June 10, 2005,
On June 1, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order committing California to the world’s most ambitious program for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Schwarzenegger proposes to reduce emissions in the Golden State to 2000 levels by 2010 (an 11-percent cut below projected levels), to 1990 levels by 2020 (a 25-percent cut below projections), and, by 2050, to a level 80-percent below 1990 levels. The commitments made by Great Britain, France, and Japan within the context of the Kyoto Protocol pale by comparison.
This week, British prime minister Tony Blair flew to Washington to inveigh against President Bush not for the first time for not making similar pledges. The president said the U.S. would spend more money on research, but did not commit to doing anything.
For this, he will surely be attacked by the usual suspects on the left. He already came under fire this week when the New York Times reported that an administration official “repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between [greenhouse gas] emissions and global warming.”
In fact, the changes were trivial, and often amounted to little more than the insertion of adverbs. There is nothing nefarious about an official’s making small adjustments in a document’s emphasis in order to render it more harmonious with the administration’s policy a practice of Republicans and Democratic alike. In any case, some have argued that, if anything, the changes made the documents more accurate.
While the fallout from the Times report is likely to be limited, it is reasonable to ask whether President Bush will be able to resist continuing pressure to implement guidelines similar to California’s. The answer to that question is probably yes; and, in any case, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposals probably won’t end up being the economic death warrant they appear to be.
is likely to be limited.”
That’s because Schwarzenegger’s executive order is little more than the equivalent of a New Year’s resolution a promise to do something in the future, with no guarantee that it will actually be done. Federal and state environmental codes are littered with such commitments, many of which have proven meaningless. The public pays a lot of attention to high-sounding goals, but little attention to the steps by which these goals will be achieved. Consequently, politicians get a lot more political capital by proclaiming their intentions than they lose by failing to fulfill them.
U.S. environmental policy has continually reflected this pattern. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 required 90 percent reductions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions by 1975. By 1977, auto companies had been granted three one-year extensions, and in 1977 Congress extended the deadlines to the mid 1980s. Ambient air-quality goals have a similar history. They were initially to be achieved by 1975, but Congress prevented the EPA from implementing them with any measures that upset constituents (e.g., taxes, or restrictions on parking and auto use).
In the case of global warming, the emptiness of political gestures is already on display. According to a recent report from the European Environmental Agency, the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol are already blowing past their commitments with wild abandon. The EU, under its current policies, is on track for a 7-percent shortfall in its emission targets by 2010; France is set to have a 9-percent shortfall; in Belgium the shortfall will be 14 percent; and in Demanrk it will pass 36 percent.
How does Gov. Schwarzenegger propose to effect the reductions he has promised? Aggressive execution of current policy and programs, plus a few adjustments concerning renewable energy and energy efficiency. This amounts to essentially nothing. But by the time Californians notice the mismatch between promise and reality, the governor will be long retired, and his promises largely forgotten.
Schwarzenegger may feel constrained to make such promises to please his Green constituency. But President Bush faces no such pressures. This is likely to be true of future candidates as well, who must be careful not to alienate voters in coal-producing swing states. Were it not for coal miners’ fear that Al Gore’s environmental policies would endanger their jobs, Gore almost certainly would have won Ohio or West Virginia and therefore the presidency.
The reality that few politicians like to talk about is this: The only way to stop whatever global warming might be caused by fossil fuels is to make these fuels so expensive at the margin that they would be largely abandoned. But the costs of doing so are utterly prohibitive, and would not be justified even by worst-case global-warming scenarios. Unfortunately, no one has the stomach to level with the public about this so, instead, we get meaningless pledges like those that Schwarzenegger has issued. That may be annoying, but things could be worse.