Politics & Policy

Kyoto by Another Name

McCain and Lieberman make climate mischief.

Who does Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) think he is fooling?

McCain’s Climate Stewardship Act, cosponsored with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.), is a political roadmap back to the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations global-warming treaty that the Senate preemptively rejected by a vote of 95-0 in July 1997.

As originally introduced in January 2003, McCain’s bill would require the United States to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide from fossil-energy use, to 2000 levels by 2010 (Phase I) and 1990 levels by 2016 (Phase II). Though not as restrictive as the U.S. Kyoto target–7 percent below 1990 levels during 2008-2012–Phase II was close enough for government work. Too close, in fact, to have any chance of passing.

In an effort to woo the fence-sitters, Senator McCain, in October 2003, stripped Phase II from the bill. The Senate still rejected it by a vote of 55 to 43, but to McCain, that vote was only round one; now, he is demanding a rematch.


Proponents will undoubtedly argue, as they did last fall, that we need not worry about the bill’s economic impact because Phase I is just a “modest” first step in addressing global climate change. A recent Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis suggests otherwise. According to EIA, Phase I would increase: gasoline prices by 9 percent in 2010 and 19 percent in 2025; natural-gas prices in the industrial and electric-power sectors by 21 percent in 2010 and 58 percent in 2025; and electricity prices by 35 percent in 2025.

Further, Phase I would reduce U.S. GDP by $760 billion during 2004-2025 (or $290 billion in present value). For comparison, consider that Congress has appropriated $135 billion to pay for the war in Iraq.

And the costs do not stop there. Does anyone believe for a moment that enacting Phase I would appease rather than embolden the Kyoto lobby–or that enacting Phase I today would not make it easier to enact Phase II tomorrow? Phase I would impose Kyoto-like emission caps on major U.S. companies. Once subject to such regulation, firms would have an incentive to lobby for the treaty’s ratification in order to gain access to Kyoto’s emissions-credit market.

More importantly, any carbon-emissions cap, however “modest,” would radically change U.S. national policy. Never before has the U.S. government regulated energy markets based on the carbon content of fuels or emissions–and for good reason. Carbon dioxide is the inescapable byproduct of the carbon-based fuels–coal, oil, and natural gas–that supply 86 percent of all the energy Americans use. Enact Phase I, and you cross a regulatory Rubicon. From that moment on, the debate in Washington would no longer be about whether to suppress carbon-based energy production, but about how much and how fast to suppress it. There would be no difference in kind between U.S. law and the Kyoto Protocol. Ratification of Kyoto would surely follow.

Even if Kyoto ultimately collapses because Russia declines to ratify, other countries withdraw, or the whole scheme proves unenforceable, McCain-Lieberman would still be a regulatory Pandora’s box. The bill has a built-in escalator clause designed to ensure that Phase I is only the first in a series of energy-suppression mandates. Section 336 would require the undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere to determine “no less frequently than biennially” whether the bill’s emission caps remain “consistent” with the “objective” of preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system. In effect, the bill would turn the Department of Commerce–an agency beholden to McCain in his capacity as Senate Energy and Commerce Committee chairman–into a permanent lobbyist within the executive branch for increasingly stringent curbs on energy use.


The harm is that Phase I would lock America into an all-economic-pain-for-no-environmental-gain regulatory regime that can only end in failure. This assessment is confirmed by a seminal study published in the November 1, 2002, issue of the journal Science.

The study, co-authored by 18 energy and climate experts, examined possible technology options that might be used in coming decades to stabilize atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations. Such options include wind and solar energy, nuclear fission and fusion, biomass fuels, efficiency improvements, carbon sequestration, and hydrogen fuel cells. The authors found that “all these approaches currently have severe deficiencies that limit their ability to stabilize global climate.” They specifically took issue with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s claim that “known technological options could achieve a broad range of atmospheric CO2 stabilization levels, such as 550 ppm, 450 ppm or below over the next 100 years.”

As noted in the study, world energy demand could triple by 2050. Yet, “energy sources that can produce 100 to 300 percent of present world power consumption without greenhouse emissions do not exist operationally or as pilot plants.” The bottom line: “CO2 is a combustion product vital to how civilization is powered; it cannot be regulated away.”

Given current and foreseeable technological capabilities, any serious attempt to stabilize carbon-dioxide levels via regulation would be economically devastating and, thus, politically unsustainable. McCain-Lieberman is a dead end. A modest step on a journey one cannot complete and should not take is not progress; it is misdirection and wasted effort.


But, some may ask, “Shouldn’t we do something about global warming?” Well, for starters, we should try to understand how much global warming is taking place, and how serious a problem it is. Unfortunately, much of what passes today for “settled” science is misinformation, conjecture, or hype.

Last October’s Senate debate on McCain-Lieberman provides a memorable case in point. Senator McCain displayed two satellite photos showing a significant contraction in Arctic ice cover between 1979 and today. To him, this was proof positive that carbon dioxide-induced warming was despoiling our beautiful world. “You can believe me or your lyin’ eyes,” he huffed.

However, Russian meteorological observations from 75 stations going back to 1875 show that the Arctic was warmer in the late 1930s and early 1940s than it is today. Yet most of the buildup in atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations occurred after 1940. For all we know (satellite photography did not exist 70 years ago), ice cover retreated as much during the 1930s and 1940s as it has in recent decades. What Sen. McCain dogmatically asserts to be a linear trend may in fact be the waning phase of a natural cycle.

Moreover, Arctic ice cover is affected not only by ambient temperatures but also by wind patterns, and whereas the dominant circulation pattern in the late 1950s and early 1960s favored ice buildup, the dominant pattern in the 1980s and 1990s favored expansion of open water. Further, although the Arctic has warmed in recent decades, the climate models underpinning the Kyoto treaty predicted it would warm two to three times as much. The recent warming is within the range of natural variability.

In short, McCain’s seeing-is-believing, before-and-after photos do not provide a shred of evidence that carbon-dioxide emissions are causing, or are likely to cause, an environmental disaster.

Overall, Senators McCain and Lieberman propose an expensive non-solution to a greatly overstated problem. The Senate was right to reject this regulatory Pandora’s box the first time it was proposed. Today, with energy prices higher, the decision should be even easier.

Marlo Lewis is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Marlo Lewis is a senior fellow in environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he researches and writes on global warming, energy policy, and regulatory process reform. He has published ...


The Latest