Culture

Countering Climate Change with American Ingenuity

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Facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things.

Unfortunately, these days debates about climate change too often occur in fact-free zones. So let’s stipulate two truths: Yes, our climate is changing over tim,e and, yes, humans have played some part in that change. That said, before we react rashly to warnings of imminent climate catastrophe, we should consider humankind’s checkered history of such claims.

When I was growing up, people across the country were riveted by Paul R. Ehrlich’s best-selling book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich’s book warned of mass starvation that would hit the United States in the 1970s and ’80s due to overpopulation, and called for immediate, draconian measures in response.

So what happened to his prediction?

The short answer is Norman Borlaug. Borlaug, known as the “father of the green revolution,” was awarded the Nobel Prize because, perhaps more than anyone else, he was responsible for the expansion of global food production, which allowed the world to avert Ehrlich’s now-infamous forewarning of impending catastrophe.

RELATED: On Climate, Science and Politics Are Diverging

Alarming predictions about the destructive power of climate change have met a similar fate. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was President Nixon’s counselor for urban affairs before later serving as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and senator from New York. Moynihan was hardly the kind of person prone to rash predictions, but even he got climate fever, writing in a September 1969 memo that the effects of a projected carbon dioxide increase “could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet.” He went on to write dramatically, “Goodbye New York” and “Goodbye Washington.”

Of course, neither of those dire warnings came true. Predictions, even those made with the best of intentions, can simply be wrong. Or, as New York Yankees catcher and noted linguist Yogi Berra put it, “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

So, with a yellow caution flag in mind, how should we respond to a changing climate? What are the costs of action or inaction? With the array of diverse and complex challenges facing our country, where does global climate change fit as a priority?

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The U.S. Senate considered these questions when it unanimously passed a 1997 resolution by Senators Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) and Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) disapproving of the Kyoto Protocol. The overwhelming vote was driven by the protocol’s mandate that the United States disproportionately reduce CO2 emissions, relative to the world’s other major developing economies.

The resolution expressed the view that the treaty would “result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.” Forty-one Democrats voted for the resolution, including many of my current Senate colleagues, as well as then-senators Joe Biden and John Kerry.

Rushing to impose economically destructive and unrealistic measures that create more regulations and taxes, and less economic opportunity, isn’t the answer.

At the time, concerns about the protocol were twofold: It would cripple our economy without fundamentally preventing further climate change. These are the same concerns many of us still share today.

Yet, some of the same people who voted for the resolution now say the U.S. should unilaterally reduce its CO2 emissions by substantial levels, or else face a global catastrophe.

Studies suggest that strict limits on human-driven CO2 emissions would have a negligible effect globally — particularly if emissions from developing economies like China and India continue to rise. In other words, while failing to significantly move the climate needle, new burdensome regulations would hinder our economy and hurt our most vulnerable, raising utility bills for those on fixed incomes and increasing costs to small businesses.

#related#Rushing to impose economically destructive and unrealistic measures that create more regulations and taxes, and less economic opportunity, isn’t the answer.

Instead, we would be wise to look to an instance when our nation confronted a slightly different environmental hazard, documented in the book SuperFreakonomics.

At the start of the 20th century, horses in New York City were producing around five million pounds of manure a day, which strained sanitation systems and posed a large risk to public health. Fortunately, the problem was solved by way of innovation, with the advent of the internal-combustion engine — saving the city from disaster, and changing American transportation forever.

While climate models fail, America’s entrepreneurial minds have shown time and again that they are simply more adaptive and ingenious than government regulators and bureaucrats. When the government tries to play savior, we find that overbearing, intrusive Washington “solutions” do far more harm than good. Let’s instead promote innovation-driven answers that fit the diverse needs of consumers, businesses, and a growing economy alike.

— John Cornyn is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.

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