“Worse than we thought.” The headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper Saturday was almost gloating in its pronunciation of the bad news. The tone of the article that followed was no different: In Paris, a U.N.-sponsored panel, consisting of hundreds of scientists from all over the world, had just declared that average global temperatures will probably rise by 4 degrees Celsius over the next century. If so, catastrophic flooding, famine, and water shortages may follow, along with the extinction of up to 50 percent of existing animal species. Malaria and other tropical diseases may spread. Among the coastal cities threatened by the higher ocean levels caused by melting ice caps are, the paper noted—not without a degree of satisfaction—London, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
Since the Guardian was not the only European paper to feature this story—Germany’s Der Spiegel warned of “A Tropical Germany by 2100”—perhaps it’s not surprising that the U.N. report also inspired politicians of various hues, across Europe and the world, to call for controls on carbon emissions and the fossil fuels that create them. The British environment minister called for an “international political commitment to take action.” The head of the German environment agency said, “We must all change our environmental behavior considerably.” So much was said about the need for “action” and “change” that it’s a wonder the resultant hot air didn’t make temperatures rise even higher.
But don’t get me wrong. I was convinced by the reigning consensus on global warming a long time ago, have accepted that human use of fossil fuels has caused it, and am very glad that so many European politicians take the words of scientists seriously. The question now is whether these same Europeans will start taking the solutions seriously, too. If so, they must begin by immediately abandoning the bankrupt Kyoto treaty on climate change.
For those whose memory needs jogging, let me remind you that the much-vaunted treaty—whose full name is the “Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change“—creates a complicated and completely unenforceable system of international targets for carbon-emissions reduction based on measurements taken in 1990. Critics of the U.S. president have condemned him for failing to sign it, conveniently forgetting that the Senate had voted 95-to-0 to reject it way back in 1997, a margin that surely reflects broad bipartisan opposition. At the same time, few of the Asian and European signatories are actually on track to meet their goals; those that will meet the targets, such as Britain, can do so because their economies rely less on industry than they once did. Canada and Japan aren’t even close to compliance; China and India, whose emissions rates are growing most rapidly, are exempt altogether as “developing” countries—which, given their current economic strength, is absurd.
None of which is to say that reduction of carbon emissions is impossible. But the limitation of fossil fuels cannot be carried out with an unenforceable international regime, using complicated regulations that the United Nations does not have the staff or the mandate to supervise, with the help of a treaty that effectively penalizes those that bother to abide by it. Though I once thought otherwise, I no longer believe that a complicated carbon-trading regime—in which industries traded emissions “credits”—would work, even within the United States. So much is at stake for so many industries that the legislative process to create such a regime would be easily distorted by their various lobbies.
Any real, lasting solutions will have to be extremely simple, and—because of the high cost implicit in reducing the use and emissions of fossil fuels—will also have to benefit those countries that impose them in other ways. Fortunately, there is such a solution, one that is grippingly unoriginal, requires no special knowledge of economics, and is extremely easy for any country to apply. It’s called a carbon tax, and it should be applied across the board to every industry that uses fossil fuels, every home or building with a heating system, every motorist, and every public transportation system. Immediately, it would produce a wealth of innovations designed to save fuel, as well as new incentives to conserve. More to the point, it would produce a big chunk of money that could be used for other things. Anyone for balancing the budget? Fixing Social Security for future generations? Cutting income tax dramatically? As a little foreign-policy side benefit, users of the tax would suddenly find themselves less dependent on Gulf oil or Russian gas.
Most of all, though, the successful use of carbon taxes does not require “American leadership,” or a U.N. committee, or indeed any complicated international effort of any kind. It can be done country by country: If the British environment minister or the German chancellor wants to go ahead with it tomorrow or the next day, nothing is stopping them. If a future U.S. president wants to call on the nation to rally around a truly patriotic and noble cause, then he or she has the perfect opportunity. If the Chinese see that such a tax has produced unexpected benefits in America and Europe, they’ll follow. And when that happens, we’ll know that the apocalyptic climate-change rhetoric has finally been taken seriously.