandates implied by the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.
Now, everybody knows the Kyoto mandates were mainly about carbon dioxide,
which is not a pollutant at all but a natural substance emitted into the
atmosphere by all human beings and animals. The U.S. Senate, before the
Kyoto meeting, voted 97-0 to let the negotiators know it would reject the
carbon dioxide limits being proposed.
The Kyoto “treaty” was never submitted to the U.S. Senate during the
Clinton-Gore administration for the simple reason that everybody knew it
would have been rejected overwhelmingly. So it is not a treaty with any
binding power over the United States at all, but a wish list for people
who wish to control carbon dioxide because they believe it contributes to
And quite frankly, everybody who was following the campaign at all knew
that Al Gore was the Kyoto-worshipping, carbon dioxide controller in the
race and Bush was the former oilman who would probably relax environmental
regulations. Whether that single mention of carbon dioxide in a single
campaign speech was the result of an oversight or a greenie aide slipping
it in or simple carelessness is difficult to know at this date. But if
anything it was an anomaly.
In short, the decision this week was fully in line with the actual
emphases of the Bush campaign (which like most campaigns was short on
specifics but had themes). And everybody knows it. The voters who cared
about the issue knew that Gore would control CO2 emissions and Bush
To spin that single mention of carbon dioxide controls as a solemn promise
that Bush has now betrayed is clever but dishonest politics. It seems to
have been begun by what I would have to call cultural greenies (they’re
certainly not scientifically-based in the prescriptions they recommend) in
the incoming Bush administration who almost blindsided conservatives and
free marketeers, according to Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise
Institute, with whom I discussed the matter at some length.
In brief, at some of the first Cabinet meetings, Treasury Secretary Paul
O’Neill and EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman, armed with an old
alarmist O’Neill speech delivered when he was head of Alcoa — the Wall
Street Journal and Washington Post have told parts of the story with a
somewhat different spin than mine — began working hard to get the
administration committed to carbon dioxide controls. They dredged up the
obscure mention in a campaign speech hardly anybody noticed at the time
and tried to sell it as a solemn promise.
What happened next, however, was remarkable. When conservative U.S.
senators and a few policy groups — CEI among them — began to get wind of
this effort and to try to communicate some of their concerns to the
Bushies, the Bushies actually listened. They asked for back-up information
and spent a couple of weeks not only researching the science and the
economic implications of regulations, but sounding out the rest of the
Cabinet. When it became obvious that the global-warming science was at
least partially hysterical, the costs of regulation prohibitive — and
carbon dioxide regulations opposed by almost every department head except
EPA — the administration (well, Mr. Bush) swallowed hard, decided to
handle the abuse they all knew would be heaped upon them, and did the
One more political myth before we get to the science. Most news stories
spin this decision as a victory for “big polluters” and powerful corporate
interests against the strictly disinterested and solely public-spirited
concerns of environmental activists.
The only industry really opposed to the carbon dioxide caps
was the coal industry, which is practically flattened by previous
government regulations (and might have been virtually destroyed by CO2
caps) and hardly a big player anymore. The natural gas industry, to which
caps would have forced conversion of power plants, was all for them.
Enron, whose CEO Kenneth Lay is one of Bush’s most loyal supporters (Enron
PACs and employees gave about $1.76 million to Bush and Republicans last
year), was all for them because it saw a way to profit from a complex
pollution credit trading system that would have been set up. Utility
companies were split on the issue.
It seems possible (I cringe even to say it, given my general attitude
toward politicians of all stripes) that confronted with conflicting
economic interests the Bush people actually investigated the policy
implications and the effect on consumers of various options. Perhaps they
even made the decision based on such ephemera?
So do carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming? Most of the
media treat that as an incontrovertible fact known to everybody but
knuckle-draggers. But almost all the concern about global warming is based
on computer-model projections rather than actual observations in the real
In fact, the story in Thursday’s news about a study comparing satellite
data from 1970 and 1997 stressed that it provided the first direct rather
than inferential evidence that carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”
really are building up in the earth’s atmosphere. It compared only two
years rather than all the years in between, so the concrete evidence it
presents is hardly comprehensive or dispositive. And the scientists who
conducted it said they didn’t really know whether the “greenhouse effect”
would lead to global warming or global cooling.
John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama —
give the AP credit for talking to him even if the comments ran toward the
end of the piece and got trimmed by most newspapers — said the study
wasn’t all that impressive. “The fact that greenhouse gases have increased
in the past 30 years is well known,” he said. But “a more important result
appeared last week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society”
to the effect that “the actual climate response of the whole atmosphere is
not as dramatic as [computer] models suggest. Hence, the atmosphere has a
means to expel heat that models haven’t taken into account.
“This may explain why the bulk of the atmosphere, as measured by the
satellite temperatures, has not shown warming,” Christy noted.
Did you get that?
In short, the scientific evidence on global warming and carbon dioxide, as
Fred Smith put it, is squarely in the “not proven” category. It is prudent
to pay attention and redouble dispassionate scientific efforts to discover
whether global warming is likely and to what extent carbon dioxide really
contributes to it. But to force consumers to spend billions of dollars
before the knowledge is solid is hardly prudent.
And that is what caps on carbon dioxide would do. A report released just
before the end of last year by the Energy Department estimated that caps
on carbon dioxide from power plants would lead to increases in natural gas
and electricity costs of between $60 billion and $115 billion every year.
The impact would be especially severe on lower-income Americans.
In short, carbon dioxide emissions caps are not required by the Clean Air
Act, are not a good idea and were not a central Bush campaign promise. The
effort to spin them into a central premise of the entire Bush campaign was
dishonest and deceptive.
The administration’s willingness to admit that its temporary flirtation
with the idea was a mistake is commendable not only for its honesty but
for its contribution to the possibility of a sane energy policy.
May Albert Jay Nock forgive me for acknowledging it.