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Climategate and Copenhagen: History as Farce

Climategate and Copenhagen: History as Farce

By Robert Robb - December 9, 2009

Sometimes history is staged as farce. The juxtaposition of the climategate emails and the Copenhagen conference on global warming is such a moment.

In Copenhagen, the world's political leaders will preen about their love for the planet and make phony promises about protecting it. Meanwhile, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia contain deeply disturbing revelations about the science underlying the entire gig.

Simply put, leading climate scientists conspired to hide uncertainty in the data, prevent others from checking their work and suppress conflicting judgments.

Even before these revelations, there were reasons to be circumspect about what was known about the effect of industrialization on global climate. There is, first of all, the hubris of believing that human beings can concoct a series of mathematical equations in a computer model that fully duplicate the interactions within the earth's atmosphere. (A similar hubris exists with respect to macroeconomic computer models.)

Then there is the inconvenience of counter-indicative trends. The emails reveal frustration with not being able to explain the global cooling that has been going on since 1998. But that is not the first uncertainty. There was a much longer cooling trend from the 1940s to the 1970s. So, for a fairly large portion of the industrial age, global temperatures have been going down, not up.

That is not to say that greenhouse gases are not something to worry about. We know that the pre-industrial age atmosphere worked. We know that emitting greenhouses gases produced by industrial age activities changes the atmosphere. And we know that as the developing world industrializes, greenhouse gas emissions will increase, on the present course dramatically.

Even most climate change skeptics agree that greenhouse gases interact with the atmosphere in ways that tend toward higher global temperatures. The disagreement is mostly over the magnitude of that influence compared to other influences and natural variations in climate, and the advisability of various policy options to address it.

Taking all of that into consideration, there is reason for public policy to lean against carbon emissions. There are lots of ways to make things go. Creating disincentives to using some sources based upon their carbon emissions is a sensible thing to do based upon what is known and with full respect for what is unknown and uncertain.

This won't be done through international treaties forged in let's-pretend confabs such as Copenhagen. There's simply too much incentive for national leaders to overpromise while on the world stage and then cheat on their commitments when they get home. There's no conceivable enforcement mechanism to overcome this incentive. And the price the developing countries are demanding to play is simply too high.

Nor should it be done through the bureaucratic cap-and-trade system erected in Europe and under consideration in the U.S. Congress. There are just too many games that will inevitably get played under such a system with the allocation of pollution rights and the eligibility of offsets.

Instead, the sensible policy reaction to what is known and what remains unknown and uncertain is for the industrialized countries to impose a straightforward carbon tax. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, with the increase in energy taxes offset by reductions in income or payroll taxes.

The tax could begin small, but even a small tax can have a large effect. The hard work in a carbon tax is setting up the mechanism initially. Once established, producers will know that carbon has a price and that the price may go up. That creates production-cost uncertainties that producers will try to minimize.

As the energy mix changes in industrialized countries in response to a carbon tax, the efficiencies of alternatives will go up and their price will go down. That will change energy choices in the developing world, even if they aren't formally participating in the scheme.

A small carbon tax in the industrialized countries won't do all that is necessary if the more dire climate change predictions come true. But it can be ratcheted up if necessary. And it's a better beginning than airy and phony promises to cut emissions to pre-industrial levels sometime in the distant future.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com

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