Gassy senators

Posted: Jun 22, 2005 12:00 AM

The U.S. Senate can barely agree to hold up-or-down votes to confirm judges, but no worries ? it is about to save the planet. At least that's the conceit of Republican senators proposing to institute caps on emissions of greenhouse gases.

If the U.S. had ratified the Kyoto treaty, it would have had to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. Bipartisan opposition sank the treaty, and it wasn't even mentioned in the Democrats' 2004 platform ? although its demise is always attributed in the press to the work of President Bush alone. With Kyoto itself off the table, senators have been busy trying to forge a Kyoto-lite.

John McCain is promoting a bill that mandates emissions be cut to 2000 levels by 2010. Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico) has proposed a competing bill that wouldn't reduce the absolute level of carbon-dioxide emissions, but their rate of increase. The game is to get any restriction, no matter how piddling, on carbon-dioxide emissions. As environmental analyst Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute argues, the debate then will forevermore be not whether emissions should be capped, but by how much. Thus, the U.S. will enter a new era of restrictions on its energy consumption. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of coal, oil and natural gas, which account for 85 percent of all energy consumed by Americans.

The point of all this is to ? insert senatorial furrowed brow here ? address the "crisis" of global warming. Global warming is real, and it is probably at least partly man-made. The temperature has risen 0.6 degrees Celsius throughout the past century. Somehow, we still manage to inhabit this planet Earth. It is unclear what catastrophe would occur if, under one of the estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the temperature increased another 1.4 degrees Celsius throughout the next 100 years.

One theory is that ice caps will melt and lead to a disastrous increase in the sea level. But warming is not evenly distributed. Antarctica has experienced slight cooling in recent decades. Temperatures in Greenland have fallen the past 15 years, and even though the Arctic is warmer than it was 35 years ago, it is cooler than it was in 1930.

In short, we have time to think about what we're doing before we are swallowed by a climate apocalypse. We should realize that emissions controls are mostly symbolism. Al Gore's top climate adviser, Tom Wigley, estimated that Kyoto, if fully implemented, would avert 0.07 Celsius of a degree of warming by 2050. McCain- and Bingaman-style controls would do even less. This is why Wigley called Kyoto only "a first and relatively small step" toward addressing global warming.

Even the first step isn't faring well. The Europeans signed up for Kyoto restrictions because we all know they aren't addicted to SUVs the way Americans are. Well, well. The European Union is set to fall 7 percent short of its Kyoto targets by 2010. France will be 9 percent short, Belgium 14 percent, Denmark at least 36 percent. If these countries are going to make such an ostentatious show of hampering their economies for no good reason, at least they can follow through.

Although there is little that can be done to address greenhouse gases in the short term, who knows what technological advances will hold in the future? As far as the effects of global warming, most of the speculation is that it would harm the third world the most through increased disease, declining agricultural productivity, etc. If we worry about the fate of the third world, however, there are more urgent ways to address its suffering there than emissions restrictions. We could plow a portion of the cost from Kyoto-lite legislation ? Bingaman's bill might cost $300 billion by 2025 ? into directly battling HIV/AIDS, combating malnutrition, controlling malaria, and creating more potable water, the problems that kill millions every year.

U.S. senators, unfortunately, are always inclined to prefer the meaningless gesture instead.