To Help Solve Global Warming and Energy Problems, Freedom of Choice is the Answer

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Global warming. The subject will either turn you on or turn you off. If you’re in the “turned off” category, stick with this a bit. I won’t take much of your time.

Having hosted a documentary on global warming, I claim at least some familiarity with the subject. But that’s part of the problem.

Too many folks who aren’t expert on the subject are mouthing off about global warming and proving that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Take Al Gore, who, while promoting his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “…the debate [over global warming] in the scientific community is over.”

No sooner had he said this absolute truth than Mr. Stephanopoulos pointed out that many scientists are debating some of the things Mr. Gore says are about to happen because of global warming. Then, Mr. Gore did an immediate about face and admitted that scientists "don't know... They just don't know."

It turns out that the real experts -- folks who’ve spent their lives studying glaciers, and temperatures and storms -- are a lot less sure about what’s going to happen. So let’s talk about what we do know.

We know that humans burn a lot more carbon fuels now than they did 100 years ago. We know that there’s about 30 percent -- 40 percent more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air than there was 100 years ago. We also know that the earth is about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than it was 100 years ago. That’s led a lot of folks to link these facts and deduce that global warming is here, that it’s harmful, and that it results from mankind burning more fossil fuels.

Now there are a whole lot of problems with those deductions, not least of which is the fact that we’ve gone through different warming and cooling trends within the past 100 years, so there’s no way of telling for sure where we’ll end up in another 100 years. There’s also the fact that many scientists are far less convinced about the severity and dire consequences of global warming than Mr. Gore is. But assuming for the moment that humans can band together to help the environment, what is the best way of doing so?

Let’s start with the idea that we don’t want to “help” matters by making matters worse. Our history is full of examples where noble goals have led to perverse consequences…think of forced bussing, our welfare policies or what happened in Iran after we stopped supporting the Shah.

Sometimes we set unreasonable goals and make matters worse trying to get there. If politicians begin creating laws based on Al Gore’s view of the severity of global warming, the solutions might very well end up making matters worse.

So having said that, what can we agree on? Let’s agree that reducing CO2 emissions is a good thing. We know what the world was like when we had less CO2 in the air, and it wasn’t a bad place.

The problem then becomes: How to reduce CO2 without causing more problems. The Kyoto Accords, which mandate lower CO2 outputs, are not only too dogmatic for my tastes, they’re also ineffective.

The U.N. just released the latest figures on CO2 emissions from Europe and the U.S. It turns out that CO2 emissions in pro-Kyoto Europe has been increasing about 40 percent faster than in the U.S., where the rate of CO2 growth has been slowing considerably. Only Britain and Sweden are on track to meet Kyoto standards by 2010. So mandating standards for CO2 emissions is, it turns out, less effective than allowing individuals to exercise their own free will.

So is there a way to spread the word about reducing CO2 emissions without resorting to hysterical responses that might make things worse? This week, I met with a producer of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” this week to see what common ground we had between us.

While we argued a lot about details on how bad global warming is and how responsible mankind is for it, we did agree that individuals acting on their own to conserve energy or clean the environment is always preferred to a government mandated, centralized policy of coercion. In that respect, I was able to support his project of working with Wal-Mart (WMT) and other companies to give consumers incentives to buy energy-saving light bulbs—a private sector initiative that he claims will save a lot of energy and produce less CO2.

Cleaner burning energy that takes some of the profit out of the pockets of our “friends” the Saudis wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It may not be much, but it’s a start and a way to bring two divergent sides of the global warming debate together.

Perhaps a non-coercive method of voluntary action on CO2 emissions will work. The one thing we’re learning from the example of Europe’s Kyoto experiment is that government coercion doesn’t work. Freedom of choice is not only right, it’s practical!

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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.