Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) — one a washed-up former presidential candidate, the other a rehabilitated potential future candidate — engaged in the sort of rough-and-tumble, no-rules debate that Gingrich has always talked about with relish. It was a high-brow argument about global warming, lasting 90 minutes and with no restrictions, between two intelligent politicians — the kind of serious debate that few of our modern presidential candidates could survive.
The debate was remarkable in several ways, not the least of which was its confirmation of Kerry’s attempt, with a new book and a series of appearances, to piggy-back off of Al Gore’s environmentalist movie-star success.
But that is not all that the senator from Massachusetts is borrowing from Gore. Like his newly admired predecessor, the 2004 presidential wannabe has affected that air of national scolding that marked Gore’s presentation before two congressional panels last month. As with Gore, this involved the inevitable comparison of America to Europe on their respective environmental records. Americans, Kerry asserted, should feel ashamed for being such a dirty, nasty lot when it comes to carbon emissions.
“The Europeans are taking this more seriously,” Kerry said of their quest to reduce carbon emissions, and thus (they hope) diminish global warming. “They’re struggling to meet the Kyoto standards and we’re not. We’re living outrageously, as an outlaw, outside of it. We’re not trying.”
The message is that the United States is the Big Bad Wolf of global warming. In particular, we don’t take the environment seriously because we did not sign the Kyoto Treaty.
Greener than Europe?
Then again, Kerry might want to read up on those environmental records before he starts shaming us all. As guilty as we like to feel in this country, we can hold our head up when it comes to greenhouse-gas pollution. It isn’t just that Europe is failing to meet its Kyoto obligations, having increased emissions since 1993. It’s much better than that.
The fact is that, in the years after we elected George W. Bush — a man who would presumably knock his own grandmother into a vat of toxic sludge if it allowed him to contaminate another pristine wilderness area — we have soundly beaten the European Union in curbing emissions growth. This despite our having much more population growth and a much stronger economy.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that U.S. carbon-equivalent emissions rose by 1.3 percent between 2000 and 2004. During the same period, the U.S. population grew by 4 percent, and our economy grew by 19.5 percent.
In the 25 European nations reporting under the Kyoto Protocol, carbon equivalent emissions rose by 2.2 percent during the same period (and by 2.4 percent in the 15 Western European nations). The EU-25 population, meanwhile, grew by 1.6 percent and their collective economy grew by just under 7 percent.
Between 2000 and 2004, America had more than twice the population and economic growth of Europe and a little more than half of Europe’s growth in carbon emissions. That’s not so bad, is it? Should we really be looking up to Europe? One would hope that environmental consciousness is not about signing treaties or setting bold goals, but rather about decreasing emissions. That is where we beat everyone.
It is true that America still emits more carbon and its equivalents than any other nation on earth — about 25 percent of the world’s emissions. But this is not the best measurement of how we are doing. As Christopher Horner points out in his book A Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, our citizens are not just lifeless receptacles that consume and then pollute. Rather, we produce things that lead to human flourishing and prosperity, and in America, we happen to produce a lot more of this than anyone else. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of its wealth. Compared to Europe, we produce more jobs with higher wages, and we enjoy an economy that is 42.5 percent wealthier per person. Year after year, we leave Europe farther behind.
Americans should want the rest of the world to enjoy the same prosperity we do. Unless we want a global warming action-plan that simply ignores the costs of eliminating causes of carbon emissions — a plan that forces us to stop flying in airplanes, driving cars, heating and cooling our homes, and possibly even using computers — we should be factoring in that cost by measuring our greenhouse pollution against our economic production. And by this measure, America is not doing so badly.
At 0.55 metric tons of carbon per thousand dollars of GDP (our “carbon intensity”) in 2004, the United States fits right in with Europe, somewhere between the Netherlands (0.63 tons) and Belgium (0.54 tons), well below Estonia (0.81 tons) but well above France (0.26), which generates much of its electricity using carbon-free nuclear power. More importantly, we have been reducing our emissions by this measure. Our carbon intensity has decreased by 7 percent since 2000 — larger than the EU-25 reduction of 4.5 percent during the same period.
Between our existing regulations and individual, market-driven decisions to adopt more energy-efficient (and cleaner) technologies, we are successfully containing our carbon footprint while still enjoying prosperity. That may not be enough to save the planet from hellfire, but if the global-warming alarmists are right, then nothing will be. We are doomed anyway unless we adopt nuclear power, build hundreds of large dams, or find some other cheap and viable energy source.
“You want to impose, by government coercion, a standard,” Gingrich pointed out to Kerry in the debate. He went on to argue that Kerry’s idea of a cap-and-trade system to control emissions is a loser — that an incentive-based plan offering tax credits would be less painful and get quicker results than government compulsion.
He may be right, but the real question is whether either plan is necessary. Even under the Bush administration, which supposedly does nothing about pollution and wants to despoil our planet, we have managed to hold down annual emissions increases and reduce our emissions intensity better than most countries that signed Kyoto. We are seeing better results than European countries that have had to cut back electricity production and lose jobs in a futile attempt to meet the treaty’s arbitrary standards — standards that many environmentalists argue are not nearly stringent enough to make a difference anyway.
The idea that the fanfare of a government initiative — a treaty or a new set of regulations or even a market-distorting tax-credit — would make us any more environmentally friendly as a nation is absurd. Put more simply, it was worth not signing Kyoto if only to save the paper.