Foreign Climates

Posted: Jun 09, 2008 12:01 AM
Foreign Climates

Let me say this for Our Betters in Europe: Not only do they pay obscenely high gasoline taxes, and hence prices at the pump, but also, at least until recently, they've seemed happy to do so.

Don't think that Europeans didn't get a kick out of the outrage that followed after prices at American pumps surpassed $4 per gallon. When European visitors fill tanks for rented cars in America, they feel like they hit the jackpot. In May, thanks to high taxes, gasoline prices hit $8.49 per gallon in the United Kingdom and a whopping $9.89 per gallon in the Netherlands.

With worldwide demand pushing up oil prices, the day may be near when Western Europeans decide they're paying too much for petrol, merci beaucoup. In the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, there have been protests staged by truck drivers, fishermen and angry consumers against high gas taxes.

So what's this column about? I would never advocate raising American gas taxes to the levels levied abroad. This is a long-distance nation; a switch to European-style gas taxes would kill the American economy. But when you look at how many Americans reacted to $4-a-gallon gas -- including people who say they want to curb energy use -- you have to respect how Europeans enunciated a set of goals -- less congestion, less pollution, more public transit -- and agreed that everybody has to pay to achieve those goals. They don't just dump the burden on smokers and "the rich," and many Europeans are proud that they pay through the nose for gas.

Back in America, a different dynamic is at play. Many voters say they want to fight global warming, while everyone wants to increase America's energy independence. Yet somehow many Americans seem to think that they are entitled to expect politicians to deliver greenhouse-gas reductions and energy independence -- along with cheap gas and big cars. Politicians duly tell voters that they will pass laws to reduce energy consumption, and voters like what they hear -- in part because they think they won't have to pay more at the pump or think about fuel efficiency at the car dealership.

After gas prices began to spike in April, presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain proposed a summer holiday on the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax -- even though few economists expected a tax holiday to yield a commensurate reduction in prices at the pump. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton later picked up the proposal. To his credit, Democratic candidate Barack Obama refused to play that game.

The worst part: McCain and Clinton have said that they want to sharply reduce greenhouse gases and decrease America's dependence on foreign oil. You don't get there with cheap gasoline. You get there by curbing energy use, which higher prices will do.

Or you get there by increasing supply. Instead, McCain and Obama support Congress' refusal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as bans on new drilling off the coasts of California and Florida. They say they support energy independence -- while they support policies that guarantee more importation of foreign oil.

If there has been some progress, then it is with nuclear power, which can generate cheap energy without emitting greenhouse gases. McCain understands that: "We're never going to really significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions unless nuclear power is a major component" of America's energy supply. And McCain is right. Obama says he wants to explore nuclear power -- which, I suppose, beats an outright rejection.

All is not rosy on the other side of the Atlantic. Global demand may increase prices to a point that forces European countries to give consumers a break by lowering taxes.

Also, most European Union nations will not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to meet the target they agreed to in the 1997 Kyoto global warming pact. Instead, they are calling new meetings and agreeing to tougher goals, like cutting emissions in half by 2050 -- and then patting themselves on the back for setting harder goals, which they won't meet.

Of course, you can't just pass a pact to reduce energy consumption years into the future. And you can't reduce energy consumption by fiat, and without any sacrifice. Fiats and feckless pacts don't reduce energy use, people do.