When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened a White House conference on global warming by saying, "We must cut the Gordian knot of fossil fuels," it's a wonder she could be heard over the guffaws from all the great and good who feel they've struck a blow for global survival if they watched an Emmy Awards show featuring a red carpet made of recycled water bottles.
Their response to Rice is, "If you're so serious about fighting global warming, where is your restrictive new global follow-on agreement to the Kyoto treaty to prove it?" The White House meeting of countries around the world was designed precisely not to produce such an agreement. The goal is instead a voluntary commitment by nations to reduce carbon emissions without mandatory targets. This is a victory for climate rationalism.
Such rationalism is based on acceptance of the fact of global warming and its man-made dimension, together with a focus on the costs and benefits of responding to it. This approach can put conservatives -- who have long looked the other way on global warming -- on the right of the side of science of the issue and even of the politics.
If the United States had participated in Kyoto and it had been fully implemented, according to economist Bjorn Lomborg in his new book, "Cool It," it would have cost the developed world about $9 trillion to lower the global temperature by about .3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. That would have put off predicted warming by the end of the century by about five years.
Another, more strenuous Kyoto-style agreement would have even heavier economic costs upfront for benefits that are a hundred years off. Few people will take that deal, especially in developing countries like China where people's lives depend -- right now -- on achieving higher standards of living.
And why should they? Supposedly because our future depends on it. The middle-range U.N. estimate is that by 2100, global temperature will go up by roughly 5 degrees Fahrenheit and sea levels will rise about a foot. This doesn't warrant economic hara-kiri in response.
The temperature increase could actually save lives. In alarmist reporting about the effects of global warming, it's assumed that only heat kills people. But cold does as well. More people will die from heat in a warmer world, but fewer from cold. According to Lomborg, fewer people will die in 2050, and even in 2200, in a world that is as warm as the U.N. estimates.
As for a sea-level rise, Lomborg writes, we already have experienced a rise of a foot since 1860, without major disruptions, and by 2050 we will have a five-inch rise similar to the rise we have experienced since 1940. Its predictions of increases of 20 feet that are disconcerting, but they go well beyond consensus forecasts -- so it is the climate alarmists who are in the position of "denying" the science.
Of course, the consensus estimates could be wrong. So, isn't it prudent to act now? Technology writer Jim Manzi points out that the long-term benefit of a carbon tax really would be to pressure industry to find technological breakthroughs. Instead of imposing an enormous cost on our economy to try to do this indirectly, it would make more sense to make a major, but still much more affordable, investment -- billions of dollars a year -- in technological research directly.
In the meantime, we and the rest of the world will get richer, putting us in a better shape to adapt should the worst happen. Patrick Michaels of the CATO Institute reminds us that in 1955, a Category 5 hurricane hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, killing 600 people. This year, a Category 5 hit the same spot and killed no one. Mexico was richer, and more resilient, than 50 years ago.
We should take warming seriously, but keep our wits about us and guard the world's economic growth. In a fair fight, climate gradualism should trump climate alarmism.