The Clinton administration is taking a position in international negotiations on global-warming policy that defies common sense.
This is not going to be another broadside on the shaky scientific basis for being concerned about the earth's rate of temperature rise, although serious scientists do disagree on the subject. For the sake of argument, let us assume that there is a sufficient link between fossil fuel usage, greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), and global warming to warrant a new and tough policy to respond to what is now called "climate change." Taxes on specific energy sources (those releasing substantial amounts of CO2) seem to be the preferred tool of public policy. Alternatives being considered include auctioning of emissions rights (similar to the existing approach under the new Clean Air Act).
The negotiations on climate change being held at the United Nations focus on mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions after 2000. Before then, emissions are supposed to return to the 1990 level, but only Germany and the United Kingdom are expected to meet that goal.
Most economic analyses of this issue bog down in measuring detailed impacts of carbon taxes on different regions and economic sectors. Such detailed studies are useful, especially in providing information on employment effects. But they shift attention from the fundamental deficiency in the UN's - and the administration's - current global warming policy: It limits required cuts in carbon dioxide emissions to nations already doing the most to control air pollution, mainly the US and Western Europe. Worse yet, developing nations are excluded from these requirements. Thus such fast-growing countries as South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and China will be free to expand their use of fossil fuels and other CO2 emitters while we curtail our use.
Consider the consequences, which State Department negotiators have soft-pedaled. Curbing our use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels - which is the intended result of any energy tax or other CO2 control device - would be a substantial blow to important energy-using industries in the US. Those hardest hit would range from large manufacturers of steel, chemicals, and aluminum to small businesses such as bakeries, dry cleaners, and auto repair shops. It is not surprising that an unusual assortment of interest groups - business, labor unions, and farm organizations - strongly oppose the Clinton administration's approach to global warming.
To add insult to injury, it is most unlikely the policies now being promoted will result in total greenhouse gas emissions on this planet declining in the years ahead.
The International Energy Agency estimates that, by 2010, the developing nations will be releasing more CO2 than the industrialized West. The problem will intensify as modernization raises China's very low per capita level of oil usage, currently less than 1/10th that of South Korea and 1/20th that of Japan. Moreover, China's coal consumption (coal is the primary energy source for China's 1.2 billion people) is projected to rise from 1.1 billion tons in 1993 to more than 1.4 billion tons in 2000.
The contrast with the impending energy austerity of the West is striking. The administration's approach to global warming means deliberately slowing down the economies of the United States and Western Europe so that the Southeast Asian nations can catch up economically even while they become the major air polluters on the globe. It is hard to believe that our own government really wants American business - and labor - to compete in the global marketplace with one hand tied behind its back.
More likely, this strange combination of economic and environmental deterioration merely reflects inattention on the part of a preoccupied White House. We must hope that Congress, on both sides of the political aisle, will vent these issues more fully.
* Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.