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Global Warming Simplicities

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

We in the news business often enlist in moral crusades. Global warming is among the latest. Unfortunately, self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism. A recent Newsweek cover story on global warming is a sobering reminder. It's an object lesson on how viewing the world as "good guys vs. bad guys" can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.

If you missed Newsweek's story, here's the gist. A "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change." This "denial machine" has obstructed action against global warming and is still "running at full throttle." The story's thrust: Discredit the "denial machine," and the country can start the serious business of fighting global warming. The story was a wonderful read, marred only by its being fundamentally misleading.

The global-warming debate's great unmentionable is this: We lack the technology to get from here to there. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 doesn't mean it can happen. At best, we might curb the growth of emissions.

Consider a 2006 study from the International Energy Agency. Using present policies, it projected that emissions of carbon dioxide (a main greenhouse gas) would more than double by 2050; developing countries would account for almost 70 percent of the increase. The IEA then simulated an aggressive, global program to cut emissions that is based on the best available technologies: more solar, wind and biomass energy; more-efficient cars, appliances and buildings; more nuclear energy. Under this admitted fantasy, global emissions in 2050 would still slightly exceed 2003 levels.

Even the fantasy would be a stretch. In the United States, it would take massive regulations, higher energy taxes or both. Democracies don't easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems. Examples abound. Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, we've been on notice to limit dependence on insecure foreign oil. We've done little. In 1973, imports were 35 percent of U.S. oil use; in 2006, they were 60 percent. For decades we've known of the huge retirement costs of baby boomers. Little has been done.

One way or another, our assaults against global warming are likely to be symbolic, ineffective or both. But if we succeed in cutting emissions substantially, savings would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that from 2003 to 2020, the number of vehicles in China will rise from 26 million to 120 million, average residential floor space will increase 50 percent and energy demand will grow 4.4 percent annually. Even with "best practices" energy efficiency, demand would still grow 2.8 percent a year, McKinsey estimates.

Against these real-world pressures, Newsweek's "denial machine" is a peripheral and highly contrived story. Newsweek implied, for example, that Exxon Mobil used a think tank to pay academics to criticize global-warming science. Actually, this accusation was discredited long ago, and Newsweek shouldn't have lent it respectability. (Exxon Mobil says it knew nothing of the global-warming grant, which involved issues of climate modeling. And its 2006 contribution to the think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, was small: $240,000 out of a $28 million budget.)

The alleged cabal's influence does not seem impressive. The mainstream media have generally been unsympathetic; they've treated global warming ominously. The first Newsweek cover story in 1988 warned: "The Greenhouse Effect. Danger: More Hot Summers Ahead." A Time cover in 2006 was more alarmist: "BE WORRIED, BE VERY WORRIED." Nor does public opinion seem much swayed. Although polls can be found to illustrate almost anything, the longest-running survey questions show a remarkable consistency. In 1989, Gallup found 63 percent of Americans worried "a great deal" or a "fair amount" about global warming; in 2007, 65 percent did.

What to do about global warming is a quandary. Certainly, more research and development. Advances in underground storage of carbon dioxide, battery technology (for plug-in hybrid cars), biomass or nuclear power could alter energy economics. To cut oil imports, I support a higher gasoline tax -- $1 to $2 a gallon, introduced gradually -- and higher fuel-economy standards for vehicles. These steps would also temper greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling for more domestic natural gas (a low-emission fuel) would make sense. One test of greenhouse proposals: Are they worth doing on other grounds?

But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: We simply don't have a solution for this problem. As we debate it, journalists should resist the temptation to portray global warming as a morality tale -- as Newsweek did -- in which anyone who questions its gravity or proposed solutions may be ridiculed as a fool, a crank or an industry stooge. Dissent is, or should be, the lifeblood of a free society.


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