July 24, 2008

Leaders Should Be Honest About Cost of Climate Action

By Robert Hardaway

The current debate over global warming has obscured a fact that should not be debatable -- namely that the planet is and has been environmentally degraded by the human footprint, particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Every one-third of a second, or about the speed a machine gun fires its bullets, the planet makes room to accommodate one additional human being, who on average will spew 3.2 tons of carbon and 80,000 tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. To make room for each additional human, 100 acres of forest are destroyed every minute, and one entire living species is sacrificed each day.

Current environmental policy has almost exclusively taken the form of the "circle game," leading former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lee Thomas to observe that it has merely transferred pollution "in one medium, such as the air . . . to another, such as soil or water . . . At best it is misleading -- we think we are solving a problem and we aren't. At worst, it is perverse -- it [increases] rather than [reduces] pollution."

Such a self-defeating policy can only lead to disaster. If instead of the current futile policy, women's rights were promoted worldwide and contraceptive devices made available to all women, studies have shown that environmental crisis could be averted.

Unfortunately, demagogic politicians -- unwilling to address the politically sensitive population issue -- continue to push their failed environmental agendas, despite the cost in both money and human suffering.

The latest example is Lieberman-Warner, a bill that would establish a "carbon market" in which factories and power companies could purchase the right to emit carbon. However, studies have shown that "cap and trade proposals affect consumers the same way as a carbon excise tax that is equal to the market-determined permit price" -- equivalent, in other words, to a straightforward "gas tax" on consumers.

Thus far, politicians have tried to hide from voters the actual cost of such taxes. In fact, however, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Lieberman-Warner would cost consumers $1 trillion, and raise gas prices at least $1 a gallon. The CBO also acknowledges that the cost of the scheme would be borne by the poorest consumers.

A deliberate government policy of trying to hide these costs from voters, obfuscating the impact of the proposed taxes by claiming they are part of "cap and trade" or euphemistically calling them "windfall profits on big oil," will ultimately backfire once voters realize they have been tricked.

A far better policy would be one of complete honesty, relying on voters' ultimate willingness to support the politicians' failed environmental agenda regardless of the cost to the poor and disenfranchised around the world.

Robert Hardaway is professor of law at the University Sturm College of Law, and the author of "Population, Law, and the Environment" (Praeger Press).

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