SYNOPSIS: Current anti-tax hysteria is restricting even drastically needed increases.
Sam drives a huge S.U.V., Pierre drives a tiny CitroŽn. Both agree that for the sake of the environment they must reduce their combined fuel consumption. But who should bear the burden? You might expect Pierre to demand that Sam do most of the adjusting. All that Sam has to do is switch to a smaller but still comfortable car; Pierre's car can't get much smaller. You certainly wouldn't expect to find Sam trying to wriggle out of the bargain, insisting that he be allowed to adopt a tree instead.
But that, more or less, is why efforts to curb global warming collapsed last week. There's plenty of blame to go around, but the essential problem was that Europeans got fed up with America's unwillingness to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases, even though it is the world's prime source of such gases.
Why is the United States such a big emitter? Energy use tends to be more or less proportional to gross domestic product, and we have the biggest economy. But that's not the whole story: We release about twice as much carbon dioxide per capita as other advanced countries, even though we don't have anywhere near twice their per capita G.D.P. The main reason for that disparity is that we have much lower taxes on fuel, especially gasoline. The image of the American filling up his living room on wheels with dollar-a-gallon gasoline while his European counterpart carefully spoons precious petrol into his mini is a caricature, but gets at an essential truth.
This comparison suggests that it should actually be much easier for the United States to reduce its energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than it is for Europe. High taxes on fuel have already induced Europeans to do the easy conservation steps; in America, where gasoline is literally cheaper than (bottled) water, we haven't even tried.
Now it turns out that there are some complicating factors. Some estimates suggest that the cost of meeting international targets for emission reduction would actually be larger for the U.S. than for Europe, mainly because our economy grows faster, and faster growth increases the demand for energy. Still, one can easily understand European fury at America's refusal to make any serious effort to reduce the amount of carbon it burns.
But don't blame our negotiators, or for that matter the administration they work for. They had to respect domestic political realities. And what could the U.S. actually do to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases?
Any Econ 101 textbook can tell you the answer. If carbon dioxide is deemed to inflict damage on the environment, then the efficient way to resolve the problem is to provide market incentives to burn less carbon. The most straightforward policy would be an across-the-board carbon tax that . . .
I can't see any point in finishing that sentence. Never mind that even free-market economists favor "effluent taxes"; never mind that we're not talking about an overall tax increase, that any new tax on carbon could and should be offset by tax cuts elsewhere. In America's current political universe there are too many people who believe that the only good tax is a dead tax for any such proposal to be accepted. Such people aren't a majority, but they do control at least one house of Congress, and it just isn't going to happen.
In other words, the ultimate reason that the climate talks failed, that global warming will go unchecked, is the power of America's vitriolic anti- tax right.
Is there any way out of this trap? A decisive political defeat for the rabid right might open a path; but that didn't happen in this election.
The only alternative would be a Nixon-goes-to-China scenario. It's nice to fantasize that if George W. Bush ends up in the White House he might try to heal the wounds of his dubious triumph by, among other things, taking on his own party over environmental issues. But quite aside from his oil-industry connections and his dismal environmental record in Texas, Mr. Bush has said he is not convinced that the scientific evidence for global warming warrants policy action. And somehow I don't expect further evidence to change his mind. Maybe future retirees won't have to move to Florida to find warm weather. It's looking like a long, hot century.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.29.00