Rarely has so much hectoring produced so little.
After all the magazine covers, celebrity sermonizing and U.N.-certified-expert hand-wringing, the fight against global warming got a real-world test in the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago in the debate over a proposal to limit carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade system. After a small dose of the argument, supporters of the proposal couldn't wait to drop it. It was leading opponent Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, who declared he'd be happy to talk about cap-and-trade for a month.
As an indirect tax on carbon, cap-and-trade would increase energy prices when people are already straining under $4-a-gallon gas. Even a political naif -- which McConnell assuredly is not -- would realize the benefit of hanging the proposal around its supporters' necks. Lately, we've seen the tech and housing bubbles burst, and now -- at least as an urgent political issue -- the global warming bubble is getting pricked.
Let's count the ways: First, those gas prices. They are just one way that the soaring price of oil has put a crimp in the standard of living of Americans. They have little taste for seeing it crimped more, and why should they? The cost-benefit analysis of battling global warming is never going to make sense for Americans.
The places that would be hurt by global warming tend to be warm, wet and low-lying. Think Bangladesh. For the U.S., warming isn't much of a threat. So, stringent measures against global warming are really a massive foreign-aid program, but an intangible and speculative one. If the predicted warming materializes, and if it has the drastic effects warned about (e.g., big rises in sea levels), people living in faraway countries a century or more from now may be adversely affected -- in short, a theoretical benefit to people as yet unborn.
We should feel a moral obligation to aid Bangladesh and similar places with mitigation measures, when (and, again, if) the time comes. Until then, our consciences should rest easy, given the $20 billion annually we spend on development assistance, including billions of dollars fighting AIDS, malaria and other diseases affecting people whose suffering isn't theoretical.