ClimateGate news

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Climate paralysis

Terence Corcoran
Financial Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

If you found the last few weeks of global-warming publicity a little much, you ain't seen nothing yet. The Davos playground opens tomorrow, a sure source of fresh talk on the need for action to reduce carbon emissions. Tonight, George Bush delivers a State of the Union address; carbon controls are expected to get at least a mention as part of the President's continuing campaign to end America's oil "addiction" and attack climate change. Across Canada and Europe, governments are scrambling to make themselves look credible on what is now commonly thought to be the biggest crisis in human history. Corporations are scrambling to get close to the action, either to dodge policy bullets or cash in on the looming regulatory bonanzas.

The major reason for all this policy chaos is the pending release on Feb. 2 of a new assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is the official producer of climate science, and its latest report will again say that climate change is real and human production of greenhouse-gas emissions is almost certainly one of the main causes, or some such declaration of qualified confidence.

To some degree, much will depend on the aggressiveness of IPCC language and how far its policy summary strays from the huge levels of uncertainty that are buried in the mass of unreadable -- and unread -- science reports. Close observers of the IPCC believe the objective of some of its members is to produce a policy summary that contains dire warnings of "dangerous" consequences from climate change. That would give the United Nations' power brokers a political club to force the United States and other countries to more extreme policy action to control carbon emissions.

As a miasma of talk and political manoeuvring gathers, generating massive volumes of commentary, announcements and policy frenzy, it will become clear that the the whole subject of climate change has collapsed into hopeless gamesmanship and paralysis.

The media appear set to play the story straight, latching on to the latest reports and policy initiatives as if they all formed part of a logical continuum: Climate is a priority, action is needed, and action is being taken.

Over the past week, Canada's Conservative government announced half a dozen pre-IPCC measures to give the impression of existing momentum before the report. There was little new in the plans -- money for renewables, subsidies for homeowners -- but the government sent out its new Environment Minister, John Baird, to officially declare the Conservative government's belief that climate change is real and the Conservatives are ready to act. That saves a lot of embarrassing media questions in the wake of the IPCC report. But it is also clear that Conservative climate policy on the big issues of emissions controls, carbon trading and regulation remains unknown and unfathomable.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks of Canada as an emerging energy "superpower," a phrase that seems at odds with the reduced energy regime implied by energy reduction to cut emissions. The Conference Board of Canada yesterday came up with the idea that Canada should aim to become a "Green Energy Superpower." These ideas are clearly in their infancy and have no real foundation other than rhetoric.

In Europe and the United States, the pre- IPCC scramble is even more intense and confused. The rise of the Democrats has produced a flush of political action. At least 10 different climate bills are floating around Congress aimed at imposing some kind of controls on emissions. Then there are state rules, including California's latest plans.

The U.S. policy framework is further confused by the tendency to conflate two different issues: climate change and energy security or, as it is sometimes called, energy independence. Some form of mandatory restrictions on carbon emissions are expected, although the exact purpose of any regime is never clear. Sometimes climate is the reason, at other times energy security is said to be the purpose. At other times, the subject is joined with smog, as the Financial Times did yesterday. It showed a picture of Los Angeles "cloaked in smog shortly before sunrise" followed by a comment from an electric-utility executive who said he expects carbon regulations to be a big 2008 presidential issue -- as if carbon regulation and smog control were the same issue.

A group of 10 CEOs -- of Alcoa, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, BP America, Du Pont -- yesterday urged President Bush to take action now to impose mandatory carbon regulation on industry. The group also includes Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, an activist group. He called the CEO initiative a "game changer" and a sign Washington should act before the 2008 presidential election. Many of the companies on the list have substantial vested interests in mandatory economy-wide regulation, either because they are major polluters themselves or they stand to cash in on the regulation by offering services and products.

Countries in Europe may be a little ahead of America on climate control. Their early efforts are generally in shambles. The continent's much-vaunted emissions-trading scheme is in disgrace, with prices falling to their lowest level on record. Nations are battling over how to regulate cars, airlines and other sectors. Germany appears to want out of the worst of the regulations.

As for China and other nations where carbon emissions are soaring, the gap between economic reality and the coming IPCC alarmism will be vast and impossible to traverse. The public-policy momentum, while seemingly rocketing forward through debate and announcements, is in fact a chaotic mess of indecision in which almost nothing is happening. Which is just as it should be.


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