“Worse than we thought.” The headline in the British Guardian newspaper on Saturday was almost gloating about 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 4 degrees Celsius over the next century. If so, catastrophic flooding, famine and water shortages may follow, along with the extinction of up to half 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, the paper noted — not without a degree of satisfaction — are London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Since the Guardian was not the only European paper to feature this story — Germany’s Der Spiegel cautioned “A Tropical Germany by 2100?” — perhaps it’s not surprising that the U.N. report inspired politicians of various hues, across Europe and the world, to seek 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,” in fact, that it’s a wonder the resultant hot air didn’t make temperatures rise 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 so many European politicians take the scientists’ words seriously. The question now is whether these same Europeans will start taking the solutions seriously. If so, they must begin by abandoning the bankrupt Kyoto treaty on climate change and encouraging the United States to do so, too.
The much-vaunted treaty creates a complicated and unenforceable system of international targets for carbon emissions reduction, based on measurements taken in 1990. Critics of the American president have condemned him for failing to sign it, conveniently forgetting that the Senate rejected it 95 to 0 in 1997, a margin that 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 economic strength, is absurd.
None of which is to say that reduction of carbon emissions is impossible. But the limiting 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 who bother to abide by it. I no longer believe that a complicated carbon trading regime — in which industries trade emissions “credits” — would work within the United States either: So much is at stake for so many industries that the legislative process to create it would be easily distorted by their various lobbies.
Any lasting solutions will have to be extremely simple, and — because of the 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 easy for any country to implement. 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 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? As a foreign policy side benefit, users of the tax would suddenly find themselves less dependent on Persian Gulf oil or Russian natural gas, too.
Most of all, though, the successful use of carbon taxes does not require “American leadership,” or a U.N. committee, or a 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, nothing is preventing them. If a future American president wants to rally the nation around a 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.