Global Warming: Playing It Cool

Rich Tucker
Posted: May 16, 2008 11:08 AM
Global Warming: Playing It Cool

Sorry, but is this a bad time to discuss global warming?

Here in the mid-Atlantic, the month of May has been a washout. Record rainfall has made last year’s drought seem like a distant memory. And the temperature just can’t seem to warm up. It feels more like March than May.

But maybe one month isn’t a fair sample. “When you look at climate change, you should not look at any particular year,” cautions Michel Jarraud, the World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general and a global-warming proponent.

Well, then. Is 10 years long enough? As BBC news put it last month, “temperatures have not risen globally since 1998 when El Nino warmed the world.”

Oh, but Jarraud has an answer to that, too. “La Nina is part of what we call ‘variability.’ There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years,” he explained, “but what is important for climate change is that the trend is up; the climate on average is warming, even if there is a temporary cooling because of La Nina.”

Well, few people are meteorologists. But almost anybody can identify the key word in Jarraud’s explanation: “variability.” The weather in New York is different from the weather in L.A., which is different from the weather in Chicago. And tomorrow, the weather will be different in all three places. Weather “varies.”

But scientists aren’t celebrating our decade of cooling. Since the planet hasn’t been getting any hotter, they now talk about how the problem is “global climate change.” But that shouldn’t be a concern. The climate is always changing, and there’s simply no way for humans to alter that.

Oh, but we’re going to try.

Next month, lawmakers in Washington (which might have warmed up to summer temperatures by then) will take up a bill called “America’s Climate Security Act.” It aims to control global warming by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide (you’re exhaling some right now) our country emits.

The bill’s complicated, of course. But it would do what government does best: Attempt to address a problem by creating a bureaucracy to manage it. That approach has failed completely with, say, education policy. But maybe it’ll work to cool the planet.

Tellingly, the proposed climate change bill relies heavily on a technology known as “carbon capture and sequestration,” where carbon from fossil fuels is, instead of being released into the air, collected and buried. But the technology to do this doesn’t exist yet, and may never exist.

Ironically, the entire bill is unnecessary.

Americans are increasingly interested in protecting the environment. We don’t want to lose our jobs to do so (one study predicts that this bill would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs). But everyone wants to live in a clean world.

If CO2 is a problem, American inventers will solve it. The market’s demand for a cleaner planet will force us to find ways to remove CO2. Meanwhile, we’ll move past the internal combustion engine and find a fuel that burns cleaner.

It’s worth noting that our country could reduce its energy use right away -- but the government stands in the way.

In the May edition of The Atlantic, Lisa Margonelli noted that “A 2005 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that U.S. industry could profitably recycle enough waste energy -- including steam, furnace gases, heat, and pressure -- to reduce the country’s fossil-fuel use (and greenhouse-gas emissions) by nearly a fifth.”

Why don’t we? Overregulation is a big reason. “The Clean Air Act has succeeded spectacularly in reducing some forms of air pollution,” Margonelli writes, “but perversely, it has chilled efforts to reuse energy: because many of these efforts involve tinkering with industrial exhaust systems, they can trigger a federal or local review of the plant, opening a can of worms some plant managers would rather keep closed.”

Of course, the scope of the Clean Air Act pales in comparison to that of the Climate Security Act. Imagine the government attempting to manage the output from every manufacturing and power plant, under the guise of reducing global warming. It’s a disaster in the making.

Around 1900, many forward thinkers worried about the future. How, they wondered, would the United States deal with all the horses its urbanizing culture would require in the 20th century? They couldn’t foresee that the automobile would completely replace the horse and solve that problem.

Today, in a country with more cars than drivers, we can’t imagine an economy that doesn’t depend on oil. But we’ll develop one.

Washington should encourage that, perhaps by setting up some sort of prize for the person who invents an effective hydrogen engine. But mostly by staying out of the way and letting the market work.