Bush Push for Son of Kyoto Is Misguided

President Bush plans during next week’s trip to Europe to soothe European leaders who are upset with his rejection of the Kyoto global warming treaty. A proposal offered by Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill may very well achieve the President’s goal.

If so, the President may want to stay in Europe. The O’Neill proposal is bound to upset Americans interested in developing a rational national energy policy.

The President wisely rejected the Kyoto treaty last March arguing that limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants during an energy crisis would only make matters worse.  The Kyoto treaty called for a return to 1990 carbon dioxide emission levels by 2012, about a seven percent decrease from current emission levels that could mean as much as a 30 percent reduction in energy use.

The decision to pull out of the Kyoto treaty kindled a firestorm of criticism from U.S. environmental groups and European nations.

Apparently stung by the criticism, the President went to work on a replacement plan. Secretary O’Neill’s plan doesn’t just limit carbon dioxide emissions -- it would ban them.

The plan calls for developed and developing nations to cap and then eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide. The proposed timetable is as follows:

• By 2012, developed nations would cap carbon dioxide emissions at then-current levels;

• By 2025, developed nations would eliminate CO2 emissions;

• By 2035, developing nations would cap CO2 emissions at then-current levels; and

• By 2050, developing nations would eliminate CO2 emissions.

The Bushies believe these goals can be met through a combination of carbon dioxide control technologies such as drawing carbon dioxide from power plant air emissions and mixing it with calcium chloride to form lime, and carbon dioxide sequestration strategies, such as removing carbon from the atmosphere by planting trees and crops.

The source of the plan is Jae Edmonds, a scientist from  Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who convinced  Secretary O’Neill, a longtime global warming believer, that the technology to meet these targets either exists or can be developed soon.

Adding fuel to O’Neill’s plan is a report on global warming just issued by the National Research Council. The President requested the report after he rejected the Kyoto treaty.

The report begins, "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperature are, in fact, rising, The changes observed… are most likely due to human activities…”

Supporters of the O’Neill proposal -- including EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman, and possibly Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice -- believe the plan represents a good compromise.

It appeases global warming believers because it implicitly acknowledges that it is human-induced and provides a timetable for tackling the problem. But the plan also appeases opponents of steps to limit energy use because no immediate action is required.

President Bush is committed to producing more energy at reasonable cost. But planning to cap and then eliminate carbon dioxide production by 2012 and 2025, respectively, threatens this commitment. 

The Bush energy plan calls for construction of 1300 new power plants over the next 20 years. At this point, it’s difficult to conceive that so many plants can be built without emitting more carbon dioxide.

It may be technologically possible to eliminate carbon dioxide emission from power plants, but that is quite different from the technology being economically feasible.

In recent congressional testimony, Edmonds called for “expediting the development of technologies to achieve [stabilization of greenhouse gases] at reasonable cost.” But this call is more self-serving than public service.

The Department of Energy’s national laboratories, previously tasked with developing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, have been in search of a reason to exist ever since the Cold War ended. Their budgets stand to swell dramatically if Congress signs onto Edmonds’ recommendations for fighting the “Warming War.”

As to the theory of manmade global warming, a read of the NRC report beyond the first few sentences and today’s New York Times’ headline (“Panel Tells Bush Global Warming Is Getting Worse” ) reveals there is significant uncertainty about the surface temperature record. Moreover, the recent temperature record compiled from balloon and satellite measurements inexplicably don’t show any warming.

No doubt this is why the NRC was forced to acknowledge, “Because of the large and still uncertain level of natural variability in the climate record and the uncertainties [relating to manmade greenhouse gases], a causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established.”

Simply as a tactic to blunt criticism and forestall action on global warming, the O’Neill plan might work. The problem, though, is global warming myth has proven difficult to kill -- and the O’Neill plan supports rather than knocks down the myth. It will be difficult to develop a rational national energy policy as long as we pretend the myth is reality.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of  JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).