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Although tax policy has consumed much of the policy calendar, a number of other important issues, such as the energy bill, remain in the wings, preparing to take center stage for the summer season. The Senate has initiated debate on a final bill, but after bogging down on an ethanol amendment, the issue was shelved until after Memorial Day. While the goal is to complete the bill by the end of summer, efforts to amend the bill with aggressive global warming policies make for a long, hot summer. Should the proponents of these measures succeed, American consumers could be in for a shock.
Climate change policy has long been a topic of debate, both in the scientific community and the policy community. Yet the debate seems to be diverging between these communities. The policy community, operating on short political time horizons, appears more intent on taking action before the next election than resolving the uncertainties around the issues of global warming. The scientific community, on the other hand, continues to identify uncertainties in both the scientific theory of global warming as well as the ability of the Kyoto Protocol to have any significant impact on global climate.
In Washington, proponents of global warming continue to pursue legislation to cap carbon dioxide emissions and push the United States into ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change—a treaty that the Senate has steadfastly failed to ratify. In fact, in 1997, the Senate passed a resolution stating that any such resolution would have to include developing nations, and that such a treaty should not harm the U.S. economy. The Kyoto Protocol fails on both these accounts. This year, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, considered but ultimately excluded a climate change title in the energy bill. Adopting such a title would have implicitly endorsed the assertion that human induced greenhouse gas emissions significantly contribute to global warming and opened the door to Kyoto Protocol-style caps on emissions, most notably carbon dioxide.
Proponents of the Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use have not abandoned the fight, however, and are gearing up for a floor fight with amendments to include more stringent global warming policies. Supporters such as Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) already made a push for more aggressive climate change policies earlier this year. Other stalwarts, such as Sens. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) will be prominent in the coming debates as well.
While many in the policy community appear intent on action, views on climate change in the scientific community can hardly be called a consensus, unless the consensus refers to the large uncertainties still being examined in the theory
of human-induced global climate change. A serious debate continues in the climate science community about fossil fuels, global climate change, and the many uncertainties that continue to surround the issue, from the difficulties in modeling water vapor to the challenges of interpreting past climate history. In fact, research by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas find that there is little scientific evidence to suggest that climate in the 20th century is out of ordinary when examining the last 1,000 years of climate.
Understanding the science of climate change is a critical precursor to adopting policies that would impose significant costs on consumers. Most policy recommendations ultimately lead to rationing energy, which means higher prices for consumers. A study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the costs of Kyoto could be almost $400 billion annually. These costs have left the federal government leery of adopting such a treaty. Unfortunately, states have become a new battleground as environmental interest groups rebuffed at the federal level push their agenda at the state level. This approach is even more damaging to consumers. A recent study by the Heartland Institute found that state-based implementation is even more expensive, with consumers and businesses in the average state paying $21.8 billion.
Before taxpayers should be forced to pay for such policies, the uncertainties raised by the scientific community must be addressed. Beyond the science of global warming, many scientists are admitting that Kyoto-style solutions would be ineffective at addressing issues of global climate. A more appropriate research path is long-run technological innovation, which can provide the means to address problems when they are identified. During this summer’s energy debate Congress should keep this in mind and avoid policies that threaten the nation’s economic welfare in pursuit of policy solutions to questions that science has yet to resolve.