Along the Tracks

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Three Northeastern states to the nation: Drop dead.

I found this story in today’s New York Times interesting: Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts are suing the federal government in an attempt to force the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. The lawsuit apparently claims CO2 should be considered a “criteria pollutant” and its emissions limited to “allowable levels in the atmosphere,” just like “ozone, lead and sulfur dioxide and other gases.”

This lawsuit’s advocates are operating on at least three levels here. First, there is the attempt to label carbon dioxide as a pollutant which causes damage. That remains a controversial contention, because carbon dioxide’s effects are indirect, unlike those other pollutants listed, which directly injure humans and other living things (despite the Times’ fudging in the linked story). The carbon dioxide levels you create in your lungs just before you exhale are higher than the surrounding atmosphere - that’s aerobic respiration for you. I guess these states would approve of regulations limiting - maybe eliminating - our breathing?

The indirect effects of CO2 are controversial as well, in several ways. CO2 is indeed a “greenhouse gas,” trapping heat from the sun and re-radiating it back toward the earth, but in practice, that action results in a complicated mix of effects, including some which may mitigate the very heating increased CO2 levels initiate. For instance, many scientists argue higher atmospheric temperatures over water - two-thirds of the earth’s surface - cause greater cloud formation. The bright white clouds reflect solar radiation back into space, lowering the amount reaching the earth’s surface. Less sunlight means less warming and a reduced greenhouse effect. Some studies indicate the CO2-cloud cover relationship largely balance each other; some say the increased cloud cover does not match CO2’s increased retention of solar heating; some point to other secondary effects and factors which may increase heating or reduce solar radiation. In other words, the science is far from settled. It’s hard to call a natural constituent of the atmosphere a “pollutant” based on what we actually know for certain.

Also, there is the question of global warming itself. Most scientists are pretty well convinced that global temperatures have increased in the past 200 years, and especially in the past few decades. This is not a certainty, but the evidence is rather overwhelming - good enough for yours truly. Still, what does that mean? As we just discussed above, the direct connection many would make between CO2 levels and global warming is simply not proven. Second, global climate cycles are only beginning to be appreciated, and are still not well understood. The consensus is that temperatures were substantially warmer than today just a couple thousand years ago. Ten to fifteen thousand years ago, they were substantially cooler - the earth was at the tail end of the “Ice Age,” when glaciers edged right down and through lil’ ol’ Williams County, Ohio, then melted, creating the area’s landscape, the Black Swamp to our south, and the Great Lakes all around us. The point is, we may very well be in the midst of a completely natural cycle of warming; we don’t understand the earth’s climate history well enough to say otherwise - not by a long shot.

Even if we set aside all these other objections, we have to make a judgment call about the warming itself: “Warming Bad!” That might be true, but there’s at least as good a chance that it is not true: “Warming Good!” The biggest potential positive? Longer growing seasons and an increase in precipitation would most likely result in greater crop production to feed a hungry world. Now, it is true we couldn’t count on this, and for any smaller region studied, the effects might well be negative. Nevertheless, the argument that global warming is a de facto, total negative is completely insupportable. What is true is that global warming means change. That is politically challenging. Which brings us to the strongest motive of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit: Politics.

This lawsuit, almost certain to fail on its merits, keeps the subject of CO2 regulation, global warming, and ultimately, international restrictions like the Kyoto Treaty in the public eye, whipping up liberal support for Democrats. The damage caused to the American economy by a punitive “solution” such as Kyoto would cause greater change in the human ecosystem - and far greater, guaranteed damage to human well-being - than a thousand years of CO2 emissions. And frankly, restraining the United States economy on the global stage was the primary goal of Kyoto, NOT reducing CO2 emissions (Third World nations are free to emit to their hearts’ content), and certainly not mitigating potential problems which may be caused by global warming (completely untouched by the treaty). Even the Democrats’ central authority, Bill Clinton, realized this, which is why he never submitted Kyoto for Senate approval. His mastery of politics, however, led him to indicate “support” for the treaty in concept, laying its fate in the hands of Republicans, who then could be targeted for their “anti-environmental” and “unilateral” stance on the subject.

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are playing the same game now, gearing up for the 2004 presidential race. Give them credit. It’s a political winner, even if it is bad for intelligent discussion of potential challenges the country faces, and therefore bad for America.

P.S. - While I have not focused on it above, it does not escape my notice that the New York Times does its best to make the suit seem completely reasonable while the Bush administration comes across as dismissive and uncaring. The “anti-regulation” spokesperson cited comes from an evil utilities trade group (you know, the Edisons, Cynergy, Dynegy and the like) while the “outside” voice of support for the lawsuit comes from the saintly Natural Resources Defense Council, a left-leaning, regulation-happy outfit described by the Times as a “conservation group.” God forbid any respected scientists shed light on the issue.

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